In the last one month, former South African president Thabo Mbeki has done two things that have brought him back into the maelstrom that is his country’s politics, not as a rubble rouser but as that rare voice of reason a country needs during a time of chaos and confusion.
When South Africa’s militant opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called for a national shutdown on 20 March 2023 – the same day Raila Odinga and his Azimio La Umoja One Kenya called for their first nationwide maandamano – the leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC) led by Secretary General Fikile Mbalula tried to pour cold water on the whole affair, suggesting that either the EFF’s red army had no capacity to effect a national shutdown, or that the red beret-wearing brigade was out to cause chaos.
But when a journalist accosted Mbeki during a public appearance and asked him about his views regarding the EFF’s intended national shutdown, Mbeki didn’t mince his words.
‘‘I think the EFF and everyone else who’s chosen to join them are perfectly entitled to that,’’ Mbeki said. ‘‘To demonstrate and so on. But the point that has been made is that we should avoid all violence. And I watched when Julius (Malema) talked about the demonstrations yesterday, and he himself made that commitment that they don’t want violence, and that if there’s any violence then it would be provoked by someone else. I think that common commitment by the organizers and the rest of the country is correct. By all means I think people should demonstrate if they want to demonstrate on whatever the issue. But let’s avoid any kind of unnecessary conflict. The country doesn’t need it.’’
Here was Mbeki, a former ANC president and president of South Africa affirming the right of an opposition party to demonstrate against a government led by Mbeki’s own party. But beyond the affirmation, Mbeki goes further to break ranks with those suggesting that the EFF is out to cause violence, a dangerous narrative which Mbeki is trying to dissuade the EFF’s detractors, including those from within Mbeki’s own ANC, from advancing.
Listening to Mbeki’s remarks as a Kenyan at a time when one of the main political formations was calling for nationwide protests while the state was categorically opposed to any kind of demonstrations (warning of dire consequences for anyone who dared march to the streets), one was left wondering whether the words in the South African constitution – from which we borrowed heavily while drafting Kenya’s new constitution – were written in golden letters and therefore carried more weight while ours were written with low-grade fading ink, meaning they carried absolutely no weight. More importantly, one wondered, who was Kenya’s Mbeki, a person who is affiliated to the ruling party and who has national gravitas but defends the rights of the opposition to exercise their constitutional rights, as long as they do so within the law.
Then, on 30 March 2023, Mbeki went all out.
In a scathing 14 page letter addressed to Paul Mashatile, the ANC’s and South Africa’s deputy president, Mbeki put the leadership of the party and the country to task over a number of recent missteps committed by the party and its leadership especially in their voting patterns in parliament. The premise of Mbeki’s letter, generally, was twofold. First was what he called ‘‘the relationship between the ANC and the masses of our people’’, and second was ‘‘the role of the ANC as the principal defender of the gains of the National Democratic Revolution, including the constitution (1996)’’. To Mbeki, the ANC was losing touch with the common South African while at the same time absconding its role as the vanguard liberation party.
Among the issues Mbeki raised were how the ANC voted in parliament to block an inquiry into a matter in which President Cyril Ramaphosa is suspected of wrongdoing after millions of dollars stashed in furniture were stolen from his Phala Phala farm, a robbery which wasn’t reported but which matter Ramaphosa decided to pursue covertly and extra-legally. Putting the robbery aside, the question has been, why had the president stashed millions of dollars in his farmhouse? Had he broken any laws by doing so? Mbeki was therefore raising issue with the ANC leadership for voting to prevent an inquiry into Ramaphosa’s dollargate.
The other matter Mbeki took issue with was the ANC’s voting in parliament to oppose the establishment of an investigation into criminality at Eskom, the electricity generating company which has plunged South Africans into darkness over the last many months. To Mbeki, much as going ons at Eskom were an extension of the ANC government’s sins of omission and commission, the party didn’t need to shield any culprit (including those within its ranks) at the expense of the people of South Africa, who are suffering for Eskom’s failures and challenges.
In raising these, among other issues in a letter that put the ANC and its leadership to shame and to their defense, Mbeki was rising above party camaraderie and saying the fate of South Africa was more important than any personal relationships or affiliations. Having put the ANC on blast, the party leadership had no choice but to hold a high level meeting with Mbeki at its Luthuli House headquarters, so that the former president could lay his case on the table and the ANC could respond. Thereafter, the meeting was described as ‘robust and cordial’, Mbeki having made it clear that silence was complicity, and that that wasn’t an option for him.
Coming back to Kenya, one struggles to find someone, anyone, of Mbeki’s stature who can call the government and the governing party to order. This is possibly the case because of the bizarre nature of Kenyan political parties – individual-owned short term vehicles for the pursuit of power, coupled with the fact that Kenyan politics is laden with the culture of sycophancy, so that any criticism of the government and the governing party from within its ranks is taboo.
Mbeki is no angel, but there’s been no time Kenya has needed a Mbeki like now.