Thabo Mbeki on the wasted Zuma years & how to get the ANC back on track

Thabo Mbeki’s endorsement of the ANC ahead of Wednesday’s election could lead to a new role for the former president

05 May 2019 - 00:00 By qaanitah hunter

There was something different in the demeanour of former president Thabo Mbeki when I interviewed him last week.
Two years ago, it seemed like all the hope he had for SA was lost. He looked daunted but also nonchalant. He seemed caught between trying to save the country and resigned that the ANC had done this damage to itself.
There was a subtle "I told you so" to the country that was grappling with the height of the Zupta phenomenon and its related maladies. It was no secret that over a decade before he had not trusted the country to be in the hands of his then deputy.
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And 10 years later, the country was in an unprecedented crisis of state capture, further crippled by an ailing economy.But a lot has happened in just two years. Jacob Zuma was recalled from office, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president and the country was given a tentative lifeline.In my interview this time around, Mbeki had a more hopeful mien. It seemed like his reignited optimism in the prospects for the country and his hope in the renewal of the party he has belonged to for over 50 years made him endorse the ANC a few days before this interview.I greeted the former president in the foyer of his foundation's offices in Killarney, Johannesburg, and he was reminded that I was the "Maharani" girl. He chuckled in reference to an article I wrote last year about the famous meeting of Zuma's backers at the Maharani hotel in Durban.In August last year the Sunday Times published details, and a picture, of a clandestine meeting attended by Zuma, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and a group of Zuma's allies to plot their response to the presidency of their political rival, Ramaphosa.
I stood there red-faced, both embarrassed and tickled that a former statesman recognised me by the moniker.
It's hard not to feel intimidated in Mbeki's presence. The last time I sat across from him, my knees rattled. This time I came prepared, with a list of questions, knowing full well that when you are a former president, you pretty much dictate the terms of an interview. But I tried anyway.
I started with a self-indulgent question, something I have wondered about for a while.
"When you look at the country, are you overtly disappointed from your hopes that you had 25 years ago or are you comforted in some way?" I asked.
"There must be some other choice ... there must be an option C," Mbeki hit back.
He elaborates. He said it's quite obvious that the ANC did not succeed in the eradication of the apartheid legacy.
I did not expect such a frank concession from Mbeki, who served SA from 1994 until 2008 as deputy president and later president.
"I think one of the things that become important to understand, which may be what we did not properly understand then, was the stubbornness of the thing that we inherited," he said in reference to the society the ANC government inherited that could be dated back to colonialism and 1652.
Then Mbeki said something often touted by critics and academics who comment on SA's transition from apartheid to democracy.
"I am saying that it may very well be that in 1994 we visualised a kind of speed with regard to the eradication of that legacy which was unrealistic," the former president said.
But Mbeki was not as pessimistic as some of his political peers, who have become disillusioned.
"Given the experience we have had over the last 25 years, we are in a much better position to say what it is that needs to be done," he argued.
Even though Mbeki has endorsed the ANC in the 2019 general elections, he believes the party's work will begin post-May 8.
"We will have the elections but after that we need to say, the reality of the matter is that we said we need to build a nonracial SA. That is what the constitution says. We are not quite there. What is it that we must do about that?"Mbeki is passionate about the economy and expands on his thoughts and ideas in detail. SA can only dream of 6% growth if it doesn't get real investment in the economy.While he is critical of the ANC government that came after his tenure, he is equally critical of the private sector, which is risk averse and, according to him, choosing to stay liquid instead of reinvesting in the economy.
"You know, I have said for many years that part of the challenge we faced, since 1994, is that some of our South African investors, even in 1994, came to the conclusion that the transition from apartheid to democracy was too good to be true and therefore were quite convinced that, sooner or later, something was going to go wrong," he said.
The levels of liquidity maintained by South African companies were not normal and this continues to persist.
"It is because of a view amongst some investors here who have said that transition, which people called a miracle, was, as I was saying, too good to be true and something will go wrong tomorrow and therefore we need to be very careful not to invest."
I asked him whether this was further entrenched when people saw what happened during the nine "wasted years" of Zuma?
This is where the interview began looking back at the Zuma years. Of course I sat up in my chair and leant in to hear the former president's honest appraisal of his successor's tenure.
"Sure, so we now start doing wrong things. And indeed people who had been sceptical from the beginning are watching and say this is what we had been afraid would happen. It confirms the fears and suspicions we had had. If you see what is coming out of these judicial commissions, I am saying the people who were sceptical would say, we suspected these things would happen. That is why we were cautious," Mbeki said of the perception among investors.
I then push harder. Does Mbeki agree that the Zuma years were wasted?
It is not that simple for him. He does not believe in sound bites. For Mbeki, I realised, things needed to be holistically assessed and were not black or white. There are varying shades of grey that he believes are important to unpack.
"So now I think you would have to segment ... to break down these nine years, if it is nine years ... to say what happened in this area, this area, and the other area. Because you would also find that some of the problems which we experience now are older than nine years," he said.
The separation of the two departments of education, basic and higher, is a good legacy from the Zuma years, he said.
The Eskom crisis, he said as an example, is a problem that predates the Zuma era. He hinted that the crisis at Eskom may even be a fault of his own presidency.
"It is obvious also that you have a lot of negative things like this during the nine years," he said in reference to the bloating public service as a result of patronage.
In 2014 Mbeki kept his vote secret. I asked what had changed that made him endorse the ANC?
"It was not possible for me to go out to the South African population and say to them, 'the ANC has a good story to tell, vote for the ANC'. Because I knew that things were going wrong. These things which come up now in these commissions, you have got to see that things are going wrong. I was saying it would [be] dishonest for a person like me, who knew some of what was going wrong, to go and say we have a good story to tell, when I know for a fact there is no good story to tell. I couldn't do that," Mbeki explained.
He said the party's admission of its mistakes and acknowledging that it had "veered off course" were enough for him to jump back on board and help save the sinking ship.
"It is therefore important for me to re-engage the ANC to help because we are no longer dealing with an ANC which is allowed to rot."
Naturally the former president seems engaged with the details emerging at the different inquiries that are continuing in SA.
So I asked him: "Mr President, are you shocked by anything that emanates from these commissions? Are you shocked by the extent of the rot, criminality?"
Of course he is shocked. But a true Mbeki-esque response would have an explanation.
"But I think it will be not honest to say that one didn't know or suspect, at least suspect. But of course, I did not know many of these details, but I think in principle there are some things that are truly shocking, like for instance, the Nugent report," he said, referring to the probe into Tom Moyane's reign at the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
Besides having a conversation about how to build the economy, Mbeki proposed a process for every state-owned entity similar to the Nugent report that got into the heart of Sars.
Mbeki, like Kgalema Motlanthe, does not believe that Ramaphosa by himself can fix the problems both in the ANC and in the country.
He acknowledged that the party leadership might be contaminated, but he pinned his hopes on the party's integrity commission report that recommended that senior party leaders be removed from its list for parliament.
I think Mbeki may be overstating the muscle of the integrity commission, but he insisted that the party cannot avoid acting on the ills plaguing the ANC, especially after making the commitment to renew the party.
"If we don't do this renewal and deal with all these matters as we are discussing them, I am saying effectively we will be sentencing the ANC to death," he said.
Mbeki seems to veer between optimism and caution. He is not Ramaphoric but he does not suffer from the slightest Zuma-era hangover.
He now appears to be ready to play some role in the party after almost 10 years in political obscurity.
While the ANC top leadership may be a mixed bag of political factionalism, they probably all gave a sigh of relief when Mbeki made it known that he would put his cross next to Ramaphosa's face on the ballot paper this Wednesday.
This time around, his vote is not a secret. Nor are his views: "A rotten ANC cannot correct the problems of SA."..

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