Frank Chikane’s book about the removal of Thabo Mbeki from the Presidency, Eight Days in September, appears to be selling well. It was about half-way up the Exclusive Books top-ten sellers when last seen. This is quite impressive for a book which is unduly expensive because it is published by a foreign press house (no doubt no local publisher would touch a book which challenged the authoritarian narrative which dominates debate in South Africa, although it was apparently edited by the popular journalist William Saunderson-Meyer). It might also seem impressive because the book has been denounced loudly from every authoritarian pulpit in the country, but this is less surprising. The fact that so many pipsqueaks wrote (or put their names to) identical articles attacking the book simply meant that every newspaper reader learned, what they would not otherwise have learned, that Chikane had written a book and that the pipsqueaks and their patrons didn’t like it. Moreover, the pipsqueaks were unable to write well or to develop intellectual arguments against the book, which was so obvious that it made Chikane look good in absentia.
But this does not mean that the book is itself good.
What would a “good book” be on that topic? Certainly what is needed is one which challenges the dominant authoritarian narrative developed by the corporate press over the years. That Chikane has certainly managed, simply by saying the magic words that he does not think that Mbeki was a bad President, or that it was good for the country or for the ANC for Zuma to have won at Polokwane, or for Mbeki to be humiliatingly removed from the Presidency. These truths have been suppressed for the last six years and it does no harm to repeat them, and this may well be why the book is selling well – it is entirely possible that the majority of South Africans accept these truths, which shows how little real influence journalistic propagandists have over the public mind. But precisely because this is what everyone knows, even though it has to be said, it is not enough. We really need two more things:information which Chikane presumably has which could cast some light on the disastrous events around Polokwane and the September palace revolt, and analysis of what all this means forSouth Africa, which would entail some discussion of how and why it came to pass.
These latter matters are largely lacking from Chikane’s book. The reason is obvious – Chikane is a South African citizen and an ANC member. As a South African citizen, subject to our laws, he cannot reveal all theinformation he has because of the web of secrecy which surrounds the Presidency. Virtually all Presidential utterances, all communications within the network of flunkeys surrounding the President, are secret. If Chikane were to make these public, he would run serious risk of imprisonment. (We tend to forget this because over the last decade and a half a culture has evolved in the media and the punditocracy under which people make up shit that the President or his flunkeys supposedly said and then scatter the shit around, which is then picked up by other propagandists too lazy to make up their own shit. However, none of it has any meaning apart from telling us what the propagandists and their patrons want us to hear, so that public political debate could best be categorised under “Shit my President doesn’t say”.)
How about political analysis, then? The problem here is that serious analysis would necessarily have to ask questions about the fitness of the President of the ANC and many of his cronies to be in office, or even at liberty. You can do that if you’re outside the ANC. You can do that even inside the ANC provided that the analysis you are generating corresponds with the desires of the plutocratic ruling class (and preferably with the more powerful of Zuma’s henchmen). Chikane, on the other hand, can’t do any of this without being ignominiously expelled from the ANC. He doesn’t want that. Perhaps, too, he doesn’t want to delve too deeply into these matters because it makes the ANC look appallingly corrupt (as it is) and Chikane is loath to cast too much light on this.
So what does the book contain?
Unsurprisingly, a lot of protocol. Protocol is the way you behave when you have no original ideas and no plan, so for want of anything better you observe protocol. Chikane was the Cabinet Secretary, whose principal task was to ensure that everybody behaved with decorum and submitted the appropriate requests on the proper form. Protocol is the refuge of the empty and incompetent, and this is why it has become an appallingly prevalent aspect of the contemporary socio-political scene over the past decade. So Chikane devotes a good deal of the book trying to explain how he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the anti-Mbeki plotters to observe protocol and at least allow a dignified and graceful exit, and how, when that failed, he attempted, more successfully, to persuade Mbeki’s doomed allies to observe protocol and thus go to their political deaths with dignity and grace, along with himself. In the course of this, Chikane often comes across as a pompous, self-satisfied nincompoop, which is probably not the case – it’s probably more accurate to suspect that in response to the shock of abject defeat, Chikane retreated into procedure in order to build a space where he could tell himself that he was winning a moral victory. It’s not his greatest moment, but it’s understandable.
Apart from this, there are the interesting claims that Mbeki expected to win at Polokwane, and that Mbeki’s dismissal came as a shock to him.
The first claim may or may not be true. Mbeki has always played his cards so close to his chest that he could barely see his own hand, and he would certainly not have told his closest allies that he didn’t expect to win. He had no choice but to stand at Polokwane, and there was no point in telling anyone if he thought it was a forlorn hope – he could have waited for a miracle, or even a sudden rush of patriotism to the heads of the delegates. However, he must have known that nearly half of the delegates would have voted for Zuma even if he had stood on a platform of buggering children (which would have been more true to his real beliefs than the actual “Polokwane Resolutions”) and that much of Mbeki’s support was likely to leak away out of greed and self-interest.
It’s that greed and self-interest that Chikane laments; he basically suggests that Polokwane was a sign that the old ANC of self-sacrifice and political wisdom had died, and that a new one of corruption and bumsucking had been born. On the whole, he has a partial point, although it is obvious that the pre-2007 ANC had an enormous amount of corruption and bumsucking in it. His line is that at Polokwane the ANC faced a test, which it failed, and thereafter the ANC was not worthy of Mbeki’s leadership.
Mbeki’s dismissal, on the other hand, could not possibly have come as a shock to him. Possibly it came as a shock to Chikane, although it is hard to see how a seasoned politician could have missed the signs. It was obvious that Mbeki had to be removed before Zuma could be charged, for only by charging Zuma could Mbeki saveSouth Africafrom a Zuma Presidency. On the other hand, once Mbeki was removed, the way was clear for ensuring the corruption of the judiciary and the police services which would save Zuma from prison and incidentally bringSouth Africaunder the Western imperialist and corporate thumb. The only surprise was that it took the Zuma gang nine months of purges, propaganda and thuggery before they were in a position to use Judge Nicholson’s criminal nonsense as a pretext against Mbeki. This simply makes Chikane’s narrative less plausible – in effect, he is simply pretending that Mbeki was not only a victim, but an unaware one. (Of course, there was nothing that Mbeki could do by then; he was simply a canned lion waiting for the bullet.)
There is one other interesting snippet. Chikane claims that Zuma was opposed to Mbeki’s removal, but was bullied into approving it by the rest of the National Executive Committee. This is implausible in the extreme. Zuma knew perfectly well that Mbeki had to go if he was to win power and the approval of his backers, and furthermore, he is a vindictive man, even if lacking in courage. It is much more probable that Chikane inserted this claim as insurance against any accusation that his book is merely a rant against Zuma.
By inserting such self-serving political messages, Chikane definitely weakens his position as a possible messenger of truth. This doesn’t mean that the book is worthless. But it falls short of what it could have been.