High drama as Mbeki resigns
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles
THABO Mbeki faced the most difficult moment of his political career when, in mid-September 2008, his party required him to bid farewell to the people of South Africa as their second democratically elected president.
Mbeki had come to power with Nelson Mandela’s blessing, and with what promised to be a broad vision of South African and African renovation.
As Mbeki’s presidency wore on, he stumbled on Aids and Zimbabwe, and showed himself to be prone to paranoia and rancour – but earned considerable credit for appearing to strike a blow for clean government when, in the wake of corruption allegations against his deputy, Jacob Zuma, he oversaw Zuma’s axeing in 2005.
This appeared to cost him his job when, three years later, Zuma regained his status in the party and Mbeki was forced to go.
The report of September 22, 2008, headlined “Don’t despair, Mbeki tells the nation”, described his “measured farewell address to the people of South Africa”, broadcast live on TV and radio.
He urged “comrades and country not to lose heart, but to press on in the struggle for jobs, equity, security, fairness… and governance free of corruption”. “South Africa begins a new week today in an atmosphere of high drama,” the report said.
“President Thabo Mbeki has resigned and will leave office within days. Attention turns to the kind of South Africa Jabob Zuma’s ANC envisions, which, until clear policy statements clarify matters, remains the subject of widely divergent speculation.”
Mbeki used his farewell address “to emphasise his and the liberation movement’s conviction in the independence of the judiciary, though emphatically rejected suggestions that he had interfered politically in the attempt to have his powerful contender Jacob Zuma prosecuted for fraud and corruption”. He made “no direct reference to the power struggle that has obsessed the party for months and consumed the national debate”, though “made it plain he rejected Judge Chris Nicholson’s interpretation of events in the long- running Zuma saga, saying that neither he nor the cabinet had interfered with the work of the National Prosecuting Authority or the courts, and it was unfortunate that the integrity of the government had been impugned”.
He made “repeated references to the ANC’s commitment to fighting ‘ crime and corruption’”, and “dwelt on the successes of his and his predecessor Nelson Mandela’s administrations in striving to improve the lot of all South Africans, in achieving economic stability and growth and in advancing the cause of freedom and democracy throughout Africa”.
There was “no room for complacency, and the struggle for development, equity, jobs, poverty relief, security and corruption- free government remained a vital goal”.
Mbeki said: “Trying times need courage and resolution”, adding that “our strength as a people is not to be tested in the best of times”.
Ironically, perhaps, “Mbeki’s ‘ magnificent’ resignation” – in the phrase of the headline of September 22 – was hailed by political analysts as a masterly address, “one of the best, if not his second best to his milestone ‘I am an African’ speech”.
Among the pundits, Dr Adam Habib, then a political analyst with the Human Sciences Research Council, described Mbeki’s speech as “magnificent”, and contrasted it with his apartheid predecessor PW Botha’s effort when he was forced to resign by his party in 1989.
Botha took the opportunity to publicly chastise his political opponents within his party and in the government.
In similar vein, Aubrey Matshiqi of the Centre for Policy Studies said Mbeki “could easily just have announced his resignation in a ‘sulky way’, but he instead addressed his people”.
Patricia de Lille, then the leader of the Independent Democrats, observed: “Mbeki is always so aloof. This was the first time I saw some emotion – some passion – in his address. He connected well with the people of this country tonight.” The most pointed questions of the day were raised in a front page editorial in the Weekend Argus of September 21, prophetically headlined: “Which Zuma? Which ANC?”.
While it noted of Mbeki that “few will have sympathy” for him, given his “Machiavellian streak and ruthless disregard for anybody perceived as a threat”, weaknesses that “have played central roles in the drama that reached its denouement yesterday”, it went on to focus attention on Zuma.
It said: “The rest of the world will be watching South Africa with alarm and, whatever the ANC’s new legion of hotheads might think, the globalising world and the need for investment do mean that international confidence is an important contributor to the country’s success.
“So which Zuma will they and anxious South Africans see emerge in the coming months? The one who says that he respects the independence of the judiciary, or the one who remains silent when ANC Youth League president Julius Malema makes statements patently designed to intimidate judges? Will Zuma be the man who says he respects freedom of expression, or the one who sues cartoonists?
“Will he pursue the conservative economic policies which have fostered growth in recent years, or will he accede to the demands of his more radical allies?”
Few, arguably, are left in any doubt about the answers today.
President Jacob Zuma in Parliament.