It would seem one of the greatest leaders to emerge from the liberation struggle, Thabo Mbeki, can neither leave the past behind nor ignore his detractors.

The former president wants everyone to like him.

Much as he succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, Mbeki told the country and world that his shoes were too big and he did not like them. So he would not try them on.

This was a very clear and good message. He was not Mandela and would never be like him. Akekho ofana naye — there is no one like Nelson Mandela.

Mandela served only one term. But Mbeki did not finish his second term because he wanted a third one.

One of Mbeki’s biggest problems now is that he is trying to correct the past or how he will be remembered by history and posterity.

In fact, he seems to be trying too hard to get everyone to like him or understand him the way he understands himself.

But Mbeki must be wise enough to know that he is not the kind of man who can keep everybody happy. He was always destined to lose some friends and make enemies along the way.

Mbeki must choose to leave the past behind.

After all, it is dead and gone and will not return except to haunt the guilty.

He must just be himself, accept himself with his mistakes, if he has any, and let history be the judge.

There are many people inside and outside the ANC that are behind Mbeki and remain very loyal. The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, for example, is growing every day and shaping the character of new leaders.

Mbeki is doing well for himself and his legacy.

But there are also many people who are not Mbeki supporters.

Some did not like him because of his intellectual character that made him a “nerd”. Others did not like him because he was too intelligent, well read and intimidating. Some did not like his style of leadership or the way he was leading the ANC and the country.

You can have people who like you and how you do things some of the time but you cannot have all the people who like you and your style of leadership all the time. We all have critics and detractors.

Of course, it was to be expected that a man like Mbeki would be pressured to fit into the mould and become what the world expected of him.

He is his father’s son and was anointed to be who he wanted to be. In fact, he has largely succeeded in taking control of his own destiny.

But over the last few months he seems to be haunted by a dead past. As a result, he has allowed his advisers to squeeze him into a character that tries to please all the people all the time. He has been pressured or chose to respond to his critics or rewrite history.

The danger is that he may lose his identity and uniqueness. The series of missives are already seen as an attempt to dilute how the country and the world have come to know him.

Yes, Mbeki was anointed at a young age to be a leader. There always were disgruntled people who did not like how he rose to power or wielded it.

Even as a youngster, he was one of the brightest leaders in the African continent and would unavoidably be criticised for being that.

He should have expected that.

But his historical duty was always to remain true to himself and the history he represented. If he did, he would be able to ignore criticism. There is no reason for Mbeki to be paying attention to people who do not celebrate what he did.

He and his advisers are now losing sleep. They are trying to put out the fire of criticism in the hope that they will win his critics to their way of thinking.
But Mbeki has run his course and the race is now over. No man can change the past or control how he is judged by history.

Mbeki should continue with the positive work of building a new generation of African leaders. He must focus on meaningful events, programmes and institutions that will contribute to building a brighter future for the continent’s youth.

The criticism had died down. But it is rising in crescendo, again, because Mbeki has decided to wake up sleeping dogs.

It is a waste of time and energy for anyone to try to win over his enemies. What Mbeki is doing is trying to wrestle with pigs in the mud. When you react to everything that your critics say, you may compromise your integrity. Choose your battles.

Of course, nobody is saying Mbeki should not defend his integrity, if he thinks he is losing it. But he must understand that there is no leader who is above criticism. People will always have something to say — good or bad — about a leader. It comes with the territory.

Even saints like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa have stones thrown at their glass houses. So, Mbeki — a fallible man — must learn to accept that he will not be loved and admired by everybody.

With all his shortcomings, Mbeki was one of the front runners in African leadership. Everybody who was trailing behind him would, of course, be focusing on him.

There are some successes he had during his reign. But there are some major failures that also happened.

Mbeki has had the opportunity to pursue things that he wished to have seen happen in the country and the continent. Some of them were a result of poor strategic thinking and planning, like wanting a third term. But his term has long expired.

However, he would always be open to scrutiny and criticism.

Mbeki should just let sleeping dogs lie. The past belongs to the past. Let history be the judge.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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