[OPINION] Zuma exit struggle a nightmarish déjà vu

The cacophony of calls for President Jacob Zuma ‘to go’ has hit South Africans like a nightmarish déjà vu. Many think that we have been here before, recalling former President Thabo Mbeki’s painful experience.

My book Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki has also suddenly become the reference text. In the last few weeks - particularly the last ten days or so - I have been inundated with calls from journalists who want to know my views on what is happening between Zuma and the ANC based on my recording of Mbeki’s removal in that book. People want to know whether this is where we were in September 2008 when Mbeki was removed.

My response has been disappointing to many.

For me this is a classic case of what déjà vu is, which is different from its original French meaning of something ‘already seen’. This is a case of ‘feeling like one has been here before, but really has not been here’. What one cannot deny though, is that the Setswana idiomatic expression, ‘molaya kgosi o a itaya’, which literally means ‘the advice you give to the King will be applicable to you’ has come true. This is almost, but not quite, like the ‘chickens have come home to roost’. Or one can use the golden rule that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated. This is a real déjà vu!

But Mbeki’s case is radically different from the Zuma case in many respects.

Firstly, the removal of Mbeki was based on his act of releasing Zuma then as deputy president of the country because of the 783 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering brought against him, which still stand today. Because of this action a campaign was launched against Mbeki to remove him. Many of the leaders who supported this project have had regrets as their actions have turned into a nightmare.

On the other hand, the case of removing Zuma as president is based on the negative impact of the corruption charges against him and other misdemeanours, including the way he has governed the country and new alleged acts of corruption and state capture. There is no gainsaying that all this has not only caused the ANC dearly in terms of its image and reputation, but has impacted negatively on the country and its people.

Secondly, Mbeki was removed about seven months before the end of his term of office using the Nicholson judgment which was thrown out by the Appeals Court. The reason for doing this, which I elaborate on in my book, was mainly because they could not ‘kill’ the case against Zuma if Mbeki remained president during that time, which would have made it impossible for Zuma to stand for election as president of the country. Indeed, after Mbeki’s removal, the National Prosecution Authority withdrew the case in a manner that would not stand in a court of law, and Zuma was elected president. This led to about nine years of unprecedented levels of corruption and looting of state resources at the expense of the poorest of the poor in the country, and the perfection of the art of capturing the state to serve the interest of individuals, friends, and families.

Part of the problem is that we South Africans are gullible and easily accept the popular notion that the problem we are facing is that of two centres of power. I was part of the management of the transition from Nelson Mandela to Mbeki, and the challenge of the two centres of power never arose. Even the challenges relating to the transition from Mbeki to Zuma had nothing to do with the two centres of power. It had to do with removing state power from Mbeki to neutralise any inaction on his part which would have left the state to pursue the charges against Zuma.

The current crisis is also not about two centres of power, but the fact that a continued stay of Zuma as president would cost the ANC dearly and impact on the country in a manner that has not happened before. We are not dealing with two centres of power here, but the challenge of corruption, state capture, and the fear of ending up in jail because of crimes that have been committed by some of the disciples of the project of state capture.

Of interest to journalists is the case I make about the removal of Mbeki as ‘tantamount to a coup d’état’. Some decide to distort my views or ‘read without understanding’ - an unfortunate reflection of what we have become. In my book, I make the point that there is nothing wrong or unconstitutional with a party taking a resolution to ‘recall’ its member from government by requesting such a member to resign voluntarily. What would make this illegal is when the party enforces the ‘recall’ or executes without following prescribed constitutional processes, and if in the case of the president, without going through prescribed parliamentary processes.

I reached the conclusion that Mbeki’s removal bordered on being treasonable for three reasons.

The first was when the party began to dictate to Mbeki as to what he could or could not do as a president, such as preventing him from going to the United Nations to fulfil his presidential responsibilities.

The second was the demand for the president to deliver his letter of resignation where the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC was meeting instead of at Parliament. Constitutionally, the president is elected by Parliament and not the party.

The third was the demand for the president to deliver the letter of resignation by 7pm on that fateful Sunday. He was told that the mood was ‘foul’ at the meeting place of the party and failure to deliver the letter of resignation would have serious consequences.

However painstaking, the way the ANC leadership is managing the matter of transition from Zuma to a new leadership seems to be perfectly constitutional. Whatever the response of Zuma to the appeal to him to resign voluntarily, the ANC must stick strictly to the constitutional prescripts.

The challenge, however, is that unlike in the Mbeki case, here we have criminal charges hanging over the president. I still wish that Zuma could have accepted the advice in 2005 when the charges were preferred against him to go through a plea-bargaining process to end the case. If he had done that, then he would be in a different situation, and South Africa would have been different today.

The more there are delays though, the pain for the nation just becomes deeper. I also believe that the delays must be causing more pain to the president himself and his family. The best route for the president to follow should be that which the veterans and stalwarts of the ANC advised him: withdraw voluntarily to save his own party and the country. Even at this last hour, a voluntary action will earn him some goodwill among the people rather than resisting up to the end.

Reverend Frank Chikane is president of the Apostolic Faith Mission International.