Emotional farewell as Mbeki holds last cabinet meeting

South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki. Photo/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Many shook hands with him; others hugged him; some wept openly, while others battled to hide their tears. Their contorted faces told it all. They then hurriedly left him behind, to catch their flights. It was a painful parting

The Cabinet meeting held in the late afternoon on Wednesday September 24, 2008 was even more emotional than the one that had taken place on the Sunday.

Unfortunately, since Cabinet business is classified, I cannot tell the story but I can mention three things which are public knowledge.

Mbeki bade farewell to his Cabinet and his deputy ministers, typically doing so in a carefully crafted letter directed to every member of Cabinet, including deputy ministers, in which he expressed his views and feelings.

The text was released after the Cabinet meeting, making it a public document.

The reading of the letter to Cabinet was moving. Unfortunately, even when minutes are one day declassified, the emotions which filled that Cabinet room will not be revealed, since emotions are not captured in minutes.

So the nation will never know the feelings and responses of their Cabinet to such a moving farewell letter.

It was departure with grace ‘without resistance or rancour’ in ‘the interest of the masses of our people’, as Mbeki has said in the letter.

The meeting was updated about the appeal against the Nicholson judgment.

(Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that the decision to charge Mbeki’s deputy Jacob Zuma with corruption and fraud was invalid because the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) had not given him a chance to make representations before deciding to charge him. The case triggered the campaign to remove President Mbeki from office).

Papers had been served and it was understood that the matter would be pursued despite Mbeki’s resignation.

Finally, Cabinet members were given the opportunity to designate one of their own to act as president during the hiatus between the resignation taking effect and the swearing in of the new president. Matsepe-Casaburri’s appointment was announced before midnight on the Wednesday, for the comfort of the nation.

After the Cabinet meeting, all the ministers and deputy ministers who had not resigned, including their officials, had to catch late-night or early morning flights to Cape Town, in order to be in parliament for the election of the president.

The pain of parting from the man who would by the next morning no longer be our president was written on the faces of many of us.

Those who had resigned in solidarity remained behind with him, but for those who had not resigned but still had great respect for him and the service he had rendered to the country, the African continent and the world, it was a painful farewell.

Many shook hands with him, others hugged him and some wept openly, while others battled to hide their tears. Their contorted faces told it all. They then hurriedly left him behind, to catch their flights.

I waited until everyone had paid their respects and left, including the ministers and deputy ministers who had resigned, and then walked with him back to his office.

It was at this moment that my multifarious roles came together – I was pastor and comrade, director-general of the presidency and secretary of the Cabinet. Never had I felt so great a tension between my personal position and my official duties.

As a pastor, I felt I needed to be with Mbeki, which would have meant remaining behind. My ministry would just have been my presence. As a comrade, I felt that staying to express my solidarity was appropriate.

But my official duties required me to leave for Cape Town immediately – the orchestration of all the events that would unfold the following day in parliament and Tuynhuys (the office of the president) was wholly or partly my responsibility.

In this interregnum the role of Cabinet secretary was the most vital, as Trevor Fowler had argued. Everything that had to do with the executive hinged on me.

I was in command of the troops in Cape Town who were preparing for the swearing in of the new president, once elected by parliament.

Our staff had to work closely with the parliamentary staff to ensure that the election of the president (which is a responsibility of parliament) and the swearing in of the president (which was the responsibility of the presidency) were well co-ordinated and seamless.

Could I, like some ministers and deputy ministers, have resigned? The answer is categorically no. No matter how much I loved the president and how loyal I was to him – as president, as a person or as a comrade – as director-general in the presidency, secretary of the Cabinet, secretary of the NSC and chairperson of the NSC DG’s committee, I had a crucial responsibility to ensure that there was stability during this transitional period, as the president had commanded, and that the transition was managed as efficiently and sensitively as possible given all the challenges of the time, views and feelings.

I also had to set an example to the other directors-general whom, as chair of FOSAD, I had asked to remain in their posts to ensure that there was stability, especially for those heads of departments whose ministers had resigned.

The message to the directors-general, especially those who were responsible for the security of the state and the people of South Africa, was clear: ‘the stability of the country rests entirely on you as heads of department and other state institutions at this critical moment in the history of the country’.

In the absence of ministers they had to run government. The president also understood that, unlike elected office bearers, I, as a public servant, had a responsibility to the state and not merely to the leadership of the party in power, and my loyalty had to be to the state which superseded loyalty to individuals.

