There were only two interesting things about the ANC’s Centenary celebration. One was the way in which Julius Malema galloped around the Free State holding what were called mini-rallies (though they were quite substantial). He did not behave like a man who is in the political wilderness, as the corporate columnists and cartoonists insist that he is. Also interestingly, he campaigned for his supporters to rally together around the ANC and not embarrass the Party by attacking Jacob Zuma too openly at Bloemfontein, even though many sang the “shower song”.
The “shower song” is, in itself, a sign of the weakness of Malema’s position. There are good reasons for Malema to be angry at Zuma, and there are good reasons for people to support Malema in his anger because they, too, have reasons to be angry at Zuma. However, Zuma’s taking a shower after raping an HIV+ woman is not a reason to be angry. This is, iconographically, a construct of the white-controlled press. It suggests that the people involved are in many ways intellectual prisoners of the white opposition. Malema, in short, commands a lot of coconut support, which is not a brilliant base for a struggle against a man who commands a lot of bigoted tribalist Zulu support.
The other interesting thing was the position of Thabo Mbeki, who was playing the role of Lazarus. For three years he had been systematically snipped out of the ANC leadership picture, often preposterously, as if he had never been in charge of the ANC and the government for eleven years. He had never been mentioned except with scorn, a scorn underlain by a degree of panic, as if merely mentioning Mbeki’s name would suddenly cause him to manifest himself and perhaps create chaos. (No need; almost every member of Zuma’s cabinet creates more chaos than Mbeki could do if he worked overtime on the job for a year.)
Now, there he was, large as life, helping carry the ludicrous Centenary Flame into the stadium, like a superannuated Olympic runner brought back for one last stunt. (At least he did not participate in the cake-cutting celebration; the spectacle of the fattest cats in the ANC slicing up a cake to stuff themselves with was the most precious gift the ANC has ever given to satirists. The fact that nobody took advantage of this shows that South Africa possesses no satirists any more; only propagandists.) And there he was, hobnobbing and smiling as if he had never been turfed out by the people he was smiling at. One of the special recipients of his beaming was Malema himself, the man who had officially precipitated Mbeki’s dismissal in September 2008. Malema beamed back, having already called on the ANC to rehabilitate Mbeki and make use of the man’s gifts for the greater good of the Party.
What the hell is going on here?
The Zuma administration seems to have realised that the air is whistling out of its tyres on an extremely bumpy road. The idea is to rally everybody together, to unite the party, as Zuma pledged having devoted the last six years to dividing it. What better way than to try to co-opt the Big Absentee? Get Mbeki on board and half the energy will go out of the enemies of Zuma, since the enemies of Zuma, so runs the theory, are all motivated by unhappiness over Mbeki’s shoddy treatment. The problem with this is that those who were really unhappy over Mbeki’s shoddy treatment marched out and joined CoPe, and those who are returning with what remains of their tails between what remains of their legs, like the hapless Phillip Dexter, are hardly worth taking back. Those who remained in the party were purged, because the Zuma administration feared that they might use any power they possessed to undermine them, and also because the Zuma appointees did not want any competent or intelligent people hanging around to provide a comparative benchmark.
Bringing Mbeki back does not demobilise the opposition to Zuma, for most of that opposition sprang up not out of ill-treatment of Mbeki, but out of ill-treatment of the ANC itself, and fury at the corruption and incompetence which party management and government have unanimously shown. This would not go away if Mbeki gave his imprimatur and applause to corruption and incompetence; all that would happen would be that people would start to wonder if the Mbeki management style was really so good by comparison with Zuma. (And remember that it was Mbeki who tolerated Zuma’s shenanigans for all those years, in order not to alienate the Zulu vote.)
But Mbeki is the shrewdest figure in South African politics, and he is not going to do any of those things unless there is something in it for him. Showing up at Mangaung was not an indication that he has become a friend of Jacob Zuma; it was an indication, however, that he did not mind emerging from isolation. This has been obvious all along, since he has repeatedly involved himself in activities ranging from his Leadership Institute to his attempts to broker peace in Ivory Coast, which would have earned him immense publicity but for the fact that the press have consciously ignored him and the SABC have been warned off covering him. What is happening is simply that Mbeki has managed to break out of the basement where he was locked, very much alive and possibly not in a warm and friendly mood.
