WATCH | Baleka Mbete says ANC cannot be blamed for SA's problems in shocking interview

ANC heavyweight and former National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete says the governing party cannot be blamed for South Africa's problems. 

In a hard-hitting interview with Al Jazeera's Mehdi Hasan in London on Friday, Mbete said, among many other things, that criminality was brought to South Africa by colonialists. 

"We can't blame the problems of South African society on the ANC. Criminality has been in South Africa for more than three centuries, especially after the colonialists came and brought crime from Europe to Africa," Mbete said in response to a question by an audience member on South Africa's high crime levels, especially murder and rape.

Hasan then responded: "Hold on, let's be clear, the British Empire did do exactly what you just said, but they did it to a lot of countries. Why is it that South Africa has the fifth-highest murder rate in the world in 2015?"

'So what?'

A defiant Mbete then asks Hasan: "I'm wondering who says that?" 

"The United Nations, you may have heard of them, they're a big organisation..." Hasan says.

"So what?" Mbete responds. 

From the outset, Mbete drew both gasps and laughter from the audience as Hasan grilled her on a variety of issues, such as the Marikana massacre, former president Thabo Mbeki's HIV/Aids denialism, state capture and inequality. 

In addition to Hasan, questions were put to Mbete by a panel comprising Makhosi Khoza, a former ANC MP and fierce critic of former president Jacob Zuma, Andrew Feinstein, also a former ANC MP and arms deal whistleblower, and Xolani Xala, chairperson of SA Business Abroad and an ANC member. 

Mbete said she would not have done anything differently to avoid the erosion of public institutions.

"I have no me outside of the collective. That [the ANC] is my home politically..." 

Hasan then presses Mbete: "So as a politician, you could not have done anything differently over the past 10 years?"

"I don't have a personal space to do things," an irritated Mbete hit back.

 

'The World Bank is not God'

Earlier in the interview, Mbete was asked whether she agreed with President Cyril Ramaphosa that the past 10 years, and in effect Zuma's presidency, had been a "wasted decade".

Mbete says: "No, because for me, even every difficulty, every mistake, every failure is a lesson and an opportunity to do better." 

Hasan then asks Mbete about economic inequality in South Africa. "The World Bank says that South Africa today is the most unequal nation on earth. That's a pretty embarrassing title for your country to hold, is it not?" 

"I must say it is very harsh but I wonder if it's not an exaggeration. I really think we must see both good and bad. It can be said by the World Bank - the World Bank is not God and therefore just because they have said it..." Mbete responds to laughter and gasps of disbelief from the studio audience. 

Asked about corruption, Mbete said the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture was dealing with the issue. 

Hasan then said: "You're acting like you were a passerby or an observer. You were in the thick of things. In the ANC you were the chair, you were the speaker in Parliament. This happened on your watch..."

He referred specifically to the sacking of then finance minister Pravin Gordhan in 2017, who had claimed that around R150bn to R250bn had been looted from state coffers. "Why didn't you speak out and join him to call out that looting?" 

Mbete then gave vague answers, saying she was "right there" and that those issues were being "discussed every day". 

Mbete also denied having been aware of the looting of state-owned enterprises and state capture. 

"There are many issues I am learning for the first time in the past few months." 

Mbete also defended the "security upgrades" at Zuma's Nkandla homestead, insisting that the swimming pool was installed as a firefighting measure, again drawing laughter from the audience. 

"We can laugh, but this is serious stuff," Hasan responded.

'I was busy'

Asked about Mbeki's HIV/Aids denialism during his presidency, during which antiretroviral drugs were not provided and garlic and beetroot were punted as cures, leading to approximately 330 000 deaths, Mbete responded: "You're saying as if we plotted that people must die, no, it was not like that." 

She claimed she was "too busy" to talk to Mbeki about the matter. 

She also defended accompanying former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni to the prison gates following his fraud conviction in 2006, saying they were comrades. "I did not believe what he was said to have done." 

When Hasan revealed that Yengeni was appointed as the chairperson of the ANC's working group on corruption last year, the audience again laughed in disbelief. 

Mbete repeatedly denied accountability on several other issues. "What is the point [of asking these questions]? It is in the past." 

"What is the point? It's called accountability," Hasan replied.

Asked by an audience member what has been done to hold anyone accountable since the Marikana massacre in 2012, in which 34 mineworkers were shot dead by the police, Mbete said: "I'll find out. I'll get myself better informed," to which a flabbergasted Hasan responded: "We're pretty sure because we looked into it - no one has been held accountable..." 

Mbete was slammed for her responses and drew countless highly critical comments from viewers. 

"This lady is completely clueless and spent the entire interview making excuses," one comment read.

"So embarrassing. She should have turned down the invitation," commented Zuko Nofemele.

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler