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All together now: The re-emergence of Thabo Mbeki adds...

South Africa


All together now: The re-emergence of Thabo Mbeki adds a new dimension to the ANC’s internal war

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Former president Thabo Mbeki appears to be making a return to public politics with a series of speeches, published documents and proposals around governance, land reform and the state of the nation. Many wonder about the motivation behind this and the role he could play in the future.

Thabo Mbeki’s recent contributions to public politics have been broadly welcomed. However, by reentering public politics he will become fair game to those who disagree with him – nothing new there. And the bitterness about him and his time in power, which has been kept submerged for many years, may rise up above the surface. If this results in unpleasant issues emerging in public, it could damage the ANC in unexpected ways.

At the weekend Mbeki delivered the Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture at the Walter Sisulu University. During his presentation, he made several important points, some of which were deeply critical of the ANC.

Mbeki quoted extensively from ANC policy documents detailing how important it was that the party renew itself, before saying: 

“Our political reality of the continued primacy of the ANC, which our electorate regularly elects as the national governing party, means that that very threat to the survival of the ANC simultaneously threatens our country and all 60 million citizens with a virtually intractable general political-socioeconomic crisis.”

He went on to say: 

“It cannot and must not be that if we, the ANC leadership, are trapped in an organisational death wish, South Africa at large acts in a manner which allows that the macabre within the ANC visits immense disaster on our already suffering population and millions of others elsewhere in our region and continent.”

Mbeki is making two vitally important points here: the first is that the same thing that threatens the ANC threatens the people of South Africa – probably referring to corruption and incompetence within the ruling party.

And then he appears to be saying that if the ANC leadership is unable to stop this, South Africa should not allow “the macabre within the ANC” to visit “immense disaster” on the country.

So, he may well be saying that the ANC’s factional battles should not affect South Africa in the way they do, and if the party does not change its course it should be voted out of power.

The depth of Mbeki’s concern cannot be underestimated. During his presentation, he quoted (at length) from the ANC’s Nasrec resolution, and the National Executive Committee’s (NEC’s) January 8th Statement, before saying:

“But here is the deeply worrying reality in this regard – the ANC NEC has done nothing to honour both the 2017 Conference directive and its own 2021 commitment.”

The question arises – is the ANC National Executive Committee willing and able to discharge its responsibilities with regard to the “absolute and urgent priority” of the renewal of the ANC?

Earlier last week, Mbeki published a 15-page submission on the land reform process under way in Parliament to decide whether to change the Constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation.

After explaining that access to capital is vital to investment and future development, he says that “owners of capital would obviously see the Constitutional Amendment in 6.1.1. as opening the door to any government to expropriate any property without compensation. This would be a very serious disincentive to investment, which our country cannot afford.” He goes on to say that the constitutional amendment should not go through.

Intriguingly, in his statement, he also quotes former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saying that, “Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.” He also quotes Deng saying: “Let some people get rich first” (there is some debate about whether Deng actually did say “to be rich is glorious”). 

Mbeki also makes the point that some at the Nasrec conference were prepared to collapse the conference to get their way on the land question.

“The statement, ‘We must return the land to the people’ meant that the ANC was repudiating the demand contained in the Freedom Charter: ‘We must return the land to those who work it!’ Strange to say, this meant that the ANC had now adopted positions advanced by the PAC many decades earlier.”

With both of these interventions, Mbeki is stating views that will not come as a surprise.

Mbeki was president when the ANC had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and made no move to change the Constitution over the land issue then. 

And his public opposition to corruption has not wavered. He removed Jacob Zuma from his position as deputy president in 2005 based not on the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to charge Zuma with corruption, but on the conviction of Schabir Shaik for making corrupt payments to Zuma.

And he paid a very heavy political price for that decision.

Thus, he could be expected to support renewal in the ANC now.

The next question is, what political impact will his stance have?

Those that agree with him on land and on the need for the ANC to renew itself are likely to argue that he should be respected as an elder statesman. They will say that it is right and proper that he makes his views known on issues facing South Africa, particularly these two vital issues.

They will believe that he has a duty to intervene in public in these issues.

But those who disagree with him will make other arguments.

They will say that he is still angry at being recalled as president in 2008. They will refer to his government during the height of the HIV/Aids crisis, and how it refused to allow government hospitals to give patients antiretroviral drugs.

There are other risks, which could have a longer-term impact on the party.

Several weeks ago Mbeki made public comments criticising suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule for challenging his suspension in court. Magashule then penned a response.

Magashule’s letter reveals a deep bitterness over their relationship. He refers to Mbeki as being “singularly responsible for the notion of an ANC denialism on the existence of HIV and its linkages to Aids. This denialism, better understood in the luxury of apparent elitist independent thinking, came at a high price, losing in excess of 300,000 mostly black lives.”

Magashule also referred to Mbeki’s father, Govan Mbeki, as having misgivings about his son achieving a higher leadership position in the ANC, and suggested that not everyone in the party was happy when Mbeki was involved in preliminary talks with some members of white South African society in 1987.

