When Thabo Mbeki was prematurely recalled from the Presidency, Jacob Zuma explained how justifiable it was of the ANC to take such dramatic action. The people of South Africa had lost confidence in Mbeki and the ANC had to act, Zuma claimed.

When Zuma was himself recalled, having led the ANC to set the precedent for such eventuality, Mbeki applauded. It was long overdue and the country would have the opportunity to move forward, Mbeki said through his foundation.

Now both leaders are out of power. Mbeki initially gagged himself from commenting on domestic politics until the Zuma destructive machinery jolted him to abandon his silence. He has accepted his status as an elder and participates in ANC veterans’ activities, facilitates conflict resolutions on the continent and occasionally attends public events.

Zuma on the other hand is taking his ex-officio status in the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC so seriously that he attends meetings and is seen plotting in factional activities. Not because he has anything good to contribute. His sole purpose is to cast a dark shadow, threatening to derail President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attempts to fix the ruins left in the wake of his chaotic presidency.

To fix such ruins and set the ANC and the country on the correct path would, in Zuma’s calculation, be inimical to his personal interests and his very legacy that the ruins symbolise.

Despite the many decades they spent together as comrades – remember how Mbeki rhetorically empathised with Zuma even as he was axing him from Cabinet in 2005 – the two leaders have a fundamentally different understanding of the ANC.

In his recent emphatic re-entry into domestic party-political debates after a self-imposed domestic exile, Mbeki, through his foundation, unleashed his pen to educate those who seemingly do not understand the ANC. Among them is Zuma.

Zuma once urged “black parties” in Parliament to unite to ensure land is expropriated from whites without compensation. In his pamphlet that is currently generating debate, Mbeki takes issue with the characterisation of the ANC as a “black party”. It has been a nonracial organisation from its early years, Mbeki writes, citing several respected ANC leaders like Albert Luthuli, Pixley Seme, Dr Alfred Xuma and Jack Simons.

Mbeki argues that South Africa’s Constitution and the Freedom Charter are consistent with nonracialism. It is the nonracialism of the Freedom Charter that led to the breakaway formation of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) by those who rejected the idea that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and the land shall be shared among those who work it.

The land debate was badly handled by the current ANC in a way that seeks to polarise South Africans along racial lines by suggesting whites don’t belong in South Africa.

Zuma remoulded ANC in his image
Interestingly, Mbeki takes on Zuma for suggesting South Africa should be a majoritarian democracy instead of the current constitutional democracy. Zuma made the remarks recently when he was already out of power, showing his lack of understanding of what the ANC struggled for.

By tackling Zuma on the two fundamental tenets of our political system – nonracialism and constitutionalism – Mbeki succeeds to expose how Zuma remoulded the ANC in his image.

Mbeki challenges Zuma on matters they both (presumably) hold dear: the character and mission of the organisation they led for years. It’s difficult to dismiss Mbeki’s perspective on ANC nonracialism and constitutional democracy.

Mbeki cites ANC literature. Zuma for his part is more interested in inflaming racial tension, seeking refuge in black majoritarianism for his unaccountable style of leadership.

Mbeki clearly has a bit of time to reflect and put pen to paper. Zuma is too busy plotting to rule from the grave as a political disrupter.

Mbeki is concerned about the future of South Africa especially its constitutional project of nonracialism and constitutional democracy. Zuma doesn’t have the luxury of propounding such noble ideas because they are at odds with his personal interests.

But there’s something not addressed in Mbeki’s pamphlet: how was it possible for someone so fundamentally out of tune with what the ANC stood for to rise to the apex of ANC politics and the country with the assistance of ANC leaders including Mbeki himself?

Of course, Mbeki could argue that in hindsight we should appreciate why he axed Zuma from Cabinet and why he stood against him in Polokwane in 2007.

But it doesn’t detract from the fact the ANC as a whole, Mbeki included, created conditions for the likes of Zuma to rise. And as things stand, the ANC has not a single mechanism in place to prevent another Zuma from emerging. Ace Magashule is working on this project frantically. It might come sooner than later.

Granted, the Mbeki pamphlet is not specifically about Zuma. But Zuma is left exposed as someone who is ignorant of the most basic objective of the organisation that catapulted him to power. He is portrayed in the pamphlet as someone who led the ANC on a suicide mission where it sought to negate its founding values.

The second question Mbeki should have addressed candidly is why during his presidency the ANC government failed to implement land reform in ways that would enhance nonracialism?

Ramaphosa’s opportunity for nation-building
Sandwiched between Mbeki and Zuma is President Cyril Ramaphosa who has the real opportunity to turn a potential crisis into a nation-building project. How he does it will be a function of which school of thought in the ANC he belongs to.

Does he see the ANC as a “black party” or as a party of nonracialism? Is he prepared to lead the ANC to reset itself out of the moribund trajectory Zuma has put it into?

Is he prepared to take on the populists, risk being ousted by the Maharani Group, but still be proud of having done the right thing? Or even better, can he lead those who have defected from the basic positions of the ANC and show them the road to Damascus?

Mbeki still thinks big about the ANC as a leader of society, although he is clearly disturbed that the party is a shadow of its former self. Zuma saw the ANC as a vehicle of blacks only (but this was a lousy tactic to divert attention from his looting scheme with the Guptas).

Mbeki’s pamphlet is also a challenge to Ramaphosa to define the ANC and sell his ideas about its future. It’s a challenge of how he conceives South African society beyond the short-term political management of daily state affairs that he is preoccupied with.

The ANC factions in conferences usually sing a popular song urging their preferred candidates to rise (Phakama!) to power to serve their respective factional interests. Ramaphosa should now rise to the challenge posed by Mbeki and lead the country towards the goal of nonracialism.

– Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.