Fate drew Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma together 1975 and they would grow to become close comrades and allies in the ANC. Fate drew them together again to work side by side in the state – what would turn out to be a recipe for disaster and eventually render them adversaries. But their destinies are forever intertwined and they remain tragic fellow travellers.
It was always going to be awkward: Jacob Zuma paying tribute and singing the praises of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki. But as the ANC centenary celebrations involved dedicating a month to all the ANC’s former presidents, there was no way to get around it. Zuma has been delivering extensive tributes to all the ANC’s former leaders through commemorative lectures around the country.
It was expected that his lecture in honour of Mbeki and his leadership of the ANC would be tricky in light of how their long, complex relationship publicly crashed and burned. Mbeki’s non-attendance raised the discomfiture levels as, though his office said he had a prior engagement, he clearly could not be bothered with Zuma and the ANC’s attempt to make nice about his contribution to the party and the country after giving him the boot.
In December, the ANC will pay tribute to Zuma and it is expected that his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe would deliver the commemorative lecture. If destiny had turned out differently, the tribute should have been delivered by Mbeki, his comrade and the person who probably understands Zuma’s political life best. But it is unlikely that Mbeki would have anything to do with that event either.
In spite of the awkward dynamics around the commemorative lecture in honour of Mbeki, Zuma stepped and delivered a lengthy treatise on the remarkable life of his predecessor, whom he said distinguished himself in the ANC.
“President Mbeki thus became one of the leading cadres of the movement who epitomised the ANC’s belief in generating ideas and an ongoing dialogue in the spirit of Mao Zedong’s call to ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thoughts to contend’, the theme of this lecture.
“He was one of the cadres entrusted by the leadership collective of President OR Tambo to express the various theses emerging from the hundred schools of thoughts on ANC strands of thinking,” Zuma said at the event held in Aliwal North in the Eastern Cape.
Running through the highlights of Mbeki’s career in the ANC, Zuma also praised his role in the state.
“By the time he took office in June 1999 as President of the Republic, President Mbeki was ready to take forward the national reconciliation project with a focus on expanding the economy and deepening democratic transformation through policies including black economic empowerment. He was also to drive better performance on the part of the state.… Substantial progress was made in the areas of accountability, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, building the integrity and legitimacy of the state and the rule of law.”
Zuma also spoke of Mbeki’s passion for international relations and African development and how he made the African Renaissance “the central tenet of the country’s foreign policy outlook”.
Although Zuma mentioned Mbeki’s “departure” from office, he focussed on the grace with which Mbeki dealt with the matter rather than why it happened.
“What defined him most as a loyal cadre of the organisation and true patriot was his conduct during the difficult and devastating period of his recall from office. He accepted the decision of the ANC NEC (national executive committee). Like a true statesman, he put the country first above personal considerations. He stepped aside in a dignified manner, allowing a smooth transition to take place in government to the presidency of Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe,” Zuma said, also quoting from Mbeki’s resignation message.
In the entire 3,613-word lecture, Zuma did not mention that this was also the man who fired him as his deputy president, leading to an epic power struggle between the two which almost brought the ANC to its knees and which culminated in the divisive election battle at Polokwane that Mbeki lost. The recall was as a result of their power battle and it also provoked a substantial breakaway from the ANC.
Both their wounds run deep as a result of these events, which dramatically changed the course of history in South Africa. No two people’s relationship has impacted more on the country and the ANC than that of Mbeki and Zuma.
The two first met in Swaziland in 1975 and they crossed paths several times as they chartered different courses in the ANC underground.
Between 1987 and 1990, they were assigned by OR Tambo to begin exploratory talks with Apartheid regime, and they grew to appreciate each other’s strengths and characters. After the ANC was unbanned, Mbeki and Zuma were allies in the organisation’s power battles of the time, including the power struggle against Chris Hani and Cyril Ramaphosa. In 1997, Mbeki became president of the ANC and Zuma his deputy and their relationship remained that of comradely co-operation.
The trouble began in 1999. The ANC won a resounding victory in the national election but there was a hung parliament in KwaZulu-Natal with neither the ANC nor IFP able to form a government on its own. The election gave the IFP two more seats in the provincial legislature than the ANC. The two parties had been in a coalition government in the province since 1994, but by 1999 relations had deteriorated. The ANC did not want the IFP to retain the premiership.
The ANC’s national leadership intervened, making a secret offer of the country’s deputy presidency to IFP President Mangosuthu Buthelezi if he surrendered the premiership of KwaZulu-Natal to the ANC. After a song a dance in vintage Buthelezi style, he refused.
The ANC then had to opt for its reserve candidate to step in; Zuma became Mbeki’s deputy in the state. At the time, Zuma’s focus was more on securing power for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and would have actually preferred that Buthelezi had taken the national job. He would have been satisfied with any position in the cabinet.
But fate thrust him into the position he would be fired from six years later, after his relationship with Mbeki came undone. It was clear Mbeki did not really want Zuma to be his deputy. While Mbeki himself had been an extremely powerful deputy president under Nelson Mandela, powers were shifted after the 1999 election so that Zuma’s role was effectively ceremonial. Their relationship cooled thereafter, and by early 2001 it was evident it had soured when Zuma was among those suspected by Mbeki and his acolytes of plotting to unseat him.
In 2002, Zuma was publicly fingered in connection with an arms deal, further straining the relationship. All sense of trust dissipated.
Between then and 2007, when they went head-to-head for the position of the ANC presidency, Mbeki and Zuma tried to keep up the façade that they were still comrades and would remain close. But their respective supporters took up their battles, leading to the showdown at the ANC’s 52nd conference in Polokwane.
Their embrace on the stage after the results were announced belied a truly complicated relationship which now sees them existing in worlds apart from each other – Zuma in Mbeki’s former home and office and Mbeki on the periphery, as he was after he was fired.
The 11th and 12th presidents of the ANC are two political figures who are intriguing on their own but whose 37-year relationship with each other is nothing short of fascinating. It has the intensity of an epic romance where a fine line exists between love and hate, and a tragic twist of two friends who betrayed each other in the worst possible ways.
And yet the ANC binds them together always as successive leaders and comrades.
The words of Barbra Streisand’s The Way we Were might as well have been written about how their extraordinary friendship met a tragic end:
Can it be that it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line
If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we, could we…