Alison Tilley
Alison Tilley

Mbeki as tragic hero — not

I am as sentimental as the next person. Really, I am. And I did my Shakespeare at school, and I know the story about the tragic hero — a great man, with a fatal flaw. I love those Elizabethan tragedies, real and imagined: poor Mary, Queen of Scots, going bravely to her death in a red kirtle, to signify that she was a martyr. (I think a kirtle is a sort of petticoat — I should look that up.)

In fact, any lonely queen going to her death can choke me up: poor Marie Antoinette, on the bumpy tumbrel, heading towards the guillotine. And don’t get me going on the tsar and his family in the cellar in Yekaterinburg.

I am not sure why I found myself pondering these things while listening to President Thabo Mbeki’s resignation speech. His penchant for Shakespeare, of course. The phrase he used about the loneliness of leadership. Of course he is not going to his death, except in a metaphorical political sense. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty sorry for the bloke.

Unfortunately, he had to go and spoil it by talking about his achievements, and he had to mention women. Well, yes, he did appoint a bunch of women. Fired them pretty damn quick when they got uppity — Pregs Govender, Thandi Modise. Well, Pregs resigned, and Modise got shunted out to the provinces, but you know what I mean. And is it too cynical to say that many of the women he appointed then owed him, and had no major political base of their own?

And rape. Well, we all know about his intense unease with the way black male sexuality is constructed in Africa, and his (probably accurate) sense that the discourse around rape can play into some nasty little racist sentiments. But that ended up with him questioning the incidence of rape, which led to his ministers doing so. Sigh.

And customary law. His inability to grab it, and infuse equality into it, has meant the gradual erosion of customary law. It may have been inevitable, and the survival of customary law may itself have been a legacy of apartheid. And I concede that it may have been an impossible task. But his government did not deal proactively with the customary laws of succession, and dealt with marriage such that customary marriages before 2000 remain completely brutally unfair, with the wife not sharing in the estate, irrespective of her contribution. This the Constitutional Court is being asked to remedy, as it did the law of succession — but why the courts, and not Parliament?

And HIV. Let’s not even go there.

So, I stopped feeling too bad. I can’t resist a bit of Shakespeare, though:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.