Thabo Mbeki, let sleeping dogs lie

 Former President Thabo Mbeki addressing high school kids from Westerford High Rondebosch, 07 July 2015, Cape Town South Africa. Picture: Denvor de Wee
Former President Thabo Mbeki addressing high school kids from Westerford High Rondebosch, 07 July 2015, Cape Town South Africa. Picture: Denvor de Wee

In the first instalment of a series of essays attempting to set straight the record of his tenure, former president Thabo Mbeki borrows a quote from Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

He then corrects the popular shortened version with the real quote from the wartime British prime minister: “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

As Mbeki tells us, Churchill did make good on his promise by writing six books about his era.

For the purposes of this article, this lowly newspaperman wishes to take matters several notches down and quote a common idiom from Churchill’s motherland: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

The essay that Mbeki published on his foundation’s website this week purports, like those that will follow, to correct “a gross distortion of our history” and “deliberate misinformation” by “observers of truth”.

He tells his readers: “Among others, these observers have said that Mbeki was aloof, intellectual, out of touch with the ANC membership and the people, autocratic, intolerant of different views, sensitive to criticism, paranoid, abused state power to promote his personal political ambitions, marginalised the ANC from discharging its responsibilities as the ruling party by centralising power in the state presidency, and so on.”

He now wants to end “the sustained silence we have maintained when we should have spoken out”.

And so, to kick off, he chooses an incident that marked what was then seen as a low point of his presidency – allegations that ANC leaders Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa were planning a coup against him in 2001. Mbeki spins a line about how now deceased safety and security minister Steve Tshwete – who let slip the names of these leaders as alleged coup plotters during an SABC interview – made a mistake for which he immediately apologised to the president. Note that he apologised to the president and not to those named. Tshwete did beg forgiveness more broadly eight months later, saying the “allegations are not only unsubstantiated, but also completely devoid of any truth”.

In his bid to rewrite history, Mbeki details his direct interest and involvement in the investigation. This included convening a meeting to which he summoned top leaders, including Tshwete, then deputy president Jacob Zuma, then ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe and then intelligence minister Lindiwe Sisulu, to his official residence to view videotapes containing allegations by the whistle-blower.

As Mbeki writes in his essay, the said whistle-blower was one James Nkambule, an Mpumalanga ANC Youth League leader who was not only a serial liar but prone to hallucinations. His comrades in provincial structures and in the league had long regarded him as a populist crackpot who made up stuff to get his way. It appeared the more frequently he went shopping for cigarettes in Swaziland, the wilder Nkambule’s stories became.

Mbeki asserted this week that the “Nkambule saga ... had nothing whatsoever to do with my alleged paranoia, which the domestic and international media has continuously trumpeted for almost 15 years now ... based on false deductions and pure self-serving speculation”.

Well, what I can recall from interactions that colleagues and I had with those close to the investigation at the time was that Mbeki’s henchmen were under no illusion that in trying to nail the three men, they were carrying out the mandate of the president. Tshwete certainly felt that way and that TV outburst was no accident. Then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi certainly felt that way, to the extent that he spent hours personally interviewing Nkambule in a bid to bolster the plot allegation. To them, Nkambule had the solution to the president’s fears and their mission was to prove the plot.


In Selebi and Tshwete’s possession were ludicrous documents, presumably drawn up with Nkambule and other conspiratorially minded individuals in the intelligence community. One of these claimed that a harmless-looking white granny would approach Mbeki during a public appearance and pretend to be enamoured with the president. With Mbeki fooled into believing she was a transformed whitey, she would then prick him with the poisoned tip of her granny umbrella.

Yet another, or all, of the three “plotters” had allegedly visited Chris Hani’s right-wing killers in prison to ask them to implicate Mbeki in the 1993 assassination of the SA Communist Party leader. This would then cause the population to turn against Mbeki and prompt his forcible removal.

This was the sort of stuff our intelligence agencies were assigned to investigate for South Africa’s commander in chief. It was common cause in the ANC that, despite winning the presidency unopposed at the 1997 Mafikeng conference and securing a 66.3% victory for the ANC in the 1999 general election, Mbeki was still unsure of whether he would get a second term as party leader in 2002 and remain head of state two years later.

Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa were seen as the strongest potential challengers and it was known Mbeki never felt safe from them, even though they had left politics and were ringing up the tills at the speed of a Lewis Hamilton in the business world. What was not known was how far Mbeki would be prepared to go to secure his position: that he would be prepared to let them be subjected to being labelled potential enemies of the state by presidential henchmen, a label that carried real and present danger to them.

As harrowing as that episode was, the three leaders accepted Tshwete’s apology and moved on. The country moved on. The plot was only spoken about in passing as a bookmark in our history – until this week, when Mbeki opted to give us his unconvincing and self-serving version.

One can understand that the 73-year-old would want to begin to present a more saintly picture of himself so that posterity remembers him for the good he did instead of the controversial chapters of his public life. In this quest, he will probably also give us his take on the age of Aids denialism, “clarity” on the South African government’s role in aiding and abetting Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe, his protection of Selebi when the top cop had sold his soul to crooks and an explanation of why he coldly dismissed the deaths of 2 000 babies at Frere Hospital as statistically insignificant. One could go on and on, but we have to save the trees.

. . .

What Mbeki will be doing by going down that road is reminding us of those dark blotches on his record that most citizens were prepared to forget. He will be inviting back into the ring to box with him those who were close to the action. With each release of an Mbeki Pravda essay, there will be 10 retorts challenging and correcting him.

One of the “misconceptions” Mbeki wants to set right is that he was regarded as “aloof, intellectual, out of touch with the ANC membership and the people”.

Well, if anything, this latest frolic proves that little has changed since he left office. It proves he is so aloof and out of touch with the people that he does not realise South Africa is yearning for his wisdom and guidance on current crises facing the republic. That despite the many blots and egregious mistakes of his presidency, members of his ailing party and South Africa’s misgoverned and frustrated citizenry are nostalgically looking back at his tenure as the halcyon years.

But what they are seeking is an elder statesman, not a self-indulgent narcissist.

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