As his 2007 Polokwane showdown with Jacob Zuma loomed, Thabo Mbeki gave me one last interview before the publication of my biography on the statesman, The Dream Deferred.
When I asked the then president to explain why he had decided to seek a third term as president of the ANC, he gave me a lengthy assessment of his adversary.
The conversation was off the record. Nevertheless, I felt able to write in my book that Mbeki “was deeply distressed by the possibility of being succeeded by Zuma” because “he believed his deputy’s play for the presidency to be part of a strategy to avoid prosecution”.
More than that, Mbeki “worried that Zuma and his backers had no respect for the rule of law, and would be unaccountable to the constitutional dispensation the ANC had put into place”.
What seemed to trouble Mbeki most was how accomplished Zuma was as a political strategist in relation to how weak he was morally and intellectually. Mbeki had other worries too: of “a resurgence of ethnic politics”, I wrote, and of a leftist populism that “would undo all the meticulous stitching of South Africa into the global economy that [he] had undertaken over 15 years”.
These words have haunted me over the past week as I – like so many South Africans – have reckoned with the wrecking ball that is Zuma. I have been struck by the fact that Mbeki’s fear of a leftist resurgence was misplaced.
The way even the left responded to Nhlanhla Nene’s sacking reminds us that Zumanism is not about ideology at all. The “unstitching” Mbeki feared has come about, rather, through caprice, kleptocracy and self-interest.
Let us give Mbeki the benefit of the doubt, then. Maybe he did go to battle at Polokwane, at least in part, because he wanted to stave off the kind of collapse we have witnessed under his successor.
The conventional wisdom is that Mbeki had become seduced by power and alienated within it. But whatever psychopolitical impulses drove Mbeki, we must remember that he had made the decision, the year previously, to fire a man who had been his deputy president and one of his closest comrades.
Watching Zuma across the hall in the Union Buildings, he had seen not only his deputy’s moral darkness, but his vacuousness too.
Mbeki is not driven by material things. The reason he suffered after his defeat was not only because of his summary ejection from what was, after all, his family.
It was also because he was obsessed with legacy. And he saw the ascension of Zuma as a slight on this. As well he should, given that he is responsible for having bequeathed us Zuma in the first place.
The first way he did this was by promoting Zuma to be his deputy. This came, in part, from the long association between the two men. It also came, I believe, from his miscalculation that the Nkandla “moegoe” would not be a threat. This was one of Mbeki’s greatest failings: his inclination towards people he believed were easily manipulable.
But Mbeki should not shoulder the blame alone for the anointment of his deputy. Zuma himself once rather huffily reminded me that he was in the senior leadership of the ANC long before Mbeki – he was elected deputy secretary-general in 1991, while Mbeki only made the “top six” three years later, in 1994. Zuma has always had powerful backers. These included Nelson Mandela.
The second way Mbeki bequeathed us Zuma is more egregious. Despite Mbeki’s high-mindedness, and despite the fact that there is no evidence of his having been materially corrupt, he wrote the script for how to commandeer state power to fight political battles.
We know this, most of all, from the way he trained the state’s guns on Zuma through Leonard McCarthy and others in the criminal justice system.
Mbeki might have believed this was for the greater good, but if so, this was another fatal miscalculation. His actions not only gave his opponents evidence of his imperial designs, but set the stage for the further degradation of the state.
Mbeki claimed that he stood against Zuma at Polokwane because no one else could. I believe this assessment to be accurate. At that point, Cyril Ramaphosa had not yet reclaimed his insider capital, and Tokyo Sexwale was always going to be an outlier.
Still, this is no excuse for the ex-president’s high-handedness and short-sightedness.
Mbeki must accept significant responsibility for the disaster of the Zuma presidency – in the way he promoted Zuma, first by supporting him and then by opposing him, and in the way he alienated many in the party.
These people became that much-vaunted “coalition of the wounded” against Mbeki. Only two have publicly repented: Zwelinzima Vavi and Julius Malema. And in both cases, this is because they have been ejected from the ANC and its tripartite alliance.
The rest remain part of the Zuma power elite, and bear responsibility for its disasters, even if they claim to be working hard to hold things together.
Jeff Radebe and Lindiwe Sisulu oversaw the legal rehabilitation of Zuma and put the Mbeki “spy tapes” illegally into the public domain. Gwede Mantashe, Jesse Duarte and Baleka Mbete were on Zuma’s slate and were fervent lieutenants.
Blade Nzimande and Sdumo Dlamini worked the left for Zuma, and a whole host of other homeboys helped establish KwaZulu-Natal as his personal fiefdom.
Both of the contenders to replace Zuma are also affected by their association with him: Ramaphosa by helping bring him to power and serving beneath him, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma through blood ties.
After Polokwane, I spoke to many of the people above, and in most I detected a shifty two-step: they sang the praises of their new “chief”, even while signalling that they understood his shortcomings and were supporting him primarily as a vehicle to dispatch the loathed Mbeki. “We’ll sort things out afterwards,” one of the above-mentioned people assured me.
Their strategy has failed, miserably, and they must be held to account for this. It is their moral and political obligation, now, to recall the man they put into power, as they once did Mbeki.
Gevisser is an author
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