South Africa: Mbeki’s Toughest Eight Days

By Hope Chizuzu*

Title: Eight Days in September

Author: Frank Chikane

Publisher: Picardo Africa, Johannesburg

Year: March 2012


This is a political novel that incredibly departs from the norm of presenting a lot of intrigue disguised as information in books about politics. It is a frankly well written book that leaves only details it cannot include, thanks to the official secrecy, which in South Africa is governed by an Act of Parliament called Minimum Information Security System (MISS).

The author is perhaps the best person to have written such a book on the events that led to the recalling of former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki in September 2008. Then the author was the Director General of the Presidency (1996-2008) and was personally responsible for managing the seemingly rogue transition.

A pastor of the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) in the sprawling high density suburb of Soweto where he tends his flock from Naledi, Chikane demonstrated in his 271 page book that he is a wonderful reader of politics and a humble servant of both state and Christ. His gift of simplicity makes him a genius of some sort.

Only a man of lofty demeanour could survive to tell such a story without fear. This is by a mile one of the best books on the subject I have read about the South African political arena. Off course Allister Sparks’ awarding winning book on the life and imprisonment and subsequent liberation of South Africa by Nelson Mandela, Tomorrow Is Another Country, cannot be ignored as a narrative masterpiece of the same.

But Eight Days in September is special and all politicians and students of politics must read this book — it cost R200 and is even available on e-book. For Zimbabwean politicians, this book is a compelling tutorial on managing crisis without losing governance. What I find revealing was how the events in Zimbabwe two weeks before president Mbeki’s fall began in eight days from September 18 2008, were the sparks that caused the conflagration in South Africa.

President Mbeki had just returned home triumphantly after the signing of the Global Political Agreement in Harare that brought the current Government into office and the peace that is obtaining in the region. Those opposed to that monumental success ensured Mbeki did not survive to smile at the results of his sweat.

Even President Mugabe prophetically mimicked the same when he said “. . . this wonderful work by president Mbeki is a serious affront to those who wish to see us divided, to see Africa divided, to see Africa at war. What he has done to ensure this unity Government is in place has attracted serious opposition to those opposed to peace in our country . . .”

Such prophetic realism was well explained by Chikane in this book. He began in a style so unique and special more so, to the subject of his book.

He began: “No one could experience the removal of president Thabo Mbeki from office in September 2008 without stopping and reflecting on those events, especially if one was caught in the middle of it as secretary of cabinet and head (director general) of the presidency.

“It would be an understatement to say that those eight days in September from 19th to the 26th were momentous days in the history of post-apartheid South Africa, which tested the foundations of our new born democratic state to the limit with a great risk of destabilisation and reversal of the democratic gains made.

“The challenge with this recollection is that it is risky in many respects, as it constitutes what I have rediscovered in the last three or so years to be in the category of ‘dangerous memory’. Firstly, for those who worked on the removal of Mbeki, the story is better forgotten and erased from the annals of history, unless it is told only from the perspective of those who engineered his removal”.

Only the brave could open a book so pregnant with political detail and its attendant risks and on that Chikane, is a hero for South Africa for daring to say it like it is. In the preface to the book, any reader is convinced before he even delves deeper into the story that this is a special species and the more you read, the more you do not want to stop.

His language is simple and befitting of the political discourse and the characters involved and their simplistic representation. The style is a template for political maturity and his use of privileged information is a challenge to all journalists who often abuse the privilege. Despite being right in the centre of things, there is information that Chikane clearly says he could not share with the public because he took an oath to secrecy and only promised that it will be known when the files are later declassified maybe between 30 to 40 years.

What credibility is that for a writer in a vantage position and who has since left the employ of the government of South Africa. The way he explained how Mbeki was forced to resign by his political party the African National Congress, the oldest political party in Africa having been formed two years before the start of the World War II is emblematic of Chikane’s public conduct in all positions he has held.

After reading the book for the first time, I barely put it down for its flow and clarity of chronological events and it was on the re-run that I enjoyed the beauty of Chikane’s art. From the time of the Polokwane Conference in December 2007 to the signing of the GPA in Zimbabwe, Chikane’s craft in knitting events for simplicity is unrivalled.

From the time he left Zimbabwe after the three political parties agreed to form a government, Mbeki returned to a country and party (ANC) that did not want to see him again and when Judge Nicholson handed his landmark warped judgment, Mbeki was a dead man walking. The subsequent meeting by the ANC National Executive Committee at Esselen Park triggered the eventful eight days for Mbeki and South Africa.

The detail captured in the book would be pre-emptive to “leak” in this review, but suffice to say, Chikane singles himself out as an artist of some craft.

The book which is written only in three parts has 11 chapters in total.

The three parts, The removal of Mbeki and its Aftermath covering six chapters, Understanding Mbeki’s Removal covered in three chapters (7-9), is for me the most pregnant of the three with enough details to cause any African politician to rethink and crucially, it can be a manual for all Zimbabwean politicians and Mbeki’s Legacy covered in chapters 10 and 11.

Chikane, also touches on some seemingly unrelated events, but shaped the course of events such as the media coverage of the eight days, the respect for constitution, legislature, judiciary, army, police, secret service, public service, international relations and non-governmental organisations and how they shaped the turn of events from the presidency of Mbeki, to Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburi (for 11 hours), to Kgalema Montlante all in just eight eventful days.

The general public did not even know that, let alone the constitutional requirements of section 90 which stated that . . . during a vacancy in the office of the President, an office-bearer in the order below acts as President (a) The Deputy President (b) A minister designated by president (c) A minister designated by other members of the cabinet (d) The speaker, until national assembly designates one of its other members.

It is on the above complication that Chikane displayed his grasp of issues without any emotions as he, even at the heat of such crisis, still managed to officiate at a wedding in Naledi on Saturday, 20 September and conduct the usual church services as if all was well. Yes, he managed that at a time ministers had resigned, foreign minister Nkosana-Dhlamini Zuma (who had resigned) was already in the US ahead of Mbeki who was due to address the UN on Nepad, when even the ANC were in turmoil and South Africa were on the throes of crisis.

Balancing such crises is a strength noticeable in the entire book which gives bonus details of speeches by Mbeki, Jacob Zuma as ANC chairman, Montlante, Mbaleka Mbete, speaker of parliament, and excerpts of critical sections of the constitution used to justify certain actions or to explain why and how some things were not done and its implications. That is a real bonus to get and read that book available in most book shops and duty free shops.

For those who wonder why Julius Malema, the former ANCYL chairperson has been frozen out, read on and find how he was the most vocal in the removal of Mbeki at the Esselen Park ANC NEC meeting. The influence of the Youth League in the historical events of SA is well explained by perhaps the best man for that — Chikane.

As if the book is not a master class enough, Chikane will in September, yes, September publish another book titled The Things I Could Not Say — From A(ids) to Z(imbabwe), a sure sequeal to Eight Days in September in which he fills the holes created and left in the Eight Days in September.


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