At his official residence in Pretoria on Wednesday, President Thabo Mbeki gave the first interview of his eight-year presidency to the Mail & Guardian. Looking tired and vulnerable, the president exposed the softer side of his complex personality, which South Africans hardly ever see. He has clearly been taken aback by the backlash against him in the party he has served for 50 years, and is wounded by attacks on his person and leadership. For more than an hour, he spoke with rare intensity to Ferial Haffajee, Rapule Tabane and Drew Forrest about the bitter divisions in the ANC, the danger of sectarian reprisals and other issues related to the Polokwane conference.
Joel Netshitenzhe has warned that a Jacob Zuma presidency could undermine the ANC’s electoral majority and South Africa’s standing in the world. Do you agree?
I want to avoid any assessment of particular ANC members who are running for positions — I don’t want to get involved in what the Americans call “negative campaigning”. But we’ve got to remember the high level of confidence people have in the ANC, as demonstrated in successive elections; we can’t be driven by individual ambitions and aspirations. The population is not terribly happy with the ANC’s preparations for Polokwane, particularly over questions of leadership. They’re seeing a kind of behaviour among ANC leaders they’re not accustomed to.
Netshitenzhe has described the road to Polokwane as “debilitating” …
That’s correct. The problem for me is that the campaign by individuals has not raised issues of policy and the direction the ANC is going in. To say the current leadership is taking the country in the wrong direction would be healthy; we might have vigorous campaigns; people might then elect this rather than that person. But the campaigns seem to be fought around personalities, which is extremely unhealthy. People are told stories about ministers carrying bagfuls of money and paying delegates, or offering them government jobs. No one produces evidence of this. Because it’s not about policy differences, they have to find some reason for opposing, using allegations and rumour.
We’ve got such serious challenges — poverty, unemployment, crime. We’ve just had the 16 days of activism. But we’re not discussing these things; we’re discussing individuals.
In your 50 years in the ANC, have you ever experienced such high levels of acrimony?
I really never have. In the 1970s there was a grouping called the “Gang of Eight” who were expelled because they opposed the ANC’s position that the leadership should be opened to non-Africans. But even then, we didn’t have this level of acrimony. That was because the Gang of Eight differed on a policy matter; they weren’t attacking Oliver Tambo. The conflict is new even to ANC members older than I am. Even when the PAC broke away it wasn’t like this.
Weren’t you surprised by the margin of your defeat at the provincial nomination conferences? How do you understand the voting?
I haven’t analysed the reasons behind those preferences. What I do know is that there’s been a series of debates on how the president has conducted himself — you’ve had allegations about the centralisation of power, the abuse of state power, the president taking decisions on his own and marginalising the ANC and the alliance, not allowing open discussion at meetings of the NEC. If, as an ordinary member, I was told this by someone credible, whose word I had no reason to doubt, I would vote against that person. It would have been very good if people openly said they don’t like the president for these reasons.
For example, people say the president chooses premiers and this is part of the system of patronage. I was at a meeting in the Free State yesterday where I pointed out that the ANC’s 1997 conference decided that premiers should be appointed in the same way as ministers, because people were competing to be provincial chair on the assumption that they will then become premiers, rather than to serve the ANC. That was destroying and corrupting the ANC. And because lots of people were fighting for one position, it was divisive. After the 2004 election I called all the provincial premiers and said: this is my view of who should be premier. They all agreed. Then I convened a meeting of national ANC officials; they all agreed. Then I took it to the national working committee; they actually applauded. When I told the Free State meeting this, many people were surprised.
In some campaigning, people are told that corruption among mayors is a consequence of personalised power, that they are stealing money as a nest-egg for the president because he won’t be president after 2009.
Didn’t the provincial conferences show that many ordinary ANC members oppose your leadership? Haven’t there been mistakes during your presidency?
The disadvantage I have is that nobody says that. Nobody in the ANC stands up and says: you are doing the wrong things. In 2005, the NEC was discussing issues around the deputy president [Jacob Zuma] — the court cases, allegations of conspiracy. He asked me for a private meeting so that I could better guide the NEC, and after that we presented a joint report saying there were no divisions between us, that it was wrong for ANC members to support one or the other. A number of NEC members said: we don’t believe there is no division. I replied that maybe we are doing or saying certain things, or not doing or saying certain things, that result in the impression that we are divided. I asked: can comrades please speak honestly so that we can address the confusion? Nobody said anything. In the statement after the meeting, the NEC confirmed that the president and deputy president are not divided.
The point I’m making is — when people don’t say: president, these are things that are making us disaffected and critical, how am I supposed to know what I’ve done that’s angered the members? The same with issues of centralisation of power — it would obviously be wrong, but nobody stands up to explain. Unfortunately, I haven’t got omniscient powers to guess what I’ve done wrong. It would be very good if people at Polokwane speak frankly about their concerns.
Can you reverse the voting at the provincial conferences come Polokwane?
I don’t want to make predictions; I don’t know what informed the thinking of the membership at the PGCs [provincial general councils], or what will inform them at Polokwane. I presume that debate will continue at the national conference and would hope that the matter will be addressed in terms of the policies the conference will adopt. We must take this thing away from personalities — the masses of our people are not in the least interested in who dances best.
The NEC decided that you and Zuma should jointly go and address members. But according to secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe, this has never happened …
The decision was that the NEC should institute a programme to go to members and explain. There was nothing that we should go around jointly — if there had been such a decision, I would have opposed it. It would have suggested that there were differences.
