Challenge the president? Don't even think about it

Thabo Mbeki is still well-positioned to secure a second term in office, but has been damaged by the allegations of a conspiracy to harm him. Patrick Laurence reports.

SOUTH AFRICANS SHOULD be grateful to safety and security minister Steve Tshwete. Since he appeared on SABC1 on April 24 and identified three senior ANC members as the alleged conspirators in a plot against President Thabo Mbeki, the party's entrails have been exposed to public scrutiny. Tshwete's decision to name immediate past ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa, former Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale, and former Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa as the alleged leaders of the "conspiracy" is both a sign of divisive tensions within the ANC-alliance and a catalyst for further bitter acrimony. As Phosa remarked, "the mudslinging has only just started."

The party, in its on-line journal ANC Today, justified the police investigation as necessary to prevent "physical harm" to Mbeki. This implies that the trio were conspiring to topple Mbeki in a coup rather than merely seeking to oppose him when he stands for re-election as ANC president at the party's national conference in December next year.

National police commissioner Jackie Selebi told Beeld (April 25) that the police are in possession of information that, according to "a senior ANC member", indicates next year's national conference could be a bloodbath. "It is our duty to investigate such allegations," he said. "The word 'bloodbath' and the fact that the head of state's life is allegedly threatened is enough reason."

At the same time, however, the party blamed the media for spreading reports of "secretive plans" to contest senior positions in the ANC and of counter-manoeuvres to marginalise the contenders, "with little tangible evidence" of these developments. ANC agitprop thus suggests that the threat to harm Mbeki physically must be taken seriously, while the reports of legitimate challenges to his leadership can be dismissed as media-inspired fiction.

The ANC's alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), have been vocal in their criticism. "It is highly irresponsible to announce the names of people subject to investigations, long before any final conclusions have been reached," notes Cosatu. Tshwete's naming of the alleged plot leaders "violates the due process of law", puts the trio at risk, aids the spread of rumours and fear and raises the risk of the police interference with "legitimate political contestation", Cosatu adds. Secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi demanded that Tshwete apologise, something he has refused to do. He also warned that the organisation would not be blackmailed into silence.
The SACP spoke out against conflation of the security concerns of the state with the "normal, legitimate democratic processes of our movement". However SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande called on Tshwete to widen his probe to include sources of the allegations within the ANC and intelligence agent Bheki Jacobs. One of Jacobs' reports has alleged that sub-groups within the SACP were building an anti-Mbeki front. "He has been specialising in implanting lies and general tensions in the movement," said Nzimande.

A slew of political analysts see the police investigation as an attempt to taint legitimate internal party opposition to the ANC's current leader with the whiff of treason. An editorial in the Financial Times on the eve of Nelson Mandela's appearance at the Trafalgar Square pop concert that launched Celebrate South Africa month in Britain said the "extraordinary" allegations "may well prove to be a foolish own goal".

In the face of critical comment in foreign media Mandela used the concert platform to limit the damage. He spoke appreciatively about Mbeki, saying he would gladly support him for a second term, but he referred to the three accused as "comrades" - an accolade in itself. "Until there is evidence to substantiate the allegations, I will always regard them in high esteem," he said. Significantly, he added: "Cyril Ramaphosa led our negotiating team. It is he who is really responsible for the settlement that led to a democratic South Africa."

Examination of the basis for the police investigation strengthens suspicions that the conspiracy is more likely to be fictional than the "secretive reports" of prospective challenges to Mbeki's plans to stand for re-election as ANC leader next year and as president after the 2004 general election. During his appearance before the parliamentary security committee meeting on May 3, Tshwete stated that the investigation had been sparked by an intelligence report; anonymous letters and phone calls; and an affidavit from James Nkambule, former ANC Youth League leader in Mpumalanga.

According to National Intelligence Agency spokesman Helmut Schlenter, "the official intelligence agencies are not involved in the inquiry," which suggests that the intelligence report is the work of an internal ANC unit. Moreover, James Nkambule, author of a report on machinations within the ANC in Mpumalanga and of alleged intrigue against Mbeki, hardly qualifies as a reliable witness: he faces 77 charges of theft and fraud relating to alleged embezzlement from state coffers. Many of his assets have already been seized by the Asset Forfeiture Unit, a step which the unit only takes when it is convinced that there are strong reasons for suspecting that the assets at issue have been acquired unlawfully. His alleged partner in crime is Alan Gray, the former chief of the Mpumalanga Parks Board and another controversial figure in the province.

Nkambule's report has undergone several revisions since it was first sent to the ANC head office in November 1998, most recently with its submission as a sworn affidavit to the police in February and again in late April - reportedly on the same day as Tshwete's April 24 television broadcast.
His initial report led to an internal ANC inquiry, culminating in the ousting of Phosa as Mpumalanga premier and his replacement by Mbeki nominee Ndaweni Mahlangu. It centres on the sale of an arms shipment that had arrived for the ANC in Maputo in 1992 but which was never needed. Nkambule alleges that former defence minister Joe Modise failed to inform ANC head office of the sale or to deposit the proceeds with the ANC as he had promised Umkhonto leader Chris Hani he would. An angry Hani confronted Modise in March 1993 and threatened to report the sale directly to ANC headquarters himself. "Exactly two weeks after that meeting Chris Hani was gunned down, apparently by a right-winger, Janus Waluz . . . It appears that Chris was not killed only by a right-winger who was angry with communists," writes Nkambule.

