Welcome back, Thabo!


Welcome back, Thabo!

Thabo Mbeki has found his voice again — and a new (opportunistic?) affinity for his old enemy, Cyril Ramaphosa. Mbeki has ambitious plans to hold a post-election national dialogue aimed at reversing South Africa's fortunes, writes MAX DU PREEZ.


FORMER president Thabo Mbeki was mostly silent for years after his humiliation at the ANC's election congress in Polokwane in December 2007.

His foundation started the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs in collaboration with Unisa, and more recently became involved with the Afrikaner Africa Initiative, but he mostly avoided overtly political roles and statements.

He was licking his wounds.

Now, Thabo is back with determination and great gusto. Not only is he actively and with good effect participating in the ANC's election campaign, something he last did in 2004, he is also planning an ambitious, inclusive national dialogue to take place just after the election at the end of the month.

Mbeki has now donned his “elder statesman" hat and wants to rescue the country.

And on Tuesday Ramaphosa threw his weight behind the idea: “I believe that we should continue to use our tried-and-tested method of building consensus in our country to overcome our challenges. It has become all too easy to point fingers, find fault and blame.

“It has become more difficult to build consensus and to work together and, therefore, I am very attracted and very supportive of the proposal that he [Mbeki] has put forward because this approach has always worked for us."

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Mbeki described the disastrous years of the Zuma presidency as “the counter-revolution" and said: “I suggest that to respond to the enormous challenges created by the counter-revolution, our people should convene in a new and truly inclusive national dialogue to answer the question: what is to be done?"

He said he is already in talks with several national foundations about this “because I am certain the country as a whole will benefit greatly from their collective voice on the matter of the national dialogue." He will soon present a full proposal on this, he said.

I have been aware of discussions about such an initiative for some time and have always been under the impression that it was mainly motivated by the strong possibility that the ANC would get less than 50% of the vote and the possibility of a power vacuum.

However, underlying the initiative is also a recognition that something drastic is needed to get South Africa back on track with proper governance, economic growth and nation-building.

There is serious concern among some senior ANC and business leaders that there may be uncertainty and even instability in the first weeks of June, after the election result, especially if the two parties that easily resort to violent rhetoric, Zuma's MK Party and the EFF, do not fare as well as they thought they would and as some opinion polls have indicated they might not.

Ramaphosa trumpets that the ANC will again secure over 50% of the votes but Mbeki was much more cautious in his address celebrating 30 years of democracy at Freedom Square in Tshwane: “I believe that whatever the outcome of the forthcoming elections, the ANC will still remain the largest political formation in the country."

One of the ideas around the national dialogue plan is to appoint a sort of “eminent persons" council of about two dozen that will reflect the entire spectrum of society from right to left, black, brown and white.

Mbeki has been in contact with the leadership of the Solidarity movement for some time through the Afrikaner Africa Initiative, driven by former diplomat Chris Opperman. He welcomed the Afrikaner Declaration of two weeks ago and described it as a “noble attitude". The declaration, he said, can be further discussed at the national dialogue.

(Ramaphosa did not respond to the declaration but his spokesperson dismissed it as unnecessary.)

Mbeki and Ramaphosa have never had a good relationship and the two camps have been gossiping about and undermining each other in recent years.

In his Freedom Day speech, Mbeki clearly sought toenadering with quotations from and agreement with some of Ramaphosa's recent speeches.

But is this actually a veiled vote of no confidence in Ramaphosa? Is Mbeki saying he needs to step in now because Ramaphosa is not leading strongly enough, that he failed to correct the ship after Zuma and state capture?

If one reads Mbeki's entire 27-page text, it becomes clear that he believes his presidency between June 16, 1999, and September 24, 2008 was much more successful than that of his successors; that he now has a role to intervene again and bring about New Dawn 2.0.

Ramaphosa is in a weaker position than he has ever been since taking over from Zuma on February 15, 2018.

There is much talk within ANC circles about how poorly the ANC must perform in the election to lead to his resignation or dismissal — 40%, or 45%, or even anything below 50%?

There is no natural successor to Ramaphosa. His deputy, Paul Mashatile, is under a cloud of suspicion of corruption, and more evidence of this is apparently on the way. It is almost unthinkable that someone like him could become president after our experience with Zuma.

Who else? One shudders at the possibility of Gwede Mantashe, chairperson of the ANC. The next in line is secretary-general Fikile Mbalula — and the Speaker is on her way to the corruption court.

Maybe another interim president like Kgalema Motlanthe was between September 25, 2008, and May 9, 2009? Can he fulfil that role again, or would someone like Naledi Pandor be a better candidate?

The constitution stipulates that parliament must meet within two weeks of the election results (probably within four days after May 29) to elect a president.

So, if the ANC gets less than half of the votes, there are only 14 days to form a coalition government or decide on a minority government (with agreements from opposition parties).

Ramaphosa and his camp will not consider a coalition with the MKP and/or the EFF, but a coalition with the DA and its multi-party charter will be politically extremely unpopular. It may just trigger the wild ones in MKP and EFF to plunge the country into chaos.

That's when Mbeki's national dialogue could calm the waters.

Mbeki's boasting about his record as president is consistent with the facts. He did screw up with HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe, but the economy grew by more than 5% for three consecutive years, foreign debt decreased and there was a tax surplus. The private sector thrived and South Africa commanded respect worldwide.

And remember, he had the courage to dismiss Zuma as his deputy.

Look at us now.

Mbeki is 81 but looks healthy and sharp. (US President Joe Biden is also 81 and is seeking another term of four years.)

Looking back at the post-Mandela era, I think: Mbeki may think too deeply and philosophise too much, but Ramaphosa thinks too shallowly and philosophises too little. Zuma does neither, he only looks out for his own interests.

In his Freedom Day speech, Mbeki said the ANC conference where he was ousted by Zuma as leader was the work of “counter-revolutionaries" who once served the apartheid state. The implication is clear: Zuma and his backers were agents of the old regime.

Mbeki cites reports from the Zondo and Nugent commissions on the attempted hijacking of the national revenue service and says the “head of government" was part of a process to undermine the government's revenue to a point where the government could collapse.

“How do we explain this puzzle? The only logical way to explain this is that, challenging as this might be to comprehend, here we are dealing with a wolf in sheep's skin."

♦ VWB ♦

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