Mbeki vs Zuma redux?

Andrew Donaldson on the possibility of Thabo campaigning for the ANC in this election


FORMER president Thabo Mbeki has been asked to campaign for the ANC ahead of what is reckoned to be a crucial general election for Cyril Ramaphosa and the ruling party. This is according to the Sunday Times, which at the weekend claimed that ANC elections chief Mdumiseni Ntuli had been deployed to convince Mbeki to bat for Squirrel in the latter’s bid for a second term in office.

Well, there’s no harm in asking, I suppose. But it’s perhaps telling that, at the time of writing, there’s been no comment from Mbeki himself. Of course, it could be that he is still considering the pros and cons of such an undertaking and is accordingly keeping schtum for now. Keeping those cards close to his chest. Which is hardly surprising, our Thabo being quite Mbekiavellian, as the old joke goes.

Be that as it may, the report has drawn considerable reaction from the commentariat. Most analysts point out that Mbeki is hardly “ambassador” material and quite unsuitable for the task, seeing as his time in office was a disaster. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Principal charge levelled against him is the Aids denialism. His refusal to allow antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals contributed to the needless deaths of some 330 000 South Africans. The economy may have tanked in the years following his removal from office, but life expectancy in the country rose by almost ten years thanks to the introduction of ARV programmes.

There is also consensus that no sane person would campaign for the ANC given its record of 30 years in power. Runaway unemployment, widespread poverty, imploding health and education systems, soaring crime and murder, non-existent local services, infrastructural collapse … it’s the true State of the Nation Address in a nutshell. 

But how do you talk all that up to voters? With a happy meal? Perhaps a T-shirt thrown in for good measure? Well, yes, and a few dire warnings that a vote for the opposition will hasten the return of apartheid. The cynics among us will argue that this is how it has been on the ANC campaign trail for the past three decades. So why should it change now? 

The short answer to that is Jacob Zuma. 

Accused Number One has “history”, if I may put it that way, with Mbeki. The two detest each other — and it is this mutual loathing that would add an intriguing element to electioneering were Mbeki to openly support the ANC in its 2024 campaign.

Zuma’s re-entry into national politics, through the ragbag of malcontents and raving yahoos that is the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party, is symptomatic of everything Mbeki supposedly despises: populist, primitive, tribal, backward-looking, xenophobic. He, on the other hand, considers himself a renaissance man: urbane, sophisticated, philosophical, rational.

That said, I suspect that, however low Mbeki’s regard may be for Zuma, it must surely be more than matched by his antipathy for those within the ANC who engineered his ouster as party leader in December 2007 and, nine months later, his recall as national president — most of whom still serve on the party’s national executive committee. This must have been a crushing blow to someone who regarded himself as one of the continent’s leading intellectuals: to be passed over in favour of a semi-literate, sex-mad Zulu barbarian? Quelle horreur, and then some.

Mbeki accordingly kept a low profile during the Zuma presidency. There was talk that he’d joined the Congress of the People, the breakaway party formed by Mbeki loyalists following his ousting. But he retained his ANC membership — even though he refused to take part in election campaigns during the Zuma presidency, which he openly criticised from time to time.

He has been just as critical of Ramaphosa’s administration. So much so that its strikes one as peculiar that the ANC would now actively seek his help. But then maybe they’re really that desperate, as latest polling suggests their support is dramatically declining. 

Or maybe they’re simply masochistic. Consider: Mbeki had this to say to students at his school of public and international affairs in August, “When you say I must go campaign next year (and) tell people to vote ANC, how am I going to do that when I know very well the branch of the ANC in this constituency is led by a criminal? You can’t. It is not possible to go and say people must vote for a criminal.” 

And this, in another forum: “There are many things that are going wrong which are not being attended to. I can’t go to ordinary people of our country and say, ‘Vote for these people who are doing wrong things.’ I can’t do that.” 

And so on and so on and so forth, as the man was wont to say. 

But even if he were to campaign for the party, I doubt he’d be any good at it. There was a time, maybe, when that “clever” schtick, all that hyper-charged jargon, went down a treat with the masses, but it won’t work today. Mbeki is just too dull. He doesn’t dance, he doesn’t sing, he’ll be rubbish at rallies.

Zuma, on the other hand, is very much of the soil. Now in his dotage, he has gone total tonto. Full of old bull elephant rage and the sort of senseless mad warrior posturing needed to gee up a Saturday afternoon crowd, he has emerged as the 100 per cent poster boy for current South African politics. 

Last week, he told a rally near Durban that the MK Party was aiming for a two-thirds majority in the elections and, once that was in the bag, its chief priority would be to restore power to traditional leaders. It’s 19th century stuff, and boy, does it go down a treat with the tribes; one chief was quoted by the SABC as vowing to shut down the country “from Cape to Cairo” if the party did not get that majority.

That, of course, won’t happen. But the MK Party is nevertheless eating into ANC support in KwaZulu-Natal in a decidedly voracious manner. News24’s Adriaan Basson reckons that, even if MK were to crack just five per cent of the vote in the province, the ANC would be forced to “cut deals with the EFF — and Zuma! Wouldn’t that be the irony of ironies? After everything the two have said of each other over the past two weeks, it is unlikely that Zuma would give a Ramaphosa-led ANC his support in KZN, and just as unlikely that the ANC would give in to Zuma's demands (that will most likely include removing President Cyril Ramaphosa from office).”

An ANC-EFF alliance would, of course, be an uneasy one, given that, on Tuesday, the Western Cape High Court dismissed the redshirts’ urgent application to set aside parliamentary rules that barred them from heckling Squirrel during SONA on Thursday. (Reacting to the court’s ruling, Julius Malema told students at Durban’s Mangosuthu University of Technology that, even though his party had “fought with Zuma”, he had “never banned us from going to Parliament”.)

But such an alliance now does look all the more inevitable. According to the latest Ipsos poll, released on Tuesday, support for the ANC could fall below the 40 per cent mark — meaning that a coalition government at a national level was on the cards.  

Meanwhile, one ominous aspect of the MK Party’s rise in popularity is that it does serve as a bellwether of extreme Zulu nationalism, precisely the sort of toxicity that fuelled the July 2021 riots. 

At a recent MK rally in Pietermaritzburg, Zuma told supporters that he was surprised that the locals were able to communicate in Tswana. The Witness quoted him as saying: “[ANC supporters] filled the Moses Mabhida Stadium here in Durban and sang the song Ramaphosa re o rata kaofela (‘We all love you, Ramaphosa’). I was shocked, I did not know that KZN people can speak Tswana.”

Posts appeared on social media soon afterwards where MK supporters had altered the party’s name to uMkhonto weSizwe samaZulu, or “Spear of the Zulu Nation”. 

The party, of course, denies any suggestion of nationalist “tones” in the rhetoric of its members. Neither was it a KZN regional party. As MK provincial co-ordinator Simpiwe Mpungose recently declared, “We are all over the country, the MK is in Gauteng, Limpopo, Free State and all the other provinces. This narrative that we are a regional party is being pushed by those who are intimidated by the support we are getting across the country. They are worried that they will be left out in the cold now that it’s becoming clear that the MK party will win next year’s elections.”

Such incredible bluster. At such times that line from The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats about the best lacking all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity comes to mind. It is, funnily enough, Mbeki’s favourite poem.