One of the most important elections in Africa takes place this month (December) in South Africa when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party elects its new office bearers. It seems certain that whoever wins the party presidency will be South Africa's next president.
However, there is an added twist to his year's party elections. Thabo Mbeki, the incumbent ANC and national president, will come to the end of his constitutional two terms as national president and will not be able to contest the national elections--but he can still stand for party leadership thus becoming king-maker if not king. What will this mean to South Africa's future? Who are the leaders in waiting?
Walking the tightrope
Given the overwhelming electoral support for the ANC, estimated at around 80% at this point in time, it seems certain that Africa's oldest political party, now celebrating its 95th year, will win the 2009 elections by a wide margin.
Following the general election, the 400 members of the National Assembly will elect South Africa's new president. Given the ANC's strength in the national assembly, the new national leader will certainly come from ANC ranks.
Traditionally, the leader of the winning party is also voted in as state president. Thus this year's ANC congress will also set the tone for the future and pencil in the country's new leadership in two years time.
This is a critical juncture for South Africa. So far, initially under Nelson Mandela and now with Thabo Mbeki at the helm, South Africa has confounded its critics and is registering growth figures of 5%. Under the constitution, Mbeki will complete his two five-year terms in 2009 and will not be eligible to stand for the national leadership--unless the constitution is amended by two thirds of the house. The ANC has over two thirds majority and can, in theory, amend the constitution to allow Mbeki to stand for a third term but this is unlikely. Mbeki himself has said he has no wish to stand again.
This should have cleared the decks for a new generation of leaders to vie for the ANC presidency and thence into state leadership. But the situation has been confounded because Mbeki has made it very clear that he intends to stand for the party leadership.
There is nothing in the party's constitution to prevent him from doing so and he has sufficient support among the party's rank and file as well as within the powerful National Executive Committee (NEC) to give anyone else a serious run for their money.
During the first three terms since majority democracy in 1994, the ANC has presented a largely unified face, especially in terms of national office bearers. It has also generally agreed on the broad brush strokes of policy and portrayed often heated debates as the cut and thrust of open government.
Fissures in the ANC
But during most of Mbeki's second term, splits over policy and personalities have been widening into fissures and the fear is that the party elections this month could cleave the party into two or more factions.
Mbeki's decision to stand for the party leadership is a clear indication that he believes that there is unfinished business that requires his attention. As party leader, he would continue to shape the ANC philosophy--as he is reputed to have done for the past 25 years--and he would have a disproportionate say in who succeeds him as state president.
As king-maker, Mbeki would be able to pull strings behind the scenes and affect government policy perhaps with even greater freedom than he can in his present position.
The drawback, of course, will be to weaken the position of the new national president and his cabinet as Mbeki will be seen as the real power behind the throne. On the other hand, Mbeki's shadow behind the new government can be interpreted as forming a continuation of Mandela's and his own legacy of walking 'sofly softly'. This could be reassuring to the country's white minority, business and foreign investors and even governments.
All this is assuming that Mbeki does not change his mind and withdraw from the party race before the Congress takes place. At the time of writing, his main competitor is Jacob Zuma, the former vice-president. Zuma's supporters have mounted a vigorous nation-wide campaign, wearing T-shirts supporting him and even, according to the ANC, hijacking the freedom-fighters' song, Umshini Wami, or Bring me my machine gun.
Zuma has so far survived several corruption and fraud charges and was acquitted of rape charges last year. He is both popular and a populist and has the backing of Cosatu, the South African Trade Union body. His supporters claim that he has been framed in an effort to neutralise his leadership challenge. Since Zuma is a Zulu and since the tone of the campaign is becoming increasingly personal and polarised, there is the fear that the rivalry for the ANC leadership could descend to the levels of violence in the early 1990s when Inkatha and the ANC slugged it out on the streets.
This is the last thing that South Africa needs. The transition from the detested apartheid system...