Former South African president Thabo Mbeki Picture: Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - Former president Thabo Mbeki pulled no punches on Friday, saying the problem of the abuse of state power for self-enrichment arose in 1994 when the African National Congress came into power.  

Delivering the OR Tambo memorial lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand on Friday night in honour of former ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo, Mbeki said it was inevitable for the ANC to gain access to state power in 1994.

“The challenge which arose with this access to state power was and is that it could be abused; was and is being abused for purposes of self-enrichment. This means that the ANC contains within its ranks people who are absolutely contemptuous of the most fundamental values of the ANC at whose centre is a commitment selflessly to serve the people," he said.

“These are people who only see the ANC as a step ladder to enable them to access state power for the express purpose of using that access for self-enrichment. By definition — and these are people who are card-carrying members of the ANC — our national governing party since 1994, but we have completely repudiated the value system which inspired Oliver Tambo throughout his life."

Read: #Tambo100: Can the ANC alliance be saved?

Mbeki said he wanted to make the “firm and unequivocal observation” that the ANC was facing the “third most serious threat to its existence”.

When the organisation faced its first threat of existence in 1940, and in the 1960s when the party was exiled and faced its second threat, the ANC members "successfully intervened to address" the threats. “And today, the ANC faces the ANC members,” he said to a loud applause and cheers from the audience. 

“The ANC members face yet another challenge to successfully intervene to defeat that threat. And the immense and historic challenge we face is the answer to the question: ‘Does the ANC have the required members who will successfully intervene to address this new threat to the very survival of the ANC?’” he said. 

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“The ANC faces this third strategic threat during a period when unfortunately we no longer have Oliver Tambo among us”. Mbeki said to defeat the third threat, Tambo’s admirers and supporters needed to live up to the example he set. 

Tambo was the longest-serving president of the ANC, serving as leader of the party from 1967 to 1991. He was born on October 27, 1917, in Nkantolo, Mbizana in the Eastern Cape. He suffered a stroke in 1989 and died in April 1993.

“However, at the same time as we celebrate a 100th birthday we have gathered here today at a time of great stress for OR’s movement, the ANC and this country South Africa,” Mbeki said. 

For 50 years Tambo stood out as a defining player in the respective evolution of the ANC and South Africa. “I’m arguing that we must pay heartfelt tribute to Oliver Tambo for his leadership of the ANC and the rest of the broad democratic movement such that this movement as a whole recovered from the near-destruction brought about by the extreme oppression which followed the banning of the ANC in 1960.” 

Mbeki said 105 years after the birth of the ANC the party's historic value system had been corrupted. “The negative situation currently affecting and characterising the ANC will — unless it is addressed correctly and immediately— sooner rather than later result in the destruction of the ANC."

"Genuine members” of the ANC had to accept that the organisation was in trouble and then diagnose the problem to find an effective cure.  

“I believe that the best way to honour Oliver Tambo... would be to live up to the example he has set by always being loyal to the truth; by always being loyal to principle and the historic value system of the ANC; by defeating the rapacious and predatory value system and the related leadership which are holding the ANC hostage. By helping to unite the ANC and the rest of the progressive movement and the people as a whole around the realistic program toward achieving the goal of a better life for all,” he said.

History would answer the question of whether ANC members had lived up to the “extraordinary example” set by Tambo. Mbeki said Tambo should be honoured with the title “Father of South Africa’s democracy”.

Mbeki said that for two decades he was fortunate enough to work closely with Tambo and if he was alive on Friday people would have gathered in “happy gatherings” across South Africa to wish him a very happy 100th birthday. "However, as we meet today [Friday] to mark the centenary we still wish to convey a heartfelt happy birthday message to him — our beloved OR — and our esteemed leader, certain that he will hear our message wherever he is,” Mbeki said.