RW Johnson sizes up Mbeki’s potential presidential challenge against Ramaphosa at ANC conference

With over 175,000 people having viewed the recording of his keynote address at BNC#4, political scientist RW Johnson has become something of a YouTube ‘rock star’. His unique brand of considered, rational analysis is prized among those South Africans prefer brutal honesty about those who govern them. In this interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews, he provides perspective on 80 year old Thabo Mbeki’s political comeback; next month’s crucial ANC Elective Conference; and likely coalitions after South Africa’s watershed National Election in 2024. As expected, it’s another RWJ tour de force.

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The return of Thabo Mbeki?

By RW Johnson

RW Johnson

Over the past month or two former President Mbeki has been seldom out of the news, first with entirely accurate criticism of Ramaphosa’s empty promise to bring forward a new social contract, then with further quite accurate criticism of the poor quality of leadership available to the ANC, and most recently with queries as to what will happen if it is decided that Ramaphosa has a case to answer over the Phala Phala case.

This has, of course coincided with Jacob Zuma’s furious accusations of treason against Ramaphosa and Kgalema Motlanthe’s trenchant observations about the ANC’s loss of purpose since 1994 and how it has led the country to “a precipice”. In addition, the former deputy chief justice, Dikgang Moseneke, has sadly declared that “our revolution has failed” and that none of the hopes of the struggle generation have been achieved.

It is, of course, unusual to hear anything like frank appraisals about the ANC’s performance from anyone in the ANC. Indeed, it is only Moseneke (an old PAC activist) – who feels able to say that “the revolution has failed”. The ANC still believes that it is implementing the national democratic revolution and that the NDR also provides the guidelines for the future. So an ANC member can’t declare that the revolution has failed unless they wish to resign from the movement. For there is, of course, no tradition of free speech about such matters within the party.

The changing ANC

However, ANC tradition is fading before our eyes. In exile there was no such thing as free elections for the senior party posts. In effect all the top six (and, indeed, many below that level) would be filled by a secret conclave of a small intra-party oligarchy, with only one name being put up for each post so that everyone “emerged” unopposed and without a vote.

This is how Tambo and Mandela became leaders and Mbeki after them. (And even now Mmamoloko Kubayi, Minister for Human Settlements and a Ramaphosa loyalist, argues that really no one should have opposed him once he decided to run again. Such attitudes derive from the exaggerated “respect” paid to an African chief.)

But things began to change as soon as the ANC emerged from clandestinity. In 1991 Ramaphosa ran for the post of Secretary-General even though the incumbent, Alfred Nzo, angrily insisted that he had no intention of giving up the job. And then a number of de facto contenders emerged for the succession to Mandela – Hani, Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale.

Hani was murdered and the predominant exile group insisted on Mbeki’s elevation. In 2001 Mbeki then quickly discovered a (fictional) conspiracy against him involving Ramaphosa, Phosa and Sexwale, effectively knocking them out of further contention

Nonetheless, once Mbeki dismissed Jacob Zuma from the deputy presidency in 2005 there was a quite open fight for the ANC leadership, which the insurgent won. When Zuma was re-elected president in 2014 Kgalema Motlanthe openly opposed him and in 2017 a whole series of candidates ran against one another for the party leadership. The same thing is happening again now and the electioneering is quite open and personal even though that’s not supposed to happen.

As a result the ANC is, ever so slowly, re-inventing freedom of speech. Currently we are at an intermediate stage where only the top oligarchs – former presidents and presidential contenders – are able to speak out critically, something that ordinary branch members would still be ill-advised to do.

ANC members are still told that they must be “good revolutionaries” whose first duty is “discipline”. Such notions leave little space for democracy. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s spokesman has made it clear that even any ANC leader who has criticisms of the President ought really to confide these privately to Ramaphosa, thus avoiding the horror of public free speech.

The complex Mr Mbeki

The reason that Mbeki and Motlanthe speak out publicly is, of course, because they wish to persuade others and influence events. Mbeki’s position is the more interesting. He has spent almost his entire lifetime in the ANC, having joined the ANC Youth League in 1956 and he has been an NEC member for nearly fifty years.

