The Conspiratorial Politics of Thabo Mbeki

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Conspiratorial Politics of Thabo Mbeki


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


LAST month the South African President visited Britain. For him the receptions at Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street were no doubt a welcome break from domestic turmoil. In April 2001, the first serious cracks appeared in the previously solid edifice of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC). The event shattering the surface calm was the statement by Steve Tshwete, the Minister of Safety and Security and a close ally of President Thabo Mbeki, that investigations were ongoing into a 'plot' within the organisation to remove Mbeki from power and potentially cause him 'physical harm'. Those identified as the ringleaders of the conspiracy were three senior ANC figures now operating at the intersection of the worlds of politics and business -- Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, and Matthews Phosa. Despite the chronic lack of substance, the allegations were nonetheless interesting in that they exposed to public scrutiny the normally subterranean power plays within the ANC and they helped to cast lig ht on both Mbeki's leadership style and the wider political culture he has helped foster. Tensions are now beginning to manifest themselves throughout the ruling party, tensions in which personal, historical and ideological antagonisms frequently overlap and, in the absence of the unifying figure of Nelson Mandela, these may prove increasingly difficult to contain. This article considers the nature of the 'plot' allegations and the motivation of the current ANC leadership in lashing out in this fashion at enemies both real and imagined.

Plots and Rumours of Plots

The first public indication of unease within ANC ranks at Mbeki's leadership came in February when the organisation's National Executive Committee (NEC) described the various campaigns being mounted against Mbeki and his government as a 'total onslaught', a phrase originally popularised by the apartheid government of P. W. Botha -- hardly the most auspicious precedent. This was followed in March by another minor intrigue when the ANC's National Working Committee (which is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the organisation) sent a delegation to North-West province whose premier, Popo Molefe, has an antagonistic relationship with Mbeki. The delegation apparently found evidence that an 'anonymous pamphlet' was circulating among ANC members and structures in North-West province supporting the idea of 'one president, one term', which effectively amounted to a call for Mbeki to stand down when his term of office expires in 2004. The ANC's full NEC then met again from 24-26 March and although the 'ano nymous pamphlet' was not formally discussed it soon became clear that it had rattled the leadership and had contributed to an increasingly suspicious and poisonous atmosphere. The official statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting spoke of 'concerted efforts' to sow disunity and to undermine Mbeki, efforts which embraced critical media reports, whispering campaigns, and anonymous pamphlets. One week later, in early April, came the most significant development to date. The Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, issued an unsolicited statement in which he made it clear that he had no plans to challenge Mbeki for the ANC leadership and, in effect, the presidency. This statement came as a surprise to most ordinary South Africans for whom a Zuma challenge to Mbeki had always been disregarded as a serious possibility. The very fact that Zuma had issued, or, as seems more likely, had been pressed to issue, this declaration of loyalty pointed to considerable turmoil at the highest levels of the ANC and his statement o nly served to encourage further speculation and rumour about Mbeki's leadership, the strength of his position within the organisation, and the nature of his relationship with some of his senior colleagues. In the course of his protestation of loyalty, Zuma suggested that 'some elements' were trying to isolate the President and to 'create the impression that some of his most trusted comrades are plotting against him'. …

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