South Africa

ANALYSIS

Can Thabo Mbeki make the ANC great again? It’s complicated

Can Thabo Mbeki make the ANC great again? It’s complicated
Illustrative image | Former president Thabo Mbeki | ANC banner (Photos: Leila Dougan | Felix Dlangamandla)

A report at the weekend that the ANC is calling on former President Thabo Mbeki to help it on the campaign trail indicates how concerned the party is about the elections. It also reveals what kind of message the party wants to send to voters — a desperate bid for them to remember the ‘good old days’ as part of an ‘anti-Zuma’ campaign. However, using Mbeki comes with complications.

A Sunday Times report this weekend that Thabo Mbeki is being asked to campaign for the ANC answers a perennial question about the role of the former president in the party he once led.

In 2009, after he was recalled, there was widespread speculation that Mbeki would vote for Cope (he said his vote, like those of all South Africans, was secret).

In 2016, ahead of contentious local elections that saw the ANC lose control of major metros, Mbeki met the EFF leadership, just two days before polling.

It was, of course, no secret that Mbeki and Zuma, despite their long history of working together in the ANC and their awkward hug on the stage in Polokwane in 2007, hated each other.

anc mbeki elections zuma 2007

Then former African National Congress deputy president Jacob Zuma is announced as having won the election for party president by some 824 votes against then incumbent Thabo Mbeki, in Polokwane on 18 Dec 2007. (Photo: Greg Marinovich)

The end of the Zuma era marked the start of a new era for Mbeki — he attended ANC meetings again (as a former leader he has the right to attend National Executive Committee gatherings as an observer) and spoke about politics.

At the same time, another dynamic has occurred.

The generation that grew up during the Mbeki years will be eligible to vote in this year’s elections and the era when he governed is being contrasted with the present age.

Because the present is so awful and often so hopeless, it is easy for people to remember the time under Mbeki as happier and more prosperous. The fact that he was booted out of office by Zuma, who is now being blamed so publicly for the “nine wasted years”, helps this narrative.

In 1999, when Mbeki came into office, SA’s economy was growing and continued to grow strongly until the Global Financial Crisis. As Jonny Steinberg has noted, this was the only period after the 1970s when unemployment in SA decreased.

It was also, largely, a good time for the global economy — China was booming and its hunger for natural resources helped drive our development.

It was a period when SA’s economy opened up — many millions of people who had been barred from playing a full role were coming into the workplace and growing their purchasing power. The result was what, from today’s perspective, looks like an economic boom.

Banking on nostalgia

It was an optimistic time and as the song went in another political culture, “things could only get better”.

It is surely nostalgia for those days that the ANC wants to deploy on its campaign trail. It wants voters to remember the good times, for which the party is keen to take credit.

This election may well be marked by apathy among younger voters and it is likely that, as in many previous polls, a higher proportion of older people will turn out. These voters are likely to have a favourable view of Mbeki, as they will remember his time in office.

Mbeki’s campaigning could sway many of these voters looking for a reason to return to their original political home, the ANC.

At the same time, the involvement of Mbeki will help the ANC sharpen another useful political message.

As indicated previously, the ANC might well try to use Zuma’s defection and the creation of the uMkhonto Wesizwe party against him and create a version of “Stop Zuma” messaging (whether Helen Zille will sue it for copyright theft is not yet known…).

The inclusion of Mbeki and the sharp contrast between him and Zuma on so many issues would give this message huge momentum. The ANC could contrast what it calls “the corruption of Zuma” (despite the fact it was helped, enabled and supported by so many who are still happily ensconced inside the ruling party) with the political piety of Mbeki.

However, matters are not and will not be nearly that simple.

First, Mbeki’s relationship with the current ANC leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, may be as complicated as his relationship with Zuma.

It was Mbeki’s henchmen who first claimed Ramaphosa was part of a plot to oust him in 2001, along with Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale.

Many believe that Ramaphosa was one of the members of the ANC NEC who led the argument that Mbeki should be recalled in 2008.

And of course, more recently, Mbeki has been scathing of the ANC under Ramaphosa’s leadership.

He said that Ramaphosa’s public agenda of “renewal” has not been implemented.

More pointedly, he criticised the ANC’s decision to use its parliamentary majority to stop the inquiry into the Phala Phala scandal and publicly warned about the party’s drift towards privatisation.

Aids denialist

Opposition parties could use elements of Mbeki’s track record against him.

While it is true that SA’s economy grew strongly during his presidency, it is also true that hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly because of his refusal to allow antiretroviral drugs to be used in public hospitals. Millions will still think “Aids denialist” every time they see his picture.

The madness of that time cannot be forgotten: the needless deaths, a health minister who claimed that ARVs were “poisonous” and a president who refused to believe that HIV causes Aids.

In the years following Mbeki’s departure from office, while the economy slumped and the boom ended, life expectancy in SA went up by nearly 10 years. This was because of the ARV programme, which keeps many millions of people alive today.

As recently as 2022, while speaking at Unisa (the institution of which he is chancellor), Mbeki refused to accept the scientific consensus on HIV.

Also, while president, he arguably helped to lay the groundwork for the migration crisis some politicians claim we now have.

It was his policy of “quiet diplomacy” that allowed Zanu-PF to stay in power in Zimbabwe, creating a situation where the World Food Programme says millions of people are in danger of starving.

The result, of course, was many people coming to South Africa, leading to the heightened xenophobia espoused by the Patriotic Alliance and others.

It is wrong to claim that Mbeki led a corruption-free ANC.

It was at the end of Mbeki’s 10 years as ANC leader that Kgalema Motlanthe gave an interview to Carol Paton, in which he said corruption was so bad in the ANC that the “rot is across the board”.

Mbeki kept Jackie Selebi in office as national police commissioner, despite comprehensive evidence of wrongdoing against him. In the end, Selebi was convicted of corruption, before dying.

Of course, some of this will be forgotten in the heat of the campaign trail. Mbeki and Ramaphosa have a shared interest in helping the ANC and fighting Zuma, and the party would benefit if both shared a stage.

But, given the complex nature of their relationship, Mbeki’s difficult legacy and the state of the ANC, the picture is much more complicated, rendering it unlikely that the involvement of one person will make a decisive difference. DM

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