Trevor Manuel has warned that 96 years of “unimaginable toil and sacrifice” to build the ANC could be destroyed in five days at Polokwane. Do you agree? How do you rebuild unity?
I come back to the issue of policy — you can only unite the ANC around a perspective, a programme, a value system. Polokwane must say what the ANC is, its policies and programmes, and what leadership you need to implement them. You can’t unite the ANC by getting opposing candidates to drink coffee together. People must be elected to positions in the ANC, not to lead factions. If delegates depart from the movement’s fundamental historical positions, we might destroy it.
Don’t you need a more balanced NEC? Currently, the left feels marginalised from it.
The NEC as currently constituted is very representative of the ANC’s broad church. I can’t see how it isn’t, when the membership elected it in 2002 at Stellenbosch. I would contest the notion that the left is not properly represented — what left? Take Cosatu’s decision, which talks about the need to advance to socialism, to redefine the national democratic revolution as a socialist revolution. That’s a position, a point of view. But those people are only elected to the ANC’s NEC if the membership of the ANC thinks it’s a position that needs to be advanced in the ANC itself. If people say the ANC is about the national democratic revolution and the SACP is about socialist revolution, that’s not an exclusion. You can’t say the NEC isn’t balanced because of that.
Aren’t there genuine differences within the ANC between people who want to advance a socialist vision and those who see it is as a multiclass movement?
That division does not arise from the ANC — no branch or structure has taken that position. If it had, we would have discussed it at the [June 2007] policy conference, which was the right place to raise that kind of thing. There are people in other structures who are raising these things, and they have a right to. But it is not an internal ANC phenomenon.
Is there a risk, after Polokwane, of retribution and reprisals in the party?
If division leads to retribution, that’s what will destroy the ANC; that’s what Joel means when he says it could lose the people’s support. Part of our responsibility is to avoid such an outcome. I still don’t hear any genuine presentation of policy positions that NEC members can debate and around which they find each other. You can’t allow the ANC to become divided on the basis that you prefer one individual because he or she has a prettier face.
People who go to the conference are not enemies; they’re comrades. It’s the task of all ANC members, whether in the leadership or not, to fight any attempt to engage in retributive action. Unfortunately, we’ve experienced this problem in some provinces: you have a provincial conference of the ANC with two candidates and two factions. One group wins, and then tries to marginalise the other. This generates an enormous fight, which takes the ANC away from its commitments to the people. Yet in elections, we say please re-elect us, and the people believe us.
Some accuse you of clinging to power by seeking a third term as ANC president, and of trying to block Zuma’s path to leadership of the country. What is your motive?
We must get away from this concept of terms — in terms of ANC processes, there’s no such thing. That applies to government, to the country’s presidency. I’ve said from the beginning: we come from an ANC generation that grew up in circumstances where people did not battle for positions. There was a cost attached to membership and an even higher cost attached to leadership; in the years of repression, people could get jailed or killed. The ANC decided that this is what it would like you to do. When the Gang of Eight was expelled, the leadership put a number of us into their positions to avoid a gap — even though we wanted to avoid that because we felt we didn’t have sufficient experience.
The notion that Thabo Mbeki wants to become ANC president is false. I don’t have that level of arrogance that believes that only one unique person can be president. I won’t campaign; I wouldn’t nominate myself and I haven’t asked anybody for nomination. I haven’t interfered with the provincial processes. People ask: are you trying to block JZ? No. Consistent with the history, if the membership feels they want this particular person, out of respect for the ANC, people must agree to that.
In covering your presidency, it’s become clear that people are afraid of you. Isn’t this the reason they don’t criticise you openly?
I’ve heard this, and I don’t understand it. Do I look as if I’ve got horns? It’s said that I block and inhibit open discussion — that’s puzzling to me; it’s completely untrue. I said to the NEC I want to address this fear. Normally, NEC meetings start with a political overview, which I present, and then there’s discussion. I suggested we get other members to present the overview, and I would speak at the end. We tried that twice, but then the NEC complained: let’s go back to what we used to have, and get your views at the beginning.
It’s a story that there’s no free political discussion in the NEC. After quite a vigorous discussion about the deputy president, the ANC chair in Limpopo, Sello Moloto, said that before he joined the NEC he took it as a matter of fact that the president never allowed open discussion, because comrades he had no reason to doubt said this. But now, after attending a number of meetings, he saw it was exactly the opposite — anyone could say anything they want.
Naturally, there are more things that I would know because I’ve been exposed to all aspects of the ANC — international, underground, military, intelligence. Someone might present a point of view and I might contest it successfully. But I’ve never done it by wagging my fingers at people. Comrades can stand up in the NEC and say: the president said this, but I don’t agree. The same thing happens in Cabinet. I was telling the comrades in the Free State that Terror Lekota has a grievance: he’s been national chairperson since 1997 and he has chaired every single NEC meeting. He says that if anyone should be accused of blocking, it is him.
Another explanation may be credible: people may fear to present a viewpoint because they fear it may be defeated. Then they say they were blocked from advancing a view and that’s why they’re advancing it outside the organisation.
One of the big challenges the ANC faces is that it has to tell the truth to itself. It must go beyond rumour-mongering, the things said behind people’s backs, all manner of stories planted in the media. It comes back to this matter of honesty, truthfulness in the organisation. We cannot have an ANC whose integrity is under question because of unethical practices.
The ANC needs to tell the truth to itself about anything and everything. We should not lie about individuals, about ourselves and about what we can do for the people. Then we will take decisions consistent with our tasks.