Defend Truth


Mbeki is not coming back. Why would he?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Former president Thabo Mbeki is not making a political comeback. The evidence to support such claims just does not exist. But even if one applies one’s mind to the idea, it doesn’t wash. The sad fact is that there is going to be more – not less – of these speculations in a year when the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party all hold elections for leaders.

The triumphant comeback is the new black. Arsenal brought back Thierry Henry, Manchester United brought back Paul Scholes, and if the City Press is to be believed, the ANC is about to bring Thabo Mbeki back.

“Former president Thabo Mbeki made a dramatic jump back into local politics after almost three years of self-imposed silence,” City Press said. “Mbeki was fired as president in September 2008. In recent weeks he has re-emerged on the domestic political scene in a more aggressive way than ever before.”

They use three incidents to justify this extraordinary claim:

  • Mbeki’s furious rebuttal of claims made by the then-newly appointed Special Investigating Unit head Willem Heath, who alleged in an interview with City Press that the former president was behind the rape and corruption charges levelled against Jacob Zuma.
  • The huge applause that Mbeki got at the ANC’s centenary celebrations
  • The ANC Youth League’s call for Mbeki to come in from the cold and involve himself in domestic politics.

What is certainly true is that Mbeki is being talked of in South Africa once again. But for City Press to go on and speak of this as evidence of a comeback is a bit dicey.

First, there’s the distinct lack of a sound bite from the man availing himself to a leadership position in the ANC. In fact, he has done exactly the opposite, and denied the rumours that had him seeking to be the party’s national chairman in December.

As far as we know, Mbeki has not contacted any formal ANC structure to begin the process that would end up with him back in the party in some significant leadership position. In fact, he’s even stayed away from national executive committee (NEC) meetings, which he’s entitled to attend as an ex officio leader of the party. City Press interviewed NEC member and former Cabinet minister Pallo Jordan who said that he’d greet Mbeki’s presence at an NEC meeting with “about bloody time”.

All this says to us is that Mbeki has not been going to these meetings.

If Mbeki has been concerned about one thing since stepping down as president, it is preserving his legacy. Willem Heath’s comments attacked that directly. It is to be expected that Mbeki would defend himself and his legacy.

At the Polokwane conference in which Mbeki lost the leadership race to Zuma, he got 1,505 votes, compared to Zuma’s 2,329. Mbeki had – and still has – broad support in the party. And when the man makes one of the first appearances at a major ANC event, it is to be expected that he would receive thunderous applause. So would Mandela, had he been healthy enough to travel to Mangaung. Outside of a statement by Mandela in which he announced that he was leaving retirement to run for an ANC position, the thunderous applause he’d get would be nothing more than that. Adulation by the fans will always be there.

If you read the City Press story even more closely, you start to see what this is actually about. This isn’t about Mbeki so much as it is about the anti-Zuma coalition that is apparently plotting in the background.

The new line-up of senior ANC members positioning for a run at the top-six, according to City Press, looks something like this: president: Kgalema Motlanthe; deputy president: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma; national chairman: Tokyo Sexwale; secretary-general: Fikile Mbalula; deputy secretary-general: Thandi Modise; treasurer-general: Trevor Manuel.

The suggestion is that Mbeki wants to make a comeback as comeuppance to Zuma for Polokwane.

But why would Mbeki want to involve himself in a hands-on role in the ANC? Should Zuma lose at Mangaung, which is looking very unlikely at this stage, I’m sure the NEC afterwards will invite Mbeki to attend meetings once again.

There’s always the danger that Mbeki may try to influence and embolden the anti-Zuma coalition (if we assume for a moment that such a thing even exists) only to see it lose. At the moment, Mbeki is no threat to Zuma. But by trying to oust him, he’d be painting a massive target on his own back for Zuma to then come after him post-Mangaung to make sure that he is well and truly dead, politically speaking. The dangers of such a move outweigh any benefit that Mbeki would derive.
In all likelihood, this story was brought to life by the anticipation and hysteria of an election year. Separating truth from spin is hard enough at the best of times for political journalists, it’ll be even worse this year when people start campaigning actively.

I can already anticipate stories that will claim that anyone who tries to run against Helen Zille for DA leadership will have been funded by the ANC in the same way that Zanele Magwaza-Msibi’s split from the IFP was allegedly motivated by brown envelopes from Luthuli House. DM

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