Death by 1 000 cuts

2008-05-24 00:00

It is death by 1 000 cuts. Not a week passes without another editor or politician calling for President Thabo Mbeki’s resignation. Not a week passes without his foes leaking yet another tidbit portraying him as a cad, liar or fool.

Yet Mbeki is unlikely to choose the swift oblivion of resignation. No matter how grim, he will hang on as long as possible. Psychologically, he just cannot come to terms with the rejection and opprobrium being heaped upon him. Partly it is because this is how politicians are hard-wired. One can see it in Hillary Clinton’s incredulity at Democrat supporters not accepting that she is fated to be the party’s presidential nominee. Closer to home, Mbeki’s response resembles that of President Robert Mugabe, who is incapable of accepting that Zimbabweans want him gone.

More importantly, Mbeki has devoted his life to the African National Congress. He has a sense of destiny about not only what he hoped to achieve as president of South Africa, but as the person who would spark an African renaissance and proudly stake the continent’s place in a world that until now dismissed it as inconsequential.

Mbeki sees himself not only as the political saviour of black Africans. He is also a self-appointed intellectual giant, bringing Africanist philosophy into the 21st century. In his mind he is the rightful heir to the mantle of Black Consciousness guru Steve Biko — no matter that Biko’s followers would scoff — and will lead his people to the promised land, whether they want to follow him or not.

The tragedy of Mbeki is that these were lofty but by no means implausible ambitions. If anyone could have changed the face of Africa at this moment, it was Mbeki.

He came to the presidency cloaked in the protection of Nelson Mandela’s international stature, at a moment when the whole world wished South Africa well. At the same time, the people of Africa were trying to shake free of the despots under whom they had groaned for so long.

Mbeki’s message — that Africa did not need the pompous, hypocritical moral guardianship of the West, but was perfectly capable of instituting and policing its own mechanisms of democracy, governance and development — could have taken seed and grown. Instead, Mbeki’s vision has turned to ash, destroyed not by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but by hubris.

After nine years the disillusionment of South Africans and those who wished us well is total. We now know that Mbeki tried to destroy his rivals by using the intelligence and security services to personal advantage.

He misled Parliament, turned a blind eye to massive corruption and might well have assisted in it to benefit the ANC’s coffers. Yet he has the arrogance to predict that if Jacob Zuma becomes president, South Africa will collapse into just another African kleptocracy.

Mbeki betrayed the trust of the millions of people who are HIV-positive, the millions who have been victims of violent crime and the millions in Zimbabwe who trusted him as an honest broker.

Mbeki’s ambassadors have frittered away South Africa’s leadership in human rights and have thwarted United Nation debates and motions that he sees as promoting the interests of the “imperialist” West. Our international standing has sunk to levels last seen during the apartheid years.

Those now howling for his head should reflect on how all this came to pass. Simply, it is because too few people had the courage to challenge Mbeki. We allowed him to bully, insult, manipulate, cheat and lie. Forget the self-righteousness and dismay, we simply got the government we deserve.

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