The rest of his report focuses largely on Phosa and his alleged role in trying to implicate Mbeki in the murder of Hani, his rival for high office. Phosa's purported collaborators are Sexwale, Ramaphosa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Jacob Zuma, who is now South Africa's deputy president.

Nkambule's affidavit - as published in the Sunday Times - goes over the same ground, but also refers to his belief, following a conversation with Phosa, that Waluz has been induced to "disclose" Mbeki's alleged role as an instigator and accessory in the Hani murder and to put his disclosure in writing. Nkambule explains that he wrote his affidavit to enable police to "investigate the circumstances surrounding the sale of the Moputu arms shipment and its link to Chris Hani's murder", as well as the alleged role of Phosa "and others" in attempting to taint Mbeki with the killing.

Nkambule's untested report and affidavit, much of which consists of hearsay rather than direct evidence, contradicts a central finding in the trial and conviction of Hani's killers, Waluz and Clive Derby-Lewis: that they acted alone. The trial judge found there was no evidence of an orchestrated right-wing conspiracy acting with the connivance or support of the security forces of the old order, still less of a conspiracy reaching into the heart of the ANC. Waluz and Derby-Lewis have emphatically repudiated Nkambule's allegations and insisted that they never met or even corresponded with Mbeki. In a statement issued on behalf of the convicted assassins, Derby-Lewis's wife, Gaye, notes that neither investigators from Britain nor Germany deployed by the prosecution during the trial, nor an investigator acting on behalf of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission later, found any evidence of a conspiracy. She dismisses Nkambule as "a fraud and a liar" and denies the existence of Waluz's written disclosure.

Tshwete himself cast doubt on Nkambule's report and affidavit when he referred to their contents as "rumours". But he explained, "I have to satisfy myself that there is nothing in them." No one questions the right of the police to investigate Nkambule's allegations. It is their duty as well as their right to do so once Nkambule has made a sworn statement to them. But that does not justify Tshwete's decision to name the three on television as the heads of an alleged conspiracy. Given Nkambule's checkered past and the findings of the ANC internal inquiry that he was a "factionalist" driven by a desire for personal gain, Tshwete had no right to identify the persons Nkambule named.
But once Tshwete had decided to name the alleged conspirators why did he only pick out Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa and not their alleged co-conspirators Modise, Madikizela-Mandela and Zuma? And if the threat to Mbeki was so serious, why did the ANC wait so long to involve the police, given that they had Nkambule's first report in November 1998? One explanation is that Tshwete focused on the three businessmen because they constitute a bigger threat to Mbeki than the others - not as coup leaders but as potential rivals outside government but functioning within the permissible parameters of the ANC's constitution. It was a pre-emptive blow taken only when the presidency began to run into trouble.

In the past each of the three alleged conspirators have challenged Mbeki, or his chosen candidate, for top-level positions. Mbeki outmanoeuvred them in turn: Rampahosa in 1993-4, Sexwale in 1997 and Phosa in 1999. Of the three only Ramaphosa is widely expected to return to politics - and as a presidential candidate.
Tshwete told the parliamentary safety and security committee that he did not consult either Mbeki or the ANC about his decision to investigate the plot. Most people will probably agree with the comment of Richard Calland of Idasa that Tshwete's statement is simply "incredible". He would surely have been fired from his ministerial post if he had not first consulted the president, the prime target of the alleged conspiracy.

Equally, the idea that Tshwete would have struck a pre-emptive blow against Mbeki's rivals by naming them without the president's approval seems unbelievable. In an interview with Jon Snow on British television news on May 3, Mbeki distanced himself from Tshwete's action. He said that his minister "may have erred" and blamed the SABC interviewer for having tricked him into naming the three. Saying that he did not believe they were part of a plot to unseat or harm him, the president shifted the focus of attention from the "conspirators" to the Hani allegations. "When an allegation is made about the possible involvement of the president in murder, I don't think you can ignore that," he told Snow. Nevertheless there is prima facie evidence that he approved the naming of the three in advance.

On the same night that Tshwete startled the nation on SABC 1, Mbeki was interviewed on e-tv. His remarks included a reference to a "conspiracy" by unidentified businessmen: "It's a conspiratorial thing. I know you have business people who say, 'We will set up a fund to promote a political candidate and we will then try to influence particular journalists [to support him]'." Another extract reads: ". . . people have political ambitions. That's fine but the manner in which they pursue their ambitions [is not] . . . We need to create space so that all competitors can compete openly . . . open debate about everything, including the presidency."

Tshwete's disclosure, coupled with Mbeki's comments, suggests that this was another concerted move to flush out contenders for the presidency. In August last year reports appeared that official intelligence agencies were investigating Ramaphosa on suspicion of raising funds for a presidential challenge. Another report said that American and British politicians and businessmen wanted to recruit him as a more acceptable alternative to Mbeki. Ramaphosa denied both reports but, to quote Alan Fine of Business Day, "it may have been a warning shot against even the thought of challenging a presidential incumbent under fire."

