Former president Thabo Mbeki still does not get it. The more he obsessively denies having an intolerant and grudge-bearing streak, the more he displays those very characteristics. That’s a pity.
I have never, and I still don’t, harbour any personal animosity towards him. In fact, I am more puzzled than angered by his latest missive in which I feature centrally (“When your position can’t be sustained, create a scare-crow – the menace of post-apartheid SA”).
In the political underground of the 1970s, and perhaps more into the mid-1980s, I was an admirer of a faraway Thabo Mbeki whose voice I would hear occasionally on Radio Freedom. He was a leading exiled ANC spokesperson, and I was proud to be a foot-soldier back in South Africa, in a movement that could produce such an evidently lucid political intellectual. My first direct encounter with him in London in 1987 was, however, a personal disappointment. He was distinctly hostile towards me. I couldn’t understand why. I subsequently attributed this to the fact that I was then closely associated with Joe Slovo. Unbeknown to me at the time, Mbeki had fallen out with Slovo for reasons which Slovo never disclosed to me. I have heard allegations from others, but it would be unfair to Mbeki now to air those on the basis of hearsay.
In April 1989 I was a delegate from Lusaka to the SACP’s seventh national congress held in Cuba. Mbeki was then a senior political bureau member of the SACP. He was tasked with chairing three days of congress, which he did quite brilliantly. In many long-winded, subsequent meetings chaired less well by others, I have often fondly remembered Mbeki’s chairing skills. However, it was at that congress that I learned something else about Mbeki and his management of meetings.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) programme that emerged from that congress, buoyed by the rolling waves of mass struggle at home, while not ruling out negotiations, was distinctly insurrectionary in character. I was one of those arguing for this perspective. During one of the breaks, the puzzled Cuban observers at congress approached some of us. “Is your comrade Mbeki not briefing you?” In the evenings, Mbeki had apparently been informing Cuban colleagues in detail about the secret negotiations process he was leading with the apartheid regime. He told the Cubans, but there was not even a hint of this from Mbeki, our chairperson through three-days of discussion within the sessions of the SACP congress itself. He allowed us to wander on our merry insurrectionary way.
This was a pattern of aloofness that was often to recur. It was Mbeki and not Slovo who, in the midst of the CODESA negotiations, secretly pushed the idea of sunset clauses. But it was Slovo who had the courage to open up the proposal for what became a heated but eventually useful debate within the ANC and alliance. In 2006 and 2007, as tensions between Mbeki and then ANC-deputy president Zuma palpably deepened, and Zuma faced the prospect of criminal charges, Mbeki failed to open up these challenges facing the ANC for a collective political discussion within the NEC. Instead, there was all manner of background manoeuvres involving factions of the state apparatus.
In 2002 I was to be a minor target in all of this manoeuvring. In April 2001, and then again in January 2002, I had given two lengthy video-taped interviews to the Irish academic, Dr Helena Sheehan. A leading left academic, Sheehan had been a member of the Irish Communist Party and active in the anti-apartheid movement. Like many others, she was deeply disappointed with the trajectory of the ANC in government after 1994. She posed a range of critical and challenging questions. Why had the ANC-led government adopted neo-liberal macro-economic policies? Why the tragic AIDS denialism? Why did the ANC-led government turn a blind eye to violence directed against the democratic opposition in Zimbabwe? In particular, she wanted to know what those of us in the SACP were doing about these matters. These were fair questions, and I found the opportunity a useful space to reflect critically and self-critically on the trajectory of post-1994 developments. I soon forgot about the interviews and assumed that Sheehan was using them as background for her own academic research. She did however post transcripts of the interviews on her own relatively obscure website which (since I always find reading transcripts rather tedious) I failed to check on myself. I was subsequently told years later by someone then serving in the intelligence services that it was they who tracked them down, briefed the presidency, and kept them up their sleeves for an appropriate moment.
The appropriate moment arrived months later. One Sunday in July 2002, out of the blue and without any forewarning from the journalists involved, I found myself making headline, front-page news in the Sunday Times. The Sunday in question was clearly not accidental. It was in the week that the SACP’s national congress was to be held. In the following days some of the rougher ideological bouncers in the ANC NEC attacked me personally in the media. I was called a “white messiah”, a snake in the grass whose head should be crushed, I was (interestingly) a Trotskyist. Mbeki himself was silent, but he never then, or to my knowledge subsequently, called to order those who were unleashed in this way.
I am not recalling all of this now to evoke sympathy. It wasn’t a pleasant time for me, of course, but I have a pretty thick skin. I enjoy and engage in robust debate, and I hold to the adage that if, as a politician, you can’t stand the heat you shouldn’t be in the kitchen. If all of this was an attempt to undermine my standing within the SACP, it backfired. SACP delegates to the Congress that week clearly appreciated the critical matters I was reported to have raised in the interviews about macro-economic policy, about AIDS denialism, about Zimbabwe policy, and above all about attempts from the Mbeki-circle to marginalise the SACP and COSATU.
