South Africa


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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    No,nobody can

  • Tennant.graeme says:

    Can Thabo Mbeki make the ANC great again? It’s simple – no, he can’t.

  • The Proven says:

    I suspect the reason why the ANC asked Mbeki to assist, is much simpler. Desperation.

  • Tony B says:

    Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”

  • Brutus Ngcobo says:

    One of the things that are important in Politics is charisma. Unfortunately, both Ramaphosa and Mbeki are birds of the same feather when it comes to charisma; they don’t have it. They are too aloof and despondent, they will both fail to attract more votes for the ANC.
    The only leader in the ANC who has the charisma that Mandela had it is Zuma. Zuma is not aloof and despondent. When addressing people he is not only talking but also engages them by singing struggle songs which helps people to go back in time as the ANC is a liberation movement that liberated this country.

    Zuma’s MK Party will give the ANC a very hard time at the polls whether Mbeki campaigns or not for the ANC. Zuma alone, he is brand. So, people will vote for the brand Zuma than the brand ANC which will be campaigned for by unbranded Mbeki and Ramaphosa.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Charisma is also one of the main problems in politics. It’s how we got Zuma and is one of his defining characteristics along with ruthlessness and venality.

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      and if it does “give the ANC a hard time” then it will finally reveal the intelligence of the average KZN voter. Hopefully they’ll also stand for independence.

    • Jucy Malema says:

      Zuma’s brand died in the fire. There is nothing left. But good luck with your new party

  • Ken Shai says:

    Decline of South Africa started when Mbeki was removed from power. Mbeki was a great President and putting him back in power may save the country and save ANC.
    The smear used against Mbeki is AIDS denialism. Quite on the contrary, Mbeki was a visionary here. Recently the book by Robert Kennedy “Real Anthony Fauci” came out in 2022 and it vindicates President Mbeki every step of the way. AIDS epidemics only appeared after Fauci became the Director of Institute of Infectious Diseases, and Fauci destroyed careers of numerous scientists who said HIV does not cause AIDS. Fauci’s influence extended well beyond the borders of US, and his cronies arranged for one of his most brilliant opponents, President Mbeki to be removed from power. The book clearly demonstrates that everything Fauci touched, and that is all deceases alleged to be caused by a virus, was turned by him and his cronies into a scam, but it take tremendous courage to call it out, and Mbeki had the courage and paid for it with his position.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Please. The corruption disease had already started and was accelerating. Like cancer, it just took time to show itself overtly.

      And regarding AIDS, the numbers clearly show that many many citizens paid for his position with their lives.

      • Ken Shai says:

        Read the book by Robert Kennedy “Real Anthony Fauci” nephew of former murdered US President Kennedy regarding AIDS , COVID and other viral infections how it was all manipulated by Fauci. HIV medications are poisonous, whereas many healthy people are diagnosed with AIDS based on blood tests fraudulently designed by Fauci to entrap as many healthy people, and target them for poisoning with poisonous AIDS medications. One of the favorite laboratories for Fauci was Africa, and President Mbeki did all he could to stop Fauci. The fraud is unbelievable but when you read the book you realize the evidence is overwhelming.

        • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

          You can hold whatever opinion floats your boat, but you can’t argue the simple measure : life expectancy.

          By that measure ARVs work, and for a person with hiv it is the important one. Just ask them if you don’t believe it.

        • C Moola says:

          Bobby Kennedy Jnr is a conspiracy nut, and four of his siblings have publicly rejected his crazy. We should all.

        • Mark Benning says:

          If the blood tests are fraudulent, let the patients stop taking the medication and see what happens.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Who visited Thiesen Kruppe in 1999 and collected a check for U$30million during the Arms Deal feeding frenzy? And don’t ever forget – Thabo spells Botha and vice versa …

    • Rodney Weidemann says:

      So, you’re trying to say that a book written by an arch conspiracy theorist vindicates Mbeki’s ridiculous conspiracies that led to the deaths of 300 000+ people from HIV/Aids? Did you not see how life expectancy in the country shot up by TEN YEARS after ARVs were allowed into the country?

