An Interview with Thabo Mbeki

President Mbeki
President Mbeki

14th October 2016

Thabo Mbeki joined the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1975, during Apartheid. He served as Political Secretary to the then ANC President, Oliver Tambo, before becoming Deputy President of South Africa under Nelson Mandela in 1994 once Apartheid ended. He was elected President of South Africa in 1999 and 2004 and served until 2008. Today, he runs the Thabo Mkebi Foundation.

Q: What’s your opinion of Jacob Zuma? Do you think that he has to go in order for the ANC to increase their dropping vote share?
A: No, I don’t. There are wrong things that are happening with the ANC, but I think it’s the fault of the collective leadership. For instance, the ANC has a National Executive Committee: a body which takes decisions for the ANC between the conferences where the whole party meets, and that is the body that must take responsibility for what’s gone wrong. Even if you removed President Zuma, let us say just hypothetically, it would change nothing if you didn’t change the National Executive Committee. So you need to look at the whole National Executive Committee, the decisions and actions they have taken and not taken. It is not just a matter of looking at the President of the ANC, I think it is basically a matter of looking at the National Executive Committee, which includes the President, to see what to do.

Q: Do you feel at all responsible for the current state of South Africa, where growth is low and corruption is high?
A: No, not at all. When we were in government, the South African economy was growing at 4.5% – 5%. But then came the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, and so the global economy shrunk. That hit South Africa very hard, because then the export markets shrunk, and that includes China, which has become one of the main trade partners with South Africa. Also, the slowdown in the Chinese economy affected South Africa. The result was that during that whole period, South Africa lost something like a million jobs because of external factors. What South African business and government needed to ask was what responses needed to be taken in this kind of situation. But the government, business leaders and trade unions have only now this year come together to think of a solution. The crisis was in 2008, and they only started meeting in 2016, so there’s been a very long delay in terms of responding to the situation.

A Selfie of Me with President Mbeki
A Selfie of Me with President Mbeki

Q: How do you see the political landscape of South Africa changing in the future? What part will the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) play?
A: It is very difficult to predict all of these things. But clearly, what challenges the ANC is that – looking at the last local government elections in August – many of our traditional supporters have abandoned us. Clearly, this is because the people are dissatisfied about something. What is this thing? What makes the people dissatisfied so that they withdraw their support from the ANC? They need to identify this and say that this is what they did wrong and must correct. If the ANC does not do that, it will be destroyed.
It is obvious from the local government elections that the EFF have picked up support. People who abandoned the ANC now support the EFF, because the EFF is actually raising very legitimate questions. They may not have the right answers, but they are raising legitimate questions. For instance, they say that now inequality in South African society has increased over the last 20 years, and there’s something wrong with our policies if they result in increasing inequality, and this matter must be addressed. The population see that this is correct and support them. The EFF gains support from a weakened ANC.

Q: What do you think will be the fate of South African Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, and do you think that the charges against him are politically motivated in order to get rid of him?
A: There is a law in South Africa called the Public Finance Management Act. It was adopted in order to make sure that public finances are properly managed. Gordhan is charged under that act, with giving a senior tax collector from the Revenue Service an early retirement, paying him his retirement benefits, and then rehiring him on a contract. The prosecutors said this was in violation of the Public Finance Management Act, and now it is a legal matter. They’ve got to take this to the judges and let them decide. Whether it is legal or illegal, I don’t know, I doubt it’s illegal. The President can appoint and dismiss ministers, and he doesn’t have to explain to anybody why he has done this. So, if the President didn’t want the Finance Minister, he would change him. He doesn’t need to take him to court.

Q: What are your biggest regrets about being President? Is there anything that you would have done differently?
A: I think that the one thing we should have attended to better was raising the skill level of the population. The work was done, but I don’t think it was done in sufficient quantities, because a modern economy and society requires skilled people, so you need to train them. It’s a big problem in South Africa up to this day: many people want to open factories, they want to invest, but then they discover that they don’t have the skilled people to employ. That’s what I regret, that we didn’t do enough to attend to this matter about skills.

