Mbeki as Jekyll and Hyde

by The Editor

FEATURE: The book, ‘The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ provides a helpful metaphor in better understanding the relationship between the two offices which defined Mbeki’s time at the apex of South African politics. In this 2008 article I looked at these two positions held by former President Thabo Mbeki – ANC president and South African president – and offered some insights as to how they merged, to the detriment of his own aspirations and South Africa’s democracy.

 Mbeki as Jekyll and Hyde

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012


“The hatred of Hyde for Jekyll was of a different order. His terror of the gallows drove him continually to commit temporary suicide, and return to his subordinate station of part instead of a person; but he loathed the necessity, he loathed the despondency into which Jekyll was now fallen, and he resented the dislike with which he himself was regarded. Hence the ape-like tricks that he would playon me, scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books, burning the letters and destroying the portrait of my father; and indeed, had it not been for his fear of death, he would long ago have ruined himself in order to involve me in that ruin.” [Dr Henry Jekyll]

Since it first came to power in 1994, the ANC’s inability to properly separate party from state has become a defining characteristic of its administration. History tells us that this is not a problem unique to our ruling party, and has hampered many former liberation movements forced to adjust to the requirements of constitutional democracy. Under Thabo Mbeki’s leadership, however, any progress made in bridging that gap was not only retarded but deliberately reversed (specifically, through a policy of cadre deployment); with the consequence that those newly-established boundaries, designed to hedge-in and define the state, have been systematically eroded as the ruling party’s push for hegemonic control and, more recently, its internal discord, have increasingly come to shape government action.

The ANC’s relationship with the state is best described as schizophrenic. On the one hand, the state and those various institutions that define it are championed by the ANC government as democratic models of excellence; as too are the constitutional principles that underpin them and the programmes by which they are run. On the other hand, in its capacity as the ruling party, policies are introduced and behaviour tolerated that would seem to be the very antithesis of good democratic practice; and the state is treated like an obstacle, impeding the drive for power unfettered by constraint.

In many ways, this schizophrenic behaviour was epitomised by Thabo Mbeki: as President of the country he projected the image of a considered democrat, deeply respectful of the constitution and the values it enshrined; as President of the ruling party, he was far more radical, his positions less democratic and those prejudices he harboured often bubbled over (most notably in his weekly newsletter, ANC Today). These two contrasting personas are not mutually exclusive, it is a relative comparison; it is also true that a number of characteristics straddled both roles – his stoic detachment, for example – but, in general terms, Thabo Mbeki was always two people: the President of the ANC on the one hand, and the President of the country on the other. As with the ruling party more generally, they were two worlds that often conflicted, indeed, collided, and rarely complemented each other.

The strange case of Thabo Mbeki

There is a well-known literary work – perhaps more famous for its title than the details of its story – which has come to define this sort of duplicity: Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is the story, told through the various accounts of key witnesses, of Dr Henry Jekyll, a noble and good-natured scientist who invents a potion able to release one’s darker side – in Jekyll’s case, Edward Hyde, an evil, base manifestation of that part of his own personality.

Most metaphors do not stand up to close examination and, let me say upfront, I am not suggesting that, in his capacity as ANC President, Mbeki was “pure evil” (as Jekyll describes Hyde); nevertheless, if one accepts that it is the policy and practice of the ANC that often acted to subvert the state and the democratic principles that define it and, likewise – with regard to Mbeki – if his restrained image as President masked the more radical, racial-nationalist who lurked below the surface, then I believe it is not a comparison without merit.

Indeed, the way in which Stevenson describes the tension between his two central protagonists is an instructive, often insightful, way of looking at the tension which defined the relationship between the two positions that marked Mbeki’s tenure at the apex of our political system.

The key chapter in this regard is the last – ‘Henry Jekyll’s full statement on the case’ – in which Jekyll makes a final desperate attempt to set down in writing the horror that has befallen him.

Jekyll states upfront that he was always a divided man as, indeed, are all men; but that this did not mean he was in any way guilty of hypocrisy: “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.”

Mbeki too was by no means a hypocrite, at least not as far as he was concerned. Although, very often, the nature of his two offices would pull in opposite directions, in no way did he ever conceive of them as being incompatible or contradictory. For Mbeki, the one was a natural extension of the other. And while he may have appeared awkward as President, deliberate yet counter-intuitive, one need only read his self-congratulatory final letter to his Cabinet to see that here is a man convinced he has more than met a noble challenge. Just the same, as ANC President, authentic and single-minded, Mbeki appears convinced his legacy is a worthy one, undone at the last only by those forces motivated by ignoble intent.

This, then, was the nature of Mbeki’s first term in office. To the seasoned democrat, it was clear there were two opposing forces at work; but, to the world at large, the difference was largely indistinct, so well and so convincingly, did Mbeki wear his two hats.

Jekyll tells about how, at first, he was able to induce Hyde through the controlled intake of a particular potion, but how, with time and indulgence, it was a conversion that became increasingly hard to control. For Hyde was simply a reflection of that side of his personality which he rarely indulged and so, the more he indulged it, the more it grew; until, ultimately, it was Hyde who defined his character – so much had he been indulged – and Jekyll whom he would have to induce.

