In 1967, US author Allen Drury wrote a book on apartheid South Africa entitled A Very Strange Society.

Fifty years later, and two-plus decades into our post-apartheid story, we have added several new chapters to our national tragedy, though that title remains very contemporary.

The strangest part started just shy of 10 years ago: at the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference, Jacob Zuma was elected precisely – maybe only – because he was not Thabo Mbeki. Then, last Friday, Mbeki was lionised and cheered delivering the Oliver Tambo centenary lecture. Mainly because he was not Jacob Zuma.

One might conclude that the breathtaking and brazen manner in which Zuma has placed an essentially criminal enterprise at the heart of government happened precisely because 10 years ago the ANC in its collective wisdom chose to elect as its president someone who was morally hobbled, ethically compromised and facing hundreds of serious criminal charges.

Certainly that is what the circle around Mbeki thought in trying to stop Zuma’s ascent. Typically though, on Friday night, Mbeki was not that direct in his denunciations.

Mbeki’s vintage oracular speech-making style, heavy on repetitive quotations,

exhaustive in its historical emphasis and replete with such phrases as “I have no hesitation to convey” and “necessarily and logically”, was not calculated to set the audience’s pulses racing.

But there was nothing indirect about his meaning, save for not mentioning the name of the person he had in mind as the villain of the piece: Jacob Zuma.

There was no need to be a Kremlinoligist to know precisely who was the target of Mbeki’s full-throated assault on what he termed the “rapacious value system” that has gripped the ANC. Or the cause of what he termed “the third threat of destruction” to the ANC in its 106-year history.

But like a fifth column of internal saboteurs, this latest mortal threat to the ANC is, according to Mbeki, because of the “unprincipled access to political power and the related corrupt self-enrichment” which is today “the norm of the organisation”.

Two days after this Stinger missile had been fired by Mbeki at his successor and the corrupt gang which props him up, the Sunday Times published some more bombshells.

First an extract from Jacques Pauw’s new book would cause even the most corruption-jaded citizen to be jolted. According to his account in The President’s Keepers, the country’s number one citizen has been on the payroll of controversial Durban businessman Roy Moodley for an undeclared amount of R1-million per month. Further, he owes SARS at least R63-million in undeclared taxes and is in the company of gangsters like Glenn Agliotti who believes “Number One” is “one of us”.

Second, the revelation that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is funded from the proceeds of illegal cigarette sales. This being not just a tax delinquency but arch hypocrisy given her pose as the anti-smoking queen.

Instead of the half-baked and feeble response of the Presidency to this jeremiad, if Zuma had an ounce of integrity he would immediately issue a summons for millions of rands of defamatory damages against the author and publisher of these most serious charges. But of course he won’t, because that would require Zuma to enter the witness box and expose himself to cross-examination which would finally prove lethal to what is left of his reputation.

Mbeki, of course, presided over the original sin of state corruption in this country – the Arms Deal. And his presidential fixer, Essop Pahad, strong-armed parliament and honest ANC MPs like Andrew Feinstein from investigating this saga. It was Pahad, too, who first introduced the infamous Guptas to people in high office and who used the facilities of their first company, Sahara Computers.

But given what was to follow, the Mbeki era now looks like a golden age of fiscal rectitude and state competence. And leaving aside, if it is ever possible, the disastrous Aids denialism and intolerance for opposition of that time, there was no hint then or since that the Mbeki presidency was used for personal enrichment or for evading criminal charges.

You get an idea of how far and fast we have plummeted in these past eight years when the previous president who left office in humiliation and without much public sympathy is today viewed with fond nostalgia.

Something very similar happened in the US recently: the most unpopular president to leave office in modern times, George W Bush, who presided over the Iraq invasion and the 2008 economic crisis, lambastes the value system and corrosion of trust created by his current successor in the White House. And the newspapers and pundits who loathed Bush now publish with solemn approval his detailed utterances on his far worse replacement but one: Donald Trump.

Mbeki suggested that if the Zuma status quo remains or is replaced by someone similar, then the party would “sooner rather than later” self-destruct.

What he left unsaid, though, were two even bigger questions: What will happen to South Africa if this destruction occurs? And, can the country not shrug off a destructive organisation entirely by choosing a better alternative? Let’s see how either of these questions gets answered in December.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Times