Then on April 3 this year Jacob Zuma issued an unsolicited disclaimer - that he would not be challenging Mbeki for the party leadership at the ANC national conference - to a bemused public. As Caroline Dempster of the BBC aptly put it, it was "a reaction before it even happened." But the context that led up to it is important. In the preceding months the deputy president was a victim of whispering campaigns linking him with supporting Phosa in Mpumalanga and a plot to unseat Mbeki. At the same time he distinguished himself with his firm line on the link between HIV and Aids in contrast to Mbeki's prevarication on the issue and defended the inclusion of the Heath unit in the multiagency investigation of the R43.8-billion arms deal. Only later did Zuma sign a highly critical letter attacking the standing committee on public accounts, a letter that Scopa chairman Gavin Woods dubbed "out-of-character".

Tshwete himself, now 62 and with a reputation as a loyal Mbeki lieutenant, may harbour ambitions for higher political office. He has tasted life at the top, having been sworn in as acting president late last year in the absence of Mbeki and Zuma and his television disclosure may have been designed to ingratiate himself with the president. Addressing a Cosatu rally in Umtata on May 1, he described reports that either he, national chairman Mosiuoa Lekota or Eastern Cape premier Makhenkesi Stofile were vying for the deputy presidency as "full of untruths".

Have the repercussions of the alleged conspiracy weakened or strengthened the president and made challenges for top positions at the 2002 national conference more or less likely? The "plot" was treated with incredulity abroad and has probably added to western governments' reservations about Mbeki. Africa Confidential comments that Mbeki can regain credibility only by firing Tswhete, his close ally. Since that is unlikely, "the alleged coup leaves the president dangerously exposed".

Perhaps in recognition of that danger loyalists have been closing ranks behind the president. As well as the 11 professionals, whose full page advertisement in the Sunday Times singing his praise and blaming the racist media was greeted with dismay and disbelief, there have been a string of motions of support in Parliament, the National Council of Provinces, the ANC Women's League and the ANC Youth League.

Ramaphosa remains a potential threat to Mbeki. In his reaction to the latest allegation against him, Ramaphosa did not rule out the possibility of running for the presidency while Sexwale and Phosa did. Ramaphosa, however, is likely to bide his time. At the age of 48 he can afford to wait until 2009 before making a presidential bid, an idea that Mandela implicitly endorsed at the Trafalgar Square concert. One of Ramaphosa's great strengths as a politician is patience. His successful quest to become ANC secretary general in 1991, when he defeated the incumbent Alfred Nzo, who was backed by Mandela, is proof of that. In the months that preceded the election he kept his head beneath the parapet and declined repeated requests for interviews.
If, as anticipated, Ramaphosa waits until 2009 he could be rewarded for his patience. But this is not to eliminate the possibility of an earlier Ramaphosa challenge. Eighteen months is more than enough for radical and even unforseen changes of fortune within the ANC. Much will depend on what happens at the party provincial congresses later this year, when delegates to the 2002 national conference will be chosen.

The suspension of the provincial executives in Gauteng, the Free State and, most recently, the Northern Province and their replacement by an interim leadership appointed by ANC head office has generated low-volume grumbles about dictatorship from the centre, with which Mbeki is obviously closely associated. His decision to select provincial premiers who have not been elected to the chair of their respective provincial executives has not won him points from the supporters of the bypassed chairpersons. The manner in which Gauteng premier Mathole Mokshekga was pushed aside to make way for Mbhazima Shilowa in Gauteng is a case in point.

Mbeki may yet pay the price of "democratic centralism". Under that system of governance accusing fingers point in one direction only if promises are unfulfilled, hopes dashed and disillusionment magnified. Rising unemployment and the spread of HIV-Aids mean that Mbeki is not absolutely secure from a switch in loyalty within the ANC. That goes some way to explain the propensity of the leadership to blame party divisions on agent provocateurs and shadowy "forces opposed to change" rather than on legitimate political criticism of government performance.

One repercussion of the plot allegations may be to make party members less open about how they express their criticisms and preferences. The president assured Jon Snow during his May 3 interview that anybody could contest any position in the ANC. "They must do it openly, within the context of the ANC . . . It is not a problem whatsoever. I would encourage it and I would be against the kind of whispering campaigns because they produce rumours and destabilise. Let people participate without fear." But a report from North West province claims that lobby groups are campaigning for their preferred leaders in secrecy - through unsigned letters and e-mails - for fear of the heavy hand of the national executive committee.

A North West provincial executive member who asked not to be named told The Citizen that for the first time provinces could go to the congress without having reached consensus on prospective candidates, because lobbying in support of a list of candidates would be interpreted as "sowing divisions by the supporters of the other list". In such circumstances opposition might be less vocal, but it would not go away.

Mbeki's political stamina, consummate skill in controlling the party machine to his advantage, and, when he chooses to deploy it, his undoubted ability to turn on the charm for political ends will stand him in good stead. While he is well positioned to secure a second presidential term, he is not assured of success.