I also had to be loyal to any constitutionally elected president of the country as long as I was the secretary of Cabinet or head of the presidency.

When I left for Cape Town, Thabo Mbeki was still president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Accordingly, I was also still under his command until midnight on the Wednesday and had to ask his permission to leave him to go to Cape Town.

Graciously he granted it. I shook hands with him, assuring him that we would have time for further discussion when I returned the following day, since my office was also responsible for former presidents and I would thus still be responsible for Mbeki the following morning, in his new status.

I also confirmed that the farewell function had, with Motlanthe’s consent, been set for the Friday.

I left the Union Buildings to catch a late-night flight to Cape Town, arriving in my official apartment at about the time that President Mbeki’s presidency ended.

I resisted the urge to call him. It was midnight and I felt we should let him rest after such an intense and emotional week. From then until Thursday afternoon, I was under the command of Acting-President Matsepe-Cassaburi.

Putting Motlanthe in power

Before that final Cabinet meeting I had briefed Motlanthe about the preparations for the swearing-in ceremony.

If he had not been a member of Cabinet I would have been constrained about revealing details of the last Cabinet meeting and the plan to designate one of the ministers to act as the president, and would have limited myself to preparations for the swearing-in ceremony.

My task was made easier by the fact that he was part of Cabinet and was aware of all the developments related to Cabinet business and the executive of government.

I also had to find out whether members of his family would attend, so that we could make the necessary arrangements to take care of them and whether he wished to invite any guests.

The answer to both questions was no. His response suggested to me that he felt that the circumstances were so difficult he did not believe the ceremony should be celebratory.

His task was to manage government and ensure that there was no disruption of its work during the period leading up to the next elections, due in seven or so months.

Some people have asked why we did not have the type of inauguration ceremony that had become traditional since April 1994 and whether or not this was an expression of a particular attitude by government.

The answer to this question is a categorical no. Apart from the fact that the circumstances of Mbeki’s recall left no time for elaborate arrangements, the ruling party understood that the urgency of the transition processes did not allow for such a ceremony.

What was critical was to ensure that there was stability. In any case, Motlanthe himself did not even have such an inauguration in mind, as indicated earlier.

On my arrival in Cape Town on Thursday morning, I found myself in an unusual quandary, assisting one president I had such great respect for to leave office under difficult circumstances and managing the assumption of office by another, who was also my comrade.

But the office I held required me to do it. I immediately linked up with the command structures to get reports of progress made in preparation for the election and swearing in of the new president.

Staff reported that despite the difficult environment and new dynamics in the relationship between the presidency and parliament, all the necessary arrangements were in place.

The mood in the presidency in Tuynhuys was sombre. Staff that had not been at the Union Buildings were still shocked by the unfolding events and the speed with which the changes were happening.

They would have liked to have had a briefing to help them understand what was happening but there was no time for one. They had to execute their responsibilities as professional public servants, even if they did not understand much of what was happening or why.

Whatever their personal views, their first task was to execute their responsibilities as loyal and professional public servants who serve the state irrespective of who was in office. This had already been discussed with them and drilled into their minds in preparation for the transition that had been expected in seven months’ time.

One critical call I received that Thursday morning was from the acting chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) – the chief of the force was out of the country.

The fact that the chief of the SANDF was not instructed to return home during this time of crisis was testimony to the strength of our democracy, which separated political democratic processes from military matters. The acting chief asked two questions. The first was who the commander-in-chief was, since it was no longer Mbeki.

It seemed to be a strange question in view of the fact that the announcement about Matsepe-Casaburri’s selection as acting president had been made the night before, but it transpired that it was necessary for the acting chief to be informed officially and not obtain this information from the media.

We had erred in not officially notifying him, assuming that this would be done by the minister of defence. However, our meeting had ended late on the previous day and the minister’s resignation was effective from midnight.

A lesson we learned was that it is not sufficient to announce the appointment of an acting president via the media.

A formal official communication should have been sent to all relevant state entities, especially the armed forces, as is the case when the national flag has to be flown at half mast.

We should also have taken this more seriously, especially because the president had resigned. I assured the acting SANDF chief that Matsepe-Cassaburi had been appointed acting president and was, constitutionally, the commander-in-chief. I also had to inform her accordingly.

The acting chief’s second question related to the resignation of the minister of defence. Normally, when the minister is out of the country or unable to discharge his or her responsibilities, an acting minister is appointed, but this had not happened.

