Too much time has been lost and in the process, ‘the rats and mice have been feeding’ on the movement’s glorious history and achievements
The cruel challenges of politics and “politics within politics”
Reflections on the life and times of President Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, Lecture Delivered at the ANC Branch Meetings at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Helderfontein Conference Centre, Johannesburg, November 23 and 24, 2012, respectively.
By Tito Mboweni, Governor Prior, South African Reserve Bank
Chairperson of this African National Congress Branch;
Secretary of the Branch and other Branch Executive Members,
Leaders of the ANC and other formations here present;
Esteemed members of the branch;
Ladies and Gentlemen
We start with Rev Tiyo Soga’s famous hym.
“Lizalis’ idinga lakho (Fullfill/realise your promise),
Thixo Nkosi yenyaniso! (Faithful/Truthful God),
Zonk’ intlanga, zonk’ izizwe (All races, all nations),
Ma zizuze usindiso (must be saved),
Amadolo kweli lizwe (All knees in this world),
Ma kagobe phambi kwaKho (Must bow before you);
Zide zithi zonk’ iilwimi (So that all tongues),
Ziluxel’ udumo lwaKho (Proclaim your glory).
Law’la, law’la, nKosi, Yesu! (Govern/Prevail our God)
Koza ngaWe ukonwaba (Happiness can only come through you);
Ngeziphithi-phithi zethu (Because of our struggles/uprisings/challenges),
Yonakele imihlaba (The world is damaged).
Bona izwe lakowethu (Look at our world),
uxolel’ izoono zalo (Forgive our sins);
Ungathob’ ingqumbo yaKho (Do not send your wrath),
Luze luf’ usapho lwalo (To kill the children).
Yaala, nKosi, singadeli (Prohibit us God from disobeying)
Iimfundiso zezwi laKho (The teachings of your Word);
Uze usivuselele (Revive us),
Sive inyaniso yaKho (We can hear your Truth)”.
I was indeed very much pleased to receive the invitation to share my reflections with you today on President Mbeki, President of the African National Congress from 1997 to 2007. This of course being part of a series of lectures organized by the movement in celebration of the centenary year of the founding of the ANC.
This decision by the leadership to remember its presidents deserves our collective appreciation as this offers all of us the opportunity to look back in history, on the journey traversed by our forebears and learn the inspiring lessons of our human existence. And so in reflecting upon President Mbeki’s life and times, we do so fully aware of the conditions, which influenced his role and what he did to change them.
I am specifically reminded of Karl Marx, who articulates this more eloquently in his work, the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte when he says that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”. The material conditions are the most influencing factors in how we act out our desired paths. At the same time, as we also learn from materialist philosophy, we can change our material conditions, thus ushering in new conditions, and thus the process of change is an ongoing one. ‘ Nothing is stable except stability itself’, as the philosophers of yesteryear have observed.
President Mbeki’s many detractors would have us believe that he did nothing positive during his official leadership times and that all they remember him for was his position on AIDS. Meanwhile, the rest of Africa celebrates him as an outstanding African leader. Maybe the old dictum that prophets are recognized in faraway places bar at home is true?
Bertolt Brecht once wrote that,
” There are men who struggle for a day,
And they are good.
There are others who struggle for a year,
And they are better.
There are some who struggle many years,
And they are better still.
But there are those who struggle all their lives,
And these are the indispensable ones”
It is in the category of “those who struggle all their lives” that President Mbeki belongs. This year he turned seventy years of age and he is still struggling for a better Africa. And it is he whose life and times we are celebrating today.
Born into an intellectual family, surrounded by books, periodicals and newspapers, he was to spend most of his life surrounding himself with all manner of information sources including, of late, the massive instant electronic library. He also surrounds himself with friends and colleagues who read, discuss, debate and seek to understand the world more profoundly in order to change it for the better. Although not anywhere near a poet himself, try as he might, he loves poetry and often quotes ad infinitum from some of the greatest poets of the world. Some of these poets have had a lasting impression on him. I will return to this later on in these reflections.
