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Mbeki’s Phala Phala censure ‘too late’ to save ruling party

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Design: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) | Pictures: REUTERS and EPA : Former ANC president Thabo Mbeki’s letter to the party’s deputy president, Paul Mashatile – regarding the ANC’s posture on the infamous Phala Phala Farmgate scandal – is the most stinging rebuke of the ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa. The silence over the matter by the self-proclaimed crusaders of good governance, transparency and accountability is deafening. Mbeki was forthright that since the blowing of the whistle, “many questions relating to this matter have been posed in the public domain. So far, nine months after the complaint by former spy chief Arthur Fraser, none of these questions has been answered, says the writer.

By Sipho Seepe

The nub of former president Thabo Mbeki’s letter to the ANC deputy president Paul Mashatile is to be found at the end.

Quoting the Diagnostic Report presented by the then ANC secretary-general, Comrade Gwede Mantashe, at the 2017 National Policy Conference, Mbeki notes: “Being in power is rapidly becoming a source of political bankruptcy, in that members of the ANC fight for deployment either as councillors, MPLs and MPs – respectively, as if there is ‘no tomorrow’ … It is foreign to our movement for comrades to see deployment as a source of material benefit rather than the reason to serve the people.” Mbeki could have ended the letter by saying protecting the leader of the ANC at all costs is counter-revolutionary.

Arguably the letter is the most stinging rebuke of the ANC under President Cyril Ramaphosa. Mbeki sought to express his disquiet regarding the ANC’s posture on the infamous Phala Phala Farmgate scandal.

Many have incorrectly, and conveniently so, reduced Mbeki’s blistering censure of the ANC as simply a matter that is to be resolved between Mbeki and the ANC. In truth, Mbeki has decided to pierce through the conspiracy of silence that has become a convenient refuge for many every time something untoward is linked to Ramaphosa.

The silence of the self-proclaimed crusaders of good governance, transparency, and accountability is deafening. Their hypocrisy is nauseating, to say the least. It is this failure to hold Ramaphosa to account that columnist Justice Malala sought to address. In his article, “No Accountability in the Ramaphosa Administration” (Sunday Times, January 10, 2021), Malala writes: “It must be nice to be in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration.

“Imagine we were back in the year, say 2016, and a virus had come along and killed thousands of South Africans … Jacob Zuma, who was president at the time, would have been eaten alive. Not so in the age of Ramaphosa. This administration, after a spectacular shambles in the handling of the vaccine roll-out and a clear lack of strategy, is continuing in its opaque ways, with little or no noise from most quarters. There is no accountability, no taking responsibility, and no consequence.”

For its part, the ANC has understandably moved with speed to arrange a meeting between itself and Mbeki. Evidently, the party harbours the delusion that Mbeki’s excoriation of the party and Ramaphosa can easily be swept under the proverbial rug in the form of in-party consultation. It should now be evident that the stench of Phala Phala is too thick to simply disappear into thin air.

Taking a cue from Mbeki, religious leaders took it upon themselves to include the Phala Phala Farmgate scandal in their Easter weekend sermons. Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba called on Ramaphosa to take the country into his confidence regarding the theft of money from his Phala Phala farm. Calling for a single, comprehensive account of what happened and why it happened, Makgoba questioned why large amounts of money were not banked.

In what others consider to be a call for civil disobedience, Makgoba urged the youth to become “angelic troublemakers”, pursuing a new struggle for transformation in South Africa.

Mbeki cautioned the party that its inward-looking political attitude would have the effect of souring the party’s relationship with the masses of people that the party claims to represent.

In his view, the ANC should project itself as “the principal defender of the gains of the National Democratic Revolution, including the Constitution (1996)”.

Characteristically, Mbeki reminded Ramaphosa of his own words that “as the inheritors of the legacy of Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela, we must be honest with our people and ourselves … The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as accused number one. These observations by our Comrade President are as relevant today as they were three years ago!”

At the time Ramaphosa was riding on the crest of a wave of political morality. All that changed when Arthur Fraser blew the whistle. The emperor has since been found naked.

Mbeki was forthright that since the blowing of the whistle by Fraser, “many questions relating to this matter have been posed in the public domain”.

“So far, nine months after the Fraser complaint, none of these questions has been answered. The recent report by South African Revenue Service commissioner Edward Kieswetter that no record of the declaration to Customs has been found of the $580,000 Ramaphosa says was stolen, deepens the puzzle about what exactly happened at Phala Phala farm! … we must be honest with ourselves and understand that many among the masses of our people will entertain the suspicion that the Phala Phala matter includes corruption.”

Mbeki found it puzzling that with the three-person panel appointed by Parliament having concluded Ramaphosa had a case to answer regarding a process of impeachment, ANC members would not have been interested in finding out whether this was the case or not. With the ANC having stopped establishing a Multi-Party Committee (MPC) to determine the guilt or otherwise of Ramaphosa, Mbeki sought not to beat about the bush.

He pointedly asked: “Are we saying that we suspect or know that (Ramaphosa) has done something impeachable and therefore decided that we must protect our president at all costs by ensuring that no MPC is formed? If this is the case, what message are we communicating to the masses of our people about the values and integrity of the ANC?”

Mbeki may as well have indicated that all evidence points to the fact that Ramaphosa is guilty as hell. He fell short of asking Ramaphosa to fall on his sword. Earlier, before the Phala Phala matter hit the headlines, the then-confident Ramaphosa had told fawning journalists that “in my own history where I am conflicted, I have a sense of integrity to step out of the way to say I’m conflicted on this and I have ingrained that in the way I do things so that fingers should not be pointed at one about favouring oneself when you are conflicted”.

We now know how quickly that view changed when it came to Phala Phala. As I have indicated elsewhere, Phala Phala changed all that pretence of incorruptibility. Ramaphosa has since changed the tune to say he will step aside only if he is charged.

Mbeki found it equally odd that the ANC would vote against the formation of a multi-party ad hoc committee to investigate Eskom, given the reported acts of “corruption, sabotage, and existence of criminal cartels within the company”.

Mbeki used his missive to provide basic lessons on constitutional democracy. One is that Parliament cannot abrogate its responsibility to any other organ of state, some of which could have been corrupted. Pointedly, he reminded the ANC that the “Constitution obliges everybody, including political parties, to operate within certain boundaries/limits. This means that even the majority parties in our legislatures are not free to use their numbers anyhow. For instance, no political party, including the majority party, has a legal right to block the National Assembly from exercising its oversight over the Executive!”

Properly read, Mbeki’s letter is corrective. It is certainly not divisive. Arguably it is too late. The ANC cannot be rescued anymore. Not under Ramaphosa.

Professor Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst