Time for Zuma and his pirates to go
Xolela Mangcu: It my well be that Richard Mdluli's intelligence report is the work of what Tokyo Sexwale calls "dark forces". Be that as it may, the ensuing discussion reignited my interest in the issue of succession - and the crucial role the public plays in choosing a new leader.
But let me start with a political principle that underpins my argument.
In 1999, I suggested that former president Thabo Mbeki's rule would not last long because he could not possibly satisfy the political and material ambitions of everyone in the ANC.
And, indeed, it was only a matter of time before those who were left out or who had been Mbeki's victims started mobilising against him, culminating in his dethroning as president of the ANC in December 2007 and of the republic in September 2008.
I use the word "dethrone" because any leader who clings to power has assumed for himself the role of a monarch.
In a Harold Wolpe lecture in June 2007, I suggested that Jacob Zuma's populist coalition would dissemble the moment they reached their "rendezvous with victory".
I went on to say that this was because the populist frontier - from BEE wannabes and ethnic entrepreneurs to fugitives from the law and the ever-dodgy lumpen proletariat - was not ideologically coherent. "Wait until Zuma has won, and see the infighting that will emerge," I said.
The limits of patronage-based politics lie in the fact that there is never enough patronage to go round - whether in terms of material resources or positions.
Indeed, there can be only 20-odd cabinet positions, 400-odd members of parliament and so many ward councillors at one time. There can be only so many corrupt government contracts before the state becomes nothing more than a collective piracy.
This will be as true for the next leader of the ANC as it was for Zuma and Mbeki.
What this suggests is a discourse about leadership that avoids the pitfalls of our recent past. I suggest three ways for such a discussion:
First, as members of the public, we are not bound by the hush-hush culture of leadership discussions in the ANC. As former US president Woodrow Wilson put it a century ago: "The state exists for the sake of society, not society for the sake of the state."
As things now stand, we in South Africa exist for the sake of the state, simply spectators as public officials feed at the trough.
To paraphrase Steve Biko, what right do we then have to protest if we continue to be bystanders in a game we should be playing as citizens?
The one thing that we share across all of our social divisions is the right to vote - to punish the bad guys and reward the good. The forthcoming local government elections present a golden opportunity for a more assertive voting public.
In fact, the internecine contestation for local government lists should be neither here nor there for voters. The ultimate test should be whether the many people who are adversely affected by corruption can muster the courage to challenge the few people who benefit from it, thanks to their holding public office.
Second, our experience with Mbeki and Zuma demonstrates that the election of leaders on the basis of patronage networks and personal allegiances is unsustainable.
In his classic workLeadership, James MacGregor Burns argues that transitional societies are often too eager to provide mass support for heroic leaders "through votes, applause, letters, shaking hands - rather than through intermediaries or institutions".
We need to shift from focusing on individual leaders, as has been our wont - myself included - to institutional leadership.
The test of leadership should be the extent to which those in authority bring integrity to our public institutions, from local to national level.
Third is the need to put in place a new political dynamic in South Africa.
This is simply because, once a society sets itself on the path of corruption, it soon reaches a tipping point and cannot reverse the process for centuries.
In his bookMaking Democracy Work, the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam argues that the difference between the more prosperous northern Italy and the corrupt south is a result of the institutionalisation of autocratic rule in 1100 AD and centuries of gangster rule after that. Right now, we are on the fast lane to southern Italy.
No matter how long the ANC may want to delay the leadership issue, at some point they will have to face the biggest elephant in the room: that the state has become a collective piracy.
There are too many government and business contracts going to individuals directly linked to the president. There are too many allegations of impropriety linked to the president's cabinet ministers.
Whether the president is in the know doesn't matter; the fact of the matter is that all these things are happening on his watch.
Inasmuch as I called for president Mbeki's replacement at the height of his arrogant use of power, I now feel compelled to ask for the ANC to provide this country with alternative leadership and a new political dynamic - or face the prospect of living under a government that has irreversibly become a kleptocracy.
The vote, both within and outside political parties, gives us an occasional opportunity to save ourselves from ourselves and build anew our public institutions.
Whether the ruling party and the public will muster the courage to do so is, of course, a different matter.
I am no soothsayer, but we cannot continue to put our heads in the sand while all is collapsing around us.
We can either manage change or change will rudely be forced on us, as it has been throughout human history - often at great social and human cost.
The changes in North Africa are merely the latest instalment in the tragedy that befalls societies that do not plan for change.
It is our collective duty to make sure that our children do not one day wake up to a bare and barren future because we allowed public looting to go on during our watch.
- Mangcu is the convener of the Platform for Public Deliberation at the University of Johannesburg