His parents however, were not only early on African intellectuals, they were also activists who fully understood that unlike some philosophers who spend time analyzing the world, their role was both to understand the world and seek to change it for the better. He soon also joined in the activism of his parents at an early age. This powerful combination of an intellectual and an activist home, seems to have had a profound impact on President Mbeki. He has spent his life being the embodiment of these characteristics. No- one can take that away from him. But I must be careful here lest I be accused of some form of “reductionism”. Being born into an activist intellectual family does not automatically mean that one is also going to follow in the footsteps of the parents. In fact the world of full of many examples of children born of intellectual parents but they became the “good for nothing” people.
This tradition, of activist intellectuals, dates back in our history to the dispossession of the African people by colonial forces and their resistance and the role of the early African intellectuals. The first African in our country to be ordained as a priest, and, I might be wrong about this, to have a university degree was the Rev Tiyo Soga. Tiyo Soga as we know was sent to Scotland in 1847 and 1857 to study and also graduated from Glasgow University. He was a remarkable man. Who can forget his words:” This ‘Morning Sir’ (thing) amongst the Xhosas when they see a white person is annoying”. Quite right Reverend!! It was the conditions of conquest, the turning of Africans into foreigners in their own country, their total disposession and forceful integration as “slave” laborers, that turned many like Tiyo Soga into activists. They were amongst the first to be educated at Missionary Schools and in the process converted to Christianity. They fought hard to be recognized as equals, made in the image of God. As Chief Luthuli once remarked, “this segregation thing, going against what the scriptures say, I could not countenance and that is why I am in the struggle”.
And so from the mission schools emerged a whole crop of early African intellectuals who could not countenance exclusion from normal participation in the affairs of state or their being made second or third class citizens in their own country. They fought with all means at their disposal: they wrote, petitioned, protested, started newspapers (ILanga lase Natal, Imvo Zabantsundu and many others), preached equality in their churches, joined forces with chiefs and commoners and linked up with like-minded people in the United States of America and the United Kingdom and founded all types of organizations towards the ends of equality and justice. They fought hard for our freedoms.
These characteristics of our forebears, have found concrete expression in President Mbeki. A thinker, a writer, an organizer, political leader, a campaigner and above all, someone who is committed to the freedom and advancement of his people in South Africa, in Africa, in the African diaspora and amongst all who are exploited and excluded by the global forces of power and money.
The mark of a gentleman
There are many things to say about President Mbeki. Let me talk about a few of these.
In exile, President Mbeki relentlessly worked to build a global anti-Apartheid movement together with the leadership of the ANC, led by President OR Tambo. He played his role in different capacities: political secretary to the ANC Presidency, Head of Information and Publicity and also Head of the Department of International Relations. These roles do not actually depict the totality of his role during the struggle. The actual content of these roles will become clearer the day he publishes his autobiography, which if I might say, is long overdue. We wait with bated breath to learn about his contacts inside South Africa during the struggle (see for example Endgame, Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid by Willie Esterhuyse, 2012), the role he played in preparing for negotiations and how it felt returning home to start the actual negotiations.
I first met President Mbeki in 1985, at the ANC office at 28 Penton Street, London, UK. We had a brief argument, not a debate really, about how a mass movement could be democratic. This was in the context of the then Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) phenomenon. I said to him that a mass movement could not be democratic within the context of repression and that such a movement is likely to be guided all the time not by democratic processes but by “democratic centralism”. We never agreed but decided that we would continue the discussion at some future date. That discussion has still to take place!! That was the beginning of what has now been a long, comradely, brotherly and collegial relationship.
I have mentioned some of what I know of him during the period 1960-1990. I left out his role during his student days in the United Kingdom. The people who know more about this are Aziz and Essop Pahad, his friends for many years. But over the years, I got some tid bits: socialized a lot, wore bell bottomed pants, had an Afro-hairstyle and learnt to smoke a pipe! Well, pipe, not a bad idea, the mark of a gentleman.
