Mbeki conspiracy can there be smoke without fire?, The
The alleged plot against SA President Thabo Mbeki by three of the most powerful and popular ANC figures has been dismissed as insane by some. Others wonder if there is some substance to them. The mystery deepens.-Tom Nevin reports.
If it was all as innocuous as it finally emerged, why the fuss? Why were three respected founding members of the African National Congress (ANC) fingered and investigated. Why was so much credence given to a disgruntled and discredited junior ex-member of the party who was ejected from the organisation after admitting gross dishonesty?
What had begun with a bang with shock disclosures of plots in high places by former ANC youth leader James Nkambule, ended with a whimper in the parliamentary cross examination of Tshwete, leaving most non– ANC MPs far from satisfied and virtually every question unanswered.
Start of the Shambles
The entire shambolic episode began with the public disclosure in late March by James Nkambule of the involvement by Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale, former Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa and former ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa in a plot against the Mbeki Presidency, and Mbeki’s alleged part in the murder of Chris Hani.
Paragraph 10 in Nkambule’s second document to the South African Police Services claims that Phosa intended briefing selected international news organs such as CBS, CNN and The Times of London “to alert the international world about the dangers of having a President like Thabo Mbeki running the country, so that pressure must be applied on him to resign while the investigations are continuing.”
Paragraph 11 reads: “I make this affidavit so that the police can investigate the circumstances surrounding the Mozambique arms sale and its link to Chris Hani’s murder, and the attempt by Matthews Phosa and others to paint the President as having links with Chris Hani’s murder and the reasons thereof. In this regard – I request the police to go deeper into this saga. I will avail myself to assist the police in piecing together the pieces of information in this case and unravel the truth behind why and who killed Chris Hani.”
It was an extraordinary time. No sooner had Nkambule spilled his beans, than President Mbeki went on a South African TV station to accuse (unnamed) businessmen of a conspiracy against the Presidency and, virtually simultaneously, his Minister of Safety and Security was on another channel identifying three of them.
Mbeki took the supposed conspiracy with remarkable cool. If he was rattled at being the target of an overthrow he gave little sign of it, conceding only that what was happening was a “conspiratorial thing”, and it was “not a problem.”
To the President, that conspiratorial thing was simply a democratic process and invited anyone who was plotting against him to come out in the open and challenge him.
“I think what you are seeing is people having natural ambitions,” he said. “Some people want to be President of South Africa. That’s fine – the matter that’s arising is the manner in which people pursue their ambitions. We need to create a space so that all competitors can compete openly.”
Security Minister Tshwete was not as indulgent. He told his television audience that Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and Cyril Ramaphosa were being investigated by a high level team. He vowed not to rest until all details of the plot were uncovered. All three are powerful and popular members of the governing party and allegations that they were involved in a conspiracy to undermine Mbeki started a bushfire of unprecedented proportions.
Reaction from two of the fingered three was immediate. For Sexwale it was “complete hogwash.” Phosa said he has no ambition to become President and the allegations “are not worthy of any comment – it is rubbish, really crazy.” Ramaphosa could not be reached for comment that night; it has been rumoured that he plans to make a political come-back in 2004. He later labelled the allegations as “ludicrous and insane.”
If Tshwete was opening himself up to the mother of all defamation suits, then that was a risk he was willing to take. He stubbornly held his ground, insisting it was his job as Safety and Security Minister to investigate any and all threats on the Presidency. Few of his critics were willing to let him take his job that seriously. He took a heavy public and opposition party pasting for having dragged South Africa’s name through the international mud, something even Mbeki conceded had happened.
The President appeared to be unruffled at the accusations of his having a hand in the murder in 1993 of the South African Communist Party leader, and pretender to the Presidency, Chris Hani. “No-one is above investigation,” he said, “not even the President.”
Interesting history lemon
The Sunday Independent newspaper dusted off the political history books and found interesting pre-1994 interplay between Mbeki, Ramaphosa and Hani.
“While Mbeki was always in the talks with Western diplomats and paved the way for a settlement over years of negotiating with the other side,” notes the paper’s John Matisonn, “Ramaphosa was more confrontational, and probably the better loved for it among ANC unionists, guerrillas and the underground.”
“Hani insisted on challenging Mbeki’s bid for the deputy presidency of the ANC at the conference in Durban in 1991,” recollects Mbeki biographer, Mark Gevisser. “The matter was settled only when the compromise candidate, the venerable Walter Sisulu, came in to ensure they both withdrew.”
Matisonn adds further insight to Mbeki’s turbulent journey to power.
“President Thabo Mbeki’s road to the Presidency has been anything but smooth,” he says. “It has been paved with conflict and two of the people with whom conflict was the worst, Chris Hani and Cyril Ramaphosa, are at the centre of the row over the alleged plot. While Mbeki was the negotiator and diplomat, Hani was the firebrand and peoples’ hero.”
As Gevisser puts it: “While Mbeki was minding the store, Chris Hani was the Che Guevara.”
Media’s field day
It was inevitable in the flak that burst around Tshwete’s revelations, that Mbeki’s record as President would come under the microscope. The press had a field day with the Mail er Guardian referring to Mbeki’s `disastrous reign’. The paper says his 22 months in power have been disastrous, and he has no-one to blame but himself.
Xolisa Vapi writes in the Saturday Star. “Mbeki’s first year in office has not been a success. The ANC knows this, in spite of protestations, and that has led to a power struggle within the ANC, to the extent that Deputy President Jacob Zuma had to issue a statement saying he did not intend contesting the ANC Presidency.”
Business Day takes a kinder, gentler approach: “Is Thabo Mbeki fit to rule?” it asks. “The short, obvious and unequivocal answer from this newspaper is yes, of course he is. Few leaders of any modern democracy have been prepared so meticulously for the job of running a government as Thabo Mbeki was in his in exile. Not many are as intellectually gifted and almost none commands a political party with the popular support that his African National Congress enjoys.”
Obfuscation and rambling rhetoric
Having made his breathtaking disclosures, it was now up to Steve Tshwete to back them up. His opportunity came at the much vaunted nationally televised parliamentary hearing. It turned out to be the television non-event of the year. Questions put to Tshwete included: were the investigations continuing; what have the suspects been charged with, if they have been charged at all; what happened to the presumption of innocence and the procedure of not naming names until sufficient evidence had been accumulated and charges levelled?
Tshwete responded with obfuscation and rambling rhetoric, and then stalked out of the hearing before it was officially over saying he had a plane to catch. .
The ironic possibility is that this imagined plot could ignite the flames of a real challenge to the Mbeki Presidency. It’s probable that there was no conspiracy, but now that the ANC hive, and those of its political allies the Cosatu trade union movement and the SA Communist Party, have been disturbed, the bees are in angry mood. Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi demanded an apology from Tshwete for his disclosures.
The timing of the issue is uncomfortable for Mbeki. It is less than a year to the ANC’s national convention at which five top party positions – president, deputy president, chairperson, secretary general and treasurer general – will be holy contested.
It’s hard to believe that the matter will rest as it is. Both the ANC and President Mbeki have publicly blamed Tshwete for the backlash that so embarrassed South Africa internationally. Politically, Tshwete’s job is secure. As political analyst Xolela Mangcu maintains: “There is too much history between Mbeki and Tshwete for Mbeki to sideline him. But despite damage control on party unity, things won’t be the same within the ANC from now on.”
Copyright International Communications Jun 2001
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