Describing this subtle shift in emphasis, and the way in which he acted to accommodate Hyde, Jekyll writes: “At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and hence the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.” And, later: “I announced to my servants that a Mr Hyde (whom I described) was to have full liberty and power about my house and in the square; and, to parry mishaps, I even called and made myself a familiar object in my second character.”

As Mbeki extended his tenure as President into a second term, so his ability to distinguish between his two positions would become increasingly difficult; and, as his actions as head of state merged with those performed as head of the ruling party, it would be the former, more often than not, that would surrender to the latter. His ambition to secure a third term as ANC President – a desire inextricably linked to the fortunes of Jacob Zuma – was the seed from which a mighty battle would grow; as it grew, so its branches would touch everything from the intelligence services to the judiciary, and Hyde would be allowed “full liberty and power” about the house.

There must have been a moment, prior to Polokwane, where Mbeki would have weighed up his options: the pursuit of his ambition and a third term on the one hand, or accepting the natural (and far less dramatic) conclusion to both positions on the other. That he chose the former tells you much about the man. Jekyll describes his parallel choice like this:

“To cast my lot in with Jekyll was to die in those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper. To cast it in with Hyde was to die to a thousand interests and aspirations, and to become, at a blow and forever, despised and friendless. The bargain might appear unequal; but there was still another consideration in the scales; for while Jekyll would suffer smartingly in the fires of abstinence, Hyde would not even be conscious of all that he had lost.”

There can be little doubt that the loss of the ANC Presidency hurt Mbeki more than the loss of the country’s Presidency. And while it is ironic that, during the latter days of his term in office, he was forced to rely on the Office of the President as a final source of power and influence, it will be the position of ANC President that he will most yearn after; for it was from that position which his real power flowed (and from which he faces his greatest challenge).

And while Mbeki saw the one office as an extension of the other, the opposite nature of the two was not without benefits. For just as Mbeki was able to mobilise the state to pursue Jacob Zuma, so he was able to prevent it from interrogating his own actions, or those of people aligned to him. Jekyll too was able to use his own good-nature as a foil for Hyde:

“It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired.”

But the fight for the Presidency, exacerbated and fuelled by a fractured party, would bring Mbeki’s two personalities closer together than ever before and, just as Hyde would come to overtake Jekyll, so Mbeki’s personal aspirations would come to dominate his professional duties: “the pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn to the monstrous.”

And as the change occurred, so it became increasingly clear to Jekyll that Hyde had scant regard for him, his reputation or his well-being. To Hyde, Jekyll was merely a means to an end, a safe refuge when cornered and a source of material comfort. Yet such was his appeal, Jekyll himself had come to indulge in his other life:

“Jekyll (who was a composite) now with the most sensitive apprehensions, now with a greedy gusto, projected and shared in the pleasures and adventures of Hyde; but Hyde was indifferent to Jekyll, or but remembered him as the mountain bandit remembers the cavern in which he conceals himself from pursuit.”

That sentiment captures the key difference then, between Jekyll and Hyde: For while Hyde was uncompromised, single-minded and authentic, Jekyll was a composite, contradictory and complex. A comparison with Mbeki’s dual roles is apposite.


If anything, the Nicholson Judgment is controversial; not just politically – that is to state the obvious – but legally. Nevertheless, it certainly does not constitute the only evidence of executive interference on Mbeki’s part, only the most sensitive. Should it be overturned, it will most likely be on a technicality (Mbeki’s right to make representations); less likely is a thorough interrogation of the degree to which Mbeki did or did not interfere with Jacob Zuma’s prosecution. That said, as things stand, the High Court Judgment constitutes a serious indictment, powerful evidence of the degree to which politics was allowed to infect and poison democratic procedure and, perhaps, the final victory of Mbeki’s one persona over the other.

Unlike Jekyll, whose fate at the end of the book is an eminent and permanent transformation into Hyde, Mbeki finds himself in a far more ironic position. Stripped of both high office and his party position, it will be in his personal capacity that Mbeki will appeal to the Constitutional Court against the Nicholson judgment – effectively, an appeal against his own party.

It is necessary to appreciate just what a profound development the former President’s Constitutional Court application is.

Under Mbeki, the ANC was paramount, its procedures trumped those of the state, its cadres answered first and foremost to the party and it was quite capable of bending the state to its will. Under Mbeki – and because of Mbeki – the ANC was, not just politically, but morally, elevated above even the Constitution and presented as South Africa’s primary force for good.

That the chief architect of this situation should now be at odds with that party is deeply significant. Not only does it fundamentally undermine the notion that the ANC is a unified force for good, but it once again illustrates, in stark terms, that ever-present and always contradictory tension between party and state that defined Mbeki’s tenure.

As he draws his testament to an end, and his final transformation looms large, Jekyll speculates: “Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? God knows; I am careless; this is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself. Here then, as I lay down the pen, and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”

It is a situation not dissimilar to that in which Mbeki now finds himself. As a private citizen, Mbeki is now fighting for his reputation; more particularly, his reputation as President – so severely impugned by the Nicholson Judgment. And therein too lies a mighty irony; for some might well argue it is a reputation long since irrevocably compromised; a few might even say it is a reputation lost altogether to his ambitions as President of the ANC.

This article was first published on 30 September 2008.

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