The ANC has been at the helm of South Africa for almost 30 years since democracy was ushered in by the 1994 general elections in which Nelson Mandela was overwhelmingly elected president. It has since widely become commonsensical to describe South Africa as the most unequal society in the whole world in terms of the United Nations protocols of categorisation informed by scientific research of political economies of the countries of the world.
The prevailing political situation in South Africa demands of all its citizens to work together more than ever before to keep the country on track in terms of providing a better life for all.
The governing ANC recalled Thabo Mbeki from being president of the party and country citing the high court judgment in which Judge Chris Nicholson alleged improper political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority specifically in the corruption charges against Jacob Zuma.
“The national executive committee of the ANC met over the weekend of the 19th to 21st September 2008, to deliberate on various pertinent issues. After careful debate and discussion, the NEC decided to recall Comrade Thabo Mbeki. This was one of the most difficult decisions the NEC had to take in the history of the ANC,” read the ANC statement in its first paragraph.
This was an earth-shaking decision and consequently, caused huge divisions in the ANC whose far-reaching effects are still being felt even today, 14 years after the fact.
Matter of fact, we all know that Mbeki subsequently challenged the Nicholson judgment with success in the supreme court of appeal when it was found that the judge was wrong to indicate that Mbeki had interfered with the prosecutorial process relating to Zuma. After the overturning of the judgment, it was widely reported that Mbeki felt vindicated by the nullification of the Nicholson judgment and his legacy was protected.
The ANC decision to recall Mbeki had had snowballing ramifications in that it divided the country, resulting in a political explosion never seen before in the new South Africa of Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow Nation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There was en masse resignation of cabinet ministers who pledged their solidarity and allegiance to Mbeki eventuating in the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope).
These political events tested the foundations of our country’s democratic dispensation in the true sense of the word. The fact that the ANC experienced the second serious political splintering after the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) in 1959 will go down in history as a landmark political event of modern political history in the South African context.
The ANC was never going to be the same after the recall of Mbeki. It should be particularly noted that Mbeki was conspicuously silent while all the political shenanigans were taking place after he was unceremoniously recalled. He decided to practically go underground for almost the whole decade during the Zuma presidency, which infamously became known as the “nine wasted years”. Zizi, as he is affectionately referred to, was nowhere to be seen after his unceremonious recall by his own party which he served for more than 50 years inside and outside the country.
Mbeki’s silence after his recall can be likened to the silence that Sun Tzu speaks about in his legendary book of strategy titled The Art of War. All warfare is based on deception. Mbeki was not silent but he knew that “he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight”. Sun Tzu advises that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”.
Mbeki’s decade of silence and disappearance from the political arena gave him political mileage and charismatic aura reaffirming him as a philosopher-king with unparalleled political and presidential pedigree. Zuma on the other hand, became a political tabula rasa, a political non-starter and pedestrian thinker.
It should be unapologetically mentioned that since then, there has been a silent nostalgia for Mbeki to return to the country’s mainstream political discourse. This silent nostalgia became obvious when he started authoring opinion articles, which were met with enthusiasm and overwhelming and joyful welcome from the populace which could be simply referred to as a national sigh of relief. People were openly jubilant that Zizi has finally come out of self-imposed exile.
The establishment of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation was a masterstroke in that it placed him on the pedestal as an elder statesman who accepted his recall with dignity and integrity in the midst of strong-men politics in Africa occasioned by megalomaniac dictators and despots who rig elections in order to remain in power in perpetuity.
The foundation has since become a powerful discourse influencer and opinion-maker in the country’s political landscape alongside other foundations, institutes and think tanks operating in the political arena and the academic world in South Africa.
Mbeki suddenly and automatically became a political figure who receives the most and loudest clapping of hands during events to the point of outclassing the then sitting president in the form of Zuma.
Realising that the majority of the people in South Africa were expressing their affection and respect for Zizi, the ANC decided to break its silence and began inviting him to address its political events aimed at drumming up support during elections. In fact, he was specifically invited with other ANC veterans to assist the party in political lobbying during the local government elections of 2016 and subsequent polls thereafter.
After the demise of the Zuma presidency, Mbeki started to grace the new ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meetings with his physical presence either in person or virtually. Mention should be made of the fact that Mbeki never attended an NEC meeting during the presidency of Zuma. It remains a point of speculation whether the Zuma-led NEC made any attempts to invite Mbeki to attend NEC meetings as is the norm for all ex-presidents of the organisation in their capacities as ex-officio members.
There was a time when some ANC members overtly expressed a view that the challenges the party was grappling with in the current political juncture called for the return of Mbeki in the forefront of the organisation. Addressing the Albert Luthuli Memorial Lecture recently, Mbeki lambasted the current state of affairs in the ANC, lamenting that the organisation has lost its historical mission.
He specifically decried the quality of members that the ANC has, arguing that some joined the ANC not to uplift the lives of the people, but for their narrow and selfish interests using the ANC as a vehicle. Mbeki has cautioned the ANC on many occasions against members and leaders who use the organisation for their nefarious purposes and practices. As a protégé of OR Tambo, he made mention to the effect that the opposition can never, on its own, topple the ANC from power, but that the ANC will hand over power to the opposition owing to its internal factional battles and divisions that have been wreaking the organisation since it took over power in 1994.
He was guns-blazing after the 2021 local government elections when he confirmed that the results pointed to the fact that the people are sick and tired of empty promises. Addressing a gathering of businesspeople in Johannesburg, Mbeki said the ANC’s performance is a reversal for the progressive movement and an advance for right-wing forces.
He penned an eight-page letter to the ANC tabulating the challenges and how they should be resolved, identifying four urgent tasks which are: the renewal of the ANC; social compacts; ensuring a truly capable developmental state; and implementing election promises. Students of politics and history were intellectually stimulated to read the writings from the country’s intellectual-el-supremo.
There are murmurs in ANC circles that the current political situation needs a political figure of Mbeki’s stature and calibre with his sharp mind and political wisdom. The Mbekites in the ANC are dancing with joy at the reception that their patron has been receiving in the recent past. The question arises: should Mbeki avail himself to run the country again as president? This question is posed mindful of the fact that the Constitution allows for two presidential terms whereas the ANC constitution does not have presidential term limits. Are prevailing circumstances in the country epically horrible to a point that the Constitution could be amended?
Perhaps a more pertinent question is: has the ANC as a governing party and leader of society not succeeded in producing leaders of Mbeki’s intellectual calibre and political acumen. Why is there this Mbeki nostalgia in our country 14 years after he was toppled by his own comrades, almost akin to the toppling and assassination of King Shaka Zulu Ka-Senzangakhona by his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana?
Mbeki remains a towering political figure in our country’s political landscape.
Benzi Ka-Soko is an independent political analyst and researcher.