Where have all the Mbeki fans gone?

2011-07-16 10:22

Why are South Africans so defensive when it comes to former president Thabo Mbeki?

Mbeki was a feature of South ­Africa’s democratic era for nearly 15 years – first as deputy president to Nelson Mandela and later as an ­almost two-term president.

In that time, he inspired, puzzled and infuriated many of us. He had an omnipresence that manifested itself either in his weekly government ­columns or in various agendas he drove at home and abroad.

There was always something to ­either agree or vehemently disagree with. It’s not surprising then that the mere mention of his name sometimes triggers intense discussion.

But why do some of us not want to publicly acknowledge affection or admiration for him? To answer this question, it is necessary to briefly ­analyse his support base before he fell out of fashion. There were those who slavishly supported him merely because he was the ANC president.

They saw any criticism as an attack on the ANC. Those people now defend President Jacob Zuma to the hilt for the same reasons and they are mostly people who lack the ability to ­separate the strength of leadership attributes from the party.

These people mostly now deny ­ever having supported Mbeki, just like whites who claim to have never supported apartheid.

If Zuma is unceremoniously dumped, they will deny ever promising to kill for him. Amazingly, a few of these people continue to occupy leadership positions.

Some wrote vitriolic articles attacking journalists like Lizeka Mda, and activists who criticised Mbeki’s stand on HIV and Aids.

Others steadfastly protected the late Steve Tshwete when opposition parties questioned the police investigation into Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale, saying state ­security resources were being abused to fight political battles. Years later, when Mbeki was weak and facing eviction, they hopped onto the winning side and conveniently forgot about their support for their former leader.

Then there were those who loved his Africanist agenda, and the feeling that he appeared to be a new brand of African leader.

This was the Mbeki who punched above his country’s weight, got the continent talking about the African Renaissance and stood up to global powers when they tried to abuse institutions like the UN. He was the black man who could “think”, as some said, and continually placed contentious topics of ­discussion before a nation that often failed to take up the challenge.

The people who do not want to ­acknowledge publicly that they ­supported Mbeki are spineless and their primary preoccupation is to not offend incumbent political rulers in case the patronage from which they benefit is withdrawn.

In a country of taboos and herd ­behaviour, South Africa has failed dismally to meaningfully assess the legacy of its post-apartheid leaders.

One day when we mature and understand that no president is perfect, we will be able to take a position on the relative strengths and weaknesses of our leaders, and have a meaningful debate about their legacies.

For now, we must look forward to the hard search for Zuma supporters when he is no longer president.

» Zibi is a communications practitioner and writes in his personal capacity

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