Thabo Mbeki-Jacob Zuma, Zuma-Kgalema Motlanthe, Zuma-Cyril Ramaphosa; Robert Mugabe-Joice Mujuru, Mugabe-Emmerson Mnangagwa; Frederick Chiluba-Levy Mwanawasa. History is littered with episodes of back-biting, catfights and political Russian-roulettes between the incumbent and perceived successors normally in the person of the deputy president.
Over the years, the script has been, mistakenly so, that the deputy president is seen as the automatic heir apparent to the office of the presidency. However, no party or State constitution the world over has ever legitimised this perception in the ordinary succession scenarios. The only exception to this norm is where the presidency is left vacant due to exceptional circumstances such as incapacity caused by ill health, death or other reason recognised and prescribed by the constitution. In this case, the deputy president assumes office of the president either to finish off the term of the incapacitated president or to preside over the transitional period of preparing for elections usually prescribed within 90 days.
The perception that the deputy president is the heir apparent is as misguided as it is illegitimate. This perception motivates that once appointed, now anointed. Ambition grows, the house blows! In the succession matrix of things, any other eligible member of the party is as eligible as the deputy president in their ambitions for the highest office. The splitting of parties, division of electoral votes and in some not-so-rare cases, bloodshed, has been caused by this perception put into action. The dynamics at play are much more complicated than meets the eye. Firstly, in Zanu PF today the deputy is now appointed than elected then.
In the MDC-T, the two VPs Elias Mudzuri and Nelson Chamisa were appointed and not elected as Thokozani Khupe. Having been appointed, the VP comes into office already with a moral burden of showing loyalty to the appointing authority, the president, whether or not the deputy president shares the same vision and work ethic. Except in astute leadership, it is “workable” for the president to appoint a deputy he is comfortable to work with, or his “boy” at best. That on its own is an institutional crisis which cripples a strong leadership constitute despite divergent perspectives within the top leadership itself.
Secondly, in the dying months of the president’s last term in office there is unprecedented jostling, outmanoeuvring, fights, denunciations and even violent confrontations as the eligible ‘bachelors of power’ position themselves in preparation for elective congresses. These bouts require anybody vying for the top post in the land to show exceptional leadership endowment than the incumbent. To put it mild and politically correct, the “bachelor of power” must inspire a new vision for the future. To be undiplomatic and real, the “bachelor” must point all the wrongs of the past incumbency and propose alternative shifts. Does this not then require the “bachelors of power” to shoot from the hip, release punches without pulling any, and propose all the great ideas all along hidden somewhere in their brains for an opportune time such as this one?
This then puts the appointed but not anointed deputy in an unenviable position in that he too being a “bachelor of power” desperate to present himself to the electorate who will decide his fate at congress, as a viable alternative to the incumbent, must not only diagnose the wrongs of the incumbency, but must prescribe a new trajectory far different as black is to white. The deputy must show departure from the incumbent who happens to be his appointing authority, further without whom the deputy would still be far down the hierarchy. In the case of Ramaphosa, the man was plucked from deep in the dustbins of political history. The deputy president has to condemn the wrongs of the dying incumbent, he has to proffer to congress all the great ideas he has been hiding all these years to use at an opportune time such as towards the all important elective congress. Great ideas he did not proffer as an assistant to the president, his appointing authority. The deputy has to play the mudslinging game too.
Except in few instances, the Americans have enjoyed the luxury of the deputy president “living and leaving” with the president. It has had three distinct benefits across the political landscape in the US.
Firstly, the possibilities of fighting between the president and the ambitious deputy president are little if at all.
Secondly, the deputy, chosen by the president as his running mate, sees his mandate as that of an assistant called upon to assist the president to deliver a great vision for all. Thus the deputy has all the reason to tender all the great ideas in his head during the term of office of the one he is assisting, whom he will “live and leave” with. They see themselves as two co-pilots riding high in the sky, subsequently landing and letting the next two co-pilots fly the same plane to another destination. Third and last, in the US the two highest offices in the land change hands over eight years in quick and smooth succession. In any country with even a population of one million, good brains are plenty. This then affords all the aspiring eligible bachelors of power in the US, a fairly certain chance to serve in those two high offices in their lifetime.
This trend, can diagnose our own ills on the African political arena. Nobody should stay long enough to die in office. The VP office is high and comfortable enough for someone to retire without aiming further high. Public office is one of service and succession therein must be fairly quick and smooth to afford all the eligible “bachelors of power” a fair certainty to serve in their lifetime.
Citizens must benefit from the availability of able men and women who can serve the people. Ambition for power generates into violence and chaos because the current succession scripts do not ascertain one of reaching the top two posts in the land in one’s lifetime therefore they resort to aggression aimed at shortening both the route and queue to the top!
Succession is slow, not smooth, littered with war vets and nationalists who all have somewhat founded and unfounded claims to the helm of power fully aware these claims only last as far as their ticking biological clocks. The succession traffic is laden too, with a deputy president who carries a moral and loyalty burden to his appointing authority. When his ambition grows, the house blows!
Robert Sigauke is a legal professional, author, entrepreneur and political analyst based in Johannesburg. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org