No. 382: Thabo Mbeki A Sharp-Minded Leader With Flaws / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
28 November 2016
A collection of 45 essays, The Thabo Mbeki I Know, was recently published by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation on SA's former president between 1999 and 2008. The authors include prominent African leaders, politicians, diplomats, academics and friends.
All the authors note Mbeki's sharp mind, depth of analysis and commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle; many describe his calmness and listening skills, honed from the mentorship of Oliver Tambo; and most bemoan his tragic fall from power.
Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani's eccentric foreword recognises Mbeki's statesmanship and his role in negotiating an end to apartheid. But, rather bizarrely, he argues that Mbeki's HIV/AIDS policy was a success and talks of his ousting as a "regime change" conspiracy.
Three African statesmen then assess Mbeki's legacy. Nigeria's former military and civilian ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, closely observed Mbeki's contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle while Mbeki served as head of the ANC office in Nigeria between 1976 and 1978.
Obasanjo notes that although he recognised Mbeki's potential, he never thought he would become SA's president. He then describes how he, Mbeki and Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika led the creation of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the African Union (AU) by 2002.
Late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi — Mbeki's fellow philosopher-king — praises Mbeki's "African Renaissance" for having restored Africa's self-confidence and describes the difficult policy choices facing donor-dependent African countries.
Tanzania's diplomat-politician, Salim Ahmed Salim, praises Mbeki's role in the anti-apartheid struggle and in the building of the AU's institutions.
Two essays from Mbeki's childhood friends and later Cabinet ministers, the Pahad brothers Essop and Aziz, are particularly fascinating.
They describe Mbeki, when he was leader of the ANC youth and student sections, as an intellectual and diplomatic mentor who was active in the youth movements of London in the 1960s.
Both are fiercely loyal and trenchantly dismiss accusations of Mbeki's aloof and autocratic leadership style. Essop describes Mbeki as a bookish policy wonk and gently chides him for being too loyal to incompetent Cabinet colleagues.
Aziz acknowledges Mbeki as the link between the ANC's youth and the older generation of leaders, while recognising his role in the talks with white opposition figures in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In terms of the younger generation, Joel Netshitenzhe, the head of the presidential policy unit in Mbeki's office, recalls how the former president mentored younger ANC cadres who served with him in the party's information and publicity department in Zambia in the late 1970s.
Netshitenzhe provides a stout defence of Mbeki's conservative macroeconomic policies. On the HIV/AIDS debacle, he implies that Mbeki lost track of the big picture, before being convinced to retreat from the debate.
Another member of this younger generation, George Nene, a prominent diplomat, describes Mbeki's leadership of the ANC's information department, noting that Mbeki was a good mentor but not a strong manager, and had to be convinced to attend ANC funerals in Zambia.
Nene also worked closely with Mbeki in the ANC's international affairs department in the 1980s, an alliance that was renewed to deal with the diplomatic situation in Nigeria (while Mbeki was deputy president and Nene ambassador to Nigeria) after General Sani Abacha had nine human rights activists in 1995 hanged.
Two ANC stalwarts conclude with rich essays. Former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs describes how he felt a mixture of admiration, anger, love and disappointment towards Mbeki. While criticising his stance on HIV/AIDS, Sachs notes the then president always respected Constitutional Court decisions.
He observes Mbeki's occasional pettiness, arguing that while he could be stubborn and morose in public, he was often sensitive and gracious in private.
Ben Turok praises Mbeki's enormous contributions to South African history, particularly his institution-building efforts in Africa. However, he bemoans the fact that despite Mbeki's radical background as a Marxist intellectual, his conservative economic policies failed to tackle SA's legacy of underdevelopment.
These are rich essays that, while mostly sympathetic to their subject, provide scholars with unique insights to understand one of the most enigmatic figures of contemporary African politics.
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and author of Thabo Mbeki: Africa's Philosopher-King