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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Cracks in South Africa's democracy
Mbeki celebrating victory
Mbeki won the 1999 presidential election
By Allan Little in South Africa

It has been a troubling fortnight for South Africa's hard-earned democracy.

In fact, it has been troubling for anyone who still believes in the vision that steered this country back from the brink of the abyss to that golden moment in 1994 when all South Africans voted for the first time in the world's most celebrated non-racial democracy.


Is Nelson Mandela's successor equal to the legacy he inherits?

I first came here in the immediate afterglow of that moment, after four years in Yugoslavia where malicious leaders had conspired deliberately to plunge that country into war.

What I found myself reporting on here in South Africa was, in a sense, almost spiritually restorative. It was, after all, possible to believe that wise and generous leadership could rescue an entire people from calamity.

Inspirational leaders

In the Johannesburg Star this week, the Vice Chancellor of Cape Town University Njabulo Ndebele said: "I have always thought that one of the greatest legacies of our struggle against apartheid is the gift of leaders it bequeathed us."

The professor was asking the question all South Africa is asking - is Nelson Mandela's successor equal to the legacy he inherits?

President Mbeki
The rumours centred on a conspiracy to depose President Mbeki
When the news broke it was truly shocking. The country's police minister, Steve Tshwete, went on national television and confirmed that three leading members of the ruling African National Congress were being investigated by the police for conspiring to remove the president from office and possibly even assassinate him.

Malicious rumours had been spread, he said, that Mr Mbeki had something to do with the murder of the much loved ANC and Communist party leader Chris Hani in 1993.

Obviously these rumours, he went on, could only harm the president and even place him in physical danger, since the late Mr Hani was so adored by the South African people.

For a start, no one I have ever met attaches the slightest credulity to the charge that Thabo Mbeki could have had anything to do with Chris Hani murders.

Damaging rumours

But three things in the minister's statement were truly damaging to the health of this country's democracy.

The first was the use of the word "plot". It implies criminal activity, and carries with it the implication, not just of legitimate political intrigue and leadership jostling, but also the association of treason.

The second was the minister's decision to name the three men. One of them is Cyril Ramaphosa, an immensely popular and respected anti-apartheid activist who was once thought of as the most likely successor to Nelson Mandela, but whom Mr Mbeki defeated in the race for the president's office.


South Africa is entitled to ask why a political feud between members of the ruling party is a matter for the police

Mr Ramaphosa - 10 years younger than Mr Mbeki - wisely turned down a post in the Mandela government once Mr Mbeki had the deputy presidency sewn up.

He concentrated instead on building a successful career in business and is not associated with any of the failures or disappointments for which the government - in any democracy - naturally takes the blame.

Mr Ramaphosa is widely assumed to be keeping his powder dry for a future bid for the country's top political job.

Police involvement

The third aspect of the minister's statement was the most damaging - the fact that the police are investigating the alleged plot.

Ramaphosa
Some thought Ramaphosa would be Mandela's successor
What does that look like? It looks like a president who is prepared to make no distinction between the party he leads and the state apparatus he controls.

There is not the slightest evidence of criminal behaviour. There is not the slightest suggestion that anyone has broken the law.

South Africa is therefore entitled to ask - and its parliamentarians have duly been asking, vocally and with real concern - why a political feud between members of the ruling party is a matter for the police.

When I get involved in this discussion with South African friends, I draw a British parallel. Everyone knew that in the 1980s, Michael Heseltine was, in a sense, plotting against Margaret Thatcher, though few people used that pejorative term.

Democratic right

What seemed to be lost in the heat of this week's South African furore is the common sense and - it seems to me - vital observation that in a democracy it's allowed.

You are allowed to grow disaffected with your party leader. You are allowed to scheme and plan and garner allies and wait and choose your moment. You are allowed to stay quiet until the time is right.

Michael Heseltine was not forced to admit on television that he had leadership ambitions.

And the idea that Margaret Thatcher would have called in the police to investigate his activities is not only ludicrous - it suggests that what has happened in South Africa is profoundly and dangerously at odds with sound democratic practice.

See also:

26 Apr 01 | Africa
Top ANC men deny 'plot'
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