Thabo Mbeki: A political obituary

On the fatal flaw which brought the South African president down

Last night Thabo Mbeki announced on national television that he had submitted his resignation as President of South Africa. This followed the decision by the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress that he should go. And, so ended the rule of a man who had once completely dominated his party and this country - intellectually, morally, and politically.

Mbeki had served the ANC for fifty two years, mostly at the highest level of the organisation. ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, the person sent to deliver the message that it had been decided that he should go, was only elected onto the NEC in December last year.

One has to wonder at the wisdom of treating Mbeki in this way. Max Weber once noted: "A nation forgives if its interests have been damaged, but no nation forgives if its honour has been offended, especially by a bigoted self-righteousness."

It is reflective of Nelson Mandela's great political understanding that he took such care to respect the honour and dignity of the Afrikaners as they surrendered power. That the new ANC leadership have not granted the outgoing Mbeki administration the same privilege may come back to haunt them; for it provides the losers at Polokwane with yet another source of grievance.

There was something pathetic too about the basis on which the new ANC finally effected his departure. For all the policies and actions on which he could, and should have, been removed from office; in the end it was on the flimsy basis of Judge Chris Nicholson's findings (or ‘semi-findings') of political interference in the work of the National Prosecuting Authority that led to his removal from office.

It also seems that the unseemly haste with which the ANC acted was motivated by a desire to do some political meddling of their own - in order to put an end to the NPA's appeal against the Nicholson judgment. The Sunday Independent quoted Mantashe as saying that "the biggest worry for us is the question of the possible reversal of the closure of that judgment."

I have tried to analyse some of the causes of Mbeki's downfall before (see here and here.) But there is one further puzzle thrown up by the recent complaints about his rule. The claim which was ultimately used to bury Mbeki was that he had abused state institutions against his rivals. The Sunday Times reported that within Friday's NEC meeting the charge against Mbeki had been led by, among others, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa. They had, the newspaper reported, "argued that Mbeki had abused state power to push them out of politics."

Yet if one looks back over the past few years what really did Mbeki in, in his struggle with Jacob Zuma, was a lack of ruthlessness. Mark Gevisser describes his approach as one of "ambivalence". At crucial moments when he could have finished Zuma off - he, or his placemen, prevaricated or compromised or deferred the issue.

For instance there was the 2003 decision by the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka - apparently taken after briefing Mbeki - not to allow the prosecution of Zuma along with Schabir Shaik. In his 2007 biography of Mbeki Gevisser records:

"Just before Ngcuka made his statement, Mbeki had, in fact, asked Zuma to resign. But by this point Zuma's attitude had hardened [he had offered to resign in November 2002], and he dared his boss to fire him. Mbeki blinked, and instead authorised a statement to be released from the Presidency, declaring that no action would be taken against his deputy."

Then, when the prosecution belatedly went ahead, government provided an open cheque book to fund Zuma's endless and often highly speculative appeals. This allowed him to spend R10m on the pre-trial legal manoeuvring which successfully delayed his day in court until after the succession issue had been decided at Polokwane.

The basic flaw in Mbeki's character was well described by the UCT academic, Robert Schrire, in a November 1998 essay for Leadership magazine headed "Thabo's Republic." Mbeki, Schrire noted, had difficulty confronting his opponents directly or openly expressing anger. "This temperament can be problematic in contexts which demand strong action." In order to protect himself from conflict situations - which he hated - he preferred "to operate behind the scenes where he is an acknowledged master of the tactical thrust. He has created a network of loyalists who have penetrated all levels of the ANC and the government and who protect him from outside pressures."

This approach initially eased Mbeki's entry into the highest office. Ramaphosa's more confrontational style had generated greater fear and enmity within the party. With Mbeki, the senior party leadership simply failed to recognise the threat and ended up handing him almost unfettered power over their careers. Once power was won his manipulative and vindictive style would engender growing hatred and resentment; as increasing numbers of party cadres began to see his hidden hand behind their misfortune. And yet he would ultimately struggle against, and be defeated by, an opponent like Jacob Zuma who simply stood up to him, and took him on in public. To use the words of Machiavelli, when it came to this confrontation, Mbeki "knew not how, or, more correctly, dared not attempt an act (although having a justifiable opportunity) for which every one would have admired his courage."


There is one passage from that 1998 Leadership article which has an almost prophetic quality. In his piece Schrire set out one possible scenario for the upcoming Mbeki presidency:

"A powerful but unloved leader, surrounded by a loyal but mediocre staff, seeks to control the vast apparatus of government. His manipulative style leads to his gradual isolation from both the public and political elite. Motivated by a mix of policy goals and a vengeful private agenda, he rewards loyalists and seeks vindictively to punish those who oppose him. He views politics as a struggle between enemies rather than a competition between opponents. Policy failures are attributed to conspiracies and hidden dark forces. Ultimately, the combination of character flaws and the excesses of the imperial presidency bring about the inevitable tragedy."

This was not the only option, Schrire hastened to add, but warned that if Mbeki allowed "his darker instincts to become dominant, his presidency will be doomed, and South Africa with it."

We know that Mbeki read the Schrire piece - and to some degree obsessed over it - for there are at least three responses to it by him or his acolytes. Smuts Ngonyama submitted a response at the time which was never published. The ANC's submission to the Human Rights Commission inquiry into racism in the media in 2000 - written by Mbeki but (typically) given to Jeff Radebe to present -quoted from it extensively. Even more typically, Mbeki proceeded to describe the above passages as evidence of the media projecting "the repulsive and terrifying stereotype of the African barbarian".

Then a strange little book published under the name of five Mbeki-ites in 2001 returned to the topic. It complained that because Ngonyama's rebuttal had never been published "the truthfulness of the article was therefore self-evident to any reasonable person. The credibility of this assertion would grow ever more weighty as other pundits constructed an image of Mr Mbeki, based on the Schrire fabrications [see here] - which professorial concoctions, after all, apparently were never contested."

If there is any pathos in Mbeki's departure from office it is this: he was forewarned of that which would bring about his political downfall. And though he railed against it, he was unable to escape his fate.

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