DURING the build-up to the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Polokwane elective conference in 2007, this newspaper urged then president Thabo Mbeki to stand aside and allow someone else to take on Jacob Zuma for the leadership position. This was because we could see the writing on the wall — Mr Zuma was set to be elected, not because of who he was or what he stood for, but because he was not Mr Mbeki.
Another candidate — Tokyo Sexwale, Pallo Jordan or Cyril Ramaphosa, perhaps — might have had a better chance of preventing the party from electing an obviously flawed man for all the wrong reasons, thereby condemning the country to the downward spiral that has unfortunately since become our fate.
Now, just a few weeks before ANC branch representatives gather in Mangaung for another key elective conference, the situation is disturbingly similar — except it is the potential challenger whose candidacy has become an impediment to the party choosing a leader who might be able to stop the rot in the ANC and get SA back on the high road.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been nominated by the ANC Youth League and at least one province — two others, the Western Cape and Limpopo, are highly contested but could still go his way — yet he has still not nailed his colours to the mast.
He told a foreign correspondents function on Friday that he was "still agonising" over the decision on whether to stand and felt "neutral" about having received the Gauteng ANC’s endorsement.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a committed challenger for the leadership, Mr Zuma has all but sewn things up. He has been nominated by well over 2,000 branches so far, with barely 500 opting for Mr Motlanthe, and the Western Cape and Limpopo apparently relatively evenly split between the two. That makes Mr Zuma a shoo-in for a second term as ANC president, and therefore as president of SA after the 2014 election — all before there is even an official challenger for the position.
Mr Motlanthe will point out that, in terms of the ANC’s constitution, members do not campaign for leadership positions; they are nominated by their branches and serve "according to the will of the people". Of course, he is right.
That is the archaic system that prevails in the ANC. But this is 2012, not 1912 when the ANC was launched. The world has moved on and so, unofficially, have many in the ANC. Mr Zuma won at Polokwane because he and his "coalition of the wounded" campaigned relentlessly at branch level, even though that was against the rules, and he is set to triumph at Mangaung for the same reason.
As the incumbent, the playing field was already tilted in his favour, but with no challengers prepared to stick their heads above the parapet it was like taking candy from a baby.
Mr Motlanthe is a principled man who believes strongly in the traditions and values that made the ANC such a formidable opponent and moral force during apartheid. But he has done neither his party nor the country any favours by refusing to either provide those opposed to Mr Zuma with a nucleus around which to form and grow, or get out of the way so that someone else could fill the vacuum. Now it is too late: barring a miracle, Mr Zuma will be a two-term president.
This is despite a truly disastrous track record during his first term, with the country going backwards by almost every social and economic yardstick, corruption becoming entrenched and the credibility of democratic and constitutional institutions dangerously undermined. It is doubtful whether SA can survive another effective seven years of a Zuma presidency as a constitutional democracy. It will also very likely come despite unprecedented division within the ANC, with the presidential nomination process in five of the party’s nine provincial structures having been marred by violence, intimidation and allegations of rigging. The credibility of the ANC’s democratic processes is in tatters, yet as long as the party dominates at the polls, these are essentially the processes that determine who will lead SA and what kind of country this will be after 2014.
As matters stand, Mr Motlanthe’s procrastination and insistence on playing by rules everyone else has long since given up on seem set to backfire on him personally, too — the slate system that prevails in the ANC means he is not even leading the race to retain his position as deputy president. It is possible, of course, that a deal will be struck that would see Mr Motlanthe agreeing not to stand against Mr Zuma and being restored to the Zuma slate as his number two. This "continuity" argument is already being promoted in the wake of the conclusion of most of the provincial nomination processes, but it is hard to see how Mr Motlanthe could go along with it given his stance on such matters up to now.
If Mr Motlanthe is left out in the cold, Mr Ramaphosa is likely to fill the number two slot, which has sparked hopes in the anti-Zuma camp that once the party realises the enormity of the error it has made in re-electing Mr Zuma, it will put pressure on him to stand back and allow Mr Ramaphosa to take over much of the executive responsibility as a sort of prime minister. That would seem to us to be a forlorn and rather unambitious hope — SA can and should expect more for itself than such a shoddy compromise.