An Mbeki-Zuma alliance is not likely; it’s just a pretense in order for Mbeki to initially avoid suppression. (Of course the press will attack him, but Mbeki never worried much about that since press attacks are usually the best publicity for a maverick.) An Mbeki-Malema alliance, however, seems even less likely. Mbeki has always felt that populism was poison, and that the kind of support which Malema enjoys is fundamentally worthless. (Of course, when the chips were down, Mbeki discovered that the support which he himself enjoyed was little more valuable.) On the other hand, Malema has two positive features from Mbeki’s perspective; he is specifically aggrieved about the undemocratic activities of the Zuma gang within the ANC, and he is unhappy at the right-wing posturing of the Zuma government. Both of these are attitudes which Mbeki could safely endorse, even if Malema is the kind of crass blowhard which Mbeki always disliked, preferring to be a subtle windbag instead. (On the other hand it does seem that Malema and Mbeki share a degree of sincerity which Zuma couldn’t pretend to, and which many of Mbeki’s supporters turned out not to possess.)
Supposing that some kind of Mbeki-Malema alliance occurred, what would it matter? Granted, they are two very clever politicians, and both have the advantage of being hated by the press, but they are both wounded, and they are both short of the patronage without which it is very difficult to get anywhere within the ANC. Besides, how could they trust each other? It seems impossible that any such alliance would accomplish anything within the ANC.
However, there is a possible third figure to join the group who might make a considerable difference. It’s worth pondering the fact that the ANC Youth League’s preferred candidate for the Presidency of the ANC in 2012 is not Malema or Mbeki, but Kgalema Motlanthe. What do they see in him?
On the face of it, he’s the Deputy President. He’s also the ex-President, who might be expected to have a smidgen of desire to get his hands back on the reins of power — preferably without Zuma sitting on the buckboard shouting orders. Motlanthe should have spoken at Mangaung, but was banned from doing so under Zuma’s orders — a studied insult which was presumably intended to warn Motlanthe to back off from any attempt to challenge Zuma at the December conference. Like most of Zuma’s actions, it seems likely to have the opposite effect to the one intended.
The other thing about Motlanthe is his self-effacing personality. He was one of the key figures in Zuma’s rise to power, but he managed to do this, unlike almost anybody else, without alienating Mbeki. As a result, he and Mbeki could probably work together — indeed, Motlanthe’s public persona is modelled in Mbeki’s. (Close your eyes when he is speaking and he sounds remarkably like Mbeki — although an Mbeki without spine or intestines, so Motlanthe needs a surgical corset and steel splints to keep from toppling over.) He’s never been directly linked to corruption (the Arms Deal brouhaha should have led to Motlanthe being implicated because he ran the ANC’s investment arm Chancellor House, where any extorted money would have gone, but apparently the propagandists were warned off Motlanthe, or possibly were simply concerned to focus all the odium on Mbeki and unconcerned about the real world).
Motlanthe as President would provide Mbeki with an opportunity to run the country by remote control. It’s not certain, of course, that Mbeki wants that. Mbeki’s experience of running the country was one of the most thankless tasks which could be imagined. On the other hand, the opportunity for revenge would blend beautifully with the opportunity for trying to restore the country to administrative efficiency, and therefore Mbeki might be expected to throw some weight behind Motlanthe. And Motlanthe commands considerable administrative clout within the ANC. As former Secretary-General he chose most of the ANC managers through whom Mantashe now purports to run the Party (and does so very badly), and Motlanthe might conceivably be able to draw on some of those people who feel exasperated with the trashing of all their work. Also, Motlanthe is an SACP member, nominally privy to that organisation’s machinations and more familiar with the Party middle leadership than Mbeki is likely to be. He might well be able to identify the chinks in the SACP’s armour — and it is very unlikely that Motlanthe, who has been largely sidelined by Nzimande and Cronin, would have any qualms about sticking daggers through those chinks.
Do we have an M-plan here? Motlanthe to run for the Presidency, using his high-level contacts and the promise of reform and jobs for pals, with Malema handling the rank-and-file and the youth and Mbeki doing the brainwork and providing background prestige? (Mbeki could even run for the Deputy Presidency — and if he got it, he could be an inordinately powerful Deputy President of the country, a kind of Vladimir Putin showing two fingers to the white ruling class while Motlanthe provided the peaceable facade, very much Mbeki’s position in the last years of Mandela’s Presidency.)
It’s probably a fantasy, even though it’s a possibility. On the other hand, it’s probably the only way that Zuma could be stopped at Mangaung. It’s entirely possible that the chaos into which the ANC has fallen would make it hard for Zuma to stop a serious challenge of this kind.
And if the Devil and Tony Blair were standing against Zuma at Mangaung, there would be plenty of people who would say that we should give Satan and his minion a fair deal.