TOPICS : South Africa’s troubling succession

Democracy involves much more than throwing the old (white) rascals out. Democracy depends on what comes next — on the growth of a settled system that means governments can change amid constitutional calm. India long ago reached that point. Compare and contrast Zimbabwe. And, meanwhile, fear for South Africa.

The ousting of Thabo Mbeki isn’t some sudden convulsion. He was on his way out anyway. But the manner of his dispatch is altogether more menacing.

A president made to pay for dirty dealing? It can be made to sound like some heroic African Watergate. But there’s nothing heroic about the fratricide that grips the African National Congress now. It isn’t just a case of who comes after Mbeki. We know that: Jacob Zuma. The real problem is what he brings with him.

Not so long ago, Zuma was Mbeki’s creature. Mbeki made him vice-president in 1999 not because he was qualified to succeed him but because he wasn’t: no great intellect, no credibility, no threat. But, for a clever man, Mbeki is also incredibly stupid. He’s remote, a chill control freak. So he left Zuma to do the meeting and greeting, the tub-thumping for true party believers, the link role in parliament. He turned his own puppet into a threat — and, when Zuma sank into a mire of corruption allegations, he slyly sought to push him under.

It’s those malign manoeuvres that a high court judge condemned last week, handing Mbeki’s enemies on the ANC executive the chance to dump him. So now South Africa prepares for a turbulent hiatus before next year’s elections give Zuma a seat in parliament and the presidency proper. In the short term, the problem is keeping enough cabinet heavy-hitters on board to avoid economic panic.

For while Mbeki was wrong to try to ditch Zuma by twisting the law, he may also have been absolutely right: this succession is a disaster already happening. Can a President Zuma hold together the tribes, tongues and furious factions of the ANC? See growth, at 4% a year, keep pounding forward through a global credit crunch? Begin at last to trickle down wealth to the townships and villages? Or cut a crime rate that is bringing South Africa to its knees? The big question was always, “After Mbeki, who?”

And the ANC has at least four candidates. The difficulty — and the cause for fear — is that it hasn’t the wit to offer any of them for office. Mbeki thought he could finish his two terms as president but get re-elected as ANC leader, a variant of the Putin gambit in which he succeeded himself. Bad thinking, and humiliation as Zuma won.

But now, in what is still effectively a one-party state, the party apparatus drives Mbeki from government.

The caucus still rules OK. The ultimate control freaks are calling the shots. Could a credible ANC loyalist — a Ramaphosa say — break ranks and challenge Zuma next year at an open election? “Loyalty” to the liberation still seems to rule that out. If so, the next big bad book writes itself. The one called After Mbeki, What? — The Guardian