We live in strange times. A prophet is indeed without honour in his own home. One moment a man is being lauded for brokering a ground breaking deal that holds the promise of peace and stability in a neighbouring nation, and the next moment he’s receiving short shrift from his own party; a party into which he was ‘born and baptised’ and of which he has been a life-long member. These are strange times indeed.
It is inexplicable that the ANC would act in such a manner to force the resignation of President Mbeki from power at this time. It is a disappointing action. It has set a poor precedent. There is no denying the fact that President Mbeki’s relations with Jacob Zuma have been fraught with difficulty for some time now. And South Africa’s High Court’s decision to spare Mr. Zuma the requirement of standing trial on corruption charges must represent the final nail in the coffin of their poisoned relationship.
The High Court’s decision, coming as it did against the background of the threat by Mr. Zuma’s supporters to plunge South Africa into anarchy, was probably the correct one in the circumstances. For someone usually as sure footed as President Mbeki it is almost unthinkable that he would have let matters between himself and Mr. Zuma come to this point, thereby leaving him in a rare bind. For if he had had his way and Mr. Zuma went to trial then political temperatures would have risen to an unacceptable point, thus destabilising South Africa in the process; and if, as has happened, Mr. Zuma walked free then he would suffer a loss of authority, which he now has.
So President Mbeki has become an Emperor defrocked, and lies exposed to attacks from his enemies. It is not a pleasant position to be in, for whenever your enemies detect a scent of weakness around you, they encircle you in order to inflict damage. This has become President Mbeki’s unfortunate fate.
It is a pity that he did not pay more attention to sustaining his relationships as he did in letting them wither. In politics, it is customary, if not inevitable, that one will cultivate friendships as well as enemies. But his mistake was to make enemies of people with a following. Making enemies of the likes of the exotically named Tokyo Sexwale and Jacob Zuma (and even Cyril Ramaphosa) was careless. He ought to have drawn them close. For in politics it is said that you must keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer. No doubt, these enemies are now salivating with glee at his political demise.
But nonetheless, it is still surprising that the ANC would call for his resignation, rather than act as a restraining force or seek to effect reconciliation between the antagonists in the situation. Particularly as Mr. Zuma himself called for restraint towards President Mbeki recognising that he had become a spent force. It would have been much more charitable of the ANC to allow him to ride out his tenure which in any event ends next year.
That President Mbeki has agreed to resign as soon as the necessary constitutional formalities are fulfilled is itself impressive. It shows that he has an entrenched respect for the rule of law. He has a thing or two to teach his peers across the continent in whom this appreciation is lacking. But then again Mr. Mbeki is and has been one of Africa’s better presidents.
In a sense, it is quite fortuitous that he was able to broker the power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe a few days ago. Perhaps he sensed the writing was on the wall and got President Mugabe to do the right thing. President Mugabe must realise that he is not Mr. Zuma’s favourite person and will now have to tread carefully. But nonetheless, it would be wrong for any caretaker president or Mr. Zuma to allow the deal to founder on account of President Mbeki’s brokering of it.
The Zimbabwean power-share deal must be seen in its proper context as a triumph of South African diplomacy, rather than simply a legacy of President Mbeki. So whatever dislike Mr. Zuma may have for President Mugabe, as South Africa’s putative president he must not allow his feelings to colour his or the actions of whoever succeeds President Mbeki in the short term. They must ensure that the protagonists in Zimbabwe are made to live up to their commitments and responsibilities with respect to the agreement.
Given his knack for independent mindedness, President Mbeki provoked different reactions from different forces. In the West he was viewed with ambivalence, if not outright suspicion. Unlike many other African leaders whenever he was asked to ‘jump’ by the West, rather than ask ‘how high’ like his peers, he would remain firmly rooted to the ground. He crossed swords with Western pharmaceutical companies and interest groups; challenging their diagnoses, prognoses, and prescriptions on the emotive issue of HIV, and its correlation with AIDS. And for this he was widely demonised in Western media outlets.
Also on the issue of Zimbabwe he resisted pressure from Britain and certain factions within the Commonwealth who were intent on pursuing a colonial/paternalistic approach towards the issue. But in characteristic fashion he ignored their pressure and pressed on with his own approach; an approach which has now yielded the desired dividends.
The one area in which he struggled to make an enduring impact is the area of poverty alleviation. Too many South Africans remain mired in the quick sands of poverty. While he might have succeeded in nurturing a black middle class, the conditions in which the majority population subsist are appalling and are a festering sore in urgent need of attention. But given the background to the problem it will take many more administrations to correct the ills of the Apartheid regime.
All good things eventually come to an end; and that end has now come for President Mbeki. But I believe that South Africa and indeed Africa have benefited from having him in power. And right to the very end he has shown his class by acceding to the demands of his political party, the ANC, in stepping down.
In spite of what has befallen President Mbeki, I think history’s verdict of him will be kind. He is one of the few cerebral presidents in Africa who tried to do their best for their nation and people. He can leave office with his dignity intact and his head held high. Schools of Government wherever they may exist on the African continent will do well to beat a path to his doorstep, in order to drink from his deep reservoir of knowledge.
Farewell Thabo Mbeki, illustrious son of the illustrious Govan Mbeki; son of Africa, may the Sun always shine upon you!