DEPUTY President Kgalema Motlanthe, then-secretary-general of the ANC, first came to government in July 2008 as an unwilling minister without portfolio in the presidency. He was selected by the post-Polokwane leadership to take care of their interests because some deeply distrusted Thabo Mbeki. For them, Mbeki should have been removed as president immediately after Polokwane.
There was no clear indication of what these interests were. The reality is that Polokwane did not radically change the policies of the ANC relating to governance issues. The traditional ANC language of “change and continuity” was used at the Polokwane conference to indicate that the overall thrust of the policy was unaltered. The only changes related to aspects that would enable the government to better achieve the broad objective of the ANC, which was to better the lives of the people.
An analysis of Polokwane shows that it was more about the removal of Mbeki than about a change of policy. In fact, those who were at the conference to make sure Mbeki was not re-elected as the president of the ANC did not focus on policy issues. All that was important to them was the implementation of their strategies to make sure Mbeki was not re-elected.
For instance, in the policy development commission in which I participated, some used every opportunity to criticise Mbeki rather than to discuss policy issues and much of the time was wasted by people making extraneous statements that were irrelevant to the issues under discussion.
Some, of course, primarily members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), believed that the removal of Mbeki as president of the ANC meant that there would be changes in the ANC’s policies, because they saw Mbeki as the major barrier to the advancement of the policies they espoused.
The mistake they made was that if no policy changes were made at Polokwane, they would have to wait for another conference to change radically policy in the ANC. History shows that indeed they were unable to achieve their objectives. This explains some of the rumblings that keep coming from those quarters.
Those who were thinking in strategic terms believed that it would be easy to influence the post-Polokwane leadership to change policies midstream. However, they failed to take account of the fact that the party’s policies could not be changed without the approval of a national conference.
There was also a miscalculation about or a lack of understanding of the dynamics of forces within the ANC, which would make such decisions more complicated than people believed.
It is just such a failure to assess the balance of forces that led to the tensions that emerged between the ANC and Cosatu soon after Polokwane.
It also did not make sense to deploy Motlanthe to keep a watch on cabinet’s implementation of the policy decisions taken at Polokwane. Cabinet members and deputy ministers were disciplined members of the ANC, many of whom were re-elected at Polokwane as members of the national executive committee and would as a matter of duty have ensured that the interests of Polokwane were taken care of. Some of the vociferous campaigners against Mbeki were also members of the cabinet.
In his position as secretary-general of the ANC, which he had held for 10 years, Motlanthe was the person best informed about the policy development processes in the movement and the person who ensured that the ruling party implemented the decisions of the conference. There should not have been any doubt that these could be monitored effectively from the secretary-general’s office.
A crude and debased view was that there might be “looting” before the then-government left office. Again, given the number of ministers and deputy ministers in cabinet who supported the Polokwane project, this made no sense and was not based on reality.
Clearly, this view was initially intended to legitimise the takeover by presenting the Mbeki government as corrupt, which was unfounded. This view was also held by those who believed that Mbeki’s cabinet consisted of enemies of the Polokwane crusade.
At least one cabinet member, shocked at such allegations, believed the intention of those who espoused that view was to insult and hurt, rather than to deal with a particular reality.
The hurt inflicted by the events at Polokwane was indeed deep, with relationships in the ANC deteriorating after the conference to the level of dog eats dog, causing harm that destroyed the comradeship among people who had spent a large part of their lives in the trenches together.
The fact is that Mbeki’s cabinet had been appointed (in consultation with ANC officials) on the basis of the principle of clean government, and its sole objective – as reflected in the party’s slogan “A better life for all” – was to better the lives of the people of South Africa, particularly the historically disadvantaged.
The integrity of individuals in cabinet was critical and any indication of corruption was dealt with immediately. Ironically, it is for this very reason that Mbeki had relieved Jacob Zuma of his responsibilities, paying dearly for this action by losing his presidency at the height of its glory seven months earlier.
Clearly none of the reasons stated above make any sense. The question then is why? One has no answer for this question, but it would appear that there were other interests at Polokwane, which were outside policy issues and were not clearly articulated.
History will show that Mbeki carried the flag of success and was tripped just before he crossed the winning line because of internal party dynamics and not governance or policy issues. When the dust has finally settled I believe that the valley of the shadow of Polokwane – that dark cloud – will not for ever cover the hills of success Mbeki scaled. The time will come when these successes will be celebrated. However, to date he has not been able to celebrate these successes, nor were those he served given the opportunity to do so.
There are striking similarities between Mbeki’s case and that of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, whose life and successes were celebrated in his country only many years after he was deposed as president and left to die in exile.
A more rational and publicly articulated reason for deploying Motlanthe was the need to understudy the government, to ensure a smooth transition to the next administration, but even this reason suggested that the handover of power would be from one hostile party to another, with the entire government, including senior public servants, being removed and replaced. If this were to happen it would indeed erase any institutional memory and destabilise the government. Another problem with this perspective is that it assumed that all those who were deployed in government were enemies of the post-Polokwane ANC.
It is this spirit that has turned a substantial number of comrades who were in government before Polokwane into targets of the government that came into power after the 2009 elections.
This story of purging, which has not yet been told, reflects an organisation that began to feed on its own. Solid cadres of the movement were either moved from positions in which they served with excellence to other positions that made no sense in terms of their skills, experience and capacity, while others were dumped from the public service in an unceremonious way without appreciation of the services they had rendered.
An unpleasant example is that of police, particularly members of the VIP Protection Unit, who were totally loyal to the state but happened to have been deployed to serve political principals who were removed from office or had resigned. They were treated like disloyal police who were regarded as suspects, and many of them were moved to senseless jobs which had nothing to do with their rank or profession.
n Extracted from Eight Days in September, the Removal of Thabo Mbeki by Frank Chikane. Published by Picador Africa, it is available at all good book stores at a recommended retail price of R195