Our presidential legacies


The demise of the Apartheid regime and the first democratic elections, which subsequently took place on 27 April 1994, saw the ANC rise to power. This was an immense victory for the liberators who rose up in vehement opposition to white minority rule and who dedicated their lives to fighting for justice, racial equality and freedom. South Africa’s sons leave behind colourful legacies which began long before and extended far beyond their presidential terms.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Presidential term: 1994 to 1999

South Africa’s ‘greatest son’, anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nobel Peace Price winner and former leader, Madiba is the embodiment of the relentless struggle for freedom and democracy - he symbolises peace, forgiveness and one person’s ability to make a difference when committed to a cause.

“Tata Madiba was the Father of the Nation in the truest sense of the word. He loved his country and its people and was ready to pay the ultimate price for the liberation of its people. He was a nationalist to the core. Behind closed doors, he came across as a loving family man, which is perfectly expressed through the work he has done - and which his foundations continue to do - for the children of our nation.

“His naughty and disarming jokes, charm and easiness with the people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds made it possible for all to engage with him on any matter of national interest, without feeling intimidated by his stature. He came across as a man with an incredible amount of wisdom,” says Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, MP – UDM Chief Whip and Deputy President, and this is the indelible image of Nelson Mandela that will endure. He is recognised and remembered in South Africa and the rest of the world as the nation’s greatest, wisest liberator who committed his life to the struggle and who spent 27 years in prison rather than give up the fight for peace and dignity for all.

“His greatness lies in the fact that he is a visionary, a Democrat and international political leader who exercises his influence and leadership with humility and respect for his colleagues and opponents alike. He is, above all, a man who is stubborn in his resolve to fight all forms of discrimination, injustice and inequality” 1

Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, during a time when people of colour were seen as inferior citizens. From a young age, Mandela had the desire to liberate his people from oppression. He first began campaigning for human rights for all in 1942 and, in 1944, he joined the African National Congress (ANC)—a party which fought for the rights of non-white South Africans—along with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, and Ashley Mda. Unhappy with the ANC’s appeasement policy, the young group helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Mandela rose to the position of Secretary General and the group lobbied for radical mass action against the apartheid laws that were being enforced. In 1949, through the ANCYL’s efforts, the ANC adopted the group’s Programme of Action and Walter Sisulu was elected as the ANC’s Secretary General. Due to the growing opposition, the apartheid government had Mandela and some of his comrades arrested numerous times and, in 1960 (following the Sharpeville Massacre), the apartheid government declared a state of emergency and the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress were banned. This motivated Mandela to strongly consider taking up the armed struggle and, in 1961, the ANC helped to launch Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, aka MK), the ANC’s military wing.

In 1964, at what was known as The Rivonia Trial, Mandela gave a statement titled ‘I am Prepared to Die’, which served as a true testament to his commitment to the struggle and which drew worldwide attention to South Africa’s fight for liberation. In his speech, he said, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela and other accused ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison and he was sent to Robben Island, where he served the first 20 years of his prison sentence. Prison could not, however, break his courageous spirit and he continued his fight against racism and inequality. While serving his sentence, both his mother and oldest son passed away and, although he was not permitted to attend their funerals, hatred did not fester in his heart. Mandela was offered release upon his agreement to certain conditions, however, he could not be swayed and remained true to his convictions.In 1982, Mandela and his comrades were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. By this time news of his deeds had spread and a local and international campaign titled ‘Release Nelson Mandela’ called for him and all political prisoners to be freed. The international pressure and growing unrest in the country forced PW Botha to concede, but only if Mandela agreed to give up the armed struggle, which he again refused.

His health declined and he was eventually transferred to Victor Verster Prison, where he served the remaining time of his sentence. The pressure from foreign countries to release him became too great and, in 1990, President FW De Klerk declared the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties, as well as the release of Nelson Mandela and his comrades. Mandela emerged from prison a changed man who advocated peace, reconciliation and an end to political violence but his opposition to apartheid remained as resolute as ever. By this time, he was recognised as an internationally respected leader and travelled abroad extensively to highlight South Africa’s struggle. Through a series of negotiations between the NP, the ANC and various other political parties, apartheid was abolished and, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first democratic election took place, which changed the course of the country’s history. The ANC received 62% of the vote and, on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President—with the entire world celebrating in unison. During his inaugural speech, “Mandela called for a ‘time of healing’ and stated that his government would fight against discrimination of any kind. He pledged to enter into a covenant to build a society in which all South Africans, Black and White, could walk tall without fear, assured of their rights to human dignity, ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.1

Kwankwa says that, as president, Mandela’s “primary focus was on reconciling the different groups of our liberated nations. He, at all times, gave priority to the recognition of the humanity of all citizens of the nation. Flowing from his inaugural address as the first democratically elected President of the Republic, Tata has placed equality, social justice, respect for the rule of law and democracy as his apex projects.