    • Michael Thomlinson says:

      Mbeki was a ho hum president. No Charisma (I remember how he was sidelined at a rugby world cup presenation) and I don’t think very bright. Corruption was already rampant during his tenure and his stupidity and denialism lead to the deaths of 100 of thousands of people. So will he make a difference? I don’t think so.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      The Arms Deal was finalised on Mandela’s watch and inked within two months of the end of his term. The ANC was misgoverning the country in favour of their stomachs from the very beginning. Mbeki wasn’t a great anything, much less a president. He’s conservatively credited with the unnecessary deaths of 400 000 people because of his crackpot AIDS denialism.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      This is complete and utter nonsense: Mbeki was a rampant HIV/AIDS denialist who was partly responsible for the deaths of over 300 000 people because of the unconscionable delay in implementing ARV therapy. Robert Kennedy’s book is a pile of taurin excreta, too: it gets MANY things wrong, and among them Anthony Fauci’s role in responding to virus outbreaks. Oh, and in Mbeki’s fall from grace. Viruses don’t care what you or Mbeki think – and you’re both really wrong. Take it from an expert virologist who has been excoriating Mbeki and other denialists for over 20 years.

    • Colin Louw says:

      Good Grief Ken, anyone who even bothers to read that nut job nephew of the famous Kennedy is guilty of the classic H-I-A syndrome. (think of where one can find one’s head). Aids was around LONG before Fauci. The book demonstrates Ef-all in fact it is a string of unsupported assertions which are easily shot to hell under a clinical microscope. Aids was first noticed in the early 80’s, and Mbeki personally should have been prosecuted under the international genocide laws as he personally was responsible for somewhere around 200,000 baby deaths and at least 300,000 adult unnecessary deaths. There are even some cynics that said he was quite aware of the consequences as he wanted the rapid population growth to “be throttled back by natural means”. I would prefer to apply the Ocam’s razor to that as that would be a bit of a far fetch.

  • mike van wyk says:

    The arms deal scandal occurred on Mbeki’s watch. SA had no immediate sovereignty threats to justify the massive spend on military equipment. We can hardly afford to service the equipment, rendering these just about useless. There were far more important goals that should have been absolute top priority such as increasing power generation capacity and our water storage capacity. He failed to see these are priority which in my book he failed as an effective leader. South Africa should take on a federal state model in which each province has much more say over core issues.
    No I do not see Mbeki being capable of ressurecting the ANC or improving living conditions; as when he had the opportunity to do so he failed.

    • Richard Bryant says:

      You are 100% right. Although the ANC dabbled with corruption earlier with Travelgate where MPs simply worked the system of free travel, it was the Arms Deal which opened the bigs gates. And the only thing which has been consistent throughout has been the way the ANC has protected the corrupt, closed down enquiries and looked for new channels when old ones got exposed. That is everything from the Arms Deal, Nkandla, Hitachi, Guptas, Phala Phala, Covid corruption, VBS.

      The list just goes on and on. Not a single person suspended or put in jail. They just deny, fudge, play for time, lie but most of cover it up. Until the next one.

  • Denise Smit says:

    “whether Helen Zille will sue for copyright theft is not yet known…..” This is realy a childish way to try to smear a great female leader. You SA men, seems including you Steven always have to show you are a “man” and degrade and make jokes about females strong woman. It started with Julius Malema and now you all think it is the in thing to do. It is noticable that as soon as Helen Zilles name comes up in an article most highly intelligent “men” from all spheres started to go at her rather than focussing on the article. It is so nice bashing woman instead of addressing the problems of our country. This is especially true will everything nearly related to the DA. Instead of focussing on the ANC and FASCIST EFF you rather go at the DA and especially Helen Zille, the poor woman BUT WHO CAN TAKE ALL THE PUNCHES which you poor men like to dish out

    • Dhasagan Pillay says:

      Denise – calm down. You’re making the point for exactly what you wish to counter. The quip was hilarious and relevant and ACTUALLY is a sign that Stephen Grootes appreciates the power of women actors across the political landscape he writes about. I truly hope the rest of your day is better.