Q: What are your favourite programs from your foundation, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, and what do they entail?
A: One of them is leadership training. Basically, to try and attract young Africans to train them to become what we call thought leaders. We are not trying to train people who are going to be superstars and appear on television, but rather, people who want to be agents of change in society and want to know how they might change society for the better.
Another program is to establish a presidential library. This is very important because young people were not there to witness what happened 20 years ago, but it is a very important history, and if you don’t understand it, you will not be able to deal with today’s issues. So we’re going to put this presidential library together because there are huge volumes of documents which must not get lost. South Africa has faced many problems in the past. You would understand those problems if you understood the history of the struggle to get rid of Apartheid and the struggle to establish democracy. We want to make sure that the relevant information is available.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: It depends on what you’re interested in. There are so many books to choose from. There’s a very tragic story of Haiti, which has a terrible history. Haiti was a French colony, but in 1804, the slaves rose up and defeated the French and formed the Republic. For the last 200 years, Haiti has had a very unfortunate history. There’s a book called Damming the Flood by Peter Hallward, which is about this history. I recommend it.
We talked about the world economy shrinking after 2008. There’s a book called Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin; a very good account of events which led to the financial crisis in 2008. It includes suggestions about how to prevent it happening again. These two books are very important.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: The reason we joined the struggle against Apartheid was because you had this system of oppression, which affected everybody who was black. Whether you were old or young, man or woman, in a village or a town, it didn’t matter. So this thing had to go because everybody was oppressed, and so we joined. We were not joining the struggle as politicians, we were joining it in order to end the system of Apartheid, in order to do whatever was necessary, even to sacrifice our lives, so that the people could be free. That is a very important lesson: I think you’re a much happier person if you say ‘Even if I get involved in politics, I’m only doing so in order to serve the people’. You will sleep much easier, not serving yourself, but having done your best to serve the people. Even if you have not succeeded, at least you’ve tried. You haven’t stolen anything, and you haven’t robbed the people. It’s a very important lesson.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: It was a peculiarity of the time that you had the system of Apartheid which was oppressing everybody. So even as a 10 year old, you wanted to be part of the struggle to end this system. In 1952, the ANC organised what was called the defiance campaign. There were segregated facilities based on race, blacks this side and whites that side. You went to a post office, blacks through this door, whites through that door. The defiance campaign was set up to defy that racism, so black people walked through the whites’ door. And of course you got arrested. In 1952, I was 10 years old, and I volunteered to defy those unjust laws. Of course, the organisers said ‘Look, you people are still a bit young. Go home, and when you grow up, come back’. So, what I learnt during my early years, which helped for my future was this: we were involved in the struggle at the age of 10; we grew up in the struggle. I learnt that we had an absolute obligation to ensure that the system ended and it was replaced by something that served the ordinary people.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: No, I don’t think so. I went to school, passed all the examinations, won a place at university, studied, and then qualified. South Africa now needs skilled and educated people to say ‘How do we manage and develop this democratic country?’ So I would regret it if I’d failed at school and university, because if I had, I would have lacked the levels of education necessary to making a serious contribution to building the country. I think we did everything that needed to be done. We were very fortunate to be able to go to school and university, because many people our age couldn’t complete school. This gift of education must be used in whatever ways we can to uplift the people. That’s a very important lesson, and we grew up with it.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: It’s very difficult to answer that question. I think one of the interesting people would have been the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. What was interesting about him was that he was very bright and very intelligent, and so he could think strategically, but he was also able to deal with matters of detail; tactical issues, as it were. Oliver Tambo, who was also President of the ANC, was similar: very bright and very intelligent, also an excellent strategist and good at handling detailed tactical matters.
At Sussex University, here in England, we had very good professors, who were not just good in their subject, but in their understanding of the challenges of social change. Our Professor of Economics, for instance. In 1964, Nelson Mandela and the others were on trial, and the judge said ‘I find you guilty, but I will sentence you another day’. The fear was that the judge would sentence them to death. There were big demonstrations in countries across the world, calling for the release of these political prisoners. We marched from Brighton to London to demand their release. My Economics Professor spoke to me that day and asked whether we were properly organised and whether we were going to join the march. I answered, ‘I don’t know whether these types of demonstrations produce results’. And he got very angry with me. He said, ‘You cannot say things like that. These prisoners in South Africa might be sentenced to death, and what you are telling me is that because you’re not sure whether the demonstration will have an impact, you won’t demonstrate. Go out there and march and make sure we save these peoples’ lives’. This was a well-known Professor of Economics who also understood that you must change society. These are some of the leaders I admire, who are very good people.

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