The first casualties of the "plot"

After the presidential "plot", disbelief must accompany the president's statements on many subjects.

IN THE CELEBRATION of South Africa's new Constitution it was seldom acknowledged that this essentially liberal democratic document was born from an agreement between two forces - the National Party and the ANC - whose history and practice overlapped only in their resolute rejection of liberal democracy. This could be overlooked because the NP, however belatedly and under duress, had at last embraced democracy and the ANC had the excuse that its underground and exile existence had hardly been conducive to democratic practice. Those who suggested that the ANC's support of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and its behaviour over the Quatro camp atrocities betrayed more deep-seated anti-democratic tendencies were not heard. With apartheid abolished, universal suffrage adopted and civil liberties restored surely all parties agreed that they would be bound by the rules of the new constitutional order?

The events of the past few months have shown that those original reservations were well founded. The ANC has blocked the Heath unit - the country's most effective corruption-hunter - from examining the arms deal, has used the offices of the Public Protector, Prosecutor General and Speaker for partisan purposes, and has acquiesced in Tony Yengeni's flagrant defiance of the parliamentary ethics committee. Taken together with the way former health minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and justice minister Penuell Maduna have been protected from facing the parliamentary consequences of, respectively, the Sarafina II affair and a wholly unwarranted attack on the Auditor-General, these acts amount to little less than the rejection of the constitutional spirit of parliamentary democracy.

On top of that we have the revelation that President Thabo Mbeki has not only been using the intelligence services to spy on political rivals but, in addition, that he has maintained a quite separate ANC intelligence organisation to spy on heaven knows whom. In the United States these would be impeachable offences. Such abuses have inevitable consequences for civil liberties. Ask yourself: if you were Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa or Tokyo Sexwale how confident would you feel that your private mail and phone conversations were secure? Or that you had not been placed under other forms of surveillance? And if such leading citizens live under that shadow, where does that leave the rest of us?

When the occasion suits him, Mbeki says that the ANC is a transparent, democratic body that welcomes open competition for its posts. Nobody believes him. Indeed, one would be foolish to do so. Over and over we have seen the pressure used to prevent such open competition. When whole provincial executives of the ANC no longer suit the leadership, it simply dissolves them. Its disrespect for the elective principle could hardly be more blatant. Local ANC delegates must now be scared of openly punting their preferences ahead of provincial congresses - let alone a national congress. Transparency is preached but fear reigns - and is meant to. The ANC appears to be an authoritarian party uncomfortably adrift in a liberal constitutional system, a situation that ensures that an alert Opposition, and even a half-awake media, can effortlessly score points off it. Thus despite its huge majority, the government is forever on the defensive.

Speculation about splits in the tripartite alliance along ideological lines misses the point. One of the saddest recent sights was that of ANC MP Jeremy Cronin finding reasons why Yengeni should not immediately account for his assets before the ethics committee. In effect Cronin is running cover for the primitive accumulation tactics of a new bourgeoisie, who will be far tougher nuts to crack than the old ones he so enjoyed opposing. The real choice facing the ANC is whether to be an open democratic party of a type appropriate to the country's new political system or an elite party autocratically governed by a self-designated vanguard. There is no doubt what its voters would choose.

The first and greatest casualty of this situation has been the credibility and standing of the president. Having come to power two years ago on a crest of goodwill, he is now distrusted and ridiculed. Nor does the harm he has inflicted on himself look reparable. It already seems hard to imagine three more years of this, let alone eight more years. Mbeki insists that he wishes to root out corruption, but look at what has happened with Heath and Yengeni. Disbelief must now accompany Mbeki's statements on many subjects, perhaps even on his willingness to uphold the Constitution. For in the presidential "plot", he has shown us all a glimpse of the cloven hoof. It will not be forgotten.