South Africa did not have a rousing Michelle Obama-like showstopper moment in the 2016 local government campaign but a photo opportunity with former President Thabo Mbeki has certainly proved to be the most sought-after appointment. Mbeki has not appeared on the campaign trail but an unexpected meeting with the leadership of the Economic Freedom Fighters on Monday seems to have disorientated the ANC. The final 48 hours is a crucial time to convince undecided voters, who appear to be the differentiators in these elections. Instead of stitching it up, the schisms in the ANC resulted in a clumsy outcome with still no direct endorsement from Mbeki. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Somebody got played. Or, maybe, everybody was played.
For at least an hour on Monday afternoon, it seemed unclear what the EFF leadership could be discussing with Thabo Mbeki at his home in Johannesburg. Was this going to be the biggest political defection of all time? Would he come out of house wearing a red beret? Well, of course not. But why would a former president of the African National Congress, the son of Govan Mbeki and the protégé of OR Tambo be meeting with the ANC’s biggest nemesis on the eve of the most contested elections in the democratic era?
“The EFF asked to come‚ I said fine,” was Mbeki’s response when he was asked about it on Tuesday morning after a second courtesy call from Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau. But on Monday afternoon, the EFF ran away with the news cycle with an array of pictures inside and outside the Mbeki home and quotes from Julius Malema about the engagement.
As ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe pointed out on Monday afternoon, Mbeki is free to meet whomever he wants. The trouble is he has not been seen with any of the ANC’s national leaders for the duration of the election campaign – even for a courtesy visit. He was billed to go out campaigning for the ANC two weeks ago but did not appear.
So perhaps it is just that the EFF asked and then made the most of the appointment, while the ANC was too slow on the draw. After Tau’s first visit, a picture was released of him shaking the former president’s hand outside the Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s offices. Malema made a meal of the fact that he and the EFF’s other top leaders were invited to Mbeki’s home. The body language in the pictures was certainly cosy – Mbeki and Malema with broad smiles with a teacup between them, individual shots of EFF leaders up close with Mbeki, and then Mbeki with his hand on Malema’s shoulder in front of the media pack.
Mbeki said nothing himself on Monday but the optics certainly played in the EFF’s favour. The ANC blinked.
On Monday evening, it was announced that the ANC’s three metro mayoral candidates, Tau, Thoko Didiza and Mzwandile Masina, would visit with Mbeki on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday, Malema tweeted: “I don’t think @MYANC mayoral candidates will proceed with the planed today’s trip after intervention of their national leadership. #VoteEFF”
Only Tau and ANC ward candidate Rosslyn Chinsamy emerged with Mbeki after their meeting. There was no explanation from the ANC as to why Didiza and Masina did not show up so people were left to deduce that perhaps Malema was right and the ANC’s national leaders had stopped them. It seemed rather cringeworthy for Mbeki to explain that he was informed in the morning that they had other “urgent” business to attend to.
Later, prominent ANC members circulated a purported extract from a letter Mbeki allegedly sent to the ANC on Monday night saying: “Malema is misrepresenting our agreement to meet with him. His claim was that he was finally coming to apologise in person.” The letter goes on to say: “Therefore I hereby extend an invite to your metropolitan mayors to join me for tea a my Killarney home tomorrow at 09:00 should their schedules allow.”
If the letter is legitimate, many more questions arise. Did the EFF secure the appointment under a false pretext? Did Malema make another apology to Mbeki? Why did he not disclose this? Why did Mbeki not disclose this either? If he felt the meeting was misrepresented, why did he allow the EFF to pose with him? If the reason for the meeting was an apology, why did it have to happen now, on the eve of the elections?
Many questions could be asked of the ANC also. What does the rest of the letter say? Did the ANC have consent from Mbeki to release a portion of the letter publicly? Who was it sent to? And still pertinent: why did Didiza and Masina not honour the invitation?
Mbeki emerged from his house on Tuesday in a black padded jacket with an ANC logo on it. Mbeki has previously confirmed that he is an ANC member in good standing – in fact his status as a former president allows him to attend ANC national executive committee meetings. But Mbeki gave Tau and Chinsamy the same response he gave the EFF: he will vote on Wednesday but his vote is secret. He also revealed that Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane had previously been to see him, showing that he was welcoming of all political parties.
When asked why he had not been out to campaign with the ANC, Mbeki said he thought the party’s campaign was “in capable hands”. “Plus I had been wandering around the continent quite a bit – last week I was in Tanzania,” he added.
At this crucial point of the campaign, it would certainly have been a boon for the ANC to have its former leader, who still has a significant following across society, to endorse the party. It would have not been out of the ordinary for Mbeki to say: Please vote ANC.”
He did not. It is not only that the ANC needs all the help it can get but it certainly does need somebody with gravitas to prop up a flagging leadership.
Former President Kgalema Motlanthe and struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada have been out campaigning for the party but it is notable that they prefer to associate with the ANC Gauteng leadership. None of these leaders made an appearance at the ANC’s Siyanqoba rally on Sunday, which was the final national show of force.
It has become obvious that many veteran leaders are only willing to endorse and associate with the Gauteng leaders, particularly to back Tau’s campaign for Johannesburg mayor, and have steered well clear of President Jacob Zuma. The ANC has been ignoring concerns about the state of leadership raised by many of these leaders, including Mbeki, Motlanthe and Kathrada. The party is therefore not in the position now to call on these heavyweights for help.
One only had to look at the impact Barack and Michelle Obama’s speeches at the Democratic Party convention had on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for US president to realise the influence of political titans and star power. Of course, the context is different in South Africa, but this local government campaign was severely lacking in showstopper moments that could have held the electorate’s attention.
The ANC has already been in a messy scrum with the DA over Nelson Mandela’s legacy. It was caught completely off guard by the EFF’s manoeuvre to secure a photo opportunity with Mbeki. Instead of recovering quickly, they reacted clumsily, exposing the internal frictions in the party. And rather than honouring and showcasing their veterans, they have to conceal the awkward relations from the public.
With the dearth of leadership in the ANC and indications of a large number of voters still being undecided at the eleventh hour, they could have done with a ringing endorsement from the party royalty. Instead voters will be left to make their own interpretations of what all this means.
Maimane’s sound bite “A vote is not a tattoo that stays with you forever or that everybody can see” and Malema’s photo op with Mbeki were tactical manoeuvres for a last-minute grab at undecided voters. The 104-year-old party should have outclassed them all. Instead it was outplayed and outgunned. DM
Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (R) pose with former president Thabo Mbeki during the lighting up ceremony of the centenary torch ahead of the upcoming African National Congress (ANC) centenary celebration in Bloemfontein January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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