Former president Thabo Mbeki has paid glowing tribute to his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, at a memorial organised by the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, calling him a “fellow combatant” who had made a massive contribution to the liberation of South Africa.
Mbeki told a packed Durban City Hall that Mugabe had backed the ANC “from day one” of becoming Zimbabwean prime minister in 1980 despite the fact that the governing party had not worked with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF for the previous 15 years.
Mugabe’s administration had allowed the ANC to operate within its borders, despite “intense hostility” from the apartheid regime and had assisted in ensuring the success of the transition to democracy in South Africa.
Mbeki said Mugabe had delayed his country’s land reform programme by a decade to allow negotiations to take place successfully in South Africa.
“The message is very clear: one of the people… that we should always value as one of the combatants for the liberation of South Africa was President Mugabe,” Mbeki said.
Defending his own administration’s stance on Zimbabwe, Mbeki said “there was absolutely no way that, if Zimbabwe was faced with challenges, we would turn our back. It could not be done.’”
Mbeki said then British prime minister Tony Blair had been “desperate” to depose Mugabe and had considered invading Zimbabwe, but had not done so because of a potential backlash from South Africa and other neighbouring states.
“Indeed we opposed it strenuously. We are saying that the Zimbabwean people have the right to determine their own destiny,” he said.
The event was Mbeki’s first ANC engagement since he was recalled from office by the ANC in 2008 and the first in KwaZulu-Natal since he was snubbed and heckled at several events in the province in 2006.
The incidents came after Mbeki’s decision to remove his then deputy, Jacob Zuma, from office in June 2005. The backlash over the corruption charges that were laid against Zuma ahead of the party’s Polokwane conference in 2007 saw Mbeki, who lost a bid for a third term against Zuma, himself being recalled.
The ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal leadership led the campaign to elect Zuma at Polokwane — and for his second term at Mangaung — and was central to the bid to elect his perceived proxy candidate for the ANC presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, at Nasrec in 2017.
However the current provincial leadership, elected last June on a “unity” ticket, has been at pains to accommodate both factions in KwaZulu-Natal and to try to undo the damage caused by infighting in the party to its electoral showing ahead of the 2021 local government elections.
They had reached out to Mbeki to address the Durban memorial, while Zuma and other senior ANC leaders would address three other events.
Speaking to the media ahead of Mbeki’s address, provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli said it was “historic and extraordinary” that the former president had spoken for the first time in KwaZulu-Natal, which was “an important player in the consolidation of the unity of the ANC”.
Mbeki said that he was pleased that the ANC in the province had backed an ANC Youth League request that he speak at the memorial “for very good reason” and had shown leadership in holding the event.