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Monday, May 21, 2007


Thabo Mbeki and the 'third term' issue

Sharing power without giving up control?
James Myburgh

21 May 2007
After the first rumours began circulating in mid-2003 that a constitutional amendment might be on the cards to allow Thabo Mbeki to serve a third term as South African president, Nelson Mandela made very clear that he would be completely opposed to such a move. Subsequently Mbeki has, on at least four occasions, said that he would indeed step down as South African president in 2009. However, it is generally assumed, both by his allies and his enemies, that he will stand again for a third term as ANC president in December this year.
Were it not for the Zuma rebellion, and the slipping of Mbeki's grip over the organisation, the succession would probably have been managed in the following way: Mbeki would have been re-elected ANC president at the movement's national conference in December this year by acclamation. The conference would also have elected the other five senior officials and the sixty ordinary members of the national executive committee (NEC).
The NEC, guided by the top party leadership, would then have chosen the ANC's presidential candidate for the 2009 national elections. It would have had two options here. The one would be to choose someone to succeed Mbeki. The other would have been to have the South African constitution changed to give Mbeki a third term in office. The latter would not be much more difficult to push through than the former, procedurally if not politically speaking. In terms of the ANC constitution the party's parliamentary caucus, which has well over two-thirds of the seats in the national assembly, has no choice but to implement the instructions of the NEC. In an article in January 2006 the UCT academic Anthony Butler observed, in a general context:
The most notable feature of campaigns to change the constitution to permit a third term is that the president himself invariably insists that an additional term in office is the last thing on his mind. Usually the case for a third term is said to hinge on a number of 'special' factors, which allegedly oblige party grandees to force a tired and reluctant leader of the nation to defer his long-anticipated retirement and - for the sake of his people - take up the weary burden of office once again.
Formidable pressures build on a president to submit to such demands. Firstly, once out of power he has to fear the enduring enmity of those he, or his creatures, have treated roughly in the past. Secondly, most presidents "have been forced by the demands of their office to act in some ways illegally, and fear persecution or prosecution by their successors." Thirdly, "Hangers-on, loyalists, and recipients of presidential largesse fear for their future and will do anything to keep 'their man' in office."
This latter consideration is a particularly pressing one for the beneficiaries of Mbeki's patronage, many of whom owe their high positions to their weakness rather than their strength. Robert Schrire noted in 1998 that "political loyalty" was the most "important factor in determining recruitment to the Mbeki team" - something which required "personalities and intellects who constitute no threat to the leader personally."
In such circumstances Mbeki's previous assurances not to allow a constitutional amendment to give him a further term in office may have counted for very little. Yet there were other reasons why many have distrusted Mbeki's motives on this matter.
One of these was that Mbeki's actions seemed to speak louder than his words. Unlike Mandela, who went to great lengths to ensure a smooth transition to a capable successor, Mbeki has done nothing of the sort. (And he has already been in power, if not in office, for over ten years.) As Butler noted concern about his intentions began, ironically enough, with his "endorsement of the rise of Jacob Zuma. So inconceivable was a Zuma presidency in 1999 that his elevation to deputy president engendered speculation that Mbeki was contemplating a third term."
Another was that individuals close to the presidency have at various times floated trial balloons on the matter, and begun to rehearse arguments about why a third term would be no bad thing.  With Mbeki's various rivals having been cut off at the knees, the suggestion was made that there was no one of sufficient stature in the ANC left to succeed him.
Yet such has been the opposition to Mbeki within the ANC, over the past two years, that it looks as if even his closest allies have given up (for now) on the idea of pushing for a constitutional amendment. The current Mbeki-ite strategy seems to be to, firstly, secure the party presidency for Mbeki and the position of secretary-general for Frank Chikane, currently director-general of the presidency.
Once (if) Mbeki gave up the South African presidency, he would retain real authority through his party position. This would be relatively easily done as the ANC's internal organisation already rests upon the principles of democratic centralism. The decision over who would be the next ANC candidate for president of South Africa would also have been taken out of the hands of the national conference - "the supreme ruling and controlling body" of the ANC - and handed over to the newly elected leadership. 


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