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Following Factional Dispute Within ANC, Thabo Mbeki Resigns as South African President

StorySeptember 23, 2008
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In South Africa, the deputy leader of the African National Congress has been chosen to serve as interim president following the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki resigned on Sunday over allegations of interference in a corruption case against political rival and current ANC leader Jacob Zuma. We speak to South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus. [includes rush transcript]

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In South Africa, the deputy leader of the African National Congress has been chosen to serve as interim president following the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki resigned Sunday over allegations of interference in a corruption case against political rival and current ANC leader Jacob Zuma. In a televised address, Mbeki said he would heed the calls to step down but denied the charges against him.


    I have been a loyal member of the African National Congress for fifty-two years. I remain a member of the ANC and therefore respect its decisions. It is for this reason that I have taken the decision to resign as President of the Republic, following the decision of the National Executive Committee of the ANC.


President Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1997, becoming South Africa’s second post-apartheid president. His replacement, Kgalema Motlanthe, is a former trade unionist who served years in prison under the apartheid government. He’ll serve in office until South Africa’s national election in April.

The in-fighting that led to Mbeki’s resignation has put a spotlight on the African National Congress’s dominance of South African politics. On Monday, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu said politics have divided the movement that once led South Africa’s liberation from apartheid.

    DESMOND TUTU: President Mbeki has scored many significant achievements in our economy and in promoting peace in Africa, most recently in Zimbabwe. But he has made many enemies, even within his party, for his intolerance of challenges and dissent. Those enemies have got their revenge and are gloating as they rub his nose in the dust. There is nothing principled about that. It is old-fashioned, good old-fashioned tit-for-tat. Our country deserves better. The way of retribution leads to a banana republic. I am deeply disturbed that the nation, the state, South Africa, has been subordinated to a political party.


The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking Monday.

For more on the Mbeki resignation, I’m joined by South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus. He was a leading opponent of the apartheid state. He helped secure South Africa’s suspension from the Olympics, eventually forcing the country to be expelled from the Games in 1970. He was arrested in 1963, sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor on Robben Island, off Cape Town, with Nelson Mandela. Today, he is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and professor at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal. Dennis Brutus turns eighty-four in November, joining me now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dennis Brutus.


Thank you, Amy. Glad to be with you.


Your thoughts today as Thabo Mbeki steps down?


Yes. Well, he steps down, as you know, and at the same time he announces, “I continue to be a loyal member of the ANC,” and accepts the fact that he has been asked to resign by the ANC. He will be succeeded next year by Jacob Zuma.

But as Desmond Tutu correctly pointed out, this is really a factional conflict between two sections within the ANC itself, and unfortunately, not going to make much difference for the position of the people of South Africa as a whole, because they share pretty much the same neoliberal ideologies. I don’t see any difference in policy. There will be a kind of a crisis, power struggle, the replacement of one set of loyalists by another set of loyalists. But the central ideological issue is pretty much the same on both sides.


Explain the central ideological issues.


Well, it seems to me that when Mbeki succeeded Mandela, he was already committed to a position which said, first we keep the corporations happy. We don’t want them leaving the country. And if the people have to wait — questions of housing, jobs, education — all of that will have to wait. First, we have to keep the corporations happy. And we conformed to the requirements of the IMF and the World Bank or the WTO.

And in fact, when Zuma takes over, after Polokwane earlier, when there was a division within the ANC, he then went to Davos, the World Economic Forum, also met with Merrill Lynch and said, “Don’t worry, the economic policies that Mbeki adopted, I’m going to continue those policies.” So, in fact, there will be a continuity on the economic level, even while people are arguing that the corporations should not be given priority. The jobs and housing, people living in the shacks and in the shanties, as they were under apartheid, still living under the same conditions.


Dennis Brutus, can you explain who Jacob Zuma is?


Well, there will be various descriptions, and I’ll try to be as fair as I can be. As opposed to Thabo Mbeki, he was part of the armed struggle, spent time in prison for his opposition to apartheid. Mbeki was a student at the universities both in Moscow and then in England, where I met him. I was in an exile, myself. Zuma is seen much more as a populist, a kind of man in the streets, easy to talk to; politically, of course, a lot less academic. Mbeki cultivated the image of the rather aloof intellectual. Zuma is much closer to the people, in that sense. And he has a song about “bring me my machine gun,” which reminds people, of course, of the time when he was part of the armed struggle.

Politically, I think, in my own view, a lot less politically sophisticated than Mbeki. But the idea is being that he’s more a man of the people and, therefore, is likely to pay more attention to their needs. I’m not sure that’s true. Even though he’s being backed by the trade unions, COSATU, he’s being backed by the South African Communist Party, so that the assumption is that he will be more left-leaning than Mbeki was. But actually, there’s not a whole lot of evidence for that. And the chances are that he will simply continue the kind of neoliberal policies putting the corporations ahead of the people in terms of the resources of the country.


Criminal trial that Jacob Zuma underwent?


Right. I kind of avoided that, because it is itself controversial. There are several elements. Of course, previously, he was charged with an alleged rape, in a long, drawn-out trial about that, ended with him being acquitted.

Then came the much more complex issue, an enormous arms deal involving billions of South African rands or, for that matter, billions of dollars or English pounds. The German arms industry was involved. The British arms industry was involved. Most seriously, he was alleged to have solicited a bribe from the arms industry so that if there was any investigation, he would be there to protect them and to stall any investigation. Unfortunately, this is unproved. In fact, it’s never actually got to any kind of conclusive level in court.

What instead has happened is a whole series of legal actions on both sides, either by the government prosecuting authority or by Zuma’s defense, and those have been essentially arguments about procedure, whether the correct process was followed or not. And the latest development there, of course, has been a judge in Pietermaritzburg who said that the procedure itself was flawed, and so that Zuma succeeded at that level. But the judge at the same time pointed out, “This is not a decision on guilt or innocence. That’s a separate issue which has to be discussed. My attention is with the procedure, and I’m saying the procedure was flawed.”

Then he added a very significant footnote. He said, “The process on this issue seems to me to have been subject to political meddling.” And by implication, he was of course blaming Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki has denied it. But as a consequence of that, the ANC could say, we are going to ask for Mbeki’s resignation on the basis that he appears to have meddled in this issue.

I hope that covers some of the legal complexities. It’s very hard to be fair on this issue, but I’m trying to be fair.


Dennis Brutus, we only have about fifteen seconds, but Nelson Mandela’s position on what has taken place?


On the whole, he’s chosen to be very low-profile. Of course, some of the economic decisions made by Mbeki were really inherited from Mandela. So he has to take some of the blame for the focus on priority for the corporations versus the people. At the moment, he has not had a great deal to say but, like Tutu, has expressed regret. The real problem, I think —


Dennis Brutus, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: South African poet and activist.

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