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3 September 2014 04:04 (South Africa)
South Africa

Mbeki at 70: his legacy still mixed, despite resuscitation efforts

  • Sipho Hlongwane
  • South Africa
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We tend to be kinder to departed leaders. On the day of Thabo Mbeki’s 70th birthday, his reputation enjoys a new gloss – thanks largely to his successor’s style of leadership. And perhaps inevitably, he has become a kind of talisman for the anti-Jacob Zuma movement within the ANC. By SIPHO HLONGWANE

In January, the City Press newspaper published a story titled: Mbeki is back. In it, the paper said the former president was enjoying newfound favour in the party that fired him in 2008. Though the ANC sources said they did not anticipate a return to active politics, they thought he may be able to get an advisory or mediatory role after the party’s national congress at Mangaung in December 2012.

“City Press understands that Mbeki will not seek an active leadership position in the ANC, but he could be influential in the party in the lead-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December by advising party leaders on leadership matters and playing a mediation role between the warring factions,” the paper said.  

“Ten sources ranging from ANC national executive committee members to provincial leaders, business people and ANC lobbyists told City Press they could see Mbeki returning to play a role in the party, but they differed over the role the former president would play.”

At the forefront of the Mbeki hagiography was the then-president of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema. The move eventually landed him in serious trouble with the party’s disciplinary committee, which kicked him out of the party.

Malema, who once led the charge to have Mbeki sacked after he lost the ANC presidency to Zuma, said in 2011: “Mbeki is the best leader the ANC has ever produced. There are those who hated him with a passion but forgot that Mbeki, during his leadership, had produced a two-thirds majority during elections. Those who hate Mbeki are jealous of his achievements. He was the most educated and clever. The only problem with Mbeki was failing to allow the leadership the ANC to decide on who they wanted in the leadership, and for wanting a third term in leading the organisation. Apart from that he was the best and I respect him for that.”

In an interview on SAfm, Malema said that Mbeki’s silence on domestic policy was costing the country by “depriving us of that intellectual wealth”.

“I wish Mbeki would reconsider his decision not to participate,” he said.

The point of Malema’s efforts to revive Mbeki’s dead political career were ultimately self-serving. The ANCYL found it easy to praise the former president simply because he never actually silenced it to the extent that Zuma did.

From the age of 14, when his father Govan encouraged him to join the party, the ANC has always been Mbeki’s home. In a sense, 2008 was the first time he wasn’t actively involved in party politics. He spent most of his time fighting against apartheid from outside the country, in Britain, Nigeria, Botswana and Zambia. 

He was also very useful at getting support for the party from a more urbane population abroad – the legend being that his habit of smoking a pipe (not to forget his master’s degree from the University of Sussex) helped him cultivate an air of charm and sophistication. As the head of the party’s international department in the late 80s, he was part of the delegation that began to negotiate with the apartheid government in secret. 

Mbeki managed to leapfrog several leaders within the ANC to become president Nelson Mandela’s deputy in 1994. A very powerful deputy, Mbeki was deeply involved in the governance of South Africa from the very beginning of ANC rule.

The ANCYL’s posturing notwithstanding, the question of Mbeki’s legacy has always prompted a mixed response. His fans point to the good economic growth that South Africa enjoyed under his administration, and South Africa’s stronger position on the international stage. His detractors call his policies on HIV/Aids a disaster.

Mbeki’s dithering on the question of whether HIV causes Aids and on distributing antiretroviral drugs may have cost the lives of up to 330,000 people, according to a Harvard study

The matter was an extremely sensitive one for Mbeki. When badgered by Democratic Alliance member of parliament Ryan Coetzee on his Aids policy, he snapped and blasted the opposition politician for racism. 

“I will not keep quiet while others whose minds have been corrupted by the disease of racism accuse us, the black people of South Africa, Africa and the world, as being, by virtue of our Africanness and skin colour, lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage and rapist,” he snapped. 

The incident prompted a bashful retraction of sorts from the ANC.

DA spokesperson Mmusi Maimane said to Daily Maverick that it was not just the Aids controversy that is a blight against Mbeki. “Some of his crime and justice views were also problematic,” he said. “He was dogged by the same issues like Zuma in that he didn’t choose someone sound to be a police chief.”

The duality of views on Mbeki’s legacy are problematic, according to the new DA spokesperson, as some of the controversial views of the former president did not actually impact government policy to the degree that public perception would suggest. Private organisations eventually managed to get ARVs rolled out – and Mbeki’s views influenced the roll-out to make it as slow as possible.

“The best way in which I can define Mbeki’s legacy is ‘a dream deferred’. He was a leader who lived on his own planet. But you cannot judge his legacy in isolation to the Zuma presidency. We cannot deny his legacy on the international platform. His moves in the G20 and Nepad were good for us. Under Zuma, the international agenda is dissipating, but we have become more urgent on domestic issues,” Maimane said.

