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Mbeki eyes the post-Zuma limelight

After three years — almost to the day — former president Thabo Mbeki is emerging from political purdah. Mbeki, who retreated into virtual isolation after being booted by the African National Congress (ANC) in September 2008, is suddenly popping into the public eye again.

True to party loyalties of a lifetime and to reclaim his shattered dignity — Wikileaks revealed this week that Mbeki publicly burst into tears on hearing that he had been fired — he kept a low profile following his exit. This despite the occasional bit of freelance peacemaking he was engaged in, in various African hellholes. Now, possibly in response to the sudden enthusiasm the ANC Youth League has developed for the man they once pilloried, the soundbytes are becoming more frequent and daring.

This coincides with President Jacob Zuma’s internal rivals taking swipes at him over foreign policy, in rapid succession as regards Libya, Swaziland and extraordinarily over Botswana, where the ANCYL offered personally to oversee “regime change”.

Mbeki a few weeks back told an audience at Stellenbosch University that the ousted presidents of Tunisia and Egypt had headed “illegitimate and corrupt governments” rightly deposed in “genuine popular uprisings”. This was in contrast to Libya, he said, where the Western powers had engineered regime change.

There is nothing controversial in all this, except that Western exploitation of the Libyan rebellion in order to advance their own interests, by no means invalidates this as a popular uprising. International relations deputy minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, recently said as much, referring to Libya’s “popular uprising informed by the Arab Spring”. But certainly galling is Mbeki’s hypocrisy about democracy, coming from the one person who did more than any other to prop up the despotic regime of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

What is potentially controversial is that Mbeki is once more opining on current events and how governments should respond. As an ordinary citizen he obviously has every right to do so but for the deposed previous president, with a penchant for foreign affairs and the world stage, to be so undiplomatic and so willing to tread on the toes of his successor, has to be a calculated move.

There are plenty of exposed toes for Mbeki to tread on. The Zuma government initially supported the Nato air strikes in Libya but was forced into a hasty u-turn under pressure of the ANCYL and the ANC’s trade union and South African Communist Party allies. SA has since blocked the release of internationally frozen assets to the rebel coalition, only eventually to relent under Western pressure.

Such internal ANC wrangling over policy in Libya with the resulting inconsistencies, contradictions and reversals would have been unthinkable in the Mbeki-era. Not only did Mbeki personally set policy parameters — driven by his now rarely mentioned dream of the African Renaissance – but even day-to-day decisions were under his aegis, with his right-hand man, Aziz Pahad, riding shotgun as deputy minister.

Perhaps because he has been run ragged at home, trying to control his increasingly fractious party, Zuma has been less exercised than Mbeki by SA’s role in the world. This is despite Zuma’s laudable successes as peacemaker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and his firm and honourable handling of the Zimbabwe debacle.

The downgrading of foreign relations can be seen in the choice of ministers. Contrast the formidable and experienced Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was minister in the Mbeki administration, with the lightweight Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the present minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Dlamini-Zuma could hold her own against anyone. Nkoana-Mashabane has a patchy 10 years as High Commissioner to Malaysia and then India, followed by four years as Limpopo’s MEC of Housing and Local Government, before at Polokwane squeaking into the last vacancy on the ANC’s 80-person national executive and straight into the cabinet.

Mbeki will enjoy seeing Zuma’s foreign policy under fire from both the ANCYL on the right and SACP and Cosatu on the left. It comes just as his despised rival seeks to secure a second presidential term and — should Zuma fail — Mbeki possibly sees himself returning to the international limelight as foreign minister in a post-Zuma government. Old presidents never retire, they merely go into hibernation.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. nzs nzs 11 September 2011

    “…Mbeki possibly sees himself returning to the international limelight as foreign minister in a post-Zuma government.”

    This should rank as the singlemost (and worst) insult you can hurl on (former) President Thabo Mbeki.

    Go back to your drawing board and come back with a better blog.

  2. Musa Musa 12 September 2011

    Had you said Mbeki as the president of the ANC and Mothlante as the president of the country, one might have thought you have some insight.

    Foreign minister!? Clearly you do not understand the weight that Thabo has within the ANC, despite the recent Zuma chaos.

  3. Una Una 12 September 2011


    The obsession with Mbeki on the side of white intelligentsia is stuttling. Is it jealousy perhaps? I agree with you the guy is a dreamer of absolute notoriety

  4. tlotla tlotla 12 September 2011

    Strange how some people rewrite history to suit their own political ends…Zuma never facilitated any peacekeeping in Rwanda/DRC. It was your sworn enemy Mr President Mbeki who did the sterling work.

  5. Nonjabulo Nonjabulo 12 September 2011

    There are a couple of inaccuracies here, first Zuma did not broker any peace in Rwanda and the minister of international what what was not a high commissioner in Malaysia and India, her late husband was, she was MEC of something or the other in Limpopo. I think you were rather in a hurry to stick the boot in here William, its inter

  6. tsh tsh 12 September 2011

    Its becoming tiring to read blogs/articles that are written through the lenses of consipiracy and speculation. Pres Mbeki when he left office indicated to Pres Zuma that he would not comment on domestic affairs, and clearly indicated that he will continue to have an active voice on the international stage.