In the midst of all of this I finally bothered to read the transcripts for myself. I stood by and still stand by the substantive points that I was making in the interviews. In fact, they were no different from countless media articles I had written in the latter 1990s and early 2000s and ever since. However, on reading the transcripts I realised that I had sometimes spoken too casually, occasionally in a gossipy way about who had said what in closed meetings of the NEC, for instance. Apart from a breach of the confidentiality rule, several of the more flippant personal characterisations detracted from the substantive perspectives I was trying to advance. Of course, those in intelligence and their masters who had uncovered the transcripts had made no attempt to contact me so that I could request Sheehan to remove these from her site. Their concern was not to protect ANC confidentiality and to limit any damage, but to humiliate me.
In the days following the SACP congress I wrote a letter to the ANC officials via Kgalema Motlanthe, then the secretary general of the ANC, apologising for these mistakes. In a subsequent one-on-one, follow-up meeting with Motlanthe, he explicitly indicated that “Mbeki is still not satisfied”. Motlanthe’s only substantial criticism of the actual content of the interviews was that in warning of the dangers of incumbency (with which he agreed), it was unwise to characterise the tendencies specifically as “Zanufication”. The point could be made, he said, without referring to any one particular national liberation movement. I am sure Motlanthe was right.
The attempt to create havoc in the SACP congress having back-fired, the next opportunity to deal with me came with the August 2002 ANC NEC meeting. Lest I be retrospectively accused of breaking the confidentiality rule, I won’t say who said what, except to recall that one more sympathetic comrade, who clearly felt the need to join the chorus nonetheless, accused me of being a follower of Gramsci. I was happy with that. For nearly a full-day and a half the NEC discussed the Sheehan interviews, very little substantive criticism was levelled with the thrust being that, along with some other SACP and COSATU comrades, I was part of a dark conspiracy. At the end of the discussion I apologised for giving the interviews in a way that breached NEC confidentiality. I stand by that apology, and I stand by the substantive content of what I said in the course of the interviews.
It was not the first or last time in the Mbeki years that I was singled out in the ANC NEC for what appeared to be an orchestrated attack. And I was certainly not the only one. The most egregious case, as others have recalled in some detail, happened some years later, when a retired Nelson Mandela attended an NEC meeting and was subjected to a carefully choreographed wave upon wave of insults from the usual suspects. Mandela had dared to publicly question government AIDS denialism at the time. The top table, with Mbeki among them, said nothing, but allowed the disgraceful drubbing to continue.
What’s the point of recalling all of this now? In responding in this way to Thabo Mbeki, I am all too aware of the danger of perpetuating an unwanted distraction. As South Africans we are facing major crises – searing unemployment, poverty, inequality, persisting global economic turmoil, a drought, and more. Too much public commentary and too much of the energies of those of us in politics gets focused on demonising (and sometimes eulogising) personalities, on the comings and goings of game-of-thrones, palace politics, and on appealing to tweet-length attention spans.
President Mbeki was not the devil incarnate. But he was also centrally responsible for a tragic AIDS denialism (unfortunately, in the coming weeks, I suspect we will have another Mbeki letter denying the denialism). But while personalities with their strengths and flaws matter, we also need to situate, in a particular historical context, Mbeki’s managerial aloofness and the accompanying tendency to want to erase anything that got in its way (an AIDS pandemic, trade unionists, communists).
When the ANC achieved democratic state power in the mid-1990s, progressive policy alternatives were in varying degrees of crisis. The Soviet bloc had imploded spectacularly. Ruling national liberation movements, not least in southern Africa, were stagnating partly as a result of internal weaknesses and largely as a result of horrific apartheid destabilisation. The social democratic tradition was a pale and rather cynical shadow of its former self. Neo-liberalism appeared to be the only show in town. Mbeki bought into it, and it bought into him. There was an affinity in temperament. Shock therapy was the recipe. Out of the blue, zap the economy with undebated, written-in-stone, macro policy. What’s the point of policy debate when all the answers are pre-given and managerial in character? All the old -isms (as someone put it) had now become wasms. Ideology was dead, history had ended.
This was the ambience in which the Mbeki persona flourished, at least for a time. We are now living in a somewhat different world and national context. The global capitalist crisis that began in 2008, and which has not disappeared, but whose epicentre shifts, has punctured the myth of rote unilateral responses to recession, or unemployment, or global inequality. The hottest decade in recorded history is telling us that the neo-liberal mantra of endless compound growth is unsustainable. This is a time that requires thoughtful policy debate, and a respect for heterodoxy, not endless attempts at disciplinary entrapment of those with whom one differs. I hope that I have learned from my 2002 experience that it is important to respect the organisational integrity of the formations of which one is a member. I hope that I have never forgotten that this does not mean suppressing difference or undervaluing constructive debate or remaining silent in the face of wrong. DM
Jeremy Cronin is a South African writer, author, and noted poet. A longtime activist in politics, Cronin is a member of the South African Communist Party and a member of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress.He presently serves as the South African Deputy Minister of Public Works. See his Wikipedia profile here.
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