    • Rodney Weidemann says:

      Nobody needs to bash Helen – between her idiotic comments about colonialism and her constant attacks on ‘wokeness’, she shoots herself in her own foot repeatedly – no men required!

      • Paddy Ross says:

        Her comment about colonialism was absolutely correct. Her mistake was to ‘publish’ it on Twitter – hardly the medium for intelligent debate.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          This. The fact that something is true doesn’t make it comforting to the feelz. The legacy of colonialism is no more universally negative than the outcomes of the post colonial period are universally positive.

  • woods.gordon.c says:

    Was the anc EVER great? I rest my case

  • EK SÊ says:

    The anc is an Olds men’s club. These guys have been around for forever and haven’t change with the times.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Mbeki the HIV/ AIDS denier? Father of the arms deal, appointed Zuma, turned a blind eye to corruption and ignored ESKOM. What a star!

  • Ayanda Nonkwelo says:

    Thabo Mbeki won’t do anything to influence people to support the ANC. He led an ANC that was and is still corrupt. It would be embarrassing to ask him to explain allegations of corruption and looting. He ought to unwind and relish his pension.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    The scourge of politics when a person with no future makes decisions that affect the future of others who have a future. There should be an age limit on a politician’s career after which it is compulsory retirement. The business world has moved to young dynamic forward looking leaders it boggles the mind why the world of politics is not following suit. Just as food has a best by and sell by date the same should be of politicians.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    No, the ANC cannot recover, and even if it could, I don’t think that Mbeki’ campaigning would make much difference, for the reasons highlighted in the article, and certainly not in KZN! The ANC is clearly flailing around in desperation!

  • Rae Earl says:

    Mbeki to assist the ANC? What a laugh. I remember a Nose Week (I think) cartoon which showed a photo of Mbeki and Robert Mugabe walking hand-in-hand at some function. Mbeki was looking up at Mugabe with undying loyalty in his eyes and a balloon caption above his head which said “Whatever you say boss”. Mugabe was a murderous pig and Mbeki appeared to worship him. Good luck ANC, you’re going to need it in buckets.

  • Ben Smit says:

    It is more than complicated: it requires a change in “cemented” perceptions. Mr. Mbeki’s attitude towards HIV (“Africa potatoes); the appointment of Selebi as National Commissioner of the SAPS; the demise of the Scorpions’ Investigative Group; the granting of presidential amnesty to Allan Boesak; his apparent “aloofness” towards “ordinary” ANC supporters; his overt support for Pan Africanism rather than South African Nationalism… I am of the same age as Mr. Mbeki – and I am even tired of thinking and writing this little comment. Can and will he last?

  • Charles Butcher says:

    It NEVER WAS GREAT their greed and thievery has destroyed any chance of that EVER happening, best thing for Thabo to do is just retire to his stolen wealth

  • Richard Baker says:

    Forgive me but wasn’t Mbeki’s lasting and most destructive legacy, his divisive and polarising politics-effectively destroying the Ubuntu from the Mandela years.

    SA in 1994 had the best opportunity of any liberated nation in Africa to build and prosper. A strong middle-class (admittedly proportionally mainly white with all other groups in tow), hard-working, compliant, tax-paying and generally competent, good national infrastructure and strong industrial base(much created due to the years of isolation and sanctions), and overall majority of all groups having bought into Mandela’s vision of a new shared and uplifted society and keen to give it a fair and full go.

    Endowed with minerals, fine weather and beautiful geography, here was the one-time opportunity to harness all those factors to a common goal.

    Instead, with beady eyes on the jewel of Africa, a communistic/statist economic policy and blind adherence to outdated political ideology followed with Mbeki himself a driver of division and polarisation. University of Sussex graduate-supposed intellectual academic but actually utterly unsuitable as president.