    Mbeki has only reaffirmed the AU position on Libya, in reality there is no treading of toes, in fact Zuma and Mbeki seem to agree that UN declaration on Liyba has been abused by the West through NATO to effect regime change, the fact that France armed rebels and had men on the ground, and NATO bombardment in Libya was intentionally offensive with view to assist rebels this fact you seem to ignore.

    What make Minister Nkoana-Mashabane light-weight? its faulty logic to argue that she “…..squeaking into the last vacancy on the ANC’s 80-person national executive and straight into the cabinet.” does that make her unsuitable for being a foreign minister, and comparing her to Dlamini-Zuma who served two terms in the that post is a streach.

    Commentators should refrain from making lazy arguments, rigged with faulty thinking.

  7. John John 12 September 2011

    @ nzs

    I thought that even for William, this was a particularly well thought through and reasoned blog. To be honest, Mbeki is already the unofficial foreign minister of the next regime.

    Mbeki is a threat to true African democracy and needs to be watched very carefully.

    It is ironic that a weak and ineffective foreign policy under Nkoana-Mashabane has produced a better foreign policy than during the Mbeki era. Realism and a grasp of the limitations of despotic African leaders seems to be more effective than to believe that all world leaders are “equal” and African leaders more “equal” than those of the West or those of developing nations.

    Mbeki thinks he is an intellectual with a clear insight to the outcome of political actions. His track record shows otherwise. He has the ability to get it wrong time and again and he NEVER learns from previous experiences…

    Zuma has failed in most areas of government but he hasn’t failed an spectacularly as Mbeki managed to do.

  8. tlotla tlotla 12 September 2011

    @ John says “Mbeki is a threat to true African democracy and needs to be watched very carefully”.

    But @ John does not explain to us how Mbeki is the threat to this “democracy”?

    He also makes the following assertion “Mbeki thinks he is an intellectual with a clear insight to the outcome of political actions”. He again does not provide evidence whatsoever to sustain this assertion..

  9. Morena Morena 12 September 2011

    The absence of former President Thabo Mbeki from active ANC politics, Government and from international fora is self evident, judging by the chaotic state of policy formulation in both the ANC and Government (i.e. to nationalise or not to nationalise) and the spectacular failures of the AU to fashion a coherent African policy position on current affairs (Ivory Coast, Somalia and Libya). But the suggestion that he may return as a foreign minister lacks simple common sense

  10. Goldenchild Goldenchild 12 September 2011

    Mbeki’s term was terrible, I don’t understand where the praise is coming from. This country has never been under tribalism threat like it did during his term. The further away from government office we keep him the better!!!

  11. John John 12 September 2011

    @tlotla There are many examples of Mbeki’s lack of prowess in international affairs but on both the threat to democracy and his lack of intellectual skill, let me mention South African disasters in three countries while King Mbeki ruled.


    Strange how I don’t even need to mention Mbeki’s shortcomings in each because they are so universally recognised…

  12. John John 12 September 2011

    Zuma is the worst president South Africa could have got… until you consider his predecessor.

    Forget Mbeki’s inability to interpret international affairs, those cost us South Africans little.

    Disregard Mbeki’s refusal to tackle law and order or corruption, this cost more but didn’t cripple our once great country.

    NEVER IN THE LAST 150 YEARS has one man, by decree killed so many South Africans. Mbeki claimed that Africans didn’t get AIDS and his regime refused to provide any medication to those dying from HIV and AIDs.

    Have you ever applied Mycota foot ointment to the mouth and throat of a dying friend so that she/he could have some relief during their last days? – I did it twice!

    A World Bank report of 2008 stated that Mbeki’s stance on AIDS resulted in the unnecessary death of 330 000 South Africans and a few of them were my personal friends.

    Even the Apartheid Nats, as disgusting as they seemed, were not that bad. Only Chaka Zulu in the 1820-1840 period killed more.

    Zuma may be bad, some may even say he’s terrible but but his evil is insignificant by comparison to Mbeki.

    A regime that muddles along without clear direction is preferable to one that is efficiently misguided. Efficient but misguided regimes include the Nazis, Communist USSR, the Apartheid Nats and the Mbeki regime.

    Cry our once beloved country…

  13. Anton Anton 12 September 2011

    Let’s remeber the hunderds of thousands of Soutth African’s killed by Mbeki’s aids policies. let’s also rtemeber the obtuse, pig-headed government that he led. Care to remember the comically self-important crowd of ministers that surrounded him?

    Also, it was on his watch that the grand-scale looting of the state started….the obscene BEE deals where govt cronies made billions….need I go on? The man was an abmination as president and he is as unhinged today as he was then.

  14. isaac munlo isaac munlo 12 September 2011

    No capitalist media praises an African leader unless that leader is weak and a traitor. This is a fact.

  15. mandla mandla 12 September 2011

    Most comentators underestimate Mbeki and dont even care to find out where he comes from. Mbeki will never agree to any comeback as a cabinet minister what has he to prove? when his record speaks for itself.

