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New trend as former leaders vie for power

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Graphic: Wade Geduldt / African news Agency (ANA) – Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva has made an astonishing comeback and won the recent election defeating President Jair Bolsonaro. Former US President Donald Trump is making noises of standing for the presidency, despite serving only one term, the first time round, says the writer.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Recent global developments have caught the attention of many people, especially those who are politically conscious. Former political leaders have either expressed their intention to return to active politics or actually have done so. Their arguments range from propagating the view that their successors have derailed national programmes to overtly and/or tacitly arguing that they still have something to offer their countries drawing from previous experiences.

In Brazil, former President Lula da Silva made an astonishing comeback and won the recent election defeating President Jair Bolsonaro. While it is true that Bolsonaro and his supporters did not accept the results, the reality is that da Silva is now the president of Brazil. Protest marches have failed to overturn the results, which returned da Silva to power.

In the UK, Boris Johnson resigned from office when he could not stand the pressure exerted on him by his own party, the Conservative party (the Torries). His resignation was occasioned in part by the resignation of some of his party members from his Cabinet. He was replaced by Liz Truss. However, the latter’s term of office lasted for a historic 44 days!

This was worse than the term of office of Middlesex-born George Canning, who was in office for 119 days and passed away on August 8, 1827, aged 57.

Interestingly, when Truss resigned after her short-lived leadership of the party and the country, Johnson was one of the three contenders for the Prime Minister position. The other two contestants were Rishi Sunak and Penny Moraunt. Johnson subsequently pulled out of the race at the eleventh hour thus leaving Sunak to assume the position. But what is important to note is that Johnson was prepared to make a comeback so soon after his resignation.

Recently, the news has spread globally that former President Donald Trump intends to run for the presidency again in 2024 when the United States (US) holds its next general election. This is the same person who emerged as America’s president following the 2016 general election after beating Hillary Clinton. What is worth noting in this regard is that Trump won on a technicality occasioned by America’s electoral system, the College system.

Clinton won the popular vote with a clear margin. However, Trump was declared the winner after securing 304 electoral votes while Clinton obtained 227.

During his one term rule, Trump reversed many of the gains made by former President Baraka Obama. Even the deal which saw improved relations between America and Cuba was thrown out of the window. Trump also proposed to build a concrete wall that was going to separate Mexico from America and went on to say that Mexico was going to pay for the construction of such a wall. Overall, Trump’s international relations record was a disaster!

Despite his many failures, Trump and his cheerleaders still believe that he has something to offer. The fact that he only lasted for one term does not seem to bother him and those in his corner.

Another interesting observation is the age factor. In Brazil, da Silva is 77 years old. He has now returned as the new leader. His counterpart, Bolsonaro is 67 years old. Ordinarily, one would have expected da Silva to give Bolsonaro another chance to lead the country and watch from a distance. Instead, he ignored his age and availed himself to be considered for the position to lead Brazil again and he won.

In America, Trump is 76 years old. While it is true that Trump is three years younger than incumbent President Joel Biden who is 79 years old, the reality is that Trump too is at an advanced age. In all likelihood, Biden will not avail himself for the 2024 general election.

Ideally, Trump too would have done well if he were to stay away from politics. There are various reasons for that suggestion.

Firstly, he only served for one term and was deemed not suitable to return to the position of president by the American electorate. Secondly, during his short term as president, America’s international relations were severely affected. Thirdly, as mentioned above, he is old enough to stay clear from politics. Fourthly, Trump is a businessman. It would be a wise move for him to focus on his businesses and leave politics to more capable and younger leaders. Fifthly and lastly, since leaving office, Trump has been on the wrong side of the law – with some cases still pending. His running for the presidency could be interpreted as a way of shielding himself from possible prosecution by law enforcement agencies. This would taint his political image.

The UK is in a better position when it comes to the age factor. Johnson who wanted to make a comeback is 58 years old. His successor, Truss is 47 years old. Sunak who won the last race is only 42 years old.

One lingering question is: why would someone who once had a chance to lead want to return to that position? There is no simple answer to this question. The reason is that politicians are motivated by different reasons. There are those who feel that they have realised where they went wrong and thus want to correct those mistakes. Some want to use the incumbency in order to protect themselves – especially where the national constitution protects incumbent leaders from possible prosecution. Others do so with a clear intention to use their second coming to outplay their predecessors.

Whatever the reason(s) might be, the reality is that it is wrong to want to return to a leadership position after having been afforded the opportunity to serve the country. There is no guarantee that one will win the election. Even after emerging victorious, there is no assurance that the leader will do better than the previous occasion. Therefore, there is always the possibility that a leader might actually dent his or her political image. On those grounds, returning to power is not a wise political move.

Given this global trend, South Africa has a lot to learn. Since 1994, South Africa has been led by three presidents before the current one, Cyril Ramaphosa. These former leaders were: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Kgalema Motlanthe was only a caretaker president not elected in an election. He was asked to finish Mbeki’s term after the latter was recalled by his own political party, the African National Congress (ANC) in September 2008.

Using the incidents discussed above, South Africa would have to be mindful of the age factor before emulating the countries mentioned above. Former President Mandela is late.

As such, he does not feature in the debate. Even if he were still alive, Mandela was a principled leader who did not even want to come back to serve the second term. In fact, of the five years that he was the president, Mandela allowed Mbeki to do the bulk of the work only after two years in office. He was not a power monger.

As for the surviving presidents Mbeki and Zuma, they are both 80 years old. They are at an advanced age for them to want to return to power. Such a move would not be advisable.

The former caretaker president Motlanthe is relatively younger at 73. However, he too would be doing himself a disservice if he were to run for the presidency. In fact, South Africa is in a better position to read the political situation well and avoid repeating the mistakes that have been made by other countries elsewhere.

Former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has hinted that he plans to venture into politics – with the possibility of running for the presidency in 2024. In principle, Mogoeng has all the right to join politics. His age (61) allows him to do that. However, given that he was the country’s Chief Justice, venturing into politics would not be a good move.

Former judges are called in every now and then to perform certain duties for the country. A case in point is that of Justice Sandile Ngcobo who is leading the Section 89 panel to establish if President Ramaphosa has a case to answer to. By being politically active, Mogoeng would forfeit his independence status. He had his chance to lead and did just that.

So, why would he want to ruin all of that and gamble with his image?

In the realm of the international relations discipline, countries link up with one another, forge relations and learn from one another. South Africa is part of the global community. As such, the country has to learn from the experiences of other countries. It would be a shame if South Africa’s former leaders were to emulate the leaders mentioned above.

Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape.

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