For all his reputation as being aloof and unaccountable, we always had at least some idea of what Thabo Mbeki was thinking during his time as president. Not always a clear idea, mind you; his use of impenetrable allusions and convoluted logic caused us a fair bit of head scratching. We had something to work with, though. Regular as clockwork there would be a lengthy essay in the ANC Today online newsletter, or a long academic speech to unpick. Mbeki was never a Twitter-length politician.
Then, suddenly, silence fell. Having been forced from office, those close to him would later tell us, Mbeki believed his duty to the Constitution and party demanded that he absent himself from the public stage. He could not be seen to be trying to influence events at all, because even the suspicion that he was ruling from the “grave” could be destabilising.
His successors had much less to say. Kgalema Motlanthe studiously followed the first rule of being a caretaker president: don’t rock the boat. And President Jacob Zuma has never been big on explaining himself.
So it was strangely jarring when Mbeki returned to the public discourse this week as though he had never left.
In the first of a series of promised essays, he launched straight into a popular quote from Winston Churchill, then disputed the veracity of that quotation, before meandering away from talking about himself in the third person to dealing with events that played out in 2001.
Had it not been posted on Facebook, which was only launched later, we would have assumed the missive actually dated from the early 2000s. It was vintage Mbeki, right down to the hint of a whiff of pipe smoke and armchair leather – and the blinkered paranoia, the disconnection from reality, and the belief that he can change by decree how South Africans interpret facts.
As we reported, his actual motive for publishing the essay may not be as simple as he suggests. But, even taking him at his word, Mbeki seeks to deal with his own legacy and rescue it from – in some instances – “deliberate misinformation”.
But he does not launch this campaign by addressing his stance on HIV, which by some estimates cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. He does not deal with his failure in oversight that led to current electricity and water shortages. No, Mbeki turns immediately to matters internal to the ANC. Even then he speaks not of his role in making the ANC into the patronage-dispensing machine it is today. Instead he deals, at length, with a conspiracy allegation that involved a handful of individuals, and became an issue only because of his mismanagement.
There are factions within the ANC more than keen to rehabilitate Mbeki for their own ends, and there are Economic Freedom Fighters leaders who have romanticised his history for their own purposes. Now Mbeki himself shows every sign of wanting to influence South Africa’s path again.
From what we have seen this week, the Mbeki seeking that position has learnt nothing whatsoever from his many previous mistakes.
So, if it’s all the same, we would prefer him to go back to not ruling from the grave, thanks.