    His tenure left a nation in a divided, confused and pilotless state and the Zuma years which followed stripped the country by deep corruption and theft at all levels of government.

    The descent continues and the nation is still paying the price.

  • Derrick petersen says:

    The ANC was never great. I will never again vote for thieves

  • Mike Meyer says:

    The only positive thing that can be said about Mbeki is that he was the best of the bad; and as per the article was helped to appear to have done some good, at least economically, by the circumstances of the time. The cANCer has never been anything other than a corrupt criminal gang which has caused immense harm to all in the country, in particular to those who support it. It’s demise is long overdue.

  • Jucy Malema says:

    Again? Its never been great. The anc has always been a awful terrorist group that murders, rapes and steals. Nothing great about that.

  • Pierre VILLAIN says:

    One negative impact past President Mbekhi had on SA politics is he revived and officialized racism against whites during his tenure. Added to the long lust of grievances summarized in this article it seems to me urgent for SA’s sake, to delist PP mBekhi from any further influence in the ANC or Government. Unless we are cynical and wish his “negative evaluation of his presidency will help further destabilising ANC!

  • Frank Fettig says:

    What about Jesus? Asked him yet?

  • Nick Griffon says:

    Nobody can make the ANC great.
    It is a rotten criminal organization.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    What I see on YouTube is that Mbeki seems to be supporting all the RET criminals AGAINST the current ANC. And maybe it should not be surprising, because the real problem is African nationalism, for which there is another name, namely African Capitalism, and Mbeki is one of this ideology’s main promoters in SA. Which is more, it was under his watch that the government stopped the development of more electricity generation; it is no use for Mbeki to try to deny it, he openly admitted on TV in about 2009 that his government did it. And it was under his watch that Transnet started to deteriorate also, and the BOSASA corruption, and the corrupting of the SAPS, as the article says . . . Which is more, he was the leading ANC figure in the move to marginalise the local UDF faction who knew how a country that functions well, works; so that that the Lusaka faction could keep dominating the ANC. He was so desperate to keep the Lusaka faction dominating that he drummed up the story of Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa were apartheid agents in 1999. And we are where we are as a result of all these efforts. So if the ANC wants to give a message through that they are renewing itself, it has to stay as far away from this dude as possible That they are asking his support only tells me that part of the RET/nationalist faction has not left with Zuma and that they STILL want to derail the renewal efforts of Ramaphosa. This denial of Mbeki’s role in SA’s problems is going to the the ANC’s undoing.

  • John Ritchie says:

    It has always astounded me that Mbeki has been held up as an “Intellectual”. The latter implies intelligence. How can an intelligent person have denied AIDS?? The only possibility is that he secretly acknowledged AIDS, but political expediency required/s that he deny it. This is not authenticity. That said, he fits in perfectly with the ANC ethos

  • Albert Smith says:

    Mbeki was the cardinal sinner in our democracy when he used state apparatus and functions for political purposes. For that he should never be forgiven

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    The short answer I feel is NO. Mbeki was a poor president who dropped the ball far too often. The ANC is too far down the road of total decay, hopelessness, and corruption I aver. SA has all the potential. What is lacking is a leader of vision and courage. A statesman of the calibre of Nelson Mandela and Jan Smuts is needed. World renowned and capable. Sadly I don’t see anyone that fits the bill. We have all the potential. What is lacking is a leader of vision and courage.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Gavin you share my sentiments a country with so much potential but no open minded leaders.
      Diversity is trapping the leader’s like a spider’s web.
      The constituency that one party has does not define how a party should run it’s policies but the needs of the whole nation should be the focus.
      We still need a leader who can round that corner.

  • carlo gieljoumie says:

    Mbeki was probably the worst president ever more people died of Aids under his reign then under the apartheid government his policies and stubbornness was the start of the demise of the ANC .Each president will be remembered Nelson the liberator Mbeki on Aids policy Zuma with state capture and Ramaphosa for load shedding

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