Former president Thabo Mbeki this week broke his long, self-imposed exile from domestic issues with what some sources say is not only a bid to influence debate, but also a warning to President Jacob Zuma.
Although his initial essay in a promised series does not deal head-on with either Zuma or contemporary matters, people close to Mbeki say he and other veterans in his circle have grown increasingly concerned about the current state of governance, and that he wants to contribute positively to the discourse.
Some even go as far as to say Mbeki is angry and wants to use the letters to settle scores with Zuma.
Mbeki published an article on his Facebook page this week titled “The tragedy of history: When caricature displaces the truth” to try to set the record straight on matters regarding his presidency.
This week’s piece, the first of 10, is about an alleged plot in 2001 to oust him as president, and his handling of the matter.
Mbeki denied ever implicating senior ANC leaders Mathews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale and current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in the plot, to which he was alerted by now deceased police minister Steve Tshwete. Tshwete had been approached with information by controversial former ANC Youth League leader James Nkambule.
In the article, Mbeki explained that he wasn’t alone in deciding to pursue the matter. “Because of the gravity of the allegations which Nkambule had made, I requested then deputy president Jacob Zuma, ANC (secretary general) Kgalema Motlanthe, minister Tshwete and minister Lindiwe Sisulu, then minister of intelligence, and perhaps one or two others, to come to the president’s Pretoria official residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, to enable all of us to view the video tapes together,” Mbeki wrote of Nkambule’s videotaped depositions.
He said the group unanimously decided to task Sisulu with verifying the authenticity of the claims.
Mbeki’s detractors, who are more often than not also Zuma supporters, have often argued that the order to investigate the veracity of the allegations showed that Mbeki was paranoid. An informed source in ANC circles said Mbeki wanted to show that Zuma was involved in the decision by making it clear he was part of the meeting.
“Mbeki is very angry; he feels like Zuma is trying to destroy him,” a source said. “He is saying to Zuma: ‘Bring it on, brother.’”
In his article it is clear that Mbeki is upset about how his actions and character have been analysed, blaming malevolent “observers”.
He said much of what was written about him was done “with no facts to substantiate the accusations, or is, in some instances, based on deliberate misinformation”.
“In many instances this results in a gross distortion of our history and therefore a failure correctly to analyse developments of significant or major importance,” he wrote.
Future letters are set to address issues like Mbeki’s stance on HIV and Aids as well as his quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe.
The Mail & Guardian believes a second series of letters could touch on contemporary issues such as the state of the economy.
A source who served in Mbeki’s administration and who remains close to him said “my sense is that he is trying to clear the record”. The source said there was a feeling that the same ANC leaders who ousted Mbeki had also allowed his legacy to be tarnished.
“How does the ANC leadership explain its silence on the Aids debacle? It’s a failure of collective leadership. There were regular meetings and plenty of opportunities to raise objections. It was disastrous, almost murderous, but who stood up to say: ‘Not in my name’?” he said.
Another source said Mbeki’s budget for post-presidential work had been cut, which meant he could not carry out ongoing mediation on the continent to his satisfaction.
“It’s going to get very messy; it is war. Thabo is angry,” the diplomatic source said.
Though some, such as former home affairs director general Mavuso Msimang, this week supported Mbeki for speaking out, others are questioning his motives.
An ANC national executive committee member who did not want to be named said “there is a danger in doing it now” and that Mbeki’s essay writing could “bring up things that will put him in an unfortunate position”.
He added that it was “disingenuous” for Mbeki to comment on local issues when he had committed to stick to international matters.
The ANC is set to elect new leaders next year and some have questioned whether Mbeki is trying to weigh in on succession debates, but a source close to him has denied this.
Msimang said: “The nation needs as much information as possible to understand what was going on during the presidency of an individual, Thabo’s in this case.”
“[Many party veterans] won’t speak out as they fear it will disadvantage them. So yes, there are many people; I’m not alone in feeling this.”
He said this disgruntlement among members led Mbeki’s former director general, Frank Chikane, to seek a meeting with about 40 ANC leaders and members last year to discuss issues such as corruption, poor service delivery and the “horrible performance of parastatals”.
Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, said: “The matter was dealt with sufficiently at the time with the relevant structures and they made a determination on that, and no further comment is necessary from our side.”
Phosa told Eyewitness News that Mbeki’s revelations had shocked him.“It’s a bit of a shock to me. He was president at the time and should take responsibility for what his ministers were doing at the time if he wants to distance himself,” he said.
The chief executive of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, Max Boqwana, said the letters were meant to deal with “topics that we believe have … been distorted about the life, works and times of president Mbeki”.
Boqwana said Mbeki intended to include these facts in his memoirs. The foundation will launch a series of national dialogues next week.
Was probe into conspiracy against Mbeki ‘unanimous’?
Former president Thabo Mbeki said this week that a decision that an alleged plot against him should be investigated had been “unanimous”, similar to a claim he made to biographer Mark Gevisser in his authoritative 2007 book, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, although even at the time the claim was disputed. This is what Gevisser wrote.
“When I asked Mbeki how he was involved in the affair, he told me he had been given the videotape of [former ANC Youth League leader James] Nkambule’s allegations, and had called in a few key officials from the ANC and government to view it with him.
“It was ‘agreed’, he told me, that ‘this was a matter that would have to go to intelligence people … to investigate’. But several of the people he consulted refute this: almost everyone – including his intelligence minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, and his director general of intelligence, Vusi Mavimbela – urged him to ignore the Nkambule allegations, but he did not seem to be able to let go of them.
“Did Mbeki actually believe the allegations, or was he cynically using them, as the Guardian speculated, ‘as a warning to anyone who may think of challenging [his] leadership … that they were under surveillance’? Whichever: there is no doubt that he wanted them in the public domain, and that [then police minister Steve] Tshwete was doing his bidding.
“The resultant outcry forced him, eventually, to clear the alleged conspirators and concede their names should not have been made public. Still, however, he insisted that Tshwete’s investigation should proceed: he clearly continued to believe that there was a conspiracy against him, and that – as he continued to tell his confidants – it was driven by reactionary white business and media interests.
“Perhaps one reason why Mbeki was so receptive to Nkambule’s allegations was that all three alleged plotters had a clear and demonstrable motive: all had once been contenders for ANC leadership, and all had been edged out of the game, letting it be known that they had found their ambitions ring-fenced and their reputations tarnished by Mbeki.”
Gevisser this week said he stands by what he published. “Several of the people Mbeki consulted told me, independently of one another, that they urged him to drop the Nkambule allegations and not proceed with an investigation. Of course, we have no way of knowing with certainty whether Tshwete was acting on Mbeki’s explicit, or implicit, instructions in putting the allegations into the public domain.
“But I am certain, after having spoken to many of the players, some of them very close to Tshwete, that he believed he was doing what Mbeki wanted him to do.”