The unveiling of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation on 10 October once again revived in my mind the question of Mbeki’s legacy. How will history judge this complex figure?
Will he be the man of great plans and grand designs, a man who attempted to bring Africa to its rightful place as an equal among the world’s nations, or will we remember him for being an aloof and prickly leader who judged the world through the goggles of a crippling inferiority complex?
Having heard arguments both for and against our pipe-smoking former president and having previously committed myself to his defence, before realising how perilous the ground I stood on was, I have recanted my favour for him. Dare I say, I now offer a different perspective on the matter.
The question of Mbeki’s legacy was picked apart at considerable length when he was dumped out of top politics in a most opprobrious fashion. Here was a man so reviled by his own party that he was pushed out before his time was up, thereby risking investor panic and a revolt at the very top echelons of government from those still loyal to him. They considered the risk of rendering the government crippled and the exodus of foreign investment a far more palatable option than suffering a further seven months under his leadership. Even today, with Mbeki now safely out of the way and the memories of his years growing ever fainter, there are signs that the mere mention of his name rankles among those who came to power after him.
However, judging Mbeki’s entire presidency by that one incident is perhaps unfair to the man and his achievements. One of the most important developments in South Africa’s history happened during his incumbency – the growth of the black middle class. Whether that happened by design or accident is debatable. What matters is that he was there, and the term “black middle class” (or the more patronising “black diamonds”) is now inseparable from Mbeki.
The growth, employment and redistribution plan, much reviled by the far left, also grew serious horns under Mbeki. The socialists were marginalised by Mbeki’s government at a time when their ideas would have had a seriously adverse effect on the economy.
South Africa’s foreign policy, especially towards the rest of the continent, began to mature under Mbeki, giving everyone much-needed respite from the pedantic tone it had adopted under Mandela.
Unfortunately, Mbeki’s lasting legacy will be the mistakes he insisted on making, despite numerous warnings from respected individuals and institutions. He allowed his suspicion of the West to blind him to the horror of the HIV/Aids pandemic, choosing instead to believe discredited quacks. He let his arrogance blind him to the changes happening within the ANC, right under his nose, and when the party finally pulled away from his control, his response was to retreat to his chambers to glower in silence. In his twilight years at the helm of the ANC, he did not act as a leader.
He surrounded himself with “yes men”. Under him, criticism no longer became the lifeblood of the movement. Instead, selfish political patronage, nepotism and favouritism flourished. That’s the man we’ll remember. Not the writer of the “I am an African” speech, but the writer of a series of letters attacking Archbishop Desmond Tutu for daring to question his leadership style. We’ll remember the man who completely lost his temper and uttered the infamous “disease of racism” rant, and not the gifted, if troubled intellectual who championed Africa on the global stage. We’ll remember the man who wrote to the world leaders who offered advice at a time of great crisis in the country, “It is obvious that whatever lessons we have to and may draw from the West about the grave issues of HIV/Aids, a simple superimposition of Western experience on African reality would be absurd and illogical”. That is the man history will forever sear on the nation’s consciousness – so consumed by racial sensitivity that he was willing to bluster and fidget irritably as millions of his fellow citizens were struck down by Aids. As Bill Clinton and Tony Blair demonstrated, for all the good presidents do, it’s their worst moments that define their legacies.
Recently, there has been a reawakening among fans of Mbeki, especially those who rubbish all criticism of the man, which is disconcerting to me. Mbeki was hardly perfect. It troubles me to see otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent human beings resorting to cheap shots and illogical arguments to defend Mbeki’s handling of the Aids and Zimbabwe crises.
It seems to me the thinking that inspires this myopic defence of Mbeki is in part due to an intense dislike of Zuma. It’s a form of intellectual snobbery that cannot accept that the country is under the rule of a mere peasant. The dismay at the fact that we’re currently led by Zuma, who rose to power through noisy, brash populism, cannot lead a person who applies rigorous analysis to Mbeki’s tenure to overlook the gigantic mistakes made during the his years in power. It does not have to be a matter of defending Mbeki at all costs versus defending Zuma at all costs. It is possible to analyse both men and favour neither.
The Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute are attempts by the man to define his legacy as one of doing “everything we can to contribute to the realisation of the dream of the African masses that everything would be done, with them acting as makers rather than objects of history, to achieve the renaissance of Africa, and thus make the 21st an African century”. However, his blunders over the Aids crisis, his failure to intervene more forcefully in Zimbabwe, thus sharing the blame for the humanitarian crisis in that country that has spilled over into our own, and his towering arrogance coupled with his barely concealed inferiority complex is what we will remember him for. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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