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How will history judge Mbeki?

The launch of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the Thabo Mbeki Africa Leadership Institute was met with unusual excitement by the media considering their belligerent attitude towards the former president in the past. As the Holy Scripture says: “A Prophet is not without honour except in his own hometown and his own house.” After ridiculing Mbeki and then being subjected to the vacuum of leadership under the Zuma government, almost all media reports were strangely positive and even some editors expressed some sense of overwhelming nostalgia for the Mbeki years. Peter Bruce, editor of the Business Day, said: “He (Mbeki) is still obviously smart, thoughtful and entertaining. I miss him, I guess.” It appears the media and people in general are clamouring for a decent leader, a real statesman, not an indecisive Zuma.

The former president appears to court controversy whenever he makes news headlines, not because he himself is a controversial figure, but because there exist those who mine controversy where none exists. These individuals exert extraordinary energy to rummage through his past in order to find fault in each step he makes and to further undermine his noble attempts to steer Africa on a path towards peace and prosperity.

There seem to be an unhealthy preoccupation among these said people to define Mbeki’s legacy. They sing the same nauseating chorus about Zimbabwe and the so-called HIV/Aids denialism. It appears Mbeki has earned himself dedicated and enthusiastic detractors who are unable to find another useful hobby.

Sipho Hlongwane is one of these vocal detractors. He penned an absurd article in the Daily Maverick titled “Mbeki’s mistakes will be his legacy”, with pretences of objectivity when it is in fact premised on the usual nauseating and tired arguments. Hlongwane took the usual stance of dwelling on Zimbabwe as if Mbeki, then chairperson of SADC and mandated to act as a facilitator between Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe, never achieved the goal of forming a stable government and ensuring economic stability as was intended. The Zimbabwean economy at the moment is on the mend. The unity government formed in terms of the Global Political Agreement is now preparing for general elections in 2011. This is progress. Let us give the former president his dues.

Hlongwane says: “He (Mbeki) allowed his suspicion of the West to blind him to the horror of the HIV/Aids pandemic, choosing instead to believe discredited quacks.” Maybe we should remind Hlongwane that the government had a comprehensive programme to tackle the pandemic and government policy was based on HIV orthodoxy, which some claim Mbeki denied.

Time Magazine in 2000 conducted an interview with the former president, and when the question of HIV/Aids came up, this what he said:

“If the scientists say that the virus is part of the variety of things from which people acquire immune deficiency, I have no problem with that. But to say that this is the sole cause and therefore the only response to it is antiretroviral drugs, [then] we’ll never be able to solve the Aids problem … If you accept that there can be a variety of reasons, including poverty and the many diseases that afflict Africans, then you can have a more comprehensive treatment response.”

The above quote aptly summarises the crux of Mbeki’s argument in respect of HIV/Aids. It would have served no purpose to embrace only orthodox scientists and ignore so-called dissidents in attempts to find a meaningful and comprehensive response to the questions he raised.

Mbeki has been accused of causing the deaths of thousands of people with HIV/Aids because he dared challenge pharmaceuticals on the toxicity of drugs they wanted to feed our people. There existed an overwhelming scientific literature that confirmed the dangers of these drugs, but his detractors would have preferred he condemned a considerable number of HIV/Aids patients to death by allowing government hospitals to distribute toxic drugs.

Mbeki defended the decision to refuse distributing these drugs: “Because lots of questions had been raised about the toxicity of the drug, which is very serious. We, as the government, have the responsibility to determine matters of public health, and therefore we can take decisions that impact directly on human beings, and it seemed to me that doubts had been raised about the toxicity and the efficacy of AZT and other drugs, so it was necessary to go into these matters. It wouldn’t sit easily on one’s conscience that you had been warned and there could be danger, but nevertheless you went ahead and said let’s dispense these drugs.”

It is a height of mischief for anyone to suggest that the legacy of Thabo Mbeki is defined by such ridiculous arguments, including ill-informed public opinion that existed between 1998 until he was unceremoniously removed from office.

Hlongwane also accuses Mbeki of surrounding “himself with ‘yes men’ ”. He claims that “under him, criticism no longer became the lifeblood of the movement. Instead, selfish political patronage, nepotism and favouritism flourished”.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in 2004 advanced the same absurd view when he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture when he accused Mbeki of breeding sycophancy within the ANC.

In a measured response to Tutu in the ANC Today, Mbeki said: “Evidently the archbishop thinks there is something wrong with ANC members agreeing with ANC policies they have decided within the various forums of the organisation, including our national conference. Thus respect for positions democratically agreed within the organisation is described as ‘unthinking, uncritical, kowtowing and party line-toeing’. He contemptuously dismisses the members of our movement as ‘voting cattle of the party’. The archbishop has never been a member of the ANC, and would have very little knowledge of what happens even in an ANC branch. How he comes to the conclusion that there is ‘lack of debate’ in the ANC is most puzzling.”

It is important to remind Hlongwane of some of the important achievements that the former president recorded during his term of office; achievements which would rightly form the basis for defining his true legacy, if needs be. Mbeki had been preaching the gospel of Africa’s renewal from when he was deputy president of the country. His ideals have taken practical effect across the continent. For Africa to rise from the ashes and discard the perception of hopelessness, she needs to be at peace with herself and embrace principles of good governance and democracy. That is what Mbeki had been promoting across the continent. There has been progress. Africa is now touted as the “last investment frontier”. There is growing realisation that global economic progress cannot be sustainable without the advancement of Africa.

Mbeki in 1997 was a recipient of the Good Governance Award from the US-based Corporate Council on Africa. The council is a non-profit, non-partisan organisation of American corporations and individuals that are committed to developing the African private sector and strengthening the commercial relationship between the US and Africa. In 2004, he was bestowed with the Good Brother Award from Washington’s National Congress of Black Women for his unfailing and unwavering commitment to gender equality and the emancipation of women in South Africa.

In 2003, he was the key broker in the struggle to forge peace in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His peacemaking efforts and achievements were widely praised. John Stremlau wrote in the Business Day: “In recent testimony on Africa before the US congress and statements from other US and European leaders, there has been a spate of prominent positive comment on SA leadership in trying to resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts by political means.” The DRC is now much more stable under the leadership of President Joseph Kabila than it was a few years ago and it is contributing to economic development in the region.

In 2005, former British high commissioner to South Africa Paul Boateng in response to the successful conclusion of the peace process in Ivory Coast said “Africa and the international community owe President Mbeki a debt of gratitude for the work he has done and continues to do”. The peace process in Ivory Coast had not been an easy feat. Mbeki had to tackle former French president Jacques Chirac, who had been interfering in the process, in order to ensure that the people of Ivory Coast can co-exist peacefully in a stable country. His peacemaking efforts are well-documented. He is now heading an AU panel tasked with assisting Sudan to find a peaceful resolution to its conflict between the south and the north.

Africa and her people will remember the former president as a man with selfless commitment to the political and economic advancement of the continent. When history books are re-written, his name will be among those of the men who fought for peace and justice, resolute in his determination to see his people rise from an ignoble existence to realise their hopes and dreams of a decent life. Whether the Nobel Committee continues to ignore his commitment to promoting peace and security across the continent or not, the people of Africa recognise his invaluable contribution and his devotion towards the advancement of Africa.


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.