There’s still life after public office

2010-10-16 14:27

As he travelled all over the place meeting ANC constituencies to thank them for their electoral support last year, President Jacob Zuma was fond of telling the story of how one African head of state reacted to his inauguration in Pretoria last year.

What inspired the awe of Zuma’s fellow president was not the splendour and the ­opulence of the ceremony, nor was it the fact that the honoured guests had washed down their food with Moët et Chandon or Dom Perignon when SA has so many fine wines.

Rather, it was the fact that three former SA presidents – Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe – had all attended Zuma’s inauguration ceremony. That surprised the African leader.

His observation must have driven home the fact that leaders on our continent still tend to overstay their welcome in office, as is the case in Zimbabwe, eventually leaving in a coffin.

The idea of African leaders stepping down voluntarily had been unknown until the ­democratic wave of the past two decades or so.

It is not for nothing that one of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s famous songs has the macabre title: A coffin for head of state.

Violent coups were once the only way to bring about change.

That is why it was heartening to see elderly leaders such as Mozambique’s Joachim ­Chissano and Ghana’s John Kufuor at this week’s launch of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) sharing their views on various aspects of leadership.

It sent the message that there is life after public office for politicians, and that one does not have to be ensconced in the corridors of power to promote the greater good.

Mbeki’s institute, whose mission is to groom leaders for the continent’s renewal, obviously has its work cut out for it.

Apart from the scholarly work on leadership and development it will do, the institute (which is a joint initiative between the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the University of South ­Africa) is seen as Mbeki’s way of preserving his political legacy.

For a while now, some observers have ­argued that Mbeki’s views on HIV/Aids would blight his legacy.

Some have even argued that Mbeki’s unorthodox view about the ­pandemic would overshadow whatever ­successes he achieved in his almost 10 years in office.

The jury is still out on how history will judge his performance on that score.

To see how foundations and institutes could be used to advance one’s pet projects, Mbeki had better take a leaf from Mandela’s own legacy organisations.

The country’s first democratic president has been able to raise funds for charitable causes that have been a boon for their beneficiaries.

The work of the Eastern Cape-based Nelson Mandela Rural Schools Project comes to mind.

The last thing we need are foundations and organisations that do nothing but enrich leaders and their cronies while they project themselves as benefactors of the ­downtrodden.

It is a good thing that some of the ­continent’s citizens are trying to do ­something to make a difference.

It is easy to blame our leadership for all the ills and challenges facing our country without taking personal responsibility as individual Africans.

To paraphrase Cornell University professor and one of the participants at the TMALI conference, Locksley Edmondson: many ­African states have been around for about 50 years and they have a long way to go before they can be on par with their European counterparts.

But that does not mean they should not try and live up to the challenge of being functional states in the modern world.

However, there has to be change of mindset among both citizens and leaders before we can realise the dream of an Africa in which Africans take charge of their destinies and solve their own problems.

So initiatives such as Mbeki’s and Mo ­Ibrahim’s foundations, whose aim is to change Africa for the better, deserve all the support they can get.

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