“In order to achieve his vision, he exhibited energy to drive the Reconstruction and Development Programme on which his government was elected by the people. He also managed to drive the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with success, which sought to heal the wounds of the past and unite the nation,” he adds. Kwankwa says that Mandela achieved his mission of ushering in a democratic election that was pronounced by all nations of the world, as peaceful, democratic, free and fair. He steered the country from turmoil towards a negotiated settlement, a country that was engulfed in violence just on the eve of election, a country with divided views and personalities to a beacon of hope for the world. His reconciliation and nation building agenda was fostered with panache and conviction in reaching out to adversaries. Madiba was decisive and simple. Mandela stepped down as president in 1999 when his term ended, but he continued to play a role in mediating conflicts around the world1, and he did charitable work through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. In addition, by announcing that his son, Makgatho, had died of Aids, he attempted to remove the stigma attached to people suffering from HIV/Aids. Kwankwa recalls: “I met him in person for the first time in early in 1999 while I was working for Coin Security as a Security Officer at the University of the Western Cape. Madiba was scheduled to speak at an event there that month. So as his convoy was entering the university, his security team told us to clear the way. Much to the annoyance of his security team, instead of stepping aside I stood on the side of the road and did the Madiba dance. As the security team was busy trying to remove me, Madiba saw this and told his security team to let me dance freely without interruption. In fact, he asked them to roll down his window so he could dance for a few seconds with me and they did. So Madiba and I did the Madiba dance for about a minute before he proceeded to his official function.”

Mandela remained a shining example of humility and of someone who embraced people of all races and classes, and his life was an inspiration to all. In 2009, the United Nations declared 18 July Nelson Mandela International Day to honour his birthday and to honour the man himself. Nelson Mandela passed away at his home at the age of 95 on 5 December 2013 and the world mourned in unison. Poignant tributes from leaders across the globe poured in expressing the loss of a great man and a courageous voice for justice and equality. “Madiba was a great father who dispensed his love to all citizens regardless of their background. A reconciler, nation builder, peacemaker, negotiator, focused and visionary leader par excellence,” says Kwankwa.

The ANC may have lost some support over the years but Mandela never will. His late comrade and friend, Walter Sisulu, wrote an obituary to Mandela before both their deaths and it perfectly pays tribute to him: “As he rests in his eternal sleep, I am certain of one thing: that Madiba’s face is enveloped in a gentle, enduring smile. No, not the broad, beaming smile we are accustomed to; not the one so full of warmth that one felt bathed in sunshine. Rather, the quiet smile, reflective, born out of looking over his life and times; a smile tinged with a hint of mischievousness for having beaten the odds, cheated the hangman and knowing he had helped make South Africa and the world a better place.“Overarching his life of struggle, hardship, humiliation, pain and suffering there must be the sense of fulfilment that he has left an indelible footprint in the service of humankind.”



Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, Presidential term: 14 June 1999 to 24 September 2008

Thabo Mbeki is regarded as our most intellectual, educated former President and an eloquent diplomat who was able to raise the ANC’s diplomatic profile and who brought about economic growth, created employment and expanded the black middle-class through BEE.

Some of his decisions and actions had negative consequences, such as his questioning of the link between whether HIV causes Aids and the banning of antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals have been criticised in certain circles, with some commentators estimating that this could have cost up to 330 000 lives. His passive approach towards the Zimbabwean crisis and the controversial ‘arms deal’ also received much criticism, but his commitment to rekindling the vision of an African Renaissance is beyond reproach.

“Mbeki likes to be engaged, challenged and to challenge. But one thing, you must do your homework and know your story. And in all my engagements with him, first as a president and now a former president, I find Thabo to be someone who is passionate about lifting South Africa and Africa out of the malaise of poverty and underdevelopment. I cannot remember a conversation that I have had with him that does not start and end with this. He is a true pan-Africanist.

“He is a charmer behind closed doors, hard worker at all times, a voracious reader and a researcher. Mbeki is always thinking about the challenges facing nations of the world. He, however, does enjoy easy moments at home with family and friends. Mbeki related to almost all people on the basis of work to be done. Even his own immediate family, he would relate on tasks at hand though he would appreciate easy times. He has motion like all of us, the loss of his parents made a mark on him as a person,” says Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, MP – UDM Chief Whip and Deputy President.

Mbeki sought to restore the African identity, one that was free from colonialism, and he elevated our country to the status of a serious player in the international community. However, his legacy can’t be defined by his time as president alone, as his commitment to the liberation of South Africa’s people began before the ANC rose to power.

