Thabo Mbeki, ex-president of South Africa (1999-2008), turned 80 on April 18, 2022. A number of events were organised to mark his birthday notably the buffet at Sandton Centre, Johannesburg and the Toyin Falola Interviews, a session of dialogues. The Toyin Falola Interviews is a forum that organises public dialogues with highly distinguished Africans from all spheres of life most especially in politics, academia, social activism, culture and the arts.
Mbeki was interviewed by the renowned Malawian historian, Paul Zeleza and veteran South African TV anchorwoman, Naledi Moleo. Ultimately, Mbeki was warmly celebrated as an African giant, a true son of Africa whose impact has been felt in several countries on the continent.
As thinking on Mbeki’s legacy continues to evolve, it is pertinent to assess him on the basis of his various pet issues such as Pan-Africanism (repeatedly questioned by frequent xenophobic outbreaks in South Africa), the rebirth of the African National Congress, xenophobia, African renaissance, conflict resolution initiatives (solutions, Mbeki argues, come from ownership of conflict resolution processes), crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, South Sudan, Ivory Coast.
As for more immediate concerns, Mbeki has strong views on the July 2021 riots in Durban and Johannesburg, the importance of active youth organisations to aid development, the educational crisis in South Africa, the challenges of the African Union (AU) (the decline of the AU’s political commission after being subsumed under peace and security), neocolonialism, the G8, HIV-Aids (a major botch of his administration) and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Judging from the wide range of topics Mbeki is preoccupied with, he is arguably South Africa’s most intellectual post-apartheid president. Nelson Mandela became a darling of A-list trend-setters and jet-setters, Kgalema Motlanthe is largely in quiet retirement and Jacob Zuma is fighting with his last breath to keep out of jail.
South African dilemmas
There continues to be a great deal of ambivalence and debate about Mbeki’s domestic policies such as the botched GEAR initiative which caused considerable disaffection among civil society organisations and leftist groups.
The Mbeki administration also had to deal with the HIV-Aids epidemic which generated much hostility and disagreement about measures to address it. Mbeki argued that there were many factors that led to decreased immunity such as acute malnutrition, prolonged and untreated disease and genetic factors, among others. His plan was then to develop an holistic medical response to the HIV-Aids crisis for which he was labelled an HIV-Aids denialist.
The Mandela and Mbeki administrations faced numerous challenges pertaining to building a new South Africa on the ashes of apartheid. The leaders of the ANC had to confront and contain the incessant threats posed by counter-revolutionary forces who deemed “blacks unfit to rule”. Just before the exit of the apartheid regime, the government instituted a social grants system that benefited only whites, coloureds and Indians to the exclusion of the black majority. The ANC had to devise a plan to ensure that blacks were also included in the scheme without also bankrupting the state which was in no position to fund such a massive welfare plan.
Mbeki has often indicated his displeasure with the deadly factionalism and lack of discipline that have come to characterise occurrences within the ANC whereby numerous political jobbers and opportunists have managed to infiltrate the movement solely for the purpose of personal financial enrichment.
Mbeki suggests that there has been a drastic decline in the quality of leadership within the ANC which in the past carefully groomed young cadres on the rudiments of taking charge from an early age as happened when he was still in his teens, Mandela would invite him for lunch to discuss knotty issues of policy and strategy in a roundabout manner. In Mandela’s eyes, Mbeki represented the promise of youth and the ANC leadership of yore encouraged and nurtured brilliance among its younger cadres.
A true African brother
Mbeki’s pan-Africanism, even though heartfelt, is often perceived as being problematic because of the repeated outbreaks of xenophobic violence. Incredulously, he still denies that xenophobia exists in South Africa.
Since leaving office as president of South Africa, Mbeki has not rested on his oars, traversing the continent on serial peace-keeping missions on behalf of the AU, planning dialogues with a wide variety of former and still serving African leaders (such as Paul Biya of Cameroon and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, two life-presidents) on continental issues of burning concern, and indefatigably engaging with problems that threaten to implode upon the face of the continent.
Mbeki, not surprisingly, has often been cast in the mould of African philosopher-kings such as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. At such an advanced age, there is still a rigour, discipline and precision with which he analyses intractable problems within the African continent and on a global level. And even at this late stage, his well-considered analyses are still highly sought in Africa.
Indeed Mbeki serves as perhaps the most dynamic elder statesman on the continent, referring aggrieved Cameroonians to the Africa Commission comprising former presidents and other prominent African leaders to mediate the ongoing Cameroonian crisis that has pitted the Francophones against the Anglophones.
He is also concerned with what has been called Africa’s first world war in the Great Lakes Region where significant parts of the DRC are engulfed by violence propelled by Rwandan and other forces.
Mbeki made decisive efforts at curbing the mayhem caused by the Ivorian crisis in which two presidential aspirants — Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo — were locked in a violent confrontation and which in turn led to a seemingly implacable constitutional deadlock. Mbeki has also been engaged in the conflict in South Sudan and strategies to end the civil war. He harped on the importance of consulting with all the relevant stakeholders and entrusting them with conflict resolution processes.
Indeed there is far less debate regarding Mbeki’s foreign initiatives and activities, unlike at home where he is somewhat viewed with suspicion after his routing by Zuma at Polokwane in 2007. His base within the ruling party fragmented considerably and he became a waning force among his political comrades.
However, on the international scene — particularly on the African continent — his fortunes have fared much better as his counsel is sought in most cases and he still has much on his plate on that score.
Arguably, even on the domestic front there is still a redeeming factor. As the scale of Zuma’s numerous outrages become larger, the less people would remember Mbeki’s domestic shortcomings and occasional intellectual prevarications.
Unlike Zuma, Mbeki is knowledgeable about the importance of history and the role it plays in building the political stock of leaders both in and out of power. Zuma couldn’t care less and this plays to Mbeki’s advantage almost fortuitously. DM