In April 2001, weirdness entered South African politics in a chilling new form.
Gravel-voiced and taciturn, the Safety and Security Minister, Steve Tshwete, gave the nation a political-snot klap. During an SABC interview, he confirmed that an investigation into a plot to oust then president Thabo Mbeki was underway. In those days, scandal at the highest level of politics was a rarity and the shock-waves were mighty.
The essence of the ‘plot’ appeared to be a campaign to smear Mbeki as the brains behind the assassination of ANC militant Chris Hani, thus rendering him unre-electable at the ANC’s conference planned for the next year.
Asked if he could confirm that the plotters were businessman Cyril Ramaphosa and former premiers Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa, Tshwete did not hesitate.
His words were: “This rumour can set the president up to be harmed, because Hani was loved by the people. It can put the president in danger, not only as the president of the ANC, but as the head of state. We need to investigate because when something happens, people will say ‘We told them about this’.”
In a separate interview, Mbeki said: “Some people want to be president of South Africa. That’s fine. The matter that’s arising is the manner in which people pursue their ambitions.” He went on: “It’s a conspiratorial thing. I know you have business people who say we will set up a fund to promote our particular candidate and we will then try to influence particular journalists.”
The public were suddenly exposed to the extent of the paranoia which had gripped the Mbeki presidency.
Hearing the news in Cape Town, Ramaphosa was shell-shocked. “Oh my Lord! It was bizarre. It was a complete bolt from the blue,” he told me when I asked him about it for my book Ragged Glory – The rainbow nation in black and white.
“For me it was scary. I started having visions of being arrested and being put before a court for treason and I thought this is when the revolution eats its children,” he said.
Ramaphosa sought a meeting with Mbeki and was rebuffed. But Mbeki did have time for a meeting with the source of the plot allegations, one James Nkambule, who gave him his ‘evidence’ in person. An intelligence agency probe into the ‘plot’ continued.
This was not the first instance of the Mbeki administration ‘investigating’ a senior official. Mbeki had earlier asked De Klerk - then still fellow deputy president - to investigate Sexwale for drug trafficking. The probe became an embarrassment after only one barely credible source was found. The ANC later apologised for ‘the deep hurt that has been inflicted on the person and reputation of Sexwale and his family’.
After a decade and half of silence during which an exhaustive autobiography was written along with several other histories, Mbeki has now suddenly decided to clear the matter up. He claims that he had taken Tshwete to task for confirming the names of the ‘plotters’ to the SABC. Tshwete is conveniently not around to corroborate this.
He would have us believe that he was innocent of any attempt to smear his rivals and that - wait for it - the media was to blame for creating a false impression of his presidency.
“The Nkambule saga, which falsely implicated Phosa, Sexwale and Ramaphosa, had nothing whatsoever to do with my alleged paranoia, which the domestic and international media has continuously trumpeted for almost fifteen years now, to date, based on false deductions and pure self-serving speculation.”
I’m afraid the “self-serving speculation” is entirely yours, sir.