The fall of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi did not happen in isolation of Mbeki. The national director of public prosecutions at the time, Vusi Pikoli, was fired from his job for refusing to stop investigating the corruption case against the commissioner to aid Mbeki’s chances at Polokwane.

Pikoli was not the only other major controversy of the Mbeki administration. The problem of Zimbabwe looms large as well. When the strife between the Zanu-PF of Robert Mugabe and the MDC of Morgan Tsvangirai intensified to the point of violence, Mbeki was delegated by the Southern African Development Community to be the chief mediator in the conflict. He adopted a posture of “quiet diplomacy”, which involved shielding the Zimbabwean government from sanctions and resisting any attempts by anyone to intervene from the outside. The policy brought him a great deal of international criticism.

“The point really about all this from our perspective has been that the critical role we should play is to assist the Zimbabweans to find each other, really to agree among themselves about the political, economic, social, other solutions that their country needs. We could have stepped aside from that task and then shouted, and that would be the end of our contribution... They would shout back at us and that would be the end of the story. I'm actually the only head of government that I know anywhere in the world who has actually gone to Zimbabwe and spoken publicly very critically of the things that they are doing,” he said in defence of his stance.

In 2008, just days before he was asked to step down by the ANC’s national executive committee, Mbeki oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Mugabe and Tsvangirai that created a government of national unity.

These days, Mbeki is the African Union’s chief mediator in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. It is a sign of his stature on the continent that he has been asked to mediate in such a complicated and fraught situation. The two countries are virtually at war within one another, and should Mbeki succeed in extracting some form of peace deal, it will overshadow his achievement in Zimbabwe.

In 2010, Mbeki founded the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, aimed at keeping his vision of the African Renaissance alive. 

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir told Maverick that the ANCYL’s attempts to repolish Mbeki’s legacy will not affect any objective analysis of his legacy. 

Mbeki’s legacy is actually evident in the Zuma administration’s policies. “Much of the Brics stuff would be his legacy. He was the one who first championed south-south relations. Zuma institutionalised his vision. The question is, what did that international vision do for South Africa domestically? 

“There was good economic growth, but little focus on redistribution. There was some redistribution, but it was skewed to state patronage instead of active citizenship,” Fakir said.

Mbeki has been heavily criticised by the ANC’s alliance partners (union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party) for sidelining them, but is Zuma not continuing that attitude? Fakir believes he is, and the clue is in the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

“By shifting (former defence minister) Lindiwe Sisulu to public service and administration, he is reading the unions the riot act, like Mbeki did. As you know, Sisulu had no time for unions while at the defence portfolio and she is very likely to continue doing so to public sector unions. Zuma will give her just enough space, and will come out smelling like roses at the end of it.”

The ANCYL may have had a point by comparing Zuma to Mbeki, insofar as the latter is continuing many of the former’s policies. But the extent to which they might survive in completely making his reputation over is exaggerated by the league. After all, their hagiography is for their own purposes.

Soon after he was recalled, the New York Times summed up Mbeki’s legacy as disappointing. “Throughout his tenure, Mbeki's passion for diplomacy was palpable. He loved the international stage and believed that he alone possessed the skills and vision to recast his beleaguered continent in the eyes of the world. This idea became manifest in his ‘African renaissance.’ That one rarely, if ever, hears this term today is emblematic of his dismal record in foreign affairs. 

“The recent deal he brokered in Zimbabwe, which looks increasingly tenuous, should fool no one: Mbeki's legacy as an international statesman is disappointing,” the NY Times said.

The debate was fired up again when Mbeki’s former chief of staff, Frank Chikane, published Eight Days in September, a book which recounted the last days of Mbeki’s presidency. The book casts the former president as a tragic hero who saved his country from anarchy by going away quietly. 

Writing in the Mail & Guardian, retired journalist Meshack Mabogoane refused to single Mbeki out for criticism as he assessed his legacy. “That South Africa has the highest Aids infection and death rates is neither altogether Mbeki’s doing, nor coincidental. Legislation and other government-driven policies and programmes have engendered an environment that has escalated the pandemic. For example, the permissive pregnancy rules and social grants (especially for children) introduced by the Constitution and government have encouraged teenagers and unmarried women to have children on a large scale. The spread of Aids has been a consequence, the evidence is there for all to see.

“The calamity facing South Africa is the doing of Parliament, the Constitutional Court and the Human Rights Commission far more than it is the product of Mbeki’s denialism. Yet Mbeki is singled out merely because of his undoubtedly insensitive and irresponsible comments, while the entire government is off the hook for its deeds. 

“No doubt Mbeki is central in this tragedy. Zackie Achmat is right to call for his impeachment. But the government, especially the departments of health, education and social development, stands accused of measures that have escalated Aids. There has been dereliction of duty that makes the government an accessory to this horrendous pandemic, a veritable crime against humanity,” Mabogoane wrote. DM

Photo: Former president Thabo Mbeki (REUTERS)

  • Sipho Hlongwane
  • South Africa


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