Born on 18 June 1942, Thabo Mbeki was actively involved in politics from an early age. Following the unbanning of the ANC, Mbeki went into exile in London, where he worked part-time with Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo. He also studied economics at Sussex University, obtaining his master’s degree in 1968.

“He spent most of his time fighting against apartheid from outside the country, in Britain, Nigeria, Botswana and Zambia,” and was adept at obtaining support for the ANC from a “more urbane population abroad” 6. He played a crucial role in campaigning for the international media’s support in the fight against the apartheid regime.

Mbeki was living in Lusaka when the apartheid government declared a State of Emergency in South Africa. An assassination attempt was made on his life but, fortunately, the assassin was arrested before he could follow through.

“In 1985, Mbeki became the ANC’s Director of the Department of Information and Publicity and coordinated diplomatic campaigns to involve more white South Africans in anti-apartheid activities. In 1989, he rose through the ranks to head the ANC’s Department of International Affairs and was involved in the ANC’s negotiations with the South African government.”8

In the early 1990s, the apartheid regime began to crumble and the ANC started to prepare for South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Mbeki’s role in transforming the party into a legal political institution was pivotal.

When Nelson Mandela was elected President, he selected Mbeki to be the Government of Unity’s first Deputy President. Additionally, Mbeki also adopted the title of ‘de facto’ prime minister because Mandela entrusted state duties to him.

Mbeki focused on the poor in rural communities and townships. He introduced development and urban renewal strategies, and this ensured continued support for the ANC.

His policies were strongly influenced by his vision to return dignity and freedom to those who had been stripped of them and to break away from colonial rule and assistance. He is notably recognised for heading the formation of New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU), institutions which would assist Africa to strive to solve its own problems without outside help.

Mbeki wanted to combine the reconciliation project of Mandela together with building a strong growing, inclusive and distributive economy within the context of a globalised village and a united Africa.

In 1999, he succeeded Nelson Mandela and, as President of South Africa, he “presided over the longest period of economic growth in South Africa since the Second World War, championed poverty reduction programmes and the de-racialisation of the South African economy” .5

“President Mbeki had his own vision about the direction that the country should take, post the reconciliation and the Government of National Unity Stage. He seemed to have understood the project of nation building and reconciliation as being directly linked to the economic development/freedom.

“His speech about the two nations in one would have been a perfect illustration of his vision and how the resolution of the national question would not be complete outside the economic freedom. In discharging this noble vision, he also acknowledged that South Africa is a member of a global family with the immediate being Africa. His ‘I am an African’ speech completed his vision and path he was to lead the nation to traverse,” says Kwankwa.

During his second term as President, he led the successful bid for South Africa to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup and this was viewed as a testament to his strong belief that an African Renaissance was possible and that the country was capable of achieving great things.

Mbeki is a skillful mediator who has presided over complex issues in Burundi, the DRC and the Ivory Coast and who has mediated crucial peace agreements.

In 2005, a rift was caused between Mbeki and Zuma’s supporters within the ANC due to Mbeki relieving Zuma of his Deputy President duties following his implication in the corruption scandal.

In 2007, Mbeki stood for election as president once again but lost to Zuma, who went on to become the ANC’s presidential candidate.

After Zuma was cleared of charges and the ANC National Executive Committee recalled Mbeki, he announced his resignation in 2008 and was appointed the African Union’s lead negotiator after leaving office.

In 2010, he established the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, which were both platforms for achieving the goals of the African Renaissance.

The most powerful aspects of Thabo Mbeki’s legacy is his dedication to the “reawakening of Africa’s self-reliance” and his skillful steering of our economy.“His mantra, African solutions for African problems, underpinned everything he did about Africa.”

Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe, Presidential term: 25 September 2008 to 9 May 2009

Once it gets to a point where it becomes a matter of life and death to occupy a position of leadership or not with an eye on future opportunities therein lies the danger.” - Kgalema Motlanthe.

Kgalema Motlanthe is regarded as an intellectual and highly skilled politician who may have only served as President for a few months after Thabo Mbeki’s resignation, but who was committed to the ANC’s early vision of liberation for most of his life, worked hard to keep the party unified, and who has often been described as the “ANC’s conscience and moral anchor.”9

He surrendered a decade of his life when he was arrested and charged for furthering the ANC’s agenda through his role in the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), but while in prison, he commanded the respect of his fellow inmates, he educated them on political matters and opposed any injustice that he witnessed.

He chose to see prison as a valuable experience.

During his short term, he sailed South Africa’s ship on the wave of economic growth and steered it well. Today, he is also a champion for education and skills development within the country.

