Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC: Review

How we perceive events, things or people is always a subjective matter. More so when it comes to politicians. For they are many things to different people. I knew Thabo Mbeki but this book shaded a different Mbeki altogether. I am fully cognisant that biographers, like all of us are subjective. They are either fans or foes of their subjects, they are hardly neutral. Hence, it is important to read this book knowing that the author was not a Mbeki fan.

Be that as it may, I really enjoyed the book. It was both entertaining and informative. I particularly liked how the author tied Mbeki’s battle for the control of the ANC with a historical comparative analysis of ANC’s politics and policies. Many of the ideological divisions permeating through the ANC at this present juncture have historical roots.

In a nutshell, the book articulates Mbeki’s legacy. I have summed up this legacy into four key topics.

His leadership skills in running both the ANC and South Africa.

People labelled him an autocrat. Running party and country like his little fiefdom. Side-lining those who disagreed with him and rewarding those he agreed with. His presidency approached decision making as top down. Perhaps, his leadership style was born from his own experience in exile. Those days, the ANC operated underground. As a result, leadership made the decisions and everyone else kowtowed the party line. There was very little or no consultation at all.

His management of the economy

Thabo Mbeki is a neoliberal economist to the bone. He truly believes in free market capitalism. Even though the ANC continued to speak socialism, under Mbeki´s tenure privatisation and other pro-business policies were the order of the day. These contradictions and his lack of consultation resulted in him alienating COSATU and SACP. To the socialist, Mbeki was too eager to please the market. In some instances at the expense of radically addressing the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. For example, they adopted the ineffective land reform policy of willing buyer and willing seller, in a bid not to rattle international investors. The neoliberals despised Mbeki`s privatisation agenda. They said, it was riddled with corruption and did not go far enough. He was trying and perhaps he succeeded in transforming the ANC. From being a liberation movement into becoming a modern democratic socialist party.

Foreign Policy

Mbeki has an impeccable record when it comes to his foreign policy. Together with with former presidents; Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal led in creating and the adoption of NEPAD by the Organisation of African Unity the predecessor organisation to the African Union (AU). NEPAD is now the flagship programme for socio-economic development for the AU.

He was also key in helping broker peace deals in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burundi. After the disputed elections in Zimbabwe in 2008, he also helped broker a political agreement between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. This established a government of national unity in 2009. The critics in Zimbabwe condemned him for failing to hold Mugabe accountable. His fellow comrades

Aids denialism

Mbeki questioned the link link between HIV and AIDS. He argued that ¨a virus cannot cause a syndrome¨. Armed with the backing of scientists who agreed with this view, he instituted a ban on the distribution of ARV drugs in public hospitals. His logic was that AIDS was a result of a compromised immune system. As a result, it could be fought by improving the nutrition intake of HIV patients. In order to boost their immune system.

It was a futile academic debate. A debate HIV patients did not enjoy. Tens of thousands lost their lives because Mbeki was stubborn. This is perhaps the biggest dent on his legacy. It is most unfortunate that even years later, he remains unapologetic for his views and actions.


The book is very informative. It shades light into Mbeki’s legacy and into some of the ideological differences within the ANC. Unfortunately, it a tiny bit repetitive. The author covers some stories in multiple chapters, with either a slight twist or slightly additional information.