CityPress - - Voices -

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

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

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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