Exit Mbeki

2008-09-23 00:00

THE forced resignation of President Thabo Mbeki after 14 years and six months in government, first as deputy to Nelson Mandela and then as president, marks the end of an era. His going had the merit of being dignified, a fact that should forestall any serious economic fallout from it. If this proves to be the case, then it will be in line with the greatest attributes of his presidency; fiscal discipline and economic stability. However else the future might judge Mbeki, no one will be able to deny the fact that he presided over the longest spell of prosperity in South Africa’s history.

Posterity will also see Mbeki as an international statesman. He has been involved in mediation in the Congo and the Ivory Coast, and South African troops serve in the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in the Sudan. Indeed, the very existence of the AU as a successor to the dysfunctional Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has much to do with Mbeki. He has ensured that an African voice is now heard in the councils of the nations. But, like Jan Smuts before him, he was bestriding a world stage while neglecting his own back yard. And, like Smuts, he has now paid the price.

Also, like Smuts, he was an intellectual, but he lacked the human touch. His farewell television speech, ironically, was one of the few occasions in which he engaged with the nation. He lacked the humility to acknowledge or accept criticism. And some of his failures have been monumental.

It has been claimed that Mbeki’s HIV/Aids denialism killed more people annually than did the entire apartheid system in 48 years. This is an appalling and devastating indictment. His myopia with regard to Zimbabwe has proved similarly catastrophic. A once prosperous country has been utterly ruined economically; it has seen inflation unprecedented anywhere else in history; a quarter of its population has fled, many people as refugees to South Africa, and tens of thousands have died, either from starvation or political violence. Had he intervened decisively, Mbeki could have stopped President Robert Mugabe in his tracks. Instead we have had years of ineffectual “quiet diplomacy” which, at the 11th hour, has delivered a “settlement”, the value of which is looking increasingly dubious as Mugabe continues to try to cling to power.

Another area of Mbeki’s denialism has been crime. When faith leaders saw him to express their concerns about the allegations regarding National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, he fobbed them off with “trust me” — and then proceeded to try to protect Selebi from investigation by the Scorpions.

The antagonism generated by Mbeki’s increasingly autocratic behaviour resulted in his defeat in the race for the ANC presidency at Polokwane last year as opposition coalesced around Jacob Zuma. Finally, Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgment ended his lame-duck presidency.

South Africa has suffered from a vacuum of leadership for a long time. Things have been allowed to drift. Zuma, the heir apparent, is a flawed character. At least he should now know what not to do and the country can but hope that he will be able to provide the leadership it sorely needs.

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