Given the hopes and ambitions Mbeki had for an ANC-ruled South Africa and the fact that his personal story has been completely synonymous with that of the ANC, one can only imagine how anguishing he must find the state of today’s South Africa. His mind doubtless replays constantly the crucial turning points which led to today’s complete denouement.

Mbeki is, of course, a complicated man exhibiting many of the traits that Franz Fanon thought typical of the colonized intellectual – paranoia, grandiosity and “an exaggerated sensitivity”. All of these things came together in the Aids denialism which ruined his career and reputation. His hypersensitivity to the fact that HIV rates were enormously higher among Africans than among whites, Indians or Coloureds made him painfully over-conscious of racial stereotypes of African sexual behaviour.

This in turn made it essential for him to look elsewhere for the causes of HIV/Aids. The disease was in any case a tremendous challenge to anyone with paranoid leanings, habituated to seeing Africans as victims, because it was a disease which one could, in most cases, simply choose not to get. On the orthodox theory of HIV/Aids, anyway, one could simply take full personal responsibility, choose not to have unsafe sex and stick to that.

Mbeki’s paranoia meant that he was never going to accept that. Inevitably he looked for causes which cast Africans as victims of powerful Western interests – the CIA, Big Pharma and the whites whom he saw as harbouring those upsetting stereotypes of black sexual behaviour. (Similarly, his support for Mugabe was rooted in the paranoid belief that the Zimbabwean Opposition was the creation of Western imperialists who were hell-bent on overthrowing all the liberation movements of southern Africa.)

His grandiosity had led him to cast himself as the leader of Africa and even of the whole global South, to centralise all power in the presidency and to insist on a special presidential jet, his own Air Force One -something which even the leaders of France and Britain lacked. The media, who were both scared of him and deferential, fawned upon him as an intellectual giant. So he had no hesitation, despite his own lack of any medical background, in coming up with his own explanation for HIV/Aids, setting himself at odds with the world’s scientists.

Indeed, Mbeki’s bizarre peregrination into the world of Aids controversy was so deeply rooted in his own psychological make-up that even his closest advisers could not prevent him returning again and again to the subject, long after it had become hugely self-damaging. Unsurprisingly, as he recently revealed yet again, he remains fixated on this theme.

A relatively well-educated man in a movement of uneducated and poorly educated people, Mbeki was used to being the cleverest man in the room. His paranoia meant that he had an almost preternatural ability to spot those who might become his rivals and he was notorious for his ability to arrange their downfall.

He could also be extremely charming – though charm is, of course, also a manipulative quantity. It was, nonetheless, striking how completely he won over, for example, many of the Afrikaners who went to Dakar to “meet the ANC”. Few other ANC politicians had that ability.

If Mbeki had won at Polokwane ……

When Zuma won at Polokwane (the first contested election Mbeki had ever faced) Mbeki concluded that South Africa was now on the way to becoming “a neo-colonial basket case” and “just another African kleptocracy”. Given what happened under Zuma that may seem a little too kind. But it is important to remember what a different country South Africa would have been had Mbeki won.

Mbeki, who had effectively run the country since 1994, proposed that after stepping down as state president in 2009 he would remain as ANC President. Simultaneously there would be a sweeping centralisation of power within the ANC and a central electoral commission would enable the central party apparat to impose its candidates everywhere. (Mbeki had already taken powers to appoint all mayors and provincial premiers.)

By 2009 Mbeki would have ruled South Africa for fifteen years but with the aid of these reforms he would have called the shots at least until 2014 and probably longer. South Africa would have been well on the way to having an African president-for-life. All this was indignantly rejected at the ANC’s National General Council in 2005 but Mbeki remained angry, petulant and in denial.

In the run-up to the Polokwane conference enormous pressure was exerted to try to guarantee the “right” result. Old stagers in the security services said that never in the apartheid period had they known such high volumes of phone/fax/computer tapping, mail interception etc. Hoax emails were manufactured and the bogus “Browse Mole” report was circulated, accusing Zuma of planning a coup d’etat with Angolan and Libyan help. Many of Zuma’s associates and even his lawyers and accountants suffered police raids. Zuma’s bodyguards claimed to have foiled four separate assassination attempts in this period.

On the eve of Polokwane the National Prosecuting Authority leaked details of another set of corruption charges against Zuma, clearly an attempt to disqualify him. The press had at last realised that the split in the ANC left them free to criticise both sides but the SABC, clearly under presidential orders, took a strong pro-Mbeki stance.

