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The political renaissance of Thabo Mbeki

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Phill Magakoe

Former president Thabo Mbeki has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity after being removed from office in 2008. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

In January, City Press published a story titled “Mbeki is back”. In it, the paper said, the former president was enjoying newfound favour in the party that fired him in 2008.

ANC sources did not anticipate a return to active politics, but thought he could get an advisory or mediatory role after the party’s national congress at Mangaung in December.

“City Press understands that Mbeki will not seek an active leadership position in the ANC, but he could be influential in the party in the lead-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December by advising party leaders on leadership matters and playing a mediation role between the warring factions,” the paper said.

“Ten sources ranging from ANC national executive committee members to provincial leaders, business people and ANC lobbyists told City Press they could see Mbeki returning to play a role in the party, but they differed over the role the former president would play.”

At the forefront of the Mbeki hagiography was the then-president of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema. The move eventually landed him in serious trouble with the party’s disciplinary committee, which kicked him out of the party.

Malema, who once led the charge to have Mbeki sacked after he lost the ANC presidency to Zuma, said in 2011: “Mbeki is 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.

“Those who hate Mbeki are jealous of his achievements. He was the most educated and clever. The only problem with Mbeki was failing to allow the leadership of the ANC to decide on who they wanted in the leadership, and for wanting a third term in leading the organisation.”

In an interview on SAfm, Malema said that Mbeki’s silence on domestic policy was costing the country by “depriving us of that intellectual wealth”.

“I wish Mbeki would reconsider his decision not to participate,” he said.

The point of Malema’s efforts to revive Mbeki’s dead political career were ultimately self-serving.

The ANCYL found it easy to praise the former president simply because he never actually silenced it to the extent that Zuma did.

From the age of 14, when his father, Govan, encouraged him to join the party, the ANC has always been Mbeki’s home.

In a sense, 2008 was the first time he wasn’t actively involved in party politics. He spent most of his time fighting against apartheid from outside the country, in Britain, Nigeria, Botswana and Zambia.

He was also very useful at getting support for the party from a more urbane population abroad – the legend being that his habit of smoking a pipe (not to forget his master’s degree from the University of Sussex) helped him cultivate an air of charm and sophistication. As the head of the party’s international department in the late 1980s, he was part of the delegation that began to negotiate with the apartheid government in secret.

Mbeki managed to leapfrog several leaders within the ANC to become Nelson Mandela’s deputy in 1994. A very powerful deputy, Mbeki was deeply involved in the governance of SA from the very beginning of ANC rule.

The ANCYL’s posturing notwithstanding, the question of Mbeki’s legacy has always prompted a mixed response. His fans point to the economic growth that SA enjoyed under his administration, and SA’s stronger position on the international stage. His detractors call his policies on HIV/Aids a disaster.

Mbeki’s dithering on the question of whether HIV causes Aids and on distributing ARVs may have cost the lives of up to 330 000 people, according to a Harvard study.

The matter was an extremely sensitive one for Mbeki. When badgered by DA member of parliament Ryan Coetzee on his Aids policy, he snapped and blasted the opposition politician for racism.

“I will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism accuse us, the black people of SA, Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour, lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage and rapist,” he snapped.

The incident prompted a bashful retraction of sorts from the ANC.

DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane said to Daily Maverick that it was not just the Aids controversy that was a blight against Mbeki.

“Some of his crime and justice views were also problematic. He was dogged by the same issues like (Jacob) Zuma in that he didn’t choose someone sound to be a police chief,” he said.

The duality of views on Mbeki’s legacy are problematic, according to the new DA spokesman, as some of the controversial views of the former president did not actually impact government policy to the degree that public perception would suggest. Private organisations eventually managed to get ARVs rolled out – and Mbeki’s views influenced the roll-out to make it as slow as possible.

“The best way in which I can define Mbeki’s legacy is ‘a dream deferred’. He was a leader who lived on his own planet. But we cannot deny his legacy on the international platform. His moves in the G20 and Nepad were good for us.

“Under Zuma, the international agenda is dissipating, but we have become more urgent on domestic issues,” Maimane said.

Former national director of public prosecutions at the time, Vusi Pikoli, was fired from his job for refusing to stop investigating the corruption case against then police commissioner Jackie Selebi to aid Mbeki’s chances at Polokwane.

Pikoli was not the only other major controversy of the Mbeki administration. The problem of Zimbabwe looms large as well.

When the strife between the Zanu-PF of Robert Mugabe and the MDC of Morgan Tsvangirai intensified to the point of violence, Mbeki was delegated by the Southern African Development Community to be the chief mediator in the conflict. He adopted a posture of “quiet diplomacy”, which involved shielding the Zimbabwean government from sanctions and resisting any attempts by anyone to intervene from the outside.

The policy brought him a great deal of international criticism.

In 2008, just days before he was asked to step down by the ANC’s national executive committee, Mbeki oversaw the creation of a government of national unity.

These days, Mbeki is the AU’s chief mediator in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. It is a sign of his stature in Africa that he has been asked to mediate in such a fraught situation.

Should Mbeki succeed in extracting some form of peace deal, it will overshadow his involvement in Zimbabwe.

Soon after he was recalled, the New York Times summed up Mbeki’s legacy as disappointing.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian, retired journalist Meshack Mabogoane said:

“No doubt Mbeki is central in (the HIV/Aids) tragedy. Zackie Achmat is right to call for his impeachment. But the government … stands accused of measures that have escalated Aids. There has been dereliction of duty that makes the government an accessory to this horrendous pandemic, a veritable crime against humanity,” Mabogoane wrote.

l This story first appeared in the Daily Maverick. Read more at www.dailymaverick.co.za and follow them on Twitter at @dailymaverick


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