Can the US riots be South Africa’s moment of democratic pride?

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By: Paul Ngobeni

On January 7, 2021 I had a conversation with my daughter who is based in the USA about the outgoing President Trump-inspired riots of the past few days.  That forced me to reflect with pride on the democracy and enduring institutions our country South Africa has managed to build in less than 30 years after apartheid. Most important, in our democratic culture we do not riot or kill people simply because our preferred president is on the verge of exiting presidential office against his will and after defeat in an election.

In 2005 President Mbeki removed Deputy President Jacob Zuma from his post as Deputy President of South Africa, after Zuma was falsely implicated in a corruption in the Shabir Sheikh trial. With the exception of minor demonstrations in October 2005 where some supporters of Zuma (who remained deputy president of the ANC) burned t-shirts portraying Mbeki’s picture at a protest, no violence or loss of life ensued. The visible split between Zuma’s supporters and Mbeki’s allies in the ANC persisted but leadership succession was skillfully managed peacefully through the ballot box – no one ever died because of these political differences.

Even when Mbeki appeared to overstep his powers, the ANC culture and the country’s constitution kept his ambitions firmly in check. Mbeki knew that he was barred by the Constitution of South Africa from seeking a third term as president of the country but in 2007 he mischievously entered the race to be President of the ANC (no term limit exists for the position of ANC president), for a third term, in a close battle with Jacob Zuma. He lost this vote against Jacob Zuma on 18 December 2007 at the ANC conference in Polokwane. Zuma went on to be the ANC’s presidential candidate in the 2009 general election. Again, the robust competition and battle for ANC leadership in Polokwane did not result in any spilling of blood or loss of life.

On 12 September 2008, Pietermaritzburg High Court Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that Zuma’s corruption charges were unlawful on procedural grounds, adding there was reason to believe the charges against Zuma had been politically motivated. The finger of accusation pointed directly at Mbeki who was, no doubt incandescent with anger. Mbeki filed affidavit and applied to the Constitutional Court to appeal this ruling. He fumed: “It was improper for the court to make such far-reaching ‘vexatious, scandalous and prejudicial’ findings concerning me, to be judged and condemned on the basis of the findings in the Zuma matter. The interests of justice, in my respectful submission would demand that the matter be rectified. These adverse findings have led to my being recalled by my political party, the ANC—a request I have acceded to as a committed and loyal member of the ANC for the past 52 years. I fear that if not rectified, I might suffer further prejudice.”  Even with that smouldering anger Mbeki did not incite any riots or kill folks because of politics.

President Mbeki was later recalled by his party, the ANC. Mbeki formally announced his resignation on 21 September 2008, at 19:30 South African time, as a result of the ANC NEC’s decision no longer to support him in parliament. This came a few days after the Nicholson judgment. Allusions were made in the ruling to possible political interference by Mbeki and others in Zuma’s prosecution. Parliament convened on 22 September and accepted Mbeki’s resignation.  Our constitution was very clear as to what should happen in cases of such unanticipated void in the presidency.  The constitution regulates the replacement to serve as the interim president: either the deputy president, the speaker of parliament or any MP (Member of Parliament), as chosen by parliament, can take the role of president of the country until the next election. But the ANC president Jacob Zuma, who was elected president after the next general election, was not eligible as he was at the time none of these –he was not an MP, was not in Cabinet as Deputy President and was not the Speaker.  Motlanthe was elected as caretaker President and he served with distinction until the general elections in 2009.

Reverend Frank Chikane, the author of 8 Days in September: The Removal of President Thabo Mbeki, which details the events that unfolded during the days before and after Mbeiki’s recall in 2008, paints a very enlightening picture of the near crisis the country managed to skillfully navigate. Mbeki was informed about his recall on a Saturday and the NEC expected his letter of response on the following day by 7 pm.  As Reverend Chikane put it: “That is when some of us said this is unacceptable because constitutionally speaking you are saying to him [Mbeki] you must submit a resignation letter – it is almost like putting a guard on you and saying by 7 o’clock you must deliver the letter at the party conference and not in parliament, and that is what my book deals with.” Emotions were running very high.

Reverend Chikane compares his own feelings to Mbeki’s exit to how the disciples must have felt after the crucifixion. He uses a quote from the Bible: “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people; they crucified him but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem us.”  All that notwithstanding, Mbeki’s loyalists and ardent supporters resigned from Cabinet and went on to form their own new party, the ill-fated Congress of the People (Cope). Cope was allowed to compete in the 2009 elections and made a decent and historic showing which resulted in parliamentary seats. Again the ANC was shaken and the country’s politics experienced a shock-wave but no bloodshed ensued and no government institutions were vandalized.

In February 2018 the ANC resolved to “recall” President Jacob Zuma as head of state. Reports suggested that Zuma had agreed to step down but wanted to serve a notice period of 3 to 6 months but the party could not agree on Zuma’s request for an extended stay.  As a disciplined cadre President Zuma agreed to the party’s command even through he was not  legally obliged to follow his party’s instructions. The power to remove the president of the country lies with the parliament, which elected him from among the members of the national assembly. A recall from the position of party president is a party political process not catered for in the Constitution. Accordingly, the ANC NEC decision could only have political rather than legal effect. This means that if the president had refused to resign after the party had asked him to go, the only way to remove him would have been through the prescribed parliamentary processes – motion of no confidence or impeachment if grounds existed for the latter.  Zuma did not mobilize his large number of supporters to go on riotous attacks or to kill anyone.

Why should patriotic South Africans care about the fact that we managed leadership succession in a civilized and constitutionally compliant manner instead of riots, pipe bombs and murders? We really should be very proud – we have not maimed, killed, bombed or invaded other countries in the name of democracy only to have our hypocrisy laid bare when a defeated president resorts to mob incitement tactics and domestic terrorism in an effort to cling on to power.  We have not assumed a false moral superiority and imposed starvation and punitive sanctions against countries like Zimbabwe in the name of democracy.  We have not pursued an imperialist agenda under the guise of democracy.  Our hands are clean!