Former Presidents must stay out of politics

Former Presidents only invite criticism and ridicule if they re-enter the political fray and denounce their successors. Intervening in political debates diminishes their stature, writes KHALID SAYED

In March 2009, George W Bush, a few months out of office was asked about his views on the challenges facing Obama, who was already getting an avalanche of criticism on his young presidency. Bush said: “There’s plenty of critics in the arena. I think it’s time for the ex-President to tap dance off the stage and let the current President have a go at solving the world’s problems”.

This has always been part of America’s unwritten providence, that former Presidents do not comment on the work of their successors, however destructive their successor’s policies or conduct may be. This in part is to keep the social contract between the electorate and the people and no one else. Bush’s appreciation that there are enough ‘critics in the arena’ stems from the realisation that the people themselves, who honoured the elected with their vote, along with the established checks and balances, are enough to keep the project of democracy dynamic and in a continuum.

Bush also knows that as a former president, there is a lot of weight in his words and criticism which he knows will surely not be used for noble reasons except to harass his successor and ultimately solve nothing.

When a group of African National Congress veterans, which included former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe and other former cabinet ministers said they would hold their own National Consultative Conference in October 2017 ahead of the main ANC Conference in December 2017, in order to diagnose the state of the governing party and its government, I was reminded of this unwritten rule which has governed other countries for centuries. I was also reminded that Mbeki himself had referenced this unwritten rule of staying out of the country’s political stage shortly after he left office, in order to give his successor time and space to govern without interference.

I wondered what had changed and whether this clear interference is now justifiable. South Africa, as with the United States, UK, Brazil, etc. is facing a period with many challenges and some would argue one of the lowest approval ratings, with each day full of drama and twists giving some in the country a great sense of apprehension and resentment.

The argument is therefore made that these are “exceptional circumstances” which require everyone, including the former Presidents and cabinet ministers to speak out and do something to correct the wrongs and prevent the free fall.

However, Obama himself, in his farewell speech, sensing that people were unhappy with his successor as they screamed the unconstitutional ‘four more years’ to him, stated that he had learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved when they get engaged and when they come together to demand it. He said the people themselves, through the instrument of democracy, can form a perfect union.

In this speech, Obama threw the challenge back at the People; it was them who had elected himself and Trump and it was them who kept him accountable throughout his eight years, and it will still be them who will hold Trump accountable and align him to the constitutional imperatives of the country. There was no one else, there was no other power except the people.

Now, when the ANC officials requested that the National Consultative Conference be part of the National Policy Conference in order to involve the branches, which in ANC language is “the people”, I thought that the officials understood that in the ANC there is no other power expect “the people/branches”.

There can be no grouping, whatever titles they hold, whoever they are, that can change the ANC and take decisions on behalf of the ANC except “the people”. If the stalwarts were so compelled to do something about the state of the ANC, they were compelled by dictates of the ANC constitution to come to the people and convince them to take decisions to correct the wrongs by persuading the only ultimate power in the ANC, the branches.

If it is true that the ANC stalwarts disagreed with this suggestion by officials, citing the quality of the ANC branch delegates, then this is the biggest offense ever made against the people and dictates that the ANC stalwarts be rejected and dismissed as an egotistical group suffering from delusions of grandeur.

Whatever you think of the people, in a democracy power resides with the people.

Dominic Tierney speaks of ex-Presidents’ dilemma. On the one hand, they want to remain influential players in the political world, but intervening in the national debate may diminish their image and therefore their power. This seems to be the same dilemma Mbeki and Motlanthe and their former cabinet ministers seem to suffer from, a need to remain influential players and not to be seen to be interfering. As Tierney says, former Presidents have soft power which relies on the attraction of their image, beliefs, and values. However, this may remain so if they remain quiet without getting back into the political arena.

Mbeki and Motlanthe, in trying to remain influential and relevant, have come back into the political arena, giving interviews all over the world and making direct political statements that make them firmly political players, long after they left office. For this they must accept pushback; once you get into the ring be prepared to get dirty.

Is this advisable and what does it mean about their confidence in the people to solve their own problems? Tierney concludes that “by staying above the fray, former Presidents gain the chance to enjoy a rosy image, carrying out charitable work and becoming elder statesmen and a symbol of the nation. Wading into the arena, however, by making speeches and condemning the other side is a risky move. In a partisan age, the moment an ex-President attacks his/her successor, he/she antagonises around half the population”.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Mbeki and Motlanthe have entered the ANC factional battles and have chosen sides, if not allocated sides because of the familiarity of their statements. There have been articles that state just why ‘we had to get rid of Mbeki’ at the time we had already forgotten, having found an almost pure affection for him post his Presidency. There have been terrible reminders of speeches and videos of Motlanthe doing the bidding for Zuma to be President only a few years back which has reminded us just how dishonest and disingenuous these politicians can be, right at the time we were seeing Motlanthe as an elder statesman and above the drama and the fray.

So, what shall we say about the National Consultative Conference as led by the ANC stalwarts? The conclusion is that it’s misguided and self-serving. It undermines the power of the people to hold their elected leaders accountable, it shows lack of confidence in the country’s established democratic processes and more troubling, it shows a sense of political immaturity on these leaders.

However difficult things may seem, the people are able to solve their own problems and correct their own mistakes.

Khalid Sayed is the chairperson of the Western Cape ANC Youth League 

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