    Mbeki will never work with Julius Malema. JZ has eloquently written his history whether he keeps silent or not, history’s judgement of him is already made. It pays to know in any community who are the idiotai and the thinkers. Other communities still respect their leaders and thinkers and give defference and yield space to them. The ANC has surrendered the leadership space to the idiotai and every single day we cringe at the strange decisions and indecisions and other phenomena playing themselves out on national TV. JZ’s serious shortcoming is that he has always acted and made decisions on the basis of his personal circumstances. I wouldnt be surprised if he wore size six shoes, he would order the ANC to order size 6 shoes for everyone. Its the nature of the man even his choice of a judge was informed by his experiences in court and woes with the law. It’s sad but he has never risen above his fears and frustrations.

    Its truly difficult to accept a blackman who does not fit our stereotype of a blackman. Rubbishing Mbeki is almost like telling nascent British nationals not to rise above Roman occupation, aHadrian’s wall and silver mines. Africa’s time must come and Africa is about new valuesand not about black or white. Maybe that is why poor leaders like…

  16. tlotla tlotla 12 September 2011

    @ John you have again failed to say anything substantive or rational about issues I raised so I will take it you have nothing new to say.

  17. nzs nzs 12 September 2011


    “Strange how I don’t even need to mention Mbeki’s shortcomings in each because they are so universally recognised…”

    “Zuma may be bad, some may even say he’s terrible but but his evil is insignificant by comparison to Mbeki”

    Wow, John, this is the best you could come up with? You are really a master of teleology.

    And then “Mbeki claimed that Africans didn’t get AIDS…”. Would you be so kind and furnish us with re.levant (book, page number, if you can) to back up your quackery?

    I suppose your closing exclamation (I can almost visualize your excruciation at your delusional state of having proved something – only to yourself, of course), “Cry our once beloved country…”

    And by this, you are under the illusion you have made your point.

    Wow, John! Anyway, you may proceed to Grade R.

  18. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 13 September 2011

    Anyone who thinks states act (or ‘must’ act) according to moral principles is mistaken.

    All states act in their own interest, as the govt. of the day judges the ‘national interest’, or is driven by the strength of public feeling to act. The latter happens rarely but it does happen.

    Govts. do not freely admit to this. They present foreign policy in terms that are acceptable to ‘the people’ and to a shadowy entity known as ‘world opinion’. Today this results in policies that pursue what is good for ‘us’ (the traditional basis of all foreign policy) while purportedly supporting ‘human rights’. We live in an age of mass politics. People can make their voices heard as never before and ‘human rights’ are a movable feast. That makes life very complicated for modern govts. in terms of running and especially of presenting policy.

    Looked at in this light Thabo Mbeki’s foreign policy is not essentially different from Jacob Zuma’s.

    Both recognise SA’s essential lack of capacity and try to avoid costly foreign undertakings. The emphasis is on finding peaceful solutions even where this results in abuses of human rights.

    The US and NATO powers, being militarily more capable, can often look after their interests by going to war – or taking actions approaching war – claiming they are acting to protect human rights.

    The trick in every case is to examine what is actually happening rather than going by what is being said.

  19. Una Una 13 September 2011

    Poor souls they are going to see Africa rising to new heights and the only thing they will do is to sleep right through the revolution wallowing in their dreams of yesteryear. They cannot even see that the forces of nature are creating a new world system. What was will certainly be again

  20. Themba Themba 13 September 2011

    On Zimbabwe: What has Zuma done differently to Mbeki
    Foreign policy: How more often has Zuma been out of the country than Mbeki in the same period of time?
    Dealing with internal issues: What has Jacob Zuma does, other than appoint people that have less ability and more questionable characters? At the very list, Mbeki made every effort to be seen to be fair and despite being insulted by Malema and Co, never took them through the disciplinary process.
    ANC: Zuma is suffering through the very same people and processes he introduced.
    Libya: There is no difference between Mbeki and Zuma’s stance on Libya. In fact, it is a well known secret that the West’s interest in Libya has a lot to do with its oil. Surely, pointing this out cannot be so upsetting. If the West had interest in the people of Libya, they would have acted in Syria, Yemen and other places where friendships with the US ensures that regimes there are intact. Syria’s close proximity to Israel makes action there rather complicated, while Libya’s isolation makes life so far easier.
    The West: Have no interest, as shown by how the Italians, the Dutch and the Brits are already signing deals for the oil, while China and Russia have been excluded (they abstained in the Security Council vote for No-Fly Zone)
    No Fly Zone: The intention was to protect rebels, rather than to bomb Libya and once again we are told of smart bombs (the same ones that fell on Iraw killing children)

  21. tlotla tlotla 13 September 2011

    @WSM Zuma may have had a role in Burundi but I maintain that he never took the DRC/Rwanda peace facilitation to its logical conclusion.

  22. george george 17 September 2011

    mbeki denied ever knowing anyone with aids ( 26.03.2003 ) will be found in a number of websites .check this one out all you mbeki lovers.(
    mbeki denied xenophobia (4 .07.2008) website: …mbeki denies -xenophobia- behind -sa -attacks …….
    and I can go on . just go and do your homework before commenting here . WSM did
    that , why cant you?

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