And now it's breath-holding time for South Africa, as the nation comes to grips with the sudden, shock-and-awe removal of its president Thabo Mbeki by his own party.
Mbeki's credo for the continent was 'African solutions for African problems.' Even as he applied the doctrine next door in Zimbabwe, a South African solution to the Mbeki problem was being hatched and 66-year-old Mbeki was deposed with dispatch as the African National Congress (ANC) forced him to resign, accusing him of political interference in the fraud-and-corruption case of his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, who is president of the party.
I 'd be surprised if anyone saw this coming, given that Zuma, himself, had assured the nation that Mbeki would finish his elected term, due to end in early 2009. But there were worries about the unusual circumstances of what amounted to "two centers of power" represented by Zuma, as the president of the ANC, and Mbeki as the president of the country. But Zuma, who earlier had insisted that there were no two centers of power, confidently urged patience by saying that there was "no point in beating a dead snake" in reference to Mbeki's government.
The sudden decision to remove the head of the dead snake reminds me of a conversation I had when I first arrived in South Africa in 1997 to begin reporting for NPR. A veteran ANC member warned me there would be limits to my ability to penetrate the ANC's inner workings. He told me the ANC was the most mercurial of organizations and that it was close to impossible for outsiders to get it. This is clearly one of those moments.
With only a few months left in his presidency, why was Thabo Mbeki kicked to the curb?
The prevailing wisdom suggests that there are some very pissed-off people at the highest levels of the party. A few weeks ago, a judge dismissed, on procedural grounds, a fraud-and-corruption case against Zuma, arising from an alleged bribe involving a government arms procurement deal. The judge strongly hinted that there was political interference in the case.
Earlier, Zuma's business advisor had been convicted of the bribery charge and was serving time in prison. At the time he was convicted, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said it had a prima facie case against Zuma, but decided not to prosecute.
It was last December, on the day Zuma trounced Mbeki in the contest for leadership of the party, that NPA announced it now had enough evidence to charge Zuma with fraud, corruption, racketeering and income tax evasion. The war was on, though publicly the principals denied it. A few days after the NPA's decision, Mbeki was gone.
The arms deal, many believe, is the elephant in the room. Zuma, according to many analysts, is a small fish in the deal. (Can fish and elephants be in the same room?) Even opposition-party members were up in arms over Mbeki's dismissal, with Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement (and a former member of the ANC) calling it "an act of political barbarity that threatens to plunge the country into anarchy."
And, Helen Zille, the leader of South Africa's Main Opposition Party, the Democratic Alliance, said: "It's about revenge, it's about settling political scores."
The ANC insisted the move was meant to restore unity and stability to party and country.
Ironically, it has been Mbeki's conservative economic policies that provided stability for this young democracy, which was practically broke when it took power from the oppressive apartheid regime. Since, the South African economy has been growing at a rate of 4.5 percent a year and enjoyed a budget surplus in recent years.
But while business leaders praised Mbeki's economic policies that led to the creation of a black upper class and an expanding middle, critics, especially those on the left, including the communist party and the trade unions complained that these policies did little to address the grinding poverty in which the majority of black South Africans still live. The country would need even higher growth rates to absorb the masses of unemployed, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.
The critics on the left want to see more government intervention in the economy and perhaps even nationalization, which Nelson Mandela categorically rejected early in his tenure. His declaration helped calm jittery international investors and paved the way for the prosperity Mbeki and his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, ushered in and maintained.
Manuel and nine other cabinet ministers announced their resignations today as a result of the Mbeki outser, but has Manuel indicated that he would be willling to serve the new president is he is asked to do so.
The ANC announced Monday that the caretaker president, until elections next year, will be Kgalema Motlanthe, a highly respected party leader, who, despite being a Zuma supporter, also has a reputation for independent thinking and consensus building.
Many will be watching to see how the ANC will deal with the disparate voices in its "broad church" — including the Communisty Party and the labor unions — and the conflicting demands of its various vocal constituencies, some of whom had promised war if Zuma were convicted.
But the biggest question of all, to paraphrase one of Mbeki's favorite passages from Yeats: Will the center hold when [other things] fall apart?
These are early days, but so far, it has held, but the resignations leave open the question of whether the ANC has a sufficently capable team to step in behind a leader, Motlanthe, who has no expereince running governement.
The president went "gently into that good night," and even opposition pols are insisting the process, though ugly, was democratic. A political party with the right to elect or remove its leader did so. And some have raised the question of whether this is the beginning of a downward slide into the pattern of other liberation movements that conflated the party and the state, acting in its own interests above those of the people. Others ask if it's the beginning of a fresh start for a young democracy.
Even Mbeki's most ardent supporters are being cautiously optimistic. But if I had to guess (or maybe hope), I would say that the center will hold, thanks in large measure to the work of Mbeki, who established South Africa in the eyes of the world as a modern, democratic state, rooted in a strong constitution, independent judiciary and a press freer than any on the continent.
Pundits and others will debate for years the Mbeki legacy and missteps he made along the way. He coined the phrase "The African Renaissance" and helped established new rules of the road toward that Renaissance with the formation of the New Partnership for African Development. He called for greater accountability from African leaders in governance and fiscal management and for the empowerment of women. He walked the walk all over the continent and the developing world and helped bring peace to troubled spots near and far.
The jury is still out on Zimbabwe and Mbeki's role in the historic, but shaky alliance between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU–PF party. Mbeki's "softly-softly" approach to the devastating crisis there has been one of the ongoing blights to his legacy. And his position questioning the connection between HIV and AIDS has left those who know Mbeki's intellectual capacities puzzled.
But Mbeki, born into the struggle, was bred to take the long view of history, and that has often led him to take the lonely path, as a wandering foot-soldier in a struggle that for most of his life showed no signs of victory. How those years in the wilderness contributed to what critics call his remote leadership style or his penchant for involving himself in the nitty-gritty detail of governance will be a question for the ages. But at least in his decision to step aside he has demonstrated that he is above all, a "disciplined cadre of the movement," as the ANC referred to him, and also a new generation of African leaders who are willing to leave while still standing.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of "New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance."