By Mbangwa Xaba

For a nation stunned by spine-chilling allegations of mafia-esque activities against its president, the glitzy celebration of former president Thabo Mbeki’s 80th birthday in Sandton was a welcome jamboree to light up the national mood for a fleeting moment. Besides serving as a temporary pacifier to a nation in distress, the occasion holds historic significance. Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, born on 18 June 1942, produced some shining spots in our history, just as he was responsible for dimming a lot more. He was South Africa’s second president, from 14 June 1999 to 24 September 2008, having served as deputy to the founding president, Nelson Mandela since 1994.
He has been the ANC’s heir apparent from his youth as a protégé of Oliver Reginald “OR” Tambo. Many ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, liked him as well.
With a Master of Economics degree from the University of Sussex in London, Mbeki stood head-and-shoulders above many of his peers, politically and intellectually. He pioneered many ground breaking thought leadership initiatives like the African Renaissance and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). During his tenure, South Africa experienced economic growth never seen since the Second World War. The country saw three years of average 5% economic growth between 2004 and 2007 with a blossoming black middle class. Even when he faltered, it was magnificently camouflaged by his fluency. An astute wordsmith, Mbeki foretold his unflattering future as rosily as only he could.
In the book Oliver Tambo Remembered edited by Pallo Jordan in 2007, Mbeki revealed that Tambo taught him to understand leadership, including never to lie and never to make false and unrealistic promises.
“History will make its own judgment about whether or not we have fully honoured the continuing mission Oliver Tambo gave us in 1989 – to look after the ANC and make sure it succeeds,” he opined.
Well-read and a Shakespearian scholar, when he placed his fate in the hands of history as the final arbiter, Mbeki must have erased from his mind the words of a Jacobean playwright, John Fletcher, who said: “Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving.”
In his second term as president, he commandeered a dizzying height of political support. The ANC enjoyed 70% of electoral support. Today, there are fears the party may not make it as one of the governing partners in some provinces as the country faces possible coalition governments in 2024.
As we celebrated his birthday, we could not help but look back at his role in getting the ANC to its current moribund position. To recap, let us revisit the ANC’s 50th National Conference in 1997 at the University of the North West. The outgoing president at the time, Nelson Mandela, declined a second term. Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were elected unopposed as president and deputy, respectively.
The same happened at the 51st conference, held at the University of Stellenbosch.
This time, however, significant disagreements emerged. Mbeki was accused of propagating neoliberal economic policies by ANC partners of the Tripartite Alliance – Cosatu and the SACP.
In fact, he opposed a resolution supporting Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) but lost. He gave those he labelled “extreme left” in the party a dressing down in his closing speech.
The ANC went to that conference faced with its first major scandals – the Arms Deal and Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism. Unsubstantiated allegations started doing rounds that he was somehow complicit in the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993 and his relationship with Winnie Mandela and Zuma took a turn for the worst. Things were so bad that Zuma had to announce publicly that he had no presidential ambitions ahead of the conference. In December 2007 at the 52nd, the infamous Polokwane conference, the ANC was publicly at war with itself. Mbeki wanted a third term at all costs. History was made as the era of factional slates was heralded in the ANC and for the first time since 1952 the ANC leadership was fiercely contested. Zuma won and from that day onward there was no peace in the organisation.
A break-away formation that was pro-Mbeki, the Congress of the People (Cope) was born as Mbeki and his supporters were out of sorts. When he resigned as president in September 2008, Alec Russell of the Financial Times, in an opinion piece, “Mbeki: Aloof leader who fell from grace,” wrote: “On Saturday, he was ousted from the presidency accused by his rivals in the ruling African National Congress of abusing the offices of state to pursue his political enemies, mocked abroad for his policies on Aids and the crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe and derided at home for losing touch with his people.
“His career had once promised to mark him out as one of the great statesmen of postcolonial Africa. Instead, he has suffered a humiliating fall from grace at the end of a saga of intrigue, hubris and nemesis, worthy of Shakespeare whose works he has long commended to his comrades.”
In hindsight, what could have happened had Mbeki suppressed his huge appetite for power? What if he did not enforce capitalist free-market macro-economic policies and stuck to the revolutionary course of the pro-poor economic policies? What if he intervened in Zimbabwe before it descended into an economic meltdown? What if he had the foresight on the HIV/Aids pandemic? What if he had placed the unity of the ANC above his own love for power? What would have become of this deeply divided nation had Mbeki set aside his aloofness and followed the humanist reconciliatory brilliance of Nelson Mandela that sought to forge a new nation? What if his leadership was grounded in the desire and ability to transcend above his wisdom, to fortify the country’s democratic foundations? We will never know.
It’s all buried in the past. What is left is his eloquence, words that masked his actions so well that a few dare pass an opinion that Mbeki had a hand in ripping the ANC apart.
Even fewer will concede that the ANC is not only at war with itself, but it is at the receiving end of history’s merciless and unforgiving punishment for the sins of just one man.
Those sloganeering for the renewal and the unity of the ANC will do themselves a big favour if they were to take a leaf from Mbeki’s chapter – talk is cheap and history is ruthless.

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