The Mbeki/Magashule exchange reveals some of the risks a former leader takes when getting involved in current politics. They will always be accused of trying to rewrite their own histories, of continuing historic battles. 

But there is a greater risk.

Some of the relationships in the ANC are so long and involved that there is a deep distrust and anger over battles that have been fought and won and lost over many years.

It is well-known that Mbeki refused to allow Magashule to be Free State premier despite the fact Magashule was the leader of the Free State ANC (at Polokwane a decision was taken that provincial ANC leaders should generally be appointed premier, partially as a result of this). It is also known that this frustrated Magashule.

But these dynamics were usually kept under wraps within the ANC.

There is a risk that when a former leader speaks out as Mbeki has done, there will be a reaction, and bitterness will seep through. While the bitterness may itself not matter, what will matter is when certain facts are revealed as part of these disputes.

There is a risk that when the cupboard is rattled too hard, certain smallanyana skeletons may come tumbling out. Particularly when one person in such a dispute has nothing to lose, arguably the position Magashule is in now.

This, in turn, could damage the ANC by reopening old wounds at a time when the party is already divided.

That said, Mbeki has every right to speak, and to speak loudly. He is one of the few people who know what it is like to govern democratic South Africa. Even though his views will not always be welcomed by all, it cannot be denied that he has unique experience. At the very least, he might spark useful debates; at best he could help secure solutions to the huge problems we face. DM


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All Comments 24

  • The hope for SA is that Mbeki provides a rallying point for those who want honest government, and that there are more of them than of the rest. Then we will find out if the ANC’s representatives in Parliament have been rendered useless by their own lack of integrity, or if it’s ‘only’ a lack of courage

    • I so agree. He is an intellectual and I really believe he cares deeply about the people of this country although his stance on AIDS remains a mystery.
      I fully understand why they recalled him, waay too bright and too honest (by politician standards anyway). It suited the current batch of thieves to rather have Zuma in power so they could dive in to the trough!

  • Reading this is like imaginjng the iingonyama watching the sun rising over our land and imagining that all creatures that operate in the freedom of darkness have to go back to their hidyholes.

  • Yesterday’s man. He should be forced to spend the time he has left in a locked room playing draughts with Helen Zille. That will keep them both quiet!

    • Perhaps a little narrow, Peter? In light of the scant pickings in the current ANC hierarchy, Mbeki’s undoubted experience, intellect and gravitas should be welcomed. He has been excoriated for his stance on HIV and that does not – and should not – colour his record on corruption, solid administrative governance and patient, considered leadership… in that, he remains one of the best we’ve had (albeit with a very low base!)

  • What South Africa needs now is strong ethical leadership that will not compromise on corruption and will restructure our politics to do what is required to urgently bring investment to create jobs and grow the economy. Can Mbeki be part of this ethical leadership? Not sure given his track record on Aids.

    • Did you notice the paragraph starting with “And his public opposition to corruption has not wavered.. And the one starting with “It is well-known that Mbeki refused to allow Magashule to be Free State premier…?

      • Yes, but Mbeki’s AIDS denialism cost in excess of 300,000 lives! Clearly his judgment and integrity as a consequence will forever be questionable. Can he be trusted to always act in the very best interests of the nation after failing to do so on AIDS?

        • His judgememt, perhaps – but one could equally argue that his integrity is all the stronger for his HIV stance (albe that stance misplaced/misinformed). He was wrong on the science, but he was resolute in standing by his beliefs.

          • Hmmm, “he was wrong on the science” is disingenuous – as a politician he refused to accept the science and instead made his bed with crackpots!

  • Ironic that the supposed ‘re-emergence’ of the deluded HIV pandemic denialist, Mbeki is occurring during a subsequent viral pandemic.

  • Mbeki is dangerous , mainly because he thinks he is some sort of African wise old sage. No, he is advocating the same policies that got us in the mess we are in. Implementing disastrous economic policies , however honestly, will not give SA what it needs , a growing,healthy economy, not a descent into chaos.

  • I’m not sure we will ever understand Mbeki’s Aids denialism. However, it was under his presidency that South Africa achieved GDP growth averaging 5% from 2004 – 2007. More formal low-cost housing was created during his term and the number of people living in informal shack settlements dropped to its lowest ever by the end of his term. We may judge his medical decisions harshly, but right now we need leaders who understand economics that works. (And not the failed Marxist economic theories attempted in countries like Venezuela. )

  • What would have served us normal citizens best is if neither Mbeki nor Magashule ever held power. In Mbeki’s case throw in his betrayal of MDC in Zim with his and Dr.Beetroots garbage. In Magashule’ s case we would not have a gangster lout ruining our daily lives with his Zumavirus infection

    • Yes, CR would have made a good president in those days instead of Mbeki. Now CR is washed up and worn out by ANC internal struggles.

  • I think that Mbeki speaks the truth and that today is a very scarce commodity in the ANC. So what if he offends some? He should rather be applauded for sensible, intelligent thinking . I wonder if anyone in the governing party will listen?

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