South Africa


Thabo Mbeki: Reinvented, but not forgotten

Thabo Mbeki: Reinvented, but not forgotten
From left: Former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. (Photo: Mark Sagliocco / Getty Images) | Former president Thabo Mbeki. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Considering the factional fights in the ANC, former president Thabo Mbeki’s independence and refusal to play ‘normal ANC politics’ may be attractive to many people.

The past few weeks have seen former president Thabo Mbeki again playing an important role in internal ANC politics, appearing to work on rebuilding the organisation. His role appears to be a constructive one and he could be in a useful political position where he could even shape certain events.

At the same time, there are continual rumours that his former deputy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka might be in the running for the position of the ANC’s deputy leader at the party’s conference. She is possibly hoping a wave of “Mbeki nostalgia” could help her campaign. 

These events together are also likely to spark yet another debate about Mbeki’s legacy.

Ten days ago Mbeki went to the Free State to preside over meetings with ANC members from various factions in the province. It was clearly part of a bigger process of rebuilding the party structures there, after the destructive years of Ace Magashule’s leadership (some would say lordship) of the Free State ANC, as well as his years as premier of the province.

There can perhaps be no greater indication of Magashule’s current political impotence than the fact that he was not even invited to meet Mbeki. That Mbeki himself was invited in the first place is further proof of that, as it is well known that the two have a difficult history.

While Magashule’s allies may have felt aggrieved at this, Mbeki himself appears to have shown admirable neutrality. He took the time to criticise the Limpopo province of the ANC for using the ANC’s January 8th Statement to publicly back President Cyril Ramaphosa for a second term as ANC leader.

As Mbeki put it in criticising the departure from the ANC’s tradition when leadership contests are concerned, “Someone at the January 8 anniversary stood up and said the second term for Ramaphosa; what is that?” 

In some ways, this is vintage Mbeki. Some may have presumed he would show support for Ramaphosa, but instead he questioned those who have publicly supported the President.

This may show that, as always, Mbeki is his own person, and will not be drawn into a faction or a grouping.

Considering the factional fights in the ANC, Mbeki’s independence and refusal to play “normal ANC politics” could be attractive to many.

At least one person has now publicly asked whether Mbeki should run for ANC leader again. Writing in City Press on Sunday, Benzi Soko said, “The Mbekites in the ANC are dancing with joy at the reception their patron has been receiving recently. This begs the question: Should Mbeki avail himself to run the country again as President?”

This suggests that there is a feeling of what could be called “Mbeki nostalgia” in the ANC and perhaps in the country.

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

This may turn out to be important, both for Mbeki’s future and for Mlambo-Ngcuka’s ambitions. If it is true that she is considering running for the position of deputy leader of the ANC, she could easily use this sentiment to her advantage.

If she were to win, she would suddenly emerge as the frontrunner for the leadership of the ANC after Ramaphosa, presumably, exits in 2027.

While the early 2000s may now seem like a golden era compared with our current set of disasters, it is important to also distinguish what was the work of Mbeki and his then deputy, Mlambo-Ngcuka, and what was not.

The most important aspect is arguably the economy, which was then in a growth phase. But it did help that there was a commodities boom in the rest of the world which was certainly not the result of Mbeki’s economic policies.

It was in 2008 that the Global Financial Crisis began, which coincided with the arrival of Jacob Zuma as ANC president and de facto ruler of South Africa.

While Zuma can be blamed for the consequences of his own actions it cannot be claimed that he was responsible for the end of the economic boom which Mbeki presided over.

Also, it was the mistakes made during Mbeki’s time in power that led to the long-running problems with Eskom.

More than anything, it cannot be forgotten that hundreds of thousands died because of Mbeki’s Aids denialism and that just a few years after Zuma took over, reversing Mbeki’s HIV policies, South Africa’s average life expectancy jumped by nearly 10 years.

Mbeki was also the leader of the ANC when corruption started in the party in earnest. As his secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe put it in a Financial Mail interview with Carol Paton in 2007, “This rot is across the board. It is not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.” 

Mbeki surely must take some responsibility for being South Africa’s president and ANC leader during those crucial years. 

However, what may be lost in some of these facts is Mlambo-Ngcuka’s own track record.

It was she who led negotiations to reverse Mbeki’s Aids policy. Once, despite her boss’s views, she stood in front of a Treatment Action Campaign banner demanding “ARVs now!”. In the end, this led to the start of the government’s introduction of ARVs, although it took Zuma’s ascension to power for them to be fully embraced.

