It feels like just the other day I was standing in a Pick n Pay trying to decide on whether I wanted chutney or cheese Nik Naks when I got a call from my friend.
He told me, out of breath, that Thabo Mbeki had just been recalled by the ANC as president of the country.
Rather foolishly, I was excited, caught up in all the hype about how the ruling party under Jacob Zuma would be returning to a spirit of pro-poor politics and collective decision-making, breaking with the leadership years of supposedly aloof, distant Mbeki, who had become a bit of a laughing stock with his views on Aids.
This week, I re-read an October 2008 letter Mbeki penned to Zuma not two weeks after the former’s recall. In that letter, the betrayed statesman calmly explained that he would not allow himself to simply be “deployed” to campaign for the ANC in the 2009 elections – and he has quietly continued to not campaign in every election since.
Every time an election comes around, the speculation around whether Mbeki will hit the streets for the ANC begins anew – and it’s pretty pathetic each time. Because obviously Mbeki will do no such thing as long as Jacob Zuma is in charge of the ANC. He made that bluntly clear in 2008 already, so much so that one would think he would never have been asked to do it again.
But yet, even ahead of this year’s local government elections, whether Mbeki would canvass for the ANC was making the front pages of newspapers. I recall we even ran an article with the headline Mbeki supports us, he’s just … quite busy – ANC.
The party was honestly trying to get us to believe that Mbeki would have canvassed for his party, if only he weren’t so caught up in his peace work in Africa.
One ANC branch even released a statement to say “It is mischievous to suggest that Comrade Mbeki is not keen to campaign for the ANC.” Mischievous, hey? Pathetic.
Here’s what Mbeki told these guys eight years ago already. He explained right at the start of his letter, addressed to Zuma, that he was writing specifically because he “was informed” about how he would be “required” to campaign.
“I decided to write this letter after I was informed that, two days ago, on October 7, the president of the ANC Youth League and you the following day, October 8, told the country, through the media, that you would require me to campaign for the ANC during the 2009 election campaign.”
After expressing his surprise at this, Mbeki wrote that he “could not understand how the same ANC which was so disenchanted with me could, within a fortnight, consider me such a dependable cadre as could be relied upon to promote the political fortunes of the very same movement, the ANC, which I had betrayed in such a grave and grevious manner as to require that I should be removed from the presidency of the Republic a mere six or seven months before the end of our term”.
He then launched into a long and, at the time, controversial series of statements about his concerns that the ANC was building a cult of personality around Zuma. He listed a long pantheon of ANC heroes and heroines of the struggle he had interacted with, and for whom he had the greatest respect. He did not name Zuma as one of them. And he went to great pains to point out that although the personality of Nelson Mandela had been built up to the cult-like status it was, the decision to do that had been a strategic one by the ANC itself, and was not Mandela’s desire.
He listed a number of problems the ANC still needed to overcome, and those problems are still around and are, if anything, far worse today than they were then.
Mbeki could have fought his recall by the ANC. He probably wouldn’t have won that battle, but he went quietly because he had nothing to fear and wrote that his intention was not to “rule from the grave”. He added that he would ensure that “whatever I do in no way involves me in the internal politics of the ANC or the functioning of the government of South Africa”, and that’s a promise he has kept.
Zuma cannot afford to let go of power quite so easily, to go and quietly smoke his pipe somewhere in peace. He made that very clear last weekend, when he told his national executive committee (NEC) colleagues that he would not allow “the enemy” to put him in jail.
In his letter, Mbeki said history would judge his contribution up until his recall in September 2008.
But it’s the years since that recall that have made the man look far better than we may ever have realised.
I’ve often imagined that Mbeki must be loving the turmoil and crisis precipitated by Zuma’s years of plunder and misrule. I’ve pictured him munching popcorn as the horror movie that is the Zuma years plays out, allowing Mbeki to appear all the greater by comparison.
Now, though, I realise it probably causes him pain. During the Mandela years, it was obvious that Mandela put the country ahead of the ANC, and certainly ahead of himself. During the Mbeki years, it was more about party politics, for sure, but Mbeki also put the needs of the country first, whether you would agree with how he wanted to do that or not. He understood that we need economic growth, and when the rand was being devalued suspiciously, he instituted an inquiry to sort it out – and he did. You can’t imagine Zuma even dreaming of doing such a thing. With Zuma, it’s clearly Zuma first, then the ANC (his loyalists in the ANC to be precise) and only then the country (if we may consider ourselves so lucky).
Mbeki kept the selfish squabblers who are now in charge of the NEC from the gates, and they hated him for it.
Yes, Zuma makes him look better than he probably deserves, but I think Mbeki has felt what Barack Obama probably already knows will be his lot in America for the next eight years: to see a selfish idiot steadily undo your legacy and everything you hoped your country might someday become.