Motlanthe was born on 19 July 1949 and was heavily influenced by the Christian faith. Those who knew him described him as very kind and gentle.

His political interest was shaped by various influences including The American Black Panther Movement and the Black Consciousness Movement that was rising in South Africa.

Together with Stan Nkosi, his closest friend and comrade, Siphiwe Nyanda, former Minister of Communications and George Nene, they were recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and engaged in underground work, which included going to Swaziland couriering ANC recruits for military training.8 Additionally, they formed a very successful MK cell, which was never caught.

Motlanthe was eventually arrested for his involvement and work with the MK. He was found guilty of three charges under the Terrorism Act and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Even while receiving severe beatings at Leeukop Prison, his spirit was not broken.

He was transported to Robben Island in 1977 and it was here that he served on the political committee where he was tasked with sourcing and making political material available.

During his incarceration, he completed his matric through correspondence studies, he voraciously read all literature he could find and learnt how to play, read and write music.

“A prison board report of July 1984 showed that he had an unblemished disciplinary record. He rose above organisational conflicts and always subscribed to the view that each person was entitled to differing views on any matter. He valued the debates and education that took place, a key to his political life.”9

He showed his true strength of character by challenging injustice, even within the prison walls and kept morale alive. Motlanthe viewed his incarceration in a positive light, saying that “we were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything.

The years out there were the most productive years in one’s life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life.”11

After his release, he worked at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for 10 years and eventually replaced Cyril Ramaphosoa as NUM’s acting General Secretary. He also worked with Walter Sisulu in an attempt to defuse the country’s rising political violence.

Educating people, it seems, was always Motlanthe’s passion and strength. Following NUM’s strike in 1987, Motlanthe began training for shaft stewards and developed course materials that exposed health and safety issues within the mining industry in an attempt to educate the miners. In addition “he was also active in the ANC underground as a trade unionist, the SACP and the ANC Interim Leadership. He was also elected onto Cosatu’s Central Committee”.11

During his time at NUM, he helped to create the Mineworkers Development Agency and establish the JB Marks Educational trust - when he left, the union was Cosatu’s richest.

He was elected as the ANC’s Secretary General in 1997 and was tasked with ensuring policies and programmes were implemented and executed. A man of incredible moral standing, he firmly believed in strong accountability and, at the ANC National General Council in 2010, he criticised the fact that the government and the ANC did not consult with each other.

After corruption charges were levelled against Zuma, he was removed from his position as Deputy President, but Motlanthe was loyal to Zuma. This caused a rift in his political relationship with Mbeki, however, and, after Mbeki was recalled by the NEC and resigned, Motlanthe’s approach was for the ANC to allow Mbeki to complete his term or to bring the elections forward. Furthering his own position was not of great import to him.

“Following Mbeki’s defeat at the 2008 ANC Elective Conference, the ANC deployed Motlanthe to the Presidency, in spite of him [Motlanthe] being opposed to the move. He became an MP on 20 May 2008 and on 12 July 2008 he was sworn in as a Minister. Motlanthe was installed as South Africa’s third President on 25 September 2008.”9

When Zuma was elected President in 2009 he chose Motlanthe as his Deputy President.

Motlanthe has had to deal with much criticism and many controversies, but he has also garnered the respect of those who have met him due to his deep respect for his colleagues and opposition members alike. For Motlanthe, the ANC always came first, but his moral compass has also always pointed north.

“He is deeply pained by people going into Parliament and then engaging in acts of corruption. In this respect, he can be quite critical of his own party.”9

In 2014, Motlanthe left the government and, today, he subscribes to left-wing party ideals and is seen a highly skilled politician.

In 2016, he came out of retirement to campaign for the ANC ahead of the municipal elections. While deeply critical of the current ANC leadership, he still firmly believed the ANC was the best party to lead South Africa forward.

According to recent reports, it has been suggested that Motlanthe is being considered as a possible compromise candidate to take over from Zuma, however, while Motlanthe said he would not completely dismiss the idea, he believes in the importance of new leadership and he believed he would make a better contribution by providing political education—something which he has always championed.13

At the 2010 Skills Summit, he spoke of the importance of skills development and education and how these were crucial components for their Human Resource Development Strategy (HRDS).

He explained that “an educated and skilled human resource is a key lever for accelerating economic growth and human development.”14 During the launch of the ANC’s political school, he said that “the curriculum that we learn at the political education school should equip us with intellectual and political tools. These are not only to develop a deeper understanding of history but, most important, to change society”.15 Essentially, Motlanthe embodies a true leader in that he demonstrates humility, does not crave power and position in themselves and, instead, wishes to make a contribution in the way he knows best—by providing political education.

mbeki.jpg GettyImages-167752038.jpg
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Issue 83


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