|Written by:||Meshack Masibo|
‘ If the butchers have their way, we will draw strength even from the little crosses that the kind may put at the head of their graves. In that process we shall learn. We shall learn to hate evil even more, and in the same intensity we shall seek to destroy it. We shall learn to be brave and unconscious of anything but this noblest of struggles. Today we might be but weak children, spurred on by nothing other than the fear and grief of losing our fathers. In time we shall learn to die both for ourselves and for the millions.’ – Thambo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki was born on June 18 1942, in Mbewuleni , a small village in Idutywa in Transkei (now Eastern Cape). His middle name ’Mvuyelwa’ is Xhosa and means ‘he for whom the people sing’. Both his parents were teachers, activists and members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA later renamed the SACP). His father, Govan Mbeki, was a leading figure in the activities of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Eastern Cape Mbeki’s parents were very involved in improving the conditions of their community and took part in schemes to feed the poor. MaMofokeng, his mother, ran a shop called the Goodwill Store, and the family also kept sheep and goats.
In 1956, Mbeki joined the ANC Youth League after a brief period with the Trotskyist Unity Movement’s Society of Young Africans (SOYA). Although only 14 years of age at the time, he became active in student politics. In 1960, the ANC was banned, making it difficult for members to operate openly. Not long after, Govan and Nelson Mandela became fugitives. In 1961, during his final year at high school, Mbeki was expelled for leading a class boycott against the expulsion of a fellow student. At this time, the ANC was for the first time considering violent revolution.
In 1961, Mbeki travelled to Soweto to start an exciting new life. He was amazed at the size of the big city and its vitality. He met Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC and learnt much about politics and law from the Nokwe family, and put much effort into his post-matric studies at Britzius College in Johannesburg. It was not long before Mbeki was elected secretary of the African Students’ Association (ASA) while still being enrolled at Britzius College, but the association collapsed after many of its members were arrested. At this time, political movements were folding under increasingly severe attacks from the state.
On 11 July 1963, the High Command of the ANC was caught at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, one of them being Govan Mbeki. In order to hold the prisoners, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963, was rushed through Parliament and applied retroactively to June 27th 1962, mainly but not exclusively so that the people arrested at Rivonia could be detained and held in solitary confinement. In July of the same year, Mbeki began mobilising international support against apartheid. Horrified at the Act, Mbeki led a successful motion in the Student Union to condemn the move and join the boycott of South African goods. He strongly condemned the South African government’s new restrictions on political activity and likened it to in the politics of Nazi Germany. In April 1964, Mbeki appeared before a delegation of the United Nations (UN) Special Committee against Apartheid to plead for the life of his father, who by then had been charged with planning an armed uprising against the state.
After completing his first degree, Mbeki planned to join uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and he sought permission to do so, but this plan was vetoed by Tambo, who advised him to do a Master’s degree. On 18 May 1966, Mbeki organised a 24-hour vigil at the Clock Tower in Brighton’s central square against Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia. In October 1966 Mbeki moved to London to work for the ANC full-time. During this period he met his wife to be, Zanele Dlamini, a social worker from Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, who was also studying in London. Zanele had just moved to London at this time.
In 1966, Mbeki appealed to Oliver Tambo to allow any South African student who supported the ANC to be admitted into the movement’s Youth and Students Section (YSS), irrespective of race. Tambo agreed and the YSS became the first non-racial arm of the ANC. In the same year, the ANC upheld its decision to exclude non-Africans from its National Executive meeting in Dar-es Salaam..
Mbeki was finally given permission to undergo a year of military training at the Lenin International School in Moscow. Mbeki excelled at the Institute and regularly addressed the Institutes’ weekly assembly. While in Moscow, he continued writing articles, documents and speeches for the ANC and its organs. In June 1969, Mbeki was chosen to be secretary of a high-level SACP delegation to the International Conference of Communist and Workers Parties in Moscow. While in Moscow, Mbeki was trained in advanced guerrilla warfare at Skhodnya, and although he was more comfortable with a book rather than a gun, the training was considered a necessary requirement if he was to be accepted as a leader. His military training was cut short as he was sent back to London to prepare for a new post in Lusaka. Throughout Mbeki’s training, he kept in constant contact with Zanele.
Together with Oliver Tambo, Mbeki left London for Lusaka in April 1971 to take up the position of assistant secretary of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council (RC). This was the first time in nine years that Mbeki was setting foot on African soil. The aim of the RC at this time was to bridge an ever-widening gap between the ANC in exile and the people back home. In Lusaka, Mbeki was housed in a secret location in Makeni, south-west of the city. Later, Mbeki moved over to work in the ANC’s propaganda section. But he continued to attend RC meetings. Four months after his arrival in Lusaka, Mbeki travelled to Beichlingen to deliver a speech on behalf of the ANC’s Executive Committee at the YSS summer school. This was a turning point in Mbeki’s life as it was the first time he spoke on behalf of the ANC as opposed to the ANC Youth League.