On a serious note, he was part of a group of ANC students who used every opportunity to advance the cause of freedom in South Africa. He participated and led student demonstrations, spoke at international meetings, even participated in a drama group to drum up support for the anti-apartheid movement in the UK and eastern Europe. During all this time, President Mbeki was preoccupied with the commitment that South Africa will one day be free of apartheid and that all Africans would stop saying ‘Morning Sir’, whenever they saw a white man.
The end game
Somewhere in 1988, I was on a plane with him from Lusaka to Harare. He complained bitterly about what he called “inertia” in the ANC leadership. “They don’t move”, he complained. Basically he was saying that most of the leadership was caught up within the “People’s War” mentality and could not see that negotiations were nearby. Discussion about negotiations was seen as weakness and yet the reality was clear: we were on the verge of a negotiated solution. Then he went to the back of the plane to smoke! You could smoke in planes those days, not a pipe though.
Somewhere in November 1989, a conference was organized in Paris, Merle le Roi, by Mrs. Mitterrand and Breyten Breytenbach, to discuss the way forward with the struggle. In attendance were ANC members, COSATU, Idasa, some intellectuals from South Africa and abroad, comrades from the anti-apartheid movement, etc. it was at that conference that one Willie Breytenbach gave us the inclination that the ANC was about to be unbanned. On reflection, President Mbeki knew this and the conference was meant to prepare some of us psychologically that the unbanning was nigh. I say this because reading between the lines of Endgame, one can see this clearly.
On one morning, we were guests of the French National Assembly and President Mbeki was to represent the South African delegation on stage. At the French National Assembly! Alas, at the appointed time, he was not there. Word was that he had over-slept after a long night of debates with van Zyl Slabbert and company. What to do! Pallo Jordan, bless his soul, good man, stepped in at the last minute and delivered the most authoritative speech on the French Revolution: the tennis court oath! After his memorable delivery, the President of the French National Assembly thanked him for educating the French about their history. President Mbeki was spared embarrassment. Lesson learnt: one can work hard endlessly and at some stage, the body says no, time to rest and re-charge.
A dream deferred
To understand what fuelled the man, we must develop an appreciation of his passions and attendant vision. President Mbeki has always been concerned about the achievement of the hopes and aspirations of the less fortunate ones in our societies. As Deputy President of South Africa, he was concerned that the freedoms, which we have achieved, were not translating quick enough into better living conditions of the people. He now and again asked the question: what was going to happen to the deferred dreams of the people? He has studied Langston Hughes for years and this poem is almost his day to day sermon. Langston Hughes wrote the poem: Harlem, A Dream Deferred and asked:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load
Or does it explode?”
This is haunting stuff! And so as Deputy President, he urged us to do more in meeting the transformation agenda of South Africa so that the dreams of our people must not be differed, ‘sagging on like heavy loads’ lest they might ‘explode’ thus rendering all our struggle efforts worthless. He worked tirelessly to drive the cabinet transformation agenda. And by the way, he was the one who attended to the government agenda, chaired cabinet sub-committee and cabinet meetings. It was to him that President Mandela delegated the running of government whilst he, Madiba focussed on our reconciliation efforts. It was to him that cabinet ministers consulted on their work. The system worked. He was a de facto prime minister. Maybe there some lessons to learn which might also work today as we progress further to avoid the dreams of our people being deferred any further.
The economy: Discernible leadership
Thus, in 1994, the ANC had won the first democratic elections convincingly and people’s expectations were understandably very high. Another complicating factor was the way the ANC election manifesto had been drafted. It promised too many things: houses, a million jobs, etc. Upon reflection, this was an error influenced to some extent by Greenberg’s electoral politics. The original ANC platform of The Time Has Come, was more than sufficient. But this was changed to A Better Life For All. Nothing wrong with that except that when one starts to promise a million jobs and RDP houses etc, things got a bit too promising to be true. Hindsight as is often said is the best teacher.
