Thabo Mbeki lashes Jacob Zuma era ... and the failure of a number of the ANC’s policies

In a frank interview, Mbeki critiques his successor’s ‘thumbsuck’ policies and slams cadre deployment

The National Development Plan was a “thumbsuck” that contained no real concrete economic plan, says former president Thabo Mbeki.

And the deployment of ANC cadres to senior civil service posts, a policy some critics say enabled state capture, should have been abandoned in 2007 Z but wasn’t.

On Thursday, Mbeki, who is now campaigning for the ANC, launched a blistering critique of ANC policymaking on land and the economy under Jacob Zuma, who deposed him as ANC president in December 2007 in Polokwane.

In an interview with Rapport, Mbeki said the ANC’s motion on land expropriation without compensation at Nasrec in December 2017 represented a “radical departure” from ANC policy, rushed through with no consideration for what damage it could do, like so many other policy spasms spanning two dozen years.

Mbeki led the ANC to a majority of 69.7% in 2004 a historic high and the economy was growing by more than 5% when he left.

Growth has now stalled and the party fears defeat in Gauteng.

Mbeki traces this decline to the Polokwane conference, and his recall as president the following year.

“The ANC lost some of its best members, not necessarily because they resigned, but because they decided to step back and not be active in the movement,” he says.

His ousting was premised on the notion that he was “aloof” and that his government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy, implemented in 1996, was “neoliberal”, while Zuma was supposedly “sensitive to the conditions of the working class”.

In fact, Mbeki’s much-maligned “1996 class project” merely foresaw that profligacy would be paid for by the poor.

“There were very simple things which we tried to explain, like we need to be very careful about this important matter of budget deficits,” Mbeki said.


“You cannot run on borrowed money forever,” added Mbeki.

“Because in the end, we would be taxing people in order to pay the banks. There will not be any money to build schools and clinics and all of that. These people who were talking about the 1996 class project would say no, it is neoliberalism. The proper management of the fiscus has become a problem again now.”

Zuma’s ANC also ruined SAA, even as state-owned rivals such as Ethiopian Airlines flourish, and Eskom cannot keep the lights on for reasons which, in hindsight, seem as clear as day.

The 2007 decision to award 38 contracts for the construction of Medupi instead of a single turnkey contract was a “very bad mistake”, Mbeki now says.

“For a reason I don’t know, and I don’t remember this at all for we were president then, they decided to break up the contract to build that power station into a number of contracts: ‘You will do the boiler, you will do the welding, and so on.’”

But coordination was lacking. Cost overruns and delays followed.

“Eskom’s management of 2007, which knows very well about coal-fired power stations, was unable to manage the build of two coal power stations. It is very serious.”

A lack of fiscal discipline became the rule.

Mbeki remembers a senior civil servant in the presidency telling him that the number of staff in the president and deputy president’s office grew from 300 when he left to 1 000 by 2015.

“I said: ‘Why, what do they do?’ And he said: ‘Nothing; they come to work and they play Patience on the computer, and Solitaire.’

“We would never have allowed a thing like that.”


He also believes government failed to properly study the causes and best responses to the 2008 global financial crisis.

“That was never there. Or, take the NDP: the correct way to have done it would have been to do a review of your economic policies since 1994. Did they work? That review was never done.

“I asked the people who were working on it: ‘Did you do that?’ and they said: ‘No.’ The consequence is that this vision that you are elaborating is going to be a thumbsuck.”

The NDP is “not a plan, it’s a vision. There is no plan to implement that vision. It has never been discussed.”

No plan for the economy. And no real plan for land.

On the decision at Nasrec to change the Constitution: “If you put it in the context of the history of ANC policy, this is a big, radical departure. Now if you make departures of that kind, surely you must discuss them properly?”

A decision was rushed through in the final hours of the Nasrec conference.

“People in the ANC like referring to the Freedom Charter, and it is very specific on the land question, that the land will be shared among those who work it. It does not say black, white, settler, no settler. So, has the ANC now departed from this position?”

“Populist” policies are only avoided when existing policy is examined and amended in a rational way, Mbeki says. Instead, race became the focus.

“The thesis [that] there were settlers who came to South Africa, they took our land without compensation, and therefore we must take the land back and give it to our people, what does that mean?

“We are saying the ANC cannot say South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and then say except with regard to the land question. You can’t. It’s not right.”

Mbeki also questions the notion of rural land hunger.

“When you talk about land hunger in South Africa, what are you talking about? It is very obvious that there is a great deal of pressure around urban land for human settlement. We must attend to that with urgency. When you say land hunger for agricultural purposes, that is a different matter.”


“Where you had land restitution, we noticed that in the majority of cases, where the claim had been settled, the majority of people said: ‘I prefer the money.’ This particular experience of people winning land claims and preferring to take money is saying something about the attitude to land.”

Mbeki was elected ANC president at the party’s 1997 Mafikeng conference.

At the same conference, a draft resolution was considered that mandated the national executive committee to “develop a cadre policy to prepare members for deployment or redeployment in various spheres of governance and parastatals and the private sector”.

It dashed hopes of politically independent state institutions.

Asked if he still believes the ANC should aim to grasp “all levers of power” in society, knowing what we know now, he says: “No. I don’t think so.”

A 1996 report by the Presidential Review Commission on public service reform, led by respected academic Vincent Maphai, recommended that the civil service be professionalised so that the quality of governance could be improved.

“We looked at that report and said this is too early, because we inherited a civil service made up of the old civil service under the apartheid system, plus the civil servants who came from the bantustans.

“We said that as a governing party you need a properly functioning state machinery. So, we will have to find some of our people who are ANC, who understand ANC policies, but know how to work.

“So we do, indeed, appoint a number of people from ANC ranks to positions such as directors-general (DGs). Because there needs to be some congruence between the national executive in government and the civil service that must implement the policies.

“In 2007, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi was minister of public service and administration. We took a decision and said: ‘We think we are now in a position to go back to what Maphai proposed.’

“We put out a circular, and said, DGs, we think it is time to go back ... to ... the Maphai report. Let’s have a professional civil service. Who among you would be ready to become a professional civil servant?

“So we changed all sorts of things, rules and regulations, to build a professional civil service. The majority agreed. We were in the process of doing that when you had the Polokwane conference, so that programme collapsed.

“It was not the idea then that permanently there must be ANC persons who must serve in senior positions in the civil service.”


What do you make of the former president’s analysis and criticism? Do you agree that under Jacob Zuma valuable programmes and processes were abandoned?

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