Mbeki still fails to heed counsel

ADVERSARIAL: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma at the ANC's 52nd national conference in Polokwane, Limpopo. Pic. Lucky Nxumalo. 17/12/07. © Sowetan.
ADVERSARIAL: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma at the ANC's 52nd national conference in Polokwane, Limpopo. Pic. Lucky Nxumalo. 17/12/07. © Sowetan.

Justice Malala

Justice Malala

President Thabo Mbeki's handling of the first two days of the ANC conference confirms that he listens to no one but himself.

Mbeki delivered only one example of political mastery on the first day of the ANC's 52nd national conference on Sunday - he walked in with Jacob Zuma by his side.

It was a brilliant move. Had they walked in separately, the applause would have been as different as support for the two men. Zuma, as has happened at numerous political rallies and ANC meetings, would have received a standing ovation while Mbeki might have even been booed.

Mbeki looked drawn and ill-at-ease. He fiddled with his fingers and in typical manner, he wiped his nose with both hands, staring at the ceiling.

It is a nervous tic most obviously seen at the national general council in Pretoria in 2005 where he was humiliated by ordinary ANC members who told him to restore powers to Zuma as ANC deputy president.

Mbeki's grey hair looked even more pronounced, a bit like his father Govan's when he returned from Robben Island in the late 1980s. Mbeki and Zuma did not look at each other - the house clearly belonged to Zuma.

The first real revolt of conference came only five minutes in, after the two main contenders had been seated. Mosiuoa Lekota, ANC chairman and chairman of the session, was howled down. It was not just anger at Lekota's many attacks on Zuma over the past few months - it was anger at Mbeki's perceived sanctioning of these attacks. The heckling was a sign of worse things to come.

There was the protracted heckling and displeasure at Lekota for running the debate over manual or electronic voting. Opened by Sihle Zikalala of the ANCYL, the objection to voting rules set the scene nicely for the Zuma camp: we will fight every point. It also said: we do not trust you.

Mbeki's speech to conference did not help the matters. It was long, boring, obscure and failed to address the deep and wide divisions in the organisation. As leader of the party, the best he could come up with was a plea to discuss the issues instead of giving leadership.

Even those who are not hostile to him gave up. By 12.14pm, Kader Asmal was nodding off while Mbeki went on boringly about water for all. Enoch Godongwana soon followed suit while Smangaliso Mkhwatsha battled gamely to stay awake.

When he had finished, nearly three hours later, the delegates immediately started singing Zuma's signature song, Awu Lethu Mshini Wam' (bring me my machine gun). It was the clearest sign of rejection of the man yet.

At the ANC's last conference in Stellenbosch in 2002, Mbeki spoke of the party coming together and under the banner Advancing in Unity Towards 2012. The irony could not have been lost on him at this conference: there was no unity in the house and among delegates.

The incidents of howling said one thing and one thing clearly: we do not trust you. They were saying: we do not want you.

What would a leader think of these displays of division and even hatred? We now know that Mbeki was approached by a delegation of his own supporters in the leadership of the ANC and advised to step down from the presidential race. But he chose to fight on and take on Jacob Zuma.

It is not the first time that Mbeki has refused to take advice on issues where others can bring real value to his leadership. In government, he has refused to take the advice of his own cabinet on Zimbabwe and on HIV-Aids.

Inside the ANC, many have counselled him to take a more conciliatory approach towards Zuma and others. He has also been counselled not to go for a third term as party president.

He has refused.