Thabo Mbeki and the sins of incumbency

File picture: Sizwe Ndingane/ANA

As the centenary year of celebration of the life of Oliver Reginald Tambo draws to a close, memorial lectures, used to campaign and even de-campaign towards the elective conference in December, will fade. 

Interestingly not a single political party other than the ANC had a high profile event to honor this founder of South Africa’s democracy. The prominence given rather to Nelson Mandela, who himself admitted the preeminence of the leadership of his Comrade OR, shows the deep lack of appreciation of South African political history by our current crop of political parties. Surprisingly one would have thought that even the IFP would have done something to honor this South African giant. But this is a story for another day.

Often these memorial lectures are used to arouse debate in society. The debates and discussions should be based on the values which the person or persons being memorialized were proponents. Unfortunately in South Africa, and the ANC in particular, the lectures have not been used to garner debate or discussion but rather they have been aimed to catch cheap captions.

Ideally, a lecture should be based on the applicable theory or ideology espoused by the deceased. This theory will outline the values and vision of the person and then be applied to an example whereby the intended audience may understand and contextualize the theory. Needless to mention that the one asked to deliver the lecture should have been closely associated with the person being remembered or at least be practicing the values and vision of that person.

A few weeks ago, former President Thabo Mbeki delivered the centenary memorial lecture on the birthday of O.R. Tambo. This lecture was organized by, among others, the OR and Adelaide Tambo Foundation and was held on what would have been the former ANC president’s 100th birthday.

An occasion such as this, celebrating the life of a national hero, would have been fittingly addressed by the head of state; a close associate of the late ANC president as well. It would have been the Foundation’s way of thanking the current administration for declaring 2017, the year of Oliver Tambo. 

No matter what one thinks of the current crop of ANC leadership, they remain the legitimate leadership of the organization and government and this omission, of not inviting the head of state and current president of the ANC to deliver the lecture, poisoned the well from the onset.  

The choosing of Thabo Mbeki was deliberate. Trapped in the divisive politics of Polokwane, the organizers and audience were obviously intent on joining the bandwagon of people using every opportunity, especially memorial lectures or funerals, to score cheap political points. Cheap, because it was devoid of an honest reflection of the ANC.

In 2008, after his recall from the highest office in the country, former President Mbeki wrote a letter to the president of the ANC. In it, as if to warn himself, he refused to rule from the grave. History, he said in the letter, would judge him by what he did during his political life. 

Thus, as with his weekly letters that emerged some few years ago and suddenly stopped again, Mbeki is trying to rule from the grave in order to influence history. History will and has judged him already. In fact, it tells how he was principal in planting the seeds that lie at the rot of the ANC today.

Significantly, in that letter addressed to the president of the ANC, Mbeki refers to his political report read at the fifty-second national conference of the ANC. Therein, he mentions, that the ANC faced some serious challenges. Challenges again alluded to in his OR Tambo memorial lecture delivered a few weeks ago.

As if to summarize the political report read at the Polokwane Conference, Mbeki, in the Tambo lecture, mentions that the ANC faces the third threat of destruction since its establishment and this from acts emanating from within the organization. In particular, members, and the leadership in particular Mbeki suggests, have diverted from the noble twin-values of Comrade OR: loyalty to the ANC and its values, and ensuring at all times the genuine interests of the people. 

Even more so, he goes on to state that the ‘rapacious value system of conscious abuse of state power for self-enrichment’ is influenced primarily by the current leadership of the ANC.       

In other words, the eleventh president of the ANC is once again, as he did in his letter to his successor in 2008, absolving himself and the rest of his leadership of the situation where the ANC finds itself in today. 

He takes no responsibility today, just like he took no responsibility in 2008 when he wrote: “…there is absolutely nothing I have done through this half-a-century of struggle of which I am ashamed. Above all, I know of nothing I have done which, to my knowledge, constitutes a betrayal of the interests of the masses of our people and their confidence in the ANC.”

This crude lack of self-awareness, self-criticism and self-correction is what lies at the heart of Mbeki’s destruction. Yet herein too lies the Achilles heel of the ANC. If self-correction were to occur then those who have done wrong need to admit firstly that they did so. Instead, that generation of leaders seem to think that this rapacious value system appeared all of a sudden post Polokwane.

Take for example the case study of the two centers of power that Mbeki points out. He dismisses the views of ANC structures by suggesting that the two centers of power was purely contrived and a figment of the political imagination. Typical Mbeki, he suggests that instead it was his leadership that sought to ensure that the values of the OR Tambo.

Typical too of Mbeki logic, one does not understand the direct correlation between those holding office in the organization and their almost automatic inclination to be part of the rapacious value system; as if those who are appointed are less inclined to be corrupt.

In fact, those of us studying patronage politics are all too aware of how easily manipulation and patronage can occur through the model that Mbeki advocates. Indeed, premiers became beholden to Luthuli House and the presidency, under Smuts Ngonyama in particular, because they were accountable to the president, who appointed them, rather than ANC structures. Put differently, Mbeki proposed and continues to persist in models that are centralized rather than on models in which the structures of the ANC hold officials, whether in government or in the party, accountable.

The sins of incumbency did not affect Comrade OR. Unlike many of those who succeeded him, he was not privileged enough to see a democratic and free South Africa. Sadly, his fate did not allow him to advise the newly elected government on how to maybe do things differently. History has reserved for him the place among struggle saints.

Unfortunately, for his successor, Thabo Mbeki, the corruption of office affected him and history will not be kind. For it will tell that the serious challenges of the ANC, the genesis of its third threat, came under his watch. How sad that he cannot allow himself to be part of the process that rebuilds the movement because he simply fails to recognize his own destructive role.

Wesley Seale, teaches Politics at Rhodes University and is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University