While some may believe that Mbeki should play a key role in the ANC in the future and that he has been harshly treated by the party since his recall in 2008, it should not be forgotten that some of this was the result of his own behaviour.

It was he who decided to run for a norm-busting third term as ANC leader. And it was Mbeki who appointed Bulelani Ngcuka as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). It was Ngcuka who discussed the timing of the charging of Zuma in 2007 with Leonard McCarthy, a conversation that should never have happened.

Arguably, it was Mbeki’s attempt to control the NPA that has been one of the biggest problems in our democracy, as the institution has never since been seen as fully independent.

While this all may be important history, for some it may also be ancient history.

For many South Africans, Mbeki is a reminder of a better time, and perhaps a better ANC. If he is now able to be seen to lead efforts to reform and renew the party and those efforts are seen to have some impact, that may well be critically important for both his image and the party itself.

In some ways, his questioning of the Limpopo ANC’s public support for Ramaphosa (“What is that?”) is completely in line with this. He, almost uniquely, might be in a position to confer legitimacy on an ANC that is battling with just this question: is it really the legitimate leader of the country?

This suggests that he is now in a position of important political power and could have the ability to shape events.

Certainly, such is his reputation for probity, if he were to claim that the ANC is making progress in dealing with corruption, many people might take that claim very seriously.

What may be important next is how he uses this power and what he chooses to do with it — and whether he does intend to aid Mlambo-Ngcuka in her possible bid for a top position in the party. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Craig B says:

    Mbeki is trying to reform a corrupt criminal organization ……… these things work on money not rhetoric/ideology/history although these can be used in pursuit of money. I can’t see it working

  • Stephen T says:

    Perhaps he would be more successful if he advocated more African potato, beetroot, and garlic…

    Honestly, I cannot fathom why anyone still takes this crooked old has-been seriously. The ANC is an abject failure for several reasons. He is one of them.

  • Jonathan Deal says:

    Thabo Mbeki had his opportunity to lead this country and he squandered it. He is inconsequential.

  • Mpumi Bikitsha says:

    But why are you even suggesting this Steven? Thabo is chasing 80. He has a right as an elder to go and intervene where there’s a need. In isiXhosa we say, “Ziyabheda”.

    • Marco Savio Savio says:

      Becoming an elder does not guarantee becoming wise. Politicians should be forced to retire like everyone else and not meddle. There are many countries in the world where political leaders that cling to power have been disastrous. This country need a new, fresh, intelligent leadership to fix the f ‘ups these so called wise elders have created. Its just good business logic.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    Mbeki is a politician. Which means he operates with an agenda. The agenda is not hidden. The agenda is universal for all politicians. It is about power and greed. Not serving the people.

  • Patrick Devine says:

    Succession planning is a massive requirement from ‘leadership’.

    Mbeki must carry 90% of the blame for enabling Zuma to succeed him.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Are there really no decent 45y-55y old persons in the ANC?

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    recycling of Presidents is bad. look at Russia! if Mbeki has a role to play it can only be to get the ANC working again and that in itself is an uphill battle if it is at all possible anyhow.

  • Patrick West says:

    He’s an arrogant has-been AID’S denialist. He and Manto are responsible for countless unnecessary deaths.

    • Jamie WHITELAW says:

      In any normal society Mbeki would be avoided like the plague. Surely he was, one way or another,responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths due to his attitude towards AIDS?

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    This only serves to illuminate the desperate paucity of talent and indeed imagination in the ANC. At a time when SA and the world needs real courage, imagination, creativity and innovation to address the crippling challenges we face, particularly in this country, the best they can offer is an intellectually pretentious dinosaur, who failed in so many ways when he had the opportunity to chart a new path for the country. We need an injection of youth and energy at all levels of government, but it is very unlikely that this will happen. SA does have many highly capable, courageous, imaginative and creative young people, but where are they? We find them in academia, the media (sometimes as political commentators/analysts), civil society, the arts, and the private sector (often running their own start-ups), but certainly not in the ranks of the ANC, or indeed of any other political party – no, not in the EFF :). Politics, as currently understood, formulated and structured holds no appeal for the best of our youth, and we are seemingly condemned to an endless succession of mediocrity (and worse) in leadership, with one antediluvian fossil succeeding another. Perhaps if we did ever move towards a more open participatory form of (real) democracy, the brilliant young people would find their space to participate, some becoming the leaders we need – but, as Paddy Harper would say – ‘perhaps’.

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    Mbeki may have his faults but he is educated, articulate and intelligent. I would welcome his re-election with open arms even if just in a transitional role

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