The men bearing the long knives which bespeak political assassination came for South African President, Thabo Mbeki, last week. The African National Congressâ€™ party mandarins had met privately and voted to tell Mbeki he had to go immediately, even though he still had another year to run on his second term. The already mortally wounded Mbeki was put out of his misery; his political life terminated.
This political coup deâ€™grace signaled the final victory of the party faction loyal to current ANC party leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, Mbekiâ€™s long time rival for ANC dominance, had been the Deputy President until dismissed by the President several years ago. Mbekiâ€™s excuse then was that Zuma was under fire for corruption and other malfeasance. However, it was clear to observers of the ANCâ€™s internecine conflicts that Mbeki had used Zumaâ€™s legal troubles, which may well have been valid, as an excuse to rid himself of a rival.
The charismatic and voluble Zuma, unfortunately, did not go quietly into his political good night. He first tended to his problems which resulted in an acquittal on rape charges and then managed to have the corruption charges dropped.
The roots of Mbekiâ€™s demise lie in the very nature of the dominant ANC. Founded early in the twentieth century, the ANC was a sort of a lobby for â€śnativeâ€ť interests. The word â€śnativeâ€ť was in its original name. On more than one occasion in the early years it was virtually moribund. Revived in the early forties by a bunch of Young Turks led by Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo the ANC gradually radicalized and expanded its membership. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961 it was banned.
From there the ANC opted for an armed struggle. Some members under Tambo were sent into exile to organize external support. One of these was the then twenty year old Thabo Mbeki, the son of a long time Communist Party member and ANC activist. Mbeki spent the next thirty years in exile in ANC offices in LOndon, Moscow, East Berlin or Lusaka; all in the paranoid, cocoon-like world of conspiratorial revolutionary politics.
The other wing, under Mandela, stayed home and went underground as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Soon discovered by the security forces of the apartheid government, most MK members, including Mandela, were tried for treason and sent to prison.
Internally there was an amorphous underground MK wing, supplemented by a wide variety of independent, activist organizations and trade unions. The external wing, heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, developed a very disciplined, hierarchical and secretive form of organization. In both politics and organizational culture, the internal and external wings grew apart united only by their opposition to apartheid and the white only South African government.