Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mbeki: The last of a dying breed

I know many of my fellow countrymen are digesting the words of American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote: “To sin by silence when we should protest, makes cowards of men.”

I will be less poetic for I am less gifted, but — you have to hand it to us South Africans — we truly are a difficult bunch to unpack.

We continue to baffle the world — from the day we embraced each other as we opted for peace and reconciliation, as opposed to anarchy, to present-day challenges.

This is the country that bore Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Steven Bantu Biko in one era and generation.

Our successes are legendary: two Rugby world cups wins in less than 15 years, Nobel Peace Prize laureates still wallowing in our midst and many other great achievements that have come our way in the short time since we started writing this chapter.

The focus has once again shifted to our corner of the Earth as we prepare to host the world for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The extent of our failures also continues to boggle the mind. Fifa president Sepp Blatter, during his recent visit to our shores, was short of words on how Bafana Bafana managed to slip from being champions of Africa in 1996 to failing to qualify for the Afcon 2010 on the eve of playing host to the biggest showpiece on Earth.

I run short of words to explain the humiliation we received in Beijing.

Even more mind boggling is how such a failure on the grandest scale has not led to heads rolling.

It can then be said that it is in keeping with our tradition of grabbing headlines for all sorts of reasons, our ability to pull the rabbit out of the hat and perhaps also our ability to concoct some of the biggest blunders known to man, that we have now shocked the world by firing President Thabo Mbeki from office at a time when the rest of the world salutes him.

It is a time when the citizens of the world — from the US to the UK, Burma to Zimbabwe, the Muslim world to the rest of the African continent — are hankering for leaders to step up to the plate.

It is a time when gun-toting-cowboys, apologists, criminals, mass murderers, Mafioso and other devil worshippers and serpent eaters rule the world and unleash tyranny on the defenceless.

It is a time when the United Nations has become the League of Nations.

It is a time when the world is crying for a voice of reason.

Is this the time — more important than any other — that we “fire” the best president in the world, effectively for “incompetence”?

How on earth does one justify that?

I think one would be hard pressed to find a better president over the past decade.

Xolelala Mangcu is a commentator whose insight proved prophetic in May 2007, when he wrote: “For all his faults — and there have been many — Mbeki has always carried himself with grace, dignity and self-worth. With Mbeki you never have a sense that the crown sits uneasily …”

With him at the helm, as commander-in-chief, we were better than ourselves.

Mbeki’s own review of his period of governance — though he says he does not agree with the exact meaning — takes a leaf from Charles Dickens’s second historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, in which the wordsmith writes:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Mbeki refers to a concern by many in society who are “troubled by a deep sense of unease about where our country will be tomorrow”.

Indeed, during his tenure, we sat in the highest decision-making bodies of the world, commanded the attention of the world and punched way above our weight.

He lifted not only the South African flag but also elevated the struggle of the poor of the world to centre stage in a brutal, capitalist world.

It is true that some great men, some sages, some colossi walk the earth way before their times.

The existence of such men among us sets us apart from other creations roaming the Earth, and their existence under the same sky make us proud to be humans.

T’bose — at least during his reign — conquered the imaginations of humanity, gave hope to the world and perhaps went further than most to advance the struggle of the darker-skinned people and ensured that Africans do not continue to be the wretched of the Earth.

He certainly did more than most to further the pan-African dream of a United States of Africa along with the more fragile dream of an African renaissance.

And now we must remember him as a tyrant?

You have got to be kidding me!

This is a man who presided over the longest economic growth period in democratic South Africa.

He single-handedly ended civil wars that had been going on for decades and helped rid the African continent of despots.

Mbeki was demonised as a puppy of President Robert Mugabe by war-mongers across the world who claimed his so-called quiet diplomacy would serve only to feather Mugabe’s nest.

He has now shown the world — once and for all — that regime change as espoused by the US and the British is no solution to the ills of the world.

Mbeki has never been known to suffer fools gladly, and soldiered on to heal rifts in Zimbabwe — serving the people of that country to the best of his ability.

His efforts have led to the end of a decade-long acrimonious relationship between the political parties in that country, rescuing it from the brink of a civil war.

The same argument stands on matters relating to what Mbeki said and what others perceive to have been said by him on the contentious issue of HIV/Aids.

I submit, Mbeki’s position on the HIV/Aids debate — at least at the time — was the most astute such decision made by a head of state of a developmental state amid the highest pressures of the capitalist world.

I have laboured to find a blot on Mbeki’s reputation, partly to convince myself to join the mob that seeks to dance on his political grave.

I have yet to be convinced!

Instead I have found a man who sacrificed all for the good of many.

Even as he bade goodbye to his people — to begin a long journey to the sunset of his political career — Mbeki continued to raise the bar for anyone in the world with presidential ambitions.

His last address to the nation, riddled with dignity and grace and without rancour, leaves one proud to have lived during his era.

It raises the bar for future presidents.

And Mbeki’s legacy will continue to be a yardstick for anyone seeking to lead the lifelong struggle of the wretched of the Earth.

Mbeki’s stature and the presidential manner with which he delivered his last message to the nation serve to confirm a conclusion reached by many a long time ago that he truly was the best president in the world over the past decade.

The Mbeki years will continue to define us a society.

And his commitment to the people of South Africa, Africans and the world will never be forgotten by the poor of the world who will be left even poorer as a result of his departure.

Some men are born great and some acquire greatness. President Thabo Mbeki is all these — and more.


  • Zukile Majova

    Zukile Majova is Head of News for YFM 99.2. He is a former Mail & Guardian Investigative Reporter. He writes politics for Sowetan Newspaper. Contact him via Facebook, Twitter, [email protected], 011 280 0300 and 071 681 0192