Thabo Mbeki: SA’s truth-seeking servant


Debate is an essential element of the formation of ideas. Matters under debate are under consideration and in formation.

Granted, debates are informed by some knowledge or conviction one has about the subject, or a desire to test one’s ideas further.

The trouble, at times, is that debates soon become one-sided, partial and dogmatic. At times, debates are driven by an ideology of political persuasion, or a fixation about an idea or a personality, or by the exercise of power.

In a country like South Africa, where the freedom of expression and of the media is a prized right, what should have been debate could soon degenerate into name calling or labelling. In some respects, debate is frustrated by an excessive desire to please or to appeal to the gallery, or to seek public acceptance. Much of our exposure to ideas in South Africa often takes on this character.

It must be conceded, I believe, that during president Thabo Mbeki’s tenure, South Africans were challenged to think, and to think carefully, to deliberate on public issues with some care, to explore ideas beyond those they found amenable to their own way of thinking, to agree and disagree, without being disagreeable.

In a nutshell, something akin to what William Wordsworth had to say about France in his romantic portrayal of the French Revolution, “where Reason seemed the most to assert her rights”. Even as president, Mbeki raised his voice and challenged the tyranny of the single, populist narrative. South Africans engaged the president through his speeches to Parliament, through his substantive contributions to policymaking in the administration, through his articulation of the challenges the country faced, and even more so, by his regular weekly column in the newsletter ANC Today.

The art of debate and dialogue is nothing if it is not a mutual searching and seeking for the truth. Debate should never be founded on a deliberate untruth or be misleading in order to make quick gains. It is designed to arrive at the truth, or to celebrate the truth.

Mbeki could be unlike many politicians in that he affirmed the moral character of the state and the moral duty of the agents of the state to be guided by the truth at all times. In some respects, he stood for the truth, even where it hurts.

Debate therefore, if it is to be of value, must hold together the moral values of truth, honesty and ethics.

The book speaks to the fact that any contemporary leader of Africa worth his/her salt should understand that Africa is in the process of construction. In other words, it seeks ultimately to materialise the ideas into something concrete.

It was president Mbeki who, I believe, coined the phrase the African century as we approached the end of the last and ushered in the new century in the year 2000. This coincided with the adoption of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), which saw the transition from the Organisation of African Unity to the AU. It was a time of great promise and hope for Africa, never before seen or experienced in Africa.

This study as contained in the book, then, is our hope to rekindle these ideas of the great possibilities for Africa – a project very much in the DNA of president Mbeki.

We held the view that this level of intellectual output should not only be celebrated, but also be engaged with in as systematic a manner as possible, short of engaging in scholarly research (that can be left to researchers, professors and universities to do!).

Mbeki, no doubt, brought dignitas, gravitas and decency to the office of president. He rendered politics a matter of service and he was forever conscious of the needs of the poor, and the challenge bequeathed to democratic South Africa to address both the problems of inequality and social cohesion.

He had the depth of understanding of the country, in its history and in its evolution, to understand that the South African state is a project in formation. And yet we are nowhere near a perfect state. All that one hopes for is that the state and public representatives will be imbued with the ethics and morality of service.

Questions must remain as to whether, in South Africa, the ideal of constitutionalism could best serve a society eager for change, or not? What cannot be gainsaid, I believe, is that president Mbeki attached signal value to morality in public life, to a faithfulness to the prescripts of the Constitution and respect for the rule of law. He subordinated himself, as head of state, to the law and the will of the people.

My prayer is that the book should be taken seriously as a rich resource of knowledge and discovery, and that it is reflected on. It could provide new ideas as South Africa struggles to rediscover her soul.

This is edited extract of a speech Pityana delivered at the presentation of the book he edited, Building Blocks Towards an African Century: Essays in Honour of Thabo Mbeki

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