I had the honour to meet and interview President Mbeki in October of last year. Below are his answers to my questions on topical issues of the day. To read the rest of the interview, including his life lessons, visit my blog, Tregernomics.
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 percent – five percent. 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.
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 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.