Thabo Mbeki is no hero. Neither is he the worst leader to emerge from the ranks of the African National Congress. A son of the liberation movement to a fault; an idealist who is romantic about Africa, and a vessel of complexity – now, that he is. As he rose from bed on the morning of his 75th birthday, what would have been his low-toned monologue as he reflected in the bathroom mirror?
A legacy that divides opinion
Mbeki’s legacy is enough to polarise people. In popular sentiment, there is an astounding romanticising of the elder statesman’s tenure in office as, on the one hand, the champion of the African Renaissance project. On the other, his stance on AIDS, ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards Zimbabwe, elitist attitude towards economic distribution and wanting to stand for a third term are issues that still cast a shadow.
Will he cringe as he recalls some of his missteps or remain grandiose about his unfinished African Renaissance chapter?
Compared to his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, Mbeki was viewed as the Sussex University-educated economist who was going to beat South Africa’s emerging economy into shape to attract foreign investment. He appealed to the urbane and Afropolitan electorate, whose preoccupation with upward mobility aligned with Mbeki’s outlook. Post his ousting (after a glib attempt at contesting the presidency for a third term against Jacob Zuma at ANC’s congress in Polokwane 2011), the statesman has often been heralded as a far more ethical leader than what the country currently has. This is typical of South African mass psychology – to romanticise over a ‘better’ past in the face of current challenges.
The ambiguity of the African Renaissance
The project to revitalise the continent’s socio-economic prospects through Mbeki’s African Renaissance is somewhat of an ambiguous effort. Whilst Mbeki sat as South Africa’s president, the political wrangling in Zimbabwe between Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangarai’s MDC was treated with kid gloves. Posited as a centre of influential power in the region, South Africa was expected to intervene, especially in the wake of political violence in Zimbabwe. The adoption of ‘quiet diplomacy’, which involved shielding the Zimbabwean government from sanctions, is now a blight on Mbeki’s report card.
In his post party-politics life, Mbeki has been the African Union’s chief mediator in the ongoing conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. Within the context of global politics, this warring region is viewed as yet another missed opportunity in Africa to transition without bloodshed. Mbeki’s involvement in the mediation has magnified his persona and stature even more in the imagination of Africa’s political class.
Chief among all attempts to preserve his legacy is the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Foundation. In an interview on Power FM, Mbeki described the platform as “a framework that builds capacity around the implementation of policies adopted by the AU”. The foundation strives to nurture emerging African leadership in the political, private and social realms. A strategic alliance to Mbeki’s chancellorship at the University Of South Africa, it can be said that the foundation’s ethos is suffixed by the need for academic excellence on the continent.
Of all three the democratically elected presidents in South Africa, it is Thabo Mbeki’s legacy that has been obsessed about, especially the inclination to defend it. This extends to those who previously used criticism against him as political currency, but have since slightly tweaked their narrative. Of that cohort is Economic Freedom Fighter’s commander in chief, Julius Malema. Malema is remembered to have championed the cause to sack Mbeki in 2011, but in recent times he has lauded the elderly statesman as “the best leader the ANC has ever produced”. He cites Mbeki’s ability to produce a two-thirds majority during his leadership as proof.
Of all three the democratically elected presidents in South Africa, it is Thabo Mbeki’s legacy that has been obsessed about
So, as the elder leans slightly closer to that mirror in the leafy Killarney suburb of Johannesburg, will he mutter a quote from his beloved Yeats to rationalise his political life? Will he cringe as he recalls some of his missteps or remain grandiose about his unfinished African Renaissance chapter? Reflection is often avoided during one’s youth, but it becomes a companion by default in a human being’s later years. Many more years to you, Mr Mbeki.