Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s philosopher-king

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki’s dozen weekly letters between January and April 2016, trying to justify his actions as South Africa’s president between 1999 and 2008, were largely pedantic, petty, and petulant, embroidered with long, rambling quotes. They betrayed the formidable intellect of the former president. If these are to form the basis of his announced memoirs, they will be a disappointing contribution to history.

Yet, there is an important and fairly positive story to tell. Mbeki remains the most important African political figure of his generation. As the leader of Africa’s most industrialised state and with a sweeping vision of an African Renaissance, Mbeki effectively ran the country as a de facto prime minister under the revered Nelson Mandela after 1994. As a key African National Congress (ANC) leader in exile, he was instrumental in his party’s anti-apartheid struggle under the mentorship of the astute, unassuming Oliver Tambo. Mbeki led secret negotiations with white interest groups in the late 1980s. Between 1990 and 1994, he played an important role in building the post-apartheid state into one of the most respected constitutional democracies in the world, before assuming the presidency in 1999. He thus dedicated 52 years of his life to the ANC by the time of his tragic ousting from power by his own party in 2008.

Mbeki is a complex figure, full of contradictions and paradoxes: a rural child who became an urban sophisticate; the prophet of Africa’s Renaissance who is also an Anglophile; the young committed Marxist who in power embraced conservative economic policies and protected white corporate interests; the eclectic Philosopher-King who was particularly sensitive to criticism and dissent; the champion of African self-reliance who relied excessively on foreign capital and promoted a continental economic plan – the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – that was disproportionately dependent on foreign aid; and the thoughtful intellectual who supported policies on HIV/AIDS that, for several years, withheld anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) from infected populations, resulting in an estimated 365,000 premature deaths.

Mbeki’s legacy is thus complex. Domestically, the AIDS debacle will undoubtedly be the greatest blot on his record. More positively, he led efforts to build 2.3 million homes, secure social grants for 12 million people, provide electricity to 80% of the population, and water to millions of people. However, South Africa’s health and education systems continued to suffer from inherited historical inequalities, while corruption increased under his rule.

Nevertheless, despite constant criticisms that Mbeki was a dictator, he was a constitutional monarch who stuck consistently to the rules of the democratic game. His autocratic leadership style was akin to Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of Britain’s Conservative party between 1979 and 1990. Both leaders were dominant figures in their parties who sought the socio-economic transformation of their societies through conservative economic policies. Both were highly intelligent, dominating debates and brooking no dissent. Both in the end, however, created too many enemies by their unbending belief in the righteousness of their own ideas. Both eventually suffered humiliating and premature exits, “recalled” from office by their own parties.

The Sussex-trained economist, Mbeki’s economic policies demonstrated a lack of courage and imagination. The conservative 1996 Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) policy represented a caving in to domestic and international corporate interests, and failed to deliver concrete results. He should have focused more on strengthening the capacity of the state to deliver services to its citizens and create jobs.

But despite histrionic criticisms of Mbeki’s “nativism” and “Afrocentrism”, he was absolutely justified in putting race at the centre of debates on transformation in South Africa. Apartheid and its social divisions had, after all, determined privilege and poverty on the basis of race. Mbeki’s greatest legacy will undoubtedly be his Pan-African foreign policy, shaped from his youth in Lovedale College as well as his two-decade exile in Swaziland, Botswana, Nigeria, and Zambia. His time in Nigeria as the founding head of the ANC office between 1976 and 1978 forged a crucial personal relationship with then military leader – and later civilian president – General Olusegun Obasanjo. Mbeki was an active peacemaker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, and Burundi, and led the building of several of the African Union’s (AU) fledgling institutions such as NEPAD, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP). Mbeki’s Pan-Africanism also embraced the African Diaspora as his activism and advocacy efforts on behalf of black people in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and the United States demonstrated.

Will Mbeki come to be viewed by history as a great pan-African rather than a great South African?

Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa. His mini-biography Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s Philosopher-King will be launched at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos on Tuesday 21 June at 11 a.m. Books will also be on sale at the event.

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