In the absence of an acting minister of defence to authorise the normal business of the force – which is the responsibility of the minister, not that of the commander-in-chief – it was felt that it would affect the functioning of the SANDF.

After an election ministers remain in office until the president-elect is inaugurated, but this was not an election and some ministers resigned.

With hindsight, I realised that the acting president should have been advised to appoint acting ministers to replace those who had resigned, because 24 hours was too long for departments to function without a minister.

However, given the fact that it was now only a matter of hours before the new president was to be sworn in, I advised the acting chief not to worry – a minister would be appointed within the next 24 hours or so.

In jest, I suggested the armed forces take leave for a day, after which they would have a minister. I also implied that everything was under control and there was no need for any action from the military.

In parliament, the election conducted by Chief Justice Pius Langa went off without any notable problems. The next step was the swearing-in ceremony, for which I had to take responsibility.

I received the chief justice and ushered him into the usual holding room, where he put on his robes. We went through the ceremony together as we normally do, and when he was ready I went ahead of him to ensure the president-elect was also happy with the script.

Invited guests were already seated in the Cabinet room, where the ceremony would be conducted. I took the podium and announced the arrival of the president-elect and the chief justice.

This, as one would expect, was emotionally difficult. But I put up a face and did it. After welcoming the guests I handed over to the chief justice, and once the ceremony was over I led the president to his office.

This was another very emotional moment. I had just concluded the process of helping Mbeki to leave, and now I had to manage the induction of Motlanthe, leading him into the office his predecessor had had no time to clear.

The depth of the emotions in this moment was well expressed by one staff member who saw me leading President Motlanthe into what was still considered Mbeki’s office. It felt, said the staff member, like a coup d’état. If it wasn’t that, it was certainly a coup de théâtre.

She further said that my walking Motlanthe to Mbeki’s office seemed like I had been frogmarched or commanded at a point of a gun to do so. Having witnessed this sight, the staff member took refuge in one of the offices in Tuynhuys and wept bitterly.

When this was reported to me, I called her and asked what the problem was. The response was that it was not only the pain of seeing Mbeki’s office occupied by another in the way it happened; it was also ‘feeling for you’, meaning ‘feeling for me’: ‘How could they make you do this?’

This was not the only staff member I was required to counsel while at the same time managing my own emotions and pain. Mbeki’s immediate staff were the most affected, as they had to receive the new president and assist him immediately.

Fortunately, because President Motlanthe had been minister in the presidency, members of his staff were already part of the private office of the president and, therefore, immediately available to him.

They worked together with the rest of Mbeki’s staff in a seamless manner, as they were under the same command. Some of the staff were set aside to continue serving Mbeki, in terms of the provision for privileges of former presidents.

The trauma that staff were going through was not related to President Motlanthe; rather it related to the speed and manner in which Mbeki was removed from office and the sudden reality that they had to work with another president.

It was too sudden and shocking, and they had not been allowed time to internalise it. The trauma had to do with their feelings for Mbeki, rather than feelings against Motlanthe.

The president’s immediate task was to address parliament. For the first time the president made a speech I had not seen, as it was prepared with the party at a party level. But the speech was statesman-like, focusing on the need for stability and a seamless transition which would have no negative impact on service delivery, especially for the poor and disadvantaged.

He emphasised that the policies of government would remain the same, since these were products of a collective rather than an individual.

He said: ‘We are able to make such pronouncements with neither hesitation nor doubt, precisely because the policies we are charged to implement are the policies of the African National Congress.’ He further said: ‘Mine is not the desire to deviate from what is working.

It is not for me to reinvent policy. Nor do I intend to reshape either Cabinet or the public service. We will not allow that the work of government be interrupted. We will not allow the stability of our democratic order to be compromised.’

The speech reassured the nation, the government and the international community that he would perpetuate Mbeki’s themes – stability, peace and service delivery. He also took the opportunity to announce new members of Cabinet to replace those who had resigned, again to give assurance that the transition was being managed effectively.

Once President Motlanthe was settled in his office, we had to discuss his plans for the swearing in of the new ministers and deputy ministers, which we had already anticipated.

Invitations were extended to the appointees and their families for a swearing-in ceremony on the Friday afternoon. The command system for arranging swearing-in ceremonies was triggered and, having completed the plans, I had to leave for Gauteng as the next day’s activities would take place at the administrative seat of government in Pretoria, Tshwane.

Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki by Frank Chikane is published by Picador Africa, an imprint of Pan Macmillan South Africa at R195



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