However, the economy in 1994 was in crisis. The socio-economic position of the majority of the people was deplorable. Unemployment was high and the country was for all intents and purposes, bankrupt. Without an urgent fix, the lifeblood of our manifesto would very quickly run dry.
Faced with international isolation for many years, the South African economy had registered poor performance over a number of years. South Africa could not access the international capital markets and was inward looking. The International Monetary Fund could not extend loans to South Africa and the exchange rate was artificially managed with two currencies: the financial rand for non-residents and the commercial rand for South Africans. The central bank had the difficult task of sourcing foreign exchange through a whole range of doubtful interventions: credit lines with sanctions bursting banks and basically lived from hand to mouth. This cocktail of crisis measures led to the country managing a forward book of some $25 billion. At a growth rate of less than one percent(1%) the economy was in trouble. Inflation was stubbornly above 15% and interest rates were at some stage as high as 25%. On the fiscal side, the country was on the brink of a debt trap. The deficit before borrowing had ballooned to as high as north of 10% and the financing costs were skyrocketing.
This was the country we wanted to change immediately. Without economic growth and access to the international capital markets, the immediate task before us was gigantic. It was through President Mbeki’s astute stewardship that we began to turn the titanic around. First thing was to consolidate the fiscus. We focused on expenditure control in order to get the deficit levels down and reduce the debt servicing costs. We called this ‘belt-tightening’. A kind of home-grown “structural adjustment” program.
We were loath to going to the IMF to borrow. In fact many of us detested the very idea of it. You might recall that the IMF at that time was very rigid in their policy recommendations. Of course they were waiting for us to come to them but we said no. This is a historical fact which is normally forgotten by those who shout “’96 class project” at President Mbeki, Trevor Manuel and myself. Which makes one wonder what these detractors would’ve done had they been in the hot seat. Nevertheless, our second key decision was to approach the international capital markets for a sovereign bond issue. We raised $750 million at a very steep interest rate: six hundred basis points, that’s 6 percent, above thirty-year US treasuries. But the risk worked. Over the next few years, this rate narrowed significantly as we proved to the markets that we knew how to run an economy.
Thirdly, the central bank began to gradually reduce interest rates as inflation was coming down. The forward book was being reduced and the economy began to grow albeit at a slow pace still. The growing economy enabled us to start collecting more taxes and we launched a tax amnesty for all those (like in Nafcoc and Fabcos) who had not been paying tax. It worked and today South Africa’s tax morality and collection efficiency are amongst the highest in the world.
That our government was successful in undoing an unsustainable economic foundation and replacing it with a sound structure is a lesser-told story. It also resulted in the transformation of key economic institutions such as SARS, the central bank and National Treasury into respected and trusted, world-class institutions. All this was no coincidence. It was not because we were all bright sparks in our respective ministries, independently cooking up strategies that miraculously aligned with each other. The plan succeeded because it had discernible leadership in President Mbeki. He demanded focus, excellence and accountability and this approach yielded results.
An area where the requisite standards were on display was cabinet. Debates in the cabinet were fierce and President Mbeki, with Madiba’s support, gave us his full backing for the above-stated economic recovery program. Had it not been for his support, we might have faltered very badly in the face of populist demands, which were less sympathetic if not oblivious to the structural threats our economy was facing. Although actively involved, President Mbeki was also good at giving us room to manoeuvre, intervening only when things seemed to be spiraling in the wrong direction. By 2005, the efforts we had made were being rewarded. The macro variables were in place and the minister of finance could go for an expansionary budget. I can confidently say it is thanks to President Mbeki’s attention to detail and widespread knowledge that our plans cohered and thus allowed us to reach those milestones.