In December 1972, Mbeki joined Tambo at Heathrow airport to meet Mangosuthu Buthelezi to discuss mass resistance to apartheid. Mbeki is credited with facilitating the establishment of Inkatha – it was his responsibility to nurture the relationship between Buthelezi and the ANC. Mbeki was deployed to Botswana in 1973 to facilitate the development of an internal underground. Mbeki’s life took a significant turn on 23 November 1974 when he married Zanele Dlamini. The wedding ceremony took place at Farnham Castle, the residence of Zanele’s sister Edith and her husband, Wilfred Grenville-Grey.
As a result, Mbeki was sent back to Swaziland to recruit soldiers for the organisation’s military wing. In Swaziland, Mbeki recruited hundreds of people into the ANC. He also liaised with Buthelezi and the latter’s newly formed Inkatha movement, and set up structures within South Africa. Mbeki’s aim was to establish contact with as many Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) members as he could and to draw them into the ANC. Ironically, while Mbeki was converting BC adherents into ANC members, he would himself absorb many aspects of BC ideology.
In 1978, Mbeki became political secretary in the office of Oliver Tambo. He became a close confidant of Tambo, advising him on all matters and writing many of his speeches. One of his duties as secretary was to choose a theme each year in accordance with the ANC’s current activities – 1979, for example, was known as ‘The Year of the Spear’, while 1980 was ‘The Year of the Charter’.
From 1979, with Mbeki as his right hand man, Tambo began building up the guerrilla movement into an internationally recognised guardian of South African freedom. In 1985, Mbeki became the ANC’s director of the Department of Information and Publicity and coordinated diplomatic campaigns to involve more white South Africans in anti-apartheid activities. In 1989, he rose in the ranks to head the ANC’s Department of International Affairs and was involved in the ANC’s negotiations with the South African government.
Mbeki played a major role in turning the international media against apartheid. Raising the diplomatic profile of the ANC, Mbeki acted as a point of contact for foreign governments and international organisations and he was extremely successful in this position. Mbeki also played the role of ambassador to the steady flow of delegates from the elite sectors of white South Africa. These included academics, clerics, business people and representatives of liberal white groups who travelled to Lusaka to assess the ANC’s views on a democratic, free South Africa.
Mbeki was seen as pragmatic, eloquent, rational and urbane. He was known for his diplomatic style and sophistication, which went against the view, held by many right-wing organisations that the ANC was a terrorist organisation. In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by FW De Klerk , who announced on 2 February 1990
After South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994, Mandela chose Mbeki to be the first deputy president in the Government of National Unity. On 10 May 1994, Mbeki was sworn in to his new post with FW De Klerk as the second deputy president. The ANC’s alliance partners (the SACP and Congress of South African Trade Unions -COSATU) appeared to approve of Mbeki in this position, and Ramaphosa quit politics to go into business.
The National Party withdrew from the Government of National Unity in June 1996 and Mbeki then became the sole deputy president. Although Mbeki was officially deputy president, he was referred to as the ‘de facto’ prime minister, as Mandela left the duties of state to Mbeki while he presided over a process of national reconciliation and busied himself with international relations.
While in this position Mbeki formed a ‘consultative council’ made up of Black politicians, academics and professionals. The council included the likes of Paulus Zulu, the then-chair of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Mbhazima Shilowa, Sydney Mufamadi and Brigalia Bam, who became the chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The council, nicknamed the ‘kitchen cabinet’ by the media, met once a month with Essop Pahad as the convenor. In his attempt to encourage Black economic aspirations, Mbeki appointed mainly Black staff members.
In order to maintain a support base for the ANC, Mbeki targeted the townships and rural poor. He was particularly considerate to the rural chiefs, introducing a rural development strategy, while plans for urban renewal focussed on the townships. As soon as Mbeki became deputy president, the media became intensely suspicious of him. In the early years when the ANC was newly unbanned and even during the negotiations, he was seen as a charming pragmatist. This changed quickly as he was now portrayed as a power-hungry manipulator who had the ability to sideline internal opponents and challengers to his leadership. Mbeki’s insistence on having a regular government slot on public radio and television alienated the media, which did not take well to what was seen as state interference.
Mbeki later then became SA’S President
The most serious criticism of Mbeki concerned his approach to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) pandemic in 2001. Mbeki’s ‘dissident’ position saw him questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, and by implication the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki was casting doubt on the ‘orthodox’ theory that HIV causes AIDS. Gevisser describes Mbeki’s approach to the disease as shaped by his obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and ‘sexual shame’.
Mbeki withheld the distribution of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to public hospitals because he believed pharmaceutical companies were exaggerating the link between HIV and AIDS to increase sales of drugs, and that they concealed the toxic side effects of ARVs – which some critics believe has killed more people than the disease itself.
Mbeki’s retirement from politics can be traced to the moment in 2005 when he relieved Jacob Zuma of his duties as Deputy President due to his implication in the corruption scandal. This caused a split in the ANC between Mbeki’s allies and supporters of Zuma.
At the ANC conference in Polokwane in December 2007, Mbeki once again stood for election as ANC president but lost to Jacob Zuma, who went on to become the ANC’s presidential candidate for the 2009 general election.