South Africa is facing its first major political crisis since black-led African National Congress took power in 1994. A fierce opposition is emerging, oddly — but perhaps predictably — from within the ruling party, itself.
This crisis arose out of the national conference the ANC held in December at which Jacob Zuma was elected head of the party. Hours after the vote, Zuma was indicted on charges related to a corrupt arms deal. Party members loyal to Zuma—the Zumacistas—roundly criticized Mbeki at the conference. (Mbeki had fired Zuma from his job as deputy earlier in the arms investigation.)
Zuma supporters considered the indictment politically motivated. They are also not bothered by previous charges related to Zuma's relationship with an HIV-positive AIDS activist. (Zuma was acquitted of rape charges but drew criticism when he claimed the sex was consensual and that he protected himself against contracting the virus by taking a shower after the encounter.)
If he is brought to trial on the most recent corruption charges, some of Zuma's supporters have warned "there will be blood on the floor."
Not a day goes by without a story of the internecine bickering between what are clearly "two Centers of Power" — the government headed by Mbeki, and the party headed by Zuma, who had once been Mbeki's deputy. And while both deny a crisis, and insist they can and will work together, this is clearly a watershed moment for this still young (12-year-old) democracy.
And as Kenya, an erstwhile poster child of democracy, slides into the abyss of anarchy after years of stability, there is clearly a need for both centers of power to watch their words, as well as their actions. For example, some Zuma supporters have criticized Dikeng Mosenke , the deputy chief judge of the highest court, for remarks he made at his 60th birthday party, which I attended. He said: "I have another 10 to 12 years on the bench and I want to use my energy to help create an equal society. It's not what the ANC wants; it's about what's good for the people."
The ANC's newly reconstituted National Working Committee criticized Moseneke for having "difficulty in shedding his historical leanings and political orientation." Though a subsequent meeting between Moseneke, the chief justice and the deputy president of the ANC resulted in Moseneke being absolved of any wrong speaking, there are still calls for his head from some of the Zumacistas.
The feisty victors have cleaned house of most Mbeki loyalists within the party, putting in their own, including one who oversees the work of the president, his cabinet and ANC members of parliament. Such actions generate headlines like: "Do As We say Or Else, ANC Warns Mbeki."
On Sunday, the new ANC Treasurer, Matthews Phosa told premiers and mayors: If you do not take instruction, then you are asking for marching orders.
The muscle-flexing ANC Youth League bragged that they put Mbeki in, and they can take him out. Some of the pro-Mbeki losers—being referred to in some quarters as "the coalition of the wounded"— have called this trouncing "a bloodless coup." Some say they will no longer be actively involved in the party. Among them is prominent businessman Saki Macozoma, who urged the party under Jacob Zuma to "tread carefully. It only takes one or two small things to tilt the balance in a country…Kenya is a case in point. Yet it can take at least two generations to fix the devastation it caused."
But most analysts, including some of the "coalition of the wounded," have said they have only themselves to blame. They accept that this was more of an anti-Mbeki vote than pro-Zuma. Many critics argue that Mbeki centralized power and was inaccessible, that he and his people took their eyes off the prize and the people, costing him their allegiance..
Some of Zuma's greatest support came from labor and the Communist Party whom Mbeki, once a member, sidelined throughout his presidency. They have embraced Zuma on the strength of a promise to be more responsive to the workers and the poor. Whether realpolitik will allow any radical departures from the current policies remains to be seen. As for the Mbeki side, it seems that the old saw about raining and pouring might be apt. The current government's economic policies have produced a decade of steady growth, which Zuma has said he won't change them, even vowing to keep the current minister of finance..However, a series of rolling power blackouts in the last month led the government declare a national emergency and have caused tempers to rise. The outages have caused huge disruptions throughout the country, including shutting down the mines, the country's major source of income, leading to predictions of layoffs, dips in foreign investment and an assault on the country's hard-won growth.
And who is being blamed for that? In an ironic twist, the very Mbeki government that has produced a bourgeoning economy and rising standards of living that created more demand for electricity. The government has acknowledged that it failed to take action after being warned years ago of the need to increase capacity. In fact, even before this current political and energy crisis, the president apologized for the performance of Eskom, the state-owned utility back in December, generating still another unhappy headline for the Mbeki government: "GUILTY."
All of which adds up to a most challenging time for a country trying to fertilize the roots of its young democracy.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.