It’s important for us to retell these stories, especially on a platform such as this one, because the nature of the standard narrative sometimes suggests that some people were in a convenient slumber during those times.
“The Duke of Kabulonga”
At the adoption of our constitution, President Mbeki made what has become the clarion call for Africa’s renewal. “I am an African“, he declared. “My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.”
It is no wonder or perhaps, it is true to his nature, that his stated commitment to the African renaissance has translated into concrete work which continues to consume a lot of his energy. He is passionate about Africa, the restoration of her history and thus the restoration of her people’s dignity. This is a relationship he understands very well, which makes the current, on-going destruction of Timbuktu particularly painful. Timbuktu, the ancient university town in Mali, is a treasure trove of African-generated knowledge and South Africa, under the leadership of President Mbeki, invested in the South Africa-Mali-Timbuktu project to restore manuscripts and build modern libraries to house them. His work on the African continent, spanning across a wide range of related issues, eventually resulted in the Nepad programme- a plan presenting a unified picture of Africa’s economic development. These days, he continues this work, focusing more on brokering and maintaining peace in war-torn Sudan and South Sudan. We should pay closer attention to this work, not only to celebrate his achievements but also to understand our own roles in further advancing the African Renaissance.
Accept also, that whatever path you choose to make your contribution will bring its own joys and dips. Those of us who’ve chosen the path of party politics, like President Mbeki, suffer in ways unique to our modus operandi. Politics can be very cruel. Actually, politics is tough. It is the domain of those made from ‘sterner stuff’. President Mbeki could attest to this fact. I think he partially suffered from the fact that he was the de facto “principal” deputy to President Tambo.
President Tambo opened up the political space for him,’ groomed’ him, provided him with exposure to world political leaders, trusted him with drafting important speeches and documents and as such, spent more time with him. In the process, I think, President Mbeki assumed “unconstitutional” powers within the ANC. By this I mean that his power was not proportional to his official role. In this sense, he was more powerful and influential than most of his NEC colleagues without an elected or senior appointed position. That this occurred without any formalised agreement within the NEC became the source of much discontent. I know a few of the ANC leaders who were deeply offended by this and thus made President Mbeki’s life very difficult.
Nevertheless, he played his role constructively. I recall that somewhere in 1988, Chris Hani and Steve Tshwete made some statements to the effect that the ‘lives of the whites were too sweet and that this had to end’, and they seemed to support the careless bombing of the Wimpy bars etc. This was against ANC policy. President Mbeki has said that he called them to his house for a discussion of this matter. Before he could chastise them for their rather careless statements, they apologised. But he went on to remind them what the policy of the ANC was and President Tambo was going to make a statement distancing the ANC from their interviews. They promised to abide by policy in future. The point I am trying to make is that he had some “derived powers” to do that. Powers derived from President Tambo. And this is what some ANC leaders detested although this hate was reserved for private caucus and never official meetings.
This perception of him as unduly powerful would lead to many vicious caricatures of him, the dangers of which would only surface much later. For example, in Lusaka, President Mbeki was also known as ‘The Duke of Kabulonga”. Kabulonga was the suburb in Lusaka where he lived and the duke thing a kind of reference to his so-called “Englishman- like manner”. And so the spiral began. From The Duke of Kabulonga, to the Crown Prince of ANC politics, the blue-eyed boy of Oliver Tambo, etc etc.
In the nature of politics, it was not surprising at all that President Mbeki had so many detractors within the movement. A concerted effort was made by some to prevent him from ever becoming the substantive President of the ANC. In fact given that he had emerged in exile as the one in pole position for this role, some conspired to “groom” a leader from within South Africa to oppose President Mbeki. It was thus not a surprise at all that whilst he led the ANC negotiations team in exile, he was quickly replaced when we returned home. And so from Chief Negotiator, he became just a delegate to CODESA. And this is the tight rope we walk in party politics. The battle for internal power is sometimes so consuming that we are willing to forgo, at crucial moments in the national struggle, the experience and capabilities of an individual simply to hand over the power baton to another. This may indeed be the mechanism by which we balance power amongst individuals but the more crucial lesson for us is how to balance internal power battles with national development objectives. After all, it is national development that gives meaning and purpose to the party in the first place. Politics is both cruel and tough and President Mbeki knows this first-hand.
