In defence of Thabo Mbeki?
There is often widespread critical debate about the legacy of a president. And at a time when the nation is undergoing a period of euphoria and patriotic nostalgia on the eve of Madiba’s birthday perhaps now is a time to ask other questions.
Like what is the legacy of Thabo Mbeki. Now, I have publicly admitted that I have a distinct liking for Mbeki. His well calculated oratory coupled with cruel dry wit is something that every politician should aspire to.
But over the years (especially after he fired then Deputy President Jacob Zuma) Mbeki has taken a lot of flack.
Recently though he trended on twitter. I was surprised at the number of people that were declaring their love for Mbeki, this especially after the accusations that have been levelled against him. Perhaps this is just the manifestation of a clear disillusionment with Jacob Zuma and the 500 000 jobs he had promised amongst other things.
Equally worth noting is the fact that a lot of people that were stating their disdain for the former president did not have a reason as to why they felt that way. It is categorically comparable to the way I feel about a few people in pop culture (who I will not mention by name for reasons of political correctness).
Perhaps the easiest way to juxtapose Mbeki’s legacy is simply the fact that he was elected during a decade of failed politics; when the reputation of rational leadership had fallen out of favour and public accountability was at an all time low – George Bush anyone?
Although there is much to be said about public persona, Mbeki was and still is a politician but as a president he failed. Now that we got that out of the way perhaps we can look at why I believe amongst other things that Mbeki as president was equipped for failure.
Firstly the fact that he was not the initial first choice to succeed Madiba did not do well for public confidence. Coming in on the blind side was a great political move but it also ensured that he could not be taken seriously in many respects as a leader. Despite his efforts he could not shake the reality of being a “replacement president”. This is clear and apparent in his lack of decisiveness on his affiliates within the party in his presidential years.
This lack of decisiveness unfortunately lead to a lot of failed policies within the Mbeki administration, especially in the health and education departments. Earlier I spoke about being equipped for failure and perhaps this is the wrong time to burst the birthday bubble, but Mandela is not as great as public relations people would have us believe.
Granted, overall he did a lot of wonderful and unimaginable things. But in equal footing there were pockets of failure in his presidency that would eventually manifest themselves as ballons of failure in the Mbeki administration.
This is particularly apparent on the issue of HIV/AIDS. Often people have criticised Mbeki on his flip-flop policies around epidemic and rightfully so as the beetroot ministry did not do millions of dying South African’s any favours.
But at the very least there was a policy to be spoken of and to be criticised. This was something that did not exist during the Mandela administration and if at any point, that was the critical transition period in the battle against the disease. Which is why I found it to be self righteous of Tata to criticise Mbeki on his policy. It’s like a striker telling a midfielder to score a goal that he failed to convert.
As South Africans today maybe we should afford ourselves the humour of hindsight. Whilst drinking our high tear with a good serving of croissants and blue cheese (that is if you can afford it) maybe it would do us good to acknowledge that a lot of the political power that South Africa now wields on the global stage comes as a result of the Mbeki administration and that does indeed fare well for our future.
Now, whether the chain of events that lead to that was in fact intentional is up for public debate.
A lot of key global players whether we like it or not will take Mbeki over Zuma any day. The Chinese were very willing to befriend us after we failed to intervene in the Zimbabwe crisis citing that “Mbeki’s will to preserve another nations sovereignty was admirable”. It is things like that which should not be excluded when measuring Mbeki’s legacy and not the frivolous emotion that comes with the mention of his name.
As one commentator puts it, when it comes to politics in this country we suffer from a syndrome of selective long term memory.