A flip through a KwaZulu-Natal newspaper the other day revealed former minister in the presidency Essop Pahad had been defending former president Thabo Mbeki’s legacy in front of a group of Durban students last week.

Rather hard-pressed by, among other, a few combative researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Centre for Civil Society, Pahad had a couple of interesting quotations attributed to him, some of the more brow-raising of which expected us to believe that: the government was in the habit of promising services to the people that it could not deliver; it was the norm for one administration to leave “gaps” for the next to “fill”; socialism was probably the only desirable alternative to remove class distinctions in service delivery; since everybody was going to die regardless of their HIV status, Mbeki’s administration prioritised the fight against pharmaceuticals selling expensive drugs above the efficient roll-out of anti-retrovirals and since it would boil down to him being seen as a tool of the West, Mbeki criticised Mugabe but resisted pushing for regime change in Zimbabwe.

With messages such as these, one may quite rightly ask what type of legacy it is that Pahad set out to salvage? I believe there is much the former minister can do to help the former president recover his lost honour. Therefore, regardless of whether the former minister may or may not agree that a change of tack would be in order, I would like to recommend one anyway, starting with some time out to catch a good movie and to read up a bit on political history.

Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon graced our cinemas earlier this year. The movie may make Pahad recall something of his recent nightmare experience at the UKZN, but the truth is we have never had the equal of the Frost/Nixon interviews in South Africa. Knowing that it was indeed one of the former minister’s favoured scapegoats while in office, Pahad may also gesture to that fateful encounter in Die Wilderness between the architect of the “third force”, PW Botha, and his chief apologist, Cliff Saunders, a couple of years ago. But since no public broadcaster would touch PW’s last pearls of wisdom with a barge pole, Pahad would do well to cast his mind’s eye back even further.

If he did, he would learn that South Africa has had its fair share of fallen leaders. Before the Groot Krokodil (“Great Crocodile” as PW was known in Afrikaans) we had BJ Vorster. BJ was not only a contemporary of Nixon. Within the context of apartheid, the information scandal that felled Vorster was at least the equal of Watergate, which ended Nixon’s presidency. Both scandals entailed a range of unlawful activities that included money laundering, apparently with the knowledge of these two former heads of government. For Vorster it would have been about the consolidation of the apartheid regime; for Nixon, a victory in the ’72 election was at stake.

If he embarked on this journey, Pahad would find that Vorster had to vacate his position as prime minister in 1978 in much the same way that Mbeki did in 2008. While it was a parliamentary investigation that made a crisis of confidence in Vorster’s leadership a fait accompli, the fact that Parliament was entirely dominated by the National Party gave it much the same ring as Mbeki’s “recall” by the ANC. Pahad will also note that where the final chapter in Mbeki’s public life has yet to be written, Vorster met a rather dreary end when he had to stand down again after a short stint as ceremonial state president in 1979. The reason: a judicial enquiry — rumoured to be a witch hunt hastily arranged by his successor, PW — found that BJ always had deep knowledge of wrongdoings perpetrated in the name of the information scandal.

Had the cultural boycott not been in full swing and Frost could subject Vorster to an interrogation at the time, the latter would probably have been able to pronounce of Botha in his own characteristic drawl, just as Nixon first said of his political opponents: “I gave [him] a sword and [he] stuck it in. And [he] twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in [his] position, I’d have done the same thing.” Having considered these examples, Pahad would have to admit that, despite his insistence that there is continuity in Jacob Zuma taking over the reins of the ANC and the country from Mbeki, the latter could definitely echo Nixon’s immortal words too. After all, Mbeki tried to pre-empt things by already getting his sword in, in 2005 after Zuma was implicated in arms deal corruption by the Durban High Court.

In September of last year though, Pietermaritzburg Judge Chris Nicholson found that the corruption case against Zuma was procedurally flawed and that political interference from Mbeki was apparent in the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to charge Zuma. This, as we know, afforded Zuma the chance to bring Mbeki to a fall. Notwithstanding any satisfaction there was to be had from a subsequent appeal court finding earlier this year that Judge Nicholson’s finding went outside his jurisdiction, even Mbeki must have realised that the many unanswered questions around his presidency would keep his status as fallen leader firmly in place. Pahad may want to cling on to a key moment in the Frost/Nixon-encounter, where Nixon answers “well, when the president does it, that means that is not illegal”. It would be a false peace, though, for Mbeki has never been pardoned for any of the allegations against him in the way that Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. Pahad would therefore serve his former boss well if, instead of peddling vague and ill-advised defences to protect his legacy, he used these examples from history to give his former boss some good and honest advice.

As Vorster and Botha’s altercation showed, things may change quicker than anticipated, despite a veneer of continuity. Though President Zuma has never appeared to be the vindictive type, it must be remembered that he emphasises leadership of the collective, and that there are still a number of actors in the wings baying for Mbeki’s blood. And just as the collective does not end with Zuma, the ANC will also not end with Zuma. There may therefore still be many future political ructions or court actions, which could prompt further investigation into issues such as the case against former police commissioner Jackie Selebi and the arms deal. Mbeki would therefore be well advised to take every step to win back the approval of the public at large.

In order to do this, Pahad would have to bring Mbeki to some form of acknowledgement that while they might feel his residency was squeaky clean, there are many who did not like its many unresolved controversies and its perceived darker aspects. Aside from every point that Pahad so unfortunately failed to defend at last week’s gathering at the UKZN, Mbeki would also have to display some reassuring frankness about a number of other questions. These include why he never instituted a full judicial inquiry into the arms deal when there was real concern over corruption on his watch. He should also say what he believes would constitute actual interference in the prosecuting authorities, and what assurances he could provide that he did not do it in the Zuma case or in the prosecution of Selebi.

Regardless of whether it is about rebuilding his image, about sensible civil participation or pure personal interest, Mbeki has registered a real desire for an active post-presidential career. There are also good reasons why he should have it. It is indeed to his credit that he led South Africa in its transition to a modern state against strong internal resistance. Like Nixon, Mbeki delivered some of his biggest triumphs on the diplomatic front. His continued efforts resulted in the African Union, the institution of the peer review mechanism and a much improved international position for South Africa through its inclusion in the United Nations Security Council and by securing the ear of the G8 group of nations.

These are the big successes of Mbeki’s presidency on the basis of which he, like Nixon, can serve in the interests of broader society going forward. Should Mbeki show a willingness to have the accusations against him confronted in public, there is no reason why he could not continue to serve the broader interests of society. This is, if it is in any way possible for him to exhibit the same non-partisanship that Nixon did. He voluntarily served both his Republican and Democratic successors with advice; critically reflected in his extensive biographical writings on his time in the presidency and did not let his personal or party-political proclivities exercise undue influence on his facilitation of foreign policy or peace negotiations. If not, Pahad should be frank enough to warn Mbeki that the best he may hope for is to become an increasingly lone voice in the wilderness.


  • Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector lobby group representing - you guessed it - South African manufacturers. He writes here in his personal capacity on any issues of immediate interest related to politics, economics, public affairs and the arts.


Coenraad Bezuidenhout

Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector...

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