Despite the day-to-day bruises, there is surely nothing that can prepare one for a ‘palace coup’ staged by one’s own comrades under conditions of democracy. That is what happened at Polokwane in 2007. That was as painful as politics can be. I once stupidly asked him after Polokwane: what happens to a dream deferred? Wrong question, wrong time and place. But he indulged me with a great response. He talked for about thirty minutes about how his biographer had misunderstood him, and so on and so forth. I choose not to talk about it as this has been the subject of Rev Frank Chikane’s book. But we have to go beyond Polokwane now and re-build the movement.
Too much time has been lost and in the process, ‘the rats and mice have been feeding’ on the movement’s glorious history and achievements. At times one feels that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
The worst of our movement and society have certainly demonstrated passionate intensity in their looting of state resources; resistance to genuine transformation; continued subjugation of workers, particularly those who are not organised; paying the odd bribe to police officers; raping toddlers; illegally moving capital to other shores. I raise these examples to demonstrate that we all complicit in the undoing of our society. Some of course, are blatant, shameless thieves. They are the worst amongst us. They cook up state tenders, inflate prices, create non-existent projects, “deliver” shoddy work and facilitate illegal capital flight! They have to go to jail!!
We cannot allow a situation to continue where “the best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” and arrogance.
And it is in times like these that we should call upon the best not to lack all conviction” but to take the baton of Tiyo Soga and the pioneers of the freedom struggle and trudge on and be the ones who are ‘full of passionate intensity”. The activist intellectuals have to come back to their movement and work amongst the people in the same way, albeit different conditions, as did our forebears. President Mbeki needs to be joined by many others in these efforts: lawyers, doctors, economists, faith leaders, teachers, professors, accountants, bankers, newspaper editors and more. We must join forces with all those who want to avoid the dreams of our people being deferred much longer. We cannot allow a situation to continue where “the best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” and arrogance. Worse still, when such “passionate intensity” seeks to silence those who question what seem to be the wrongs in our society, in particular when there is blatant looting of state resources, which could be channeled to better the lives of ordinary people.
On a more personal note, over the years, I have come to know a little bit of President Mbeki and ‘sis Zanele. They represent what I call “class”. They have got “class”. The way they do things, say things, or not say anything, the way they have decorated their house with class and simplicity, you know, class!!
In the middle of all the political struggles, successes and challenges, defeats and pain occasioned his own comrades, President Mbeki has stayed true to his conviction that “the sun will rise on Africa” and that “it will never set on so glorious an African achievement”, freedom!! Let me not say more of that save to say I am also learning this class thing and enjoying freedoms and accepting my responsibilities. For as Madiba says and President Mbeki embodies, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
So as we mark the centenary of the ANC and pay tribute to its leaders, let us not forget all our forebears who worked tirelessly for our freedom. I mention some of them below: Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, Richard Mahabane, Thomas Mtobi Mapikela, John Knox Bokwe, Henry Selby Msimang, Govan Archibald Mvunyelina Mbeki, Sefako Mapogo Makgatho, Zachariah Keodirelang Mathews, Peter Matseke, Albert John Luthuli, Charlotte Makgamo Manye Maxeke, Walter Benson Rubusana, Alfred Bitini Xuma, and many more. These were pioneers of the freedom struggle. These are the men and women that President Mbeki learnt from. They were highly educated people with a commitment to free their people.
Let the centenary celebrations help to restore the moral and political compass of the movement!
Amandla! Kea Rona!
Long Live President Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki!
– ENDS –
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** This is in Five volumes and is a must have and read, study.