President Thabo Mbeki and Rev Frank Chikane during the Government Lekhotla at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria.

Picture: Phill Magakoe
22/01/2008 President Thabo Mbeki and Rev Frank Chikane during the Government Lekhotla at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. Picture: Phill Magakoe

Managing the change in president

By Frank Chikane Time of article published Mar 12, 2012

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Although the exercise was useful, enabling us to prepare ourselves for any eventuality, it was also both theoretical and speculative. We had to wait for the NEC (national executive committee) to make its decision before we could determine the implications.

Uppermost in our minds was the commitment to maintain stability in the country, whatever the outcome of the NEC meeting.

President Mbeki had made this very clear. His attitude was based on two hallmarks of ANC policy and Mbeki’s presidency.

The first was that comrades, past and present, had made such sacrifices for this new democratic order that we could not allow it to be destabilised, whatever the circumstances. A Samsonian going down with the Philistines was not an option as far as Mbeki was concerned. Nothing would be done at the expense of the people of South Africa.

Solomon’s wise suggestion – that the baby be cut in two, thereby determining its real parentage – has application in this case. Like the mother of the baby, Mbeki chose to let the baby live rather than see it cut into two pieces.

Both these solutions have wrought havoc in the world, with many living in a state of permanent war because of a leader’s desire to cling to power at any cost.

Mbeki would not allow this to happen even if it cost him his position; he would rather leave office than cause pain to his people. He had made it clear to us that everything had to be done to ensure that stability was maintained, whatever decision the party might make.

There was another reason for Mbeki’s determination to maintain stability. He had spent much of his time in office (both as deputy president and as president) working for stability and peace on the African continent in the interests of development. Because of this legacy, built up over years, he could not, as a matter of principle, afford to be associated with instability and chaos. His legacy of peacemaking on the continent, including the vision of the African Renaissance and related programmes such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism, could not be allowed to be compromised because of differences within his party.

His advisers in the presidency, particularly those who had worked with him for years to develop the vision of the African Renaissance, totally agreed with him and were committed to ensuring that his legacy was not compromised.

There was a third reason, though, which could not be spoken about: it was the knowledge of how far some comrades were foolishly prepared to go to remove Mbeki and take over the reins of government. Some of this was just careless talk of comrades who believed that they were in power already. Nevertheless, the state security establishment was always ready to execute its constitutional responsibilities against illegal or unconstitutional activity, especially the removal of a duly elected president. This, too, Mbeki would have wanted to avoid.

People who are privileged tend to take their privilege for granted. South Africans are no exception in this regard. We take for granted the extraordinary struggle our people waged to establish the country and democracy we have today. We also forget that our struggle was waged on such high moral ground that it led to the development of a unique cadre of leaders whose concern was for the people and the country rather than for themselves, their families, factions and friends.

During that week of September 2008 it dawned on me once again that South Africans are very lucky to have the calibre of leaders they have. Without them our country would have long ago slid into a disastrous space or collapsed into chaos, as did many postcolonial states. Indeed, the events that culminated in the removal of Mbeki during that week in September brought us very close to a disaster of a magnitude that cannot even be imagined.

I have learned in life that one should never trigger events without an assurance that one can control the aftermath. In the words of one of the “negotiating partners” at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the process that negotiated the form of the new South Africa: “Don’t start a fire you cannot put out!”

I had a feeling during that fateful September that there were people who were ready to start fires without considering the consequences.

There was a level of recklessness which could only be explained by a determination to have their way at any cost, even at the risk of wrecking our newly born democracy. For them it was a zero-sum game.

As head of the highest office in the land, the Presidency, I felt, at the time, like the pilot of an aircraft sharing an unregulated space with other aircraft, which were unaware of what was happening in that space, lacking the sophisticated electronic sensors that might assist them to avoid danger.

And when one was forced by foul weather to consider an emergency landing at the nearest airport, the control tower would announce that there were no landing lights – a severe test of one’s skills.

Like a pilot who has lived through near misses which were never disclosed to the passengers, I struggled through that period knowing that there was nobody with whom I could share my worries except for some of my colleagues and staff in the Presidency.

I was in the Presidency’s cockpit with my deputies, battling a vicious, life-threatening storm, at the centre of a crisis of change in government that the constitution never envisaged.

We must all learn from the events of that week, to ensure that we are never again pushed so close to the brink as a nation.

Despite what was happening in the background, we had to continue with the task of governing the country and ensuring that the unfolding events did not affect any of the services provided by government. As the head of Fosad (the Forum of SA Director-Generals) I fielded anxious calls from fellow directors-general at both national and provincial levels. They wanted to know what was happening and what the implications were for them.

My advice was simple: until further notice, continue working as if nothing is happening.

I emphasised the important role they had as critical stabilising factors in a situation of political crisis. DGs were not political appointees in the American sense, where senior public servants leave office with those who appointed them.

DGs in South Africa are on fixed contracts unrelated to the term of office of their political principals and are expected to continue running government whatever the nature of the political transition.

They are also expected to be ready to serve whichever political principal is appointed or elected legally and constitutionally (including those of opposition parties), on the principle that there must be continuity in service delivery whatever the circumstances.

The comment of one white businessperson after the removal of President Mbeki was illuminating in this regard. He was travelling when the crisis hit the country.

On his return he said to me: “South Africa is an extraordinary country. I left a week ago with one president and I returned and found that the president had been removed and another president was in office, but the airport was still running normally and cars were still moving in the streets as if nothing had happened!”

This, he said, was a miracle and gave him confidence in the country and its new democracy.

Within the presidency my task was to get everyone to continue with his or her duties as though nothing was happening.

One of the major operational matters was that the president was scheduled to make several trips, one of which was to take place the following week. Our logistics and security teams were already deployed in various places, including the US, to facilitate his movements.

As the noises about the possible removal of Mbeki reached its crescendo, the commanders of these teams became restless and made calls to check whether they should continue with their preparations.

They were ordered not to be distracted by newspaper headlines.

Their responsibility was to continue until instructed otherwise.

Among these trips was one to the UN, where Mbeki was due to be the keynote speaker at a Forum on Africa, involving many key leaders on the continent. Overnight I was transformed from head of the presidency to something like a commander-in-chief of the public service, managing a national crisis of enormous proportions as all the relevant ministers were also affected by the political developments.

Many of the ministers and deputy ministers were preparing themselves to leave office, since the removal of the president could mean the end of their service as well. The most challenging event was the international conference on the African Diaspora that South Africa was due to host in a matter of weeks. The offices of heads of state from the African continent and the Diaspora were inquiring whether or not the conference would proceed.

The answer had to be yes, since nobody knew what the outcome of the debate within the ANC would be.

The staff involved in preparing for the conference had to continue with their work. But this response did not help, as one head of state after another began to send signals of doubt, with others indicating without giving reasons that they were no longer able to honour their commitment to attend.

The possible removal of the president would have implications for the Presidency staff, but here forward-planning paid dividends.

The Presidency had used the first part of the year before the 2009 elections to prepare staff for the impending change of president.

Over and above discussions with all staff in the Presidency, consultations were held with affected staff and plans were already in place to manage the constitutionally mandated transition. If there were any change, the fast-forward button would be activated. This assurance should have been sufficient to stabilise things but staff, quite naturally, were concerned and we realised the situation had to be managed with empathy and sensitivity.

A lot of patience was required.

This is 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

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