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Arms deal probe: Is Thabo the target?


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

President Jacob Zuma's surprise announcement of a probe into the arms deal could provide proof that Thabo Mbeki is indeed on the political comeback trail – and presents a real and present danger to Zuma's fate post-2012.

If anyone stands to be negatively affected by a thorough investigation into the arms deal, it’s Mbeki. Not only would his possible role in the deal be under scrutiny – so, too, would his handling of the deal while President of the ruling party and the Republic.

But why would anyone want to embarrass the former President, who was frog-marched out of office and has been reduced to a round of obscure speaking engagements of late – and publicly seems quite content to dabble in low-level continental peacekeeping?

Picture this:

  • You’re Jacob Zuma and, as President of the ANC, you’re consistently under fire for your indecisiveness and your lack of leadership.
  • Increasingly, formations within the ANC are questioning your ability to lead and are looking for an alternative national leader – someone who will not only lead differently, but someone they have a hold on.
  • No matter how you look at it, the only real alternative presidential candidate is your deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe – a man with whom you have little personal chemistry, and even less personal trust.
  • Some of the key forces aligned against you – Cosatu and the ANC Youth League, in particular – are increasingly calling for Motlanthe to be elected president at your elective conference in Mangaung next year.

So where does that leave you?

Your fallback position is to accept that Motlanthe may indeed be the next President, and to position yourself as moving into more of a senior statesman role – as chairman of the ANC, perhaps?

You can, after all, redefine the role of the chairman, adopt a more hands-on approach to managing government and – even it means a reversion to the “two centres of power” which hamstrung government under Mbeki – you can ensure that Luthuli House has sufficient control over the Union Buildings.

That way, you can retain a hand on the organisation and over key positions in government, through your newly-established performance monitoring unit in Luthuli House.

You can also, conveniently, influence any possible scrutiny of what you or your children got up to while you were President, and have a degree of immunity from criticism whenever someone ponders over what you did during your time on top.

Enter the ANC Youth League: the formation that made you in Polokwane, but also increasingly reminds you that it can break you too. Its leaders undermine you in public. Its elected representatives belittle you and heckle you at their own conference. It shows no respect for you, your office or your leadership style.

After months of watching and waiting, you opt to put its leadership on trial. It’s a bit of a make-or-break situation, but you construct an elaborate disciplinary process that is designed publicly to put the ANCYL leadership in its place – but organisationally is also intended to derail its new presidential campaign. You tie it down in process, you suck the guts out of its ability to organise, while at the same time reasserting yourself as The Big Man in the ANC.

But there’s a new show coming back to town.

The ANC Youth League remains focused on Motlanthe as your replacement, but introduces a stop-gap candidate to take up the role of ANC chairman: Thabo Mbeki – your ultimate nemesis and the man who evicted you from the centre of power in the first place.

It’s a known fact within the ANC leadership that Zuma has no time for Mbeki – not only because of the what Mbeki did to Zuma while he was president of the ANC, but because of what he represents: an elitist, intellectual cadre of ANC leaders who look down on, possibly even sneer at, the peasants from KwaZulu-Natal.

The dislike runs deep. When Mbeki recently launched his own trust, for example, along the lines of the Nelson Mandela Trust, there was frantic scurrying within the ANC to try to prevent a formal endorsement of Mbeki from Mandela. Mandela was successfully dissuaded from speaking at the Mbeki Trust launch, but the Zuma camp even tried to block the elder statesman’s compromise – a video message of support. They failed, but it demonstrates the extent to which the Zuma group is not only threatened by Mbeki, but determined to keep him on the outside.

All of which creates a natural ally for the Youth League. I doubt if Julius Malema has ever read British writer George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” but I have no doubt that he’s familiar with one of the key maxims: that your enemy’s enemy is your friend.

So if you want to get to Zuma, and you want to block his chances of “retiring” into the post of ANC chairman, wheel in his ultimate nemesis: Thabo Mbeki. As chairman of the African National Congress.

The first shot was fired in June, when Julius Malema suddenly embraced Mbeki as “the best leader the ANC has ever produced”.

“There are those who hated him with a passion but forgot that Mbeki, during his leadership, had produced a two-thirds majority during elections,” Malema reminded us all. “Those who hate Mbeki are jealous of his achievements. He was the most educated and clever.”

The Mbeki-Malema bromance was consolidated a few weeks later when several weekend newspapers slipped into the public domain the fact that Mbeki was the Youth League’s new candidate for ANC chairman.

The ANCYL never commented on the matter, nor did Mbeki. Within the movement, however, it’s common knowledge that the Youth League is actively courting the former President, and considers him as their candidate for chairman.

They have requested meetings with him but have yet to secure face time. But they clearly want him on their slate – which would, if successful, effectively close the door on a Zuma chairmanship and have a dramatic effect on the make-up of the ANC’s top six, post-Mangaung.

Does it sound like the ultimate conspiracy theory? Maybe it is. But it may help to answer the question: why an arms deal investigation now?

After all, who would come under the most intense scrutiny during a real investigation if not Thabo Mbeki?

Consistently, allegations have been made that Mbeki benefited from the deal, through the use of offshore trusts. These allegations would obviously have to be probed in any decent arms deal investigation, and would put a series of question marks over Mbeki’s head at a time when ANC structures are debating who should lead the movement.

But that’s just one side of the coin. The other is the multitude of questions that would be asked about Mbeki’s conduct post-arms deal, as President of the Republic. His handling of the various commissions, investigations and parliamentary processes would be rehashed, scrutinised and questioned by a proper enquiry – putting additional question marks over his head.

Zuma’s position, on the other hand, would be fragile – but defensible. And it would point squarely back at Mbeki.

Zuma’s defence, according to lawyers close to the process in the pre-Polokwane phase of South African politics, was that whatever he did was done in his capacity as deputy president of the ANC. And, as we all know, he was deputy to one man: Thabo Mbeki. In short: “Thabo made me do it”.

Of course, this may all be conjecture. The President may well be committed to a proper investigation which uncovers exactly what happened, how it happened and who took the key decisions. And the right heads may roll.

It may be, as some media have speculated, that Zuma decided an investigation was the best way to head off Terry Crawford-Browne’s Constitutional Court application.

It may be an attempt to pre-empt some pretty difficult questions from foreign governments, which seem to remain committed to exposing corruption and kickbacks from their own arms industries.

Or it may be that it suits Zuma to shine a light on other people’s corruption right now so that we all forget about his friend Roux Shabangu’s ability to find buildings which would make great police headquarters.

We’ll only really know once the commission’s terms of reference is announced, once the make-up of the commission is declared and once our learned friends get down to work.

But given that the ANC itself may have been one of the key beneficiaries of the arms deal, according to many who have examined it, it’s highly unlikely that the investigation is going to end up pointing fingers solely at an amorphous ruling party.

It’s much more likely to point a large, damning finger at the man who was in charge at the time: TM. T-boss. The Chief. DM


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