Hunting lame ducks in South Africa

Has South Africa’s fledgling democracy entered its own version of a lame-duck season? With Thabo Mbeki constitutionally unable to stand for a third term as South Africa’s head of state and the presidential season just over a year away, some pundits have begun speculating that the leading figure in South African politics for the past decade is a spent force.

A recent New York Times article pointing to divisions in both the ruling African National Congress and the broader alliance with the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, particularly over the issue of presidential succession, claimed President Mbeki was a weakened figure ready to totter off the political stage. Inherent in the suggestion is the premise that in modern politics, as a leader’s term ends, so does her or his political power, due to the scramble for position among potential contenders.

However, comparisons between politics in South Africa and other capitalist countries may obscure more than they reveal. The lame-duck thesis, while a valid concept in the U.S., as the recent resignations of Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove suggest, may not be an operative factor in South Africa’s very different political situation.

Consider, for example, that the ANC commands a two-thirds majority of the electorate and in Parliament, large enough and certainly united enough to pass whatever legislation and take whatever decisions they see fit. In fact the party’s control of the country’s politics is so enormous that some have complained of the existence of a veritable one-party state.

Certainly the South African presidency seems to be able to take and enforce whatever executive decisions it deems appropriate, even seemingly unpopular ones such as relieving both deputy-president Jacob Zuma and deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge of their government responsibilities.

The ANC leadership seems also competent and efficient in formulating and implementing policy, as recently revealed by the organization’s national policy conference. Here, a major shift in economic strategy and political emphasis was articulated, embracing the concept of a “developmental state” and a new industrial policy emphasizing greater state intervention in the economy and public works. While some argue that the shift was the result of a grassroots revolt at the policy conference, others counter that those grass roots have mighty long shoots, as the concepts were advanced by drafters of the discussion documents that preceded the conference, namely Mbeki and Co.

Whatever the case, there seems to be a consensus that a decisive change is needed to address the huge economic and social inequalities besetting the African majority of South Africa.

What then of differences between the ANC, SACP and COSATU on who will be the next president? Here again, a more nuanced examination is needed than what was presented by The New York Times.

First, the ANC policy conference reserved judgment until the December ANC congress on whether Mbeki might stand for a third term as president of the ANC, something the organization’s constitution does not prohibit. Not bad for a lame duck. Secondly, there are many points of view in the ANC on the issue of who will lead the republic; hence one cannot say that there is an official ANC position on the subject different from that of other alliance partners.

Additionally, at least one of the alliance partners, the SACP, has yet to make an official endorsement, and while it is clear that Jacob Zuma is at this juncture their favorite, endorsement is not a foregone conclusion, especially considering the ANC deputy president’s considerable baggage.

That there are different orientations among the leading circles of the tripartite alliance is no surprise, nor is it a recent occurrence, predating even Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance. A sign of weakness yes, but not a personal one of the current president.

How it will all turn out is now not known, but one thing is clear: a seasoned collective leadership still sets the pace and pattern of South African politics. It’s very possible that among the leading contenders for the country’s top office, someone will emerge who will unite the national liberation movement, the alliance and indeed the country toward a deepening of the national democratic transformation by ending poverty and racial inequality.

Joe Sims (joesims @politicalaffairs.net) is editor of Political Affairs. He represented the Communist Party USA at the South African Communist Party’s recent congress.