By this stage Mbeki was in a very strange state. His articles for ANC Today became increasingly weird. He continued to promote a document which likened medics who prescribed anti-retroviral drugs to Nazi concentration camp doctors and said that Africans who accepted such treatment were guilty of a “slave mentality”. The intelligence services who had been heavily deployed against the Zuma camp assured Mbeki that he would win – and substantial bribes were offered to Zuma delegates to change sides. It was all in vain.

Mooting a return

It is as well to remember this picture when evaluating Mbeki’s stance today. In the fifteen years which have elapsed since Polokwane Mbeki has recovered his balance. He has, quite correctly, always had a low opinion of Ramaphosa and without doubt he feels that not only could he do a far better job himself but that there is no one else in the ANC who is any more capable than the hopeless incumbent.

True, Mbeki is now 80, but he seems fit and alert. Donald Trump wants to run again in 2024 when he will be 78 and Biden, who will then be 81, is keen to run too. Nancy Pelosi is already 82. So ambition does not fade with age and in any case, heading the ANC in a liberated South Africa has been the meaning of Mbeki’s whole life.

Mbeki is a thoughtful man who thinks well ahead so he has probably been considering this situation for some while. He is well aware that he lacks the sort of regional or ethnic following which made Zuma so formidable. So there is no chance of his being swept to power on a popular wave of support. His chances depend simply on the dire state of the country, the fact that the election of any RET candidate would spell the early collapse of the party and state, and Ramaphosa’s proven inability to halt the process of decline.

Over the past eighteen months Mbeki, using the Mbeki Foundation as his base, has been having regular meetings with all the most important Afrikaner groups including the Solidarity Movement, the Afrikaner Bond (formerly the Broederbond) and even representatives from Orania. By all accounts they share much the same view of the country’s decline. Mbeki is doubtless aware that in practical terms these are by far the most capable groups likely to step into the vacuum left by a collapsing state.

He has, moreover, now made his key move, asking the ANC to consider what it will do if the three judges empowered by Parliament to assess the Phala Phala scandal decide that Ramaphosa has indeed a case to answer. He would then presumably have to step aside and at the last moment the moderate wing of the ANC and the business community would have to consider who to back in his place. Doubtless Mbeki already has well-placed clients who would then announce that Mbeki alone is the indispensable man to fill that void.

Pros and cons

Despite his many weaknesses, a substantial argument could be made for Mbeki. Economic growth was far faster under his administration than under any other post-1994 president. GEAR was not fully implemented but even so it was extremely successful in paying down the public debt. And had Mbeki’s plan to privatise the SOEs been followed through we would have been spared all the travails of Eskom and Transnet. Corruption and BEE shenanigans were already a runaway train under Mbeki but he might have spared us the worst of the Guptas.

The problem with Mbeki is that he is still Mbeki with the same disastrous psychological flaws. Moreover, he has never apologized and admitted fault for his policies on Aids and Zimbabwe, two huge and wholly unnecessary disasters.

The fundamental reason for Mbeki’s failure in power was that he remained attuned to the exile ANC, a disciplined Leninist party run on strict democratic centralist lines. But from the moment the ANC returned to South Africa it began to change as its activists put down roots and acquired diverse sources of institutional leverage, power and authority.

With that came new networks and, crucially, new sources of income independent of the party oligarchs. Increasingly the ANC had to accommodate all manner of pressure groups, regional notables, trade union bosses, municipal barons, traditional chiefs, former Bantustan apparatchiks and so on.

Mbeki’s answer to that was to try ever greater centralisation, which was easily thrown out. Since Mbeki lost at Polokwane the ANC has become ever more divided and factionalised, ever less amenable to rule by a central authority: the presidency now is a mere shadow of what it was under Mbeki.

In other words, to govern now Mbeki would be an old dog required to learn new tricks. And all his old touchstones – the African Renaissance, Nepad, the non-aligned movement – matter no more so he would also have to change his spots. There are, too, still many cadres in the ANC with unhappy memories of Mbeki’s manipulative and vindictive behaviour.

So the odds must still be against such a return. But these are desperate times, requiring desperate remedies. As yet nothing can be ruled out.

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