Life after Mandela?

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Although the question is seldom asked in South Africa, foreign investors seem very interested in what will happen once former president Nelson Mandela passes away. The real question, however, should be who is in the running to replace Thabo Mbeki as president in two years time.

The misconception that South Africa is held from the brink of some sort of revolution, or a Zimbabwe-style spate of ethnic cleansing, by one man is a popular one in Europe and the US. It has largely been spread by white South Africans who left the country more than a decade ago. The running joke in South Africa is that it helps them justify the hardships of living in a country where a housekeeper and a swimming pool are not considered a birthright.

As outstanding a statesman and politician Mandela was, he has had very little to do with the cut and thrust of South Africa politics since his full retirement from public life in 2004. Mandela has faded into the background, and when his time finally comes – he is still remarkably active at 87 – South Africa will undoubtedly be more secure, politically and economically, than when he left office of the president back in 1999.

Even the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA), Tony Leon, does not think it will have a bearing on the political landscape,

“I think South Africa has moved beyond being dominated by a great figure. I don’t think his presence or absence in the physical sense is going to change things in a fundamental way,” he told OBG last week.

There is no doubt however, that South Africa’s direction beyond 2008 will be heavily influenced by whoever wins the next election. It will be a defining moment both for the African National Congress (ANC), the tri-partite alliance and for the young democracy. Clearly, the market confidence that the current government has so patiently built up over the last decade could be dealt a heavy blow should the transition to a new president prove to be less than smooth.

Nevertheless, Professor Andre Roux, from the Institute of Futures Research (IFR) at the University of Stellenboshe, told OBG he believes that the market is better prepared to cope with a tough battle for the presidency than at any time since the first fully democratic elections in 1994.

“Five or six years ago, if the deputy president had been sacked the rand would have collapsed, but this time Mbeki put his money where his mouth is and the market saw it favourably,” he said.

Ironically, the sacking of Deputy President Jacob Zuma for corruption and, to a lesser extent, his subsequent rape trail, are seen by many as the first shot in the battle to succeed President Mbeki.

The race for the presidency will be fought out between three factions within the ANC, the populists, the centrists and the business wing.

There are a number of possible candidates from the centrists. Joel Netshitenzhe, often referred to as the force behind South Africa’s economic transformation, holds a lot of sway in the president’s inner circle. Netshitenzhe is, however, a behind the scenes man and is not well known in the wider party or at the provincial level.

The new deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, is also a possible candidate, and it is widely rumoured that Mbeki would like a woman to replace him. The ever-popular minister of finance, Trevor Manuel, is also tipped as possible outsider for the presidency, but in this young democracy race still plays an important part in politics, and Manuel is considered by most analysts unlikely to be a front runner. He is nevertheless a popular figure with the middle classes as a result of his stewardship of the economy. Overall, becoming deputy president looks more likely for Manuel.

Another strong candidate is Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. As foreign minister she has gained a strong reputation, as South Africa extends its influence across the continent.

Probably the favourite from the centrist group at this point is the defence minister, Mosiuoa Lekota. Lekota enjoys cross party support and would be acceptable to both the left and the business wing, with analysts believing he is regaining favour with Mbeki after an earlier falling out.

A populist leader would have the backing of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Jacob Zuma was the populist talisman and, until the recent rape charges deflated his presidential sails, he was the clear favourite of the other members of the tri-partite alliance, COSATU and the SACP.

In reality, Zuma never looked like a natural champion of the populist wing. He was an exile like Mbeki during the struggle against apartheid, and these labels still count for much in the ANC. Zuma came to the fore as a go between for the aloof president and COSATU, who have not seen eye to eye for some time.

The greatest fear of the centrists and the business wing would be the re-emergence of a true populist, such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of the former president, but that threat is looking increasingly unlikely.

The most likely figure to emerge from this group, almost by default, is the former head of the National Union of Mines (NUM) and current secretary general of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Perhaps it is a measure of how far South Africa has come over the past decade that the populists have lost their most promising candidates to the business wing. Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwhale were “inziles”, unionists and revolutionaries.

Today things are a little different, when people talk about black economic empowerment benefiting the few, they are the few. They have each been extremely successful businessmen in their own right, and perhaps the biggest challenge they face is whether they have the stomach for a return to politics.

With his credentials as an inzile and former secretary general of the ANC, Ramaphosa is certainly a strong candidate. He was Mbeki’s biggest rival for the post as president of the ANC when Mandela handed over the reins.

Indeed, 2007 will be a crucial year, because the ANC will elect a new leader. It is widely believed Mbeki will run again because, unlike the presidency of the republic, there is no limit to how many terms a president of the party can serve. If elected, the party will have endorsed the direction that he has taken the country and will almost certainly back whomever he promotes as South Africa’s next president.

As things stand at the moment, the country’s next head of state will come from either the centrists or the business wing, and Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation and prosperity through growth should be secured.

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