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Malema-Mbeki feud raises spectre of apartheid politics

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Graphic: Wade Geduldt/African News Agency (ANA) – Former President Thabo Mbeki, left, has likened the ‘baseless’ assertions of EFF president, Julius Malema, right, that he (Mbeki) means to oust President Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the ANC, to the old apartheid intelligence tactic of diverting attention from the real issues. He says Malema’s intention is to further deepen the already evident divisions within the ANC. Given Mbeki’s recent involvement in the party’s resolve to rebuild itself, he feels that Malema and other like-minded people are determined to derail his contributions to rebuilding the ANC, the writer says.

By Professor Bheki Mngomezulu

As President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala matter continues to polarise the nation, politicians are using this incident to achieve certain goals. On the one hand, there are those who advance the view that Ramaphosa should be left alone because he was not directly involved in all the allegations that have since surfaced.

In fact, the ANC Chief Whip in parliament, Pemmy Majodina recently stated that opposition parties gunning for the president are “unprincipled and opportunistic” in what they are doing. She was articulating the views of the ANC caucus on the matter. Their view was that the decision by some opposition political parties is based on “innuendo” and “untested allegations” which have not yet been proven or authenticated in any way.

On the other hand, some have proposed that the president should temporarily vacate office while the matter is being investigated.

From his side, Ramaphosa has constantly argued that the matter is sub judice and therefore he cannot comment on it. He used the same argument when he refused to answer certain questions from the ANC’s Integrity Commission.

While all these dynamics were taking place, Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, has brought in a new twist to the whole discussion. Malema has advanced the argument that Arthur Fraser, the former director-general of the State Security Agency (SSA) who spilt the beans about the Phala Phala matter, did not act alone. Instead, Malema claims that Fraser is working closely with former President Thabo Mbeki with the aim of removing Ramaphosa from office.

Expatiating his view, Malema claims that Fraser’s actions have nothing to do with advancing the cause of the RET faction of the ANC. He buttresses his assertion by drawing the public’s attention to the fact that the RET faction did not even raise the Phala Phala matter at the recently held an ANC policy conference.

In his view, this faction of the ANC has no links with Fraser and thus has no interest in the allegations that he has made against President Ramaphosa.

In an attempt to amplify his assertion that Mbeki is colluding with Fraser, Malema argues that Mbeki is still disgruntled by the manner in which he was forced to resign as president of the country in September 2008. As such, he still has ambitions to come back to lead the ANC and the country, Malema says. In order for him [Mbeki] to achieve this goal, he needs to get rid of Ramaphosa and then come in as a Messiah.

What is not clear from Malema’s trajectory is that if his assertions had basis, why did Mbeki wait for this long to put his so-called “plan” in motion? Why did he not start earlier so that by now he would be positioning himself to contest the party’s leadership position at the ANC’s December elective conference?

Alternatively, why would Mbeki rush the process now at the eleventh hour instead of positioning himself to ascend to the ANC and the country’s leadership position once Ramaphosa exits the stage at the end of his second term, if he emerges victorious at the December conference and if the ANC wins the 2024 general election?

Most importantly, what evidence does Malema have about his allegations? If he is in possession of such information, would it not be better for him to share the same with the relevant people within the ANC leadership and state authorities? These are but some of the many questions that must be answered.

The response by Mbeki and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation has given Malema’s insinuation a different interpretation which invokes apartheid tactics. Firstly, Mbeki vehemently refuted Malema’s claims as an attempt to tarnish his political image. He then gave a much broader context within which Malema’s claims should be perceived.

In this regard, Mbeki likened Malema’s assertions to the old apartheid intelligence tactic of diverting attention from the real issues. In his view, Malema’s intention is to further deepen the already evident divisions within the ANC. Given Mbeki’s recent involvement in the party’s resolve to rebuild itself, he feels that Malema and other like-minded people are determined to derail his plans to contribute to the rebuilding of the ANC.

In his own words, Mbeki stated that Malema wants to deepen divisions within the ANC and frustrate its efforts to forge renewal in the party.

Implicit in these assertions made by Mbeki are two things. The first one is that Malema is averse to the ANC reuniting and mending the wall as it were. If this interpretation were to be correct, it would mean that Malema would want the ANC to remain divided so that his own party, the EFF, would capitalise on those divisions and gain momentum at the ANC’s expense.

The second interpretation of Mbeki’s contention is that Malema is drawing from the apartheid tactics of sowing divisions within the ANC. Assuming that this interpretation is correct, it would be the most dangerous.

The apartheid operatives infiltrated the ANC with two intentions. The first one was to suck information on what the ANC was planning to do and feed that information to their apartheid handlers. The second intention was to weaken the ANC so that it would never be able to oust the apartheid regime.

Now, if Malema were to use the same apartheid tactics, that would be a cause for concern.

Under apartheid, the issue of spies and askaris [former liberation movement activists who worked for the apartheid Security Branch, providing them with information, as well as identifying and tracing former comrades] cost many liberation fighters their lives.

Within this context, the labelling or portrayal of Mbeki and Fraser as orchestrators of Ramaphosa’s political demise has the potential to put their lives in danger, albeit in a slightly different context from that which prevailed under apartheid.

Perhaps, the question that needs to be addressed is whether Fraser’s claims about the Phala Phala matter have basis. Once this is established, the issue of collusion or the absence thereof would be nullified. The focus would turn to real facts and deal with them.

Another important angle on this matter would be to establish how Fraser got access to the information he used to prepare his affidavit. If he was assisted by Mbeki, then Malema would be vindicated. On the contrary, if Mbeki had nothing to do with this whole matter, perhaps Malema would owe Mbeki an apology.

Before I conclude this piece, it would be important to try and understand what might have triggered Malema’s claims. Not so long ago, Mbeki openly drilled holes in the claims made by Ramaphosa’s administration on how it plans to address South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. He argued that government has no plan at all to address these challenges! Some interpreted this honest observation as a personal attack on Ramaphosa, which was not the case.

Ramaphosa also played into the gallery when he tacitly responded to this constructive criticism during his address while closing the ANC’s KZN provincial conference. By taking a defensive stance, Ramaphosa opened himself to even more criticism. At the same time, he made it possible for other politicians like Malema to use this issue to advance their own objectives.

But Mbeki did not make his statements clandestinely or in secrecy. He openly took issue with his own party’s inability to address the challenges outlined above. Therefore, any insinuation that he is engaging in a secret plan with Fraser to oust Ramaphosa is not even plausible, let alone being justifiable.

What is clear from this discussion is that there is more to read from the feud between Malema and Mbeki. At one level, it is an issue that concerns the two of them and should be understood in that context. At another level, it is an issue that speaks to the ANC’s factional politics and how these politics have transcended party boundaries to influence activities elsewhere. Thirdly, the incident serves as a reminder that although apartheid is gone, its remnants (evidenced in its teachings and practices) remain alive. These remnants are used to interpret some of the current developments in the realm of politics. This is the approach that Mbeki has taken in his response to Malema’s accusations that he is colluding with Fraser.

Therefore, the feud between Malema and Mbeki should not be taken lightly. On the one hand, it is a personal and a political matter, which that concerns the two politicians. On the other hand, it is a legal matter that might appropriately be ventilated in a court of law.

In the final analysis, the question arises: was Malema’s accusations against Mbeki necessary and justifiable? My response is that without concrete evidence, Malema was not supposed to have made these claims. The fact that these accusations were unprovoked buttresses my contention that perhaps Malema should not have made them in the first place. But now that he has made them, we have to respond.

* Bheki Mngomezulu is professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.