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Bitter let down for Mbeki fans

It is a mistake to get misty eyed about the Mbeki years, however favourably he compares.



The chorus of voices calling for Jacob Zuma to step down must be heavenly music to the ears of former president Thabo Mbeki. Vilified and unceremoniously ejected from office by the very man he had tried to bury and the organisation he had served his entire life, with his legacy in tatters and his dignity barely holding together, Mbeki beat a hasty retreat from the public eye. Although he continued to serve the ANC, with one hidden hand in the schism that formed the doomed opposition party, Cope, the former president all but faded into the background except for discreet and muted appearances.

Many feared the worst, but only hard-line Afropessimists could have predicted the embarrassing shambles Zuma has made of the government and the majority party.

In the public discourse for some time after his “recall”, everything that was wrong with South Africa was Mbeki’s fault, just as everything wrong with the country is now Jacob Zuma’s fault. These are equally simplistic views.

But things have gone so rotten under Zuma, that such basics as keeping one’s private parts, love affairs and domestic arrangements out of the public view, now appears praiseworthy; dignity and decorum seem to be a forgotten art.

ZumaMustFall Poster in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Phar Side

ZumaMustFall Poster in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Phar Side

Unless you were in the frontlines of the battle against AIDS, you might be forgiven for some nostalgia. But it would be a mistake; not least for the fact that Mbeki must share some of the blame for why we have Zuma as president in the very first place. Mbeki hoped to make Zuma the straw man of the left, but he made such a hash of the corruption charges against his former deputy, Zuma appeared victimised, Mbeki vindictive. Mbeki’s murmurs of wanting a third term was the final blow.

It is true that under Mbeki, the public at least had the illusion they knew what was going on. Parliament was orderly, but that was because it was a rubber stamp. Cabinet was smaller and orderly, but cowed. There was macroeconomic stability, though when the country was in this much stronger position to redress inequality, Mbeki and his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, failed miserably to take advantage of that capacity. The unions were seen to be “under control”, but today we reap the backlash. The public sector that was pruned to death has had to rebound with a vengeance. And it is Mbeki who instigated this reliance and inflammatory preoccupation with race to cloud and curtail debate and dissent that now grips the nation like a delirious fever.

As much as the likes of Frank Chikane want to paint Mbeki as a saintly martyr, Mbeki’s micromanaging and meddling started the undermining of our constitutional order – the chapter nine institutions and the separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature and executive. To give just two examples: the Hefer commission into spy allegations that backfired and, most deleteriously, Mbeki suspending the national director of public prosecutions in a vain attempt to defend Jackie Selebi, the corrupt police commissioner, our man in Interpol, who was eventually brought to book for corruption and jailed.

Corruption was not then as brazen and bling as it is under Zuma, but the mechanisms to defend the country against this completely foreseeable onslaught were frustrated and subverted under Mbeki – his mishandling of the arms deal the most obvious.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Stringer/Reuters

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Photo: Stringer/Reuters

In 2008, I had already prognosticated in print: ‘I wonder yet if foolishly some day, we come to think of this [Mbeki’s presidency] as a golden age’. That time has apparently come and the former president has seized the opportunity by penning a series of articles to claw back his legacy.

Undeniably, the crucial role Mbeki played in brokering the negotiations that ended the apartheid regime remains his finest hour. One wishes he had stuck to illuminating that period.

After the initial excitement that Mbeki would in his letters clarify, enlighten and possibly also take the opportunity to rip into his nemesis, Jacob Zuma, the letters to the public have been somewhat arcane and disappointing. Need one say more than to observe that the first one begins by quoting Winston Churchill. That letter also relies heavily for its veracity by putting words and thoughts into the head of his minister for safety and security, Steve Tshwete, who is now dead and won’t comment.


In one missive, ‘Dare you ponder the obvious: of course Mbeki is aloof’,  he actually refers to himself as “the then President of the ANC”. Frequently writing about himself in the third person keeps the epistles of Mbeki refreshingly free of the cloying first person pronoun, but it is distinctly odd. It does however help him not to appear aggrieved when enumerating all the scathing things that have been said about him. Instead, it feels like Teflon testing its own scratching point.

His article on Zimbabwe, with all its contradictions, nevertheless does bear critical scrutiny. Although it has a clear agenda, I suspect hindsight will treat Mbeki with some leniency for his ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards Mugabe.

After publishing eight letters, many of his apologists and would-be rehabilitators were hopeful that Mbeki would not defend the indefensible, muddy the waters and drag the country back into his Aids denialism. Regrettably, that is precisely what he persisted in doing.

In 2013, there were 330,000 new HIV infections in South Africa Photo: Anpei

In 2013, there were 330,000 new HIV infections in South Africa Photo: Anpei

The facts on the ground years after the rollout of ARVs, which Mbeki thought was some kind of imperialist plot, today categorically prove the former president utterly wrong about their efficacy and incorrect to have disregarded the link between HIV and AIDS.

Mbeki, who unlike many African leaders, including Mandela, Buthelezi and Kaunda, never lost a child to AIDS, continues to indulge in sophistry and fails to grasp basic science. Sowing confusion once more is unforgiveable. He could have simply kept quiet. One must now hope that his last two scribbles are not seized upon by pseudoscientists and dangerous lunatics around Africa and the diaspora, who, blindsided by pride, still hold Mbeki in high esteem.

The preventable loss of hundreds of thousands of lives under Mbeki’s tenure and the continued burden HIV/AIDS places on the economy and society is a legacy he cannot explain away. That he has tried to resuscitate the cold corpse of that debate years later in the face of hard evidence is stupefying. Sadly, all the last two letters have done is prove that the nation was probably right to have jettisoned him, however wrong it was to have embraced Zuma as the alternative. 


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