Former president Thabo Mbeki. Picture: MASI LOSI
Former president Thabo Mbeki. Picture: MASI LOSI

You may not have noticed, but Thabo Mbeki is back. While President Cyril Ramaphosa runs the country, Mbeki is resurgent in the ANC itself. From a bitter retirement after being ousted by Jacob Zuma, the former ANC and state president now regularly attends ANC national executive meetings and has become a driver for reform, good behaviour and common sense in the party.

Some might scoff at the very thought of common sense in the ANC but Mbeki is doing to his own flock now what he used to do to “errant” businessmen like Anglo American’s Tony Trahar, back in the day. In Bloemfontein this past weekend he was his old lecturing self, this time denouncing careerism in the party. Why, he wanted to know, were people electioneering for party positions in the forthcoming ANC elective conference in December when it was only February. What is going on?

“Even at the January 8th [ANC] rally in Limpopo, somebody stands up in a meeting and says ‘long live, second term for Cyril Ramaphosa’. What is that?” he asked a Free State ANC gathering. “SA cannot solve its problems without the active involvement and conscience involvement of the ANC because of its size. And so the ANC owes it to the nation to behave itself.”

At the end of the meeting he was even more strident. “If the ANC collapsed today, ceased to exist, this country would become ungovernable simply because of the influence of the party,” he said. “The ANC owes it to the nation, to the country, to sort itself out ... to serve the people of SA. That’s all it needs to do. We must bring back the ANC to do that.”

Earlier in 2022 his contributions to national executive committee meetings on state capture and the need for social compacting, to iron out the party’s annual January 8 statement to be read by the president, reappeared faithfully in the speech.

It is hard to know if there has been a formal rapprochement between Mbeki and Ramaphosa, but the two have traditionally been wary of each other. Mbeki famously beat Ramaphosa to the deputy presidency under Nelson Mandela, and Ramaphosa is widely believed to have voted in the national executive committee to recall Mbeki from the presidency in 2008 to facilitate Zuma’s ascension to power.

But Mbeki was present at the recent state of the nation address as Ramaphosa’s guest, so something has happened. Their flourishing partnership now recognises the extreme danger the country is in, economically and socially, and also that the ANC itself might collapse or split.

Through his foundation Mbeki is also working, at a remove, on relations with wider society, including with disaffected Afrikaans-speaking leaders. A private meeting in January between the foundation and leading Afrikaner figures under the umbrella of the Afrikaner Africa Initiative (AAI) in Gauteng saw the groups visit both the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park outside Tshwane.

One attendee described the gathering as between “committed and concerned elders meeting on issues of common concern”. The Afrikaans-speaking side is conservative, and included private leaders and representatives from Solidarity, AfriForum and the Afrikanerbond, the successor to the Broederbond.

Mbeki did not attend the January meeting but gave a blistering assessment of the state of the country when the two groups met to launch the AAI at the Vineyard  Hotel in Cape Town a year ago. The event was widely publicised, but the groups had been meeting informally since 2015.

Mbeki can do this because he is not in anyone’s way. Some informal groups would like to see him re-elected as party leader this December, to hold the ANC together while Ramaphosa runs the country. It is an unlikely scenario, fraught for Ramaphosa.

Equally, Mbeki has the intellectual depth to be able to draw Afrikaners into constructive discussions about the future of the country. Nationalists recognise each other, and SA is not going to be rescued without Afrikaner support. The AAI has had little support from big Afrikaner capital, the so-called “Stellenbosch Mafia”.

Nonetheless, Mbeki’s return to prominence in the party is both popular and a quiet sign of the real depth of its anxiety about the country. Ramaphosa has been incapable so far of shifting the dial on policy execution and reform. Current polling has the party losing its national majority in 2024.

While he will most likely win in December, the politics of the ANC around Ramaphosa promise to become even more complex and divisive than they already are and he faces a second term in party and national office easily as difficult as his first.

It is late in the day. Mbeki will be 80 in June and it was oddly warming and nostalgic listening to him speak in Bloemfontein. He spoke with typical care but he is manifestly older. His voice is quieter. Can he hold Ramaphosa and his unhappy party together? Does he have the strength and the time?

Oscar Wilde once said he was not young enough to know everything, but it is fashionable nonetheless to disregard ageing voices. They had their chance and younger bucks champ at the bit for theirs. But I find myself cheering on Mbeki, whether re-educating the ANC or herding Afrikaners back into the picture. He’s an old soul now, doing right.

I’m sure both he and Ramaphosa know that somewhere in our future is a political centre. Politicians seem to avoid it like the plague. But whoever finally occupies it will take the country.

• Bruce is a former editor of Business Day and the Financial Mail.

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