A highly respected son of Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who nine years ago stepped into the giant boots of Africa’s most admired hero – Nelson Mandela – as democratic South Africa’s second President, has been told to bow out un-ceremoniously.
Mbeki (76) has been forced out of office by his party’s divided National Executive Committee in a swift swing of power in favor of his one-time Deputy, whom he fired for political misconduct – Jacob Zuma.
The man he fired in 2005 was a charismatic leader whose influence in their party – the African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki had underestimated. In the elections for party stewardship of 2008, Mbeki lost substantially to Zuma and those who were looking for a reason to disgrace the man who had served the party for 52 years had their golden opportunity beckoning.
What crime did Mbeki commit to deserve such a swift downfall? His political adversaries, Zuma, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, have accused Mbeki of “abusing power.” Has he really?
Mbeki was a soft-spoken leader who avoided direct confrontation with his opponents.
“This temperament can be problematic in contexts which demand strong action,” argues Robert Schrire, an outspoken critic-cum-academician who says that Mbeki tried to protect himself from conflict situations and he “preferred to operate behind the scenes where he is an acknowledged master of the tactical thrust.”
Zuma, his presumptive substantive successor, flexed his muscles before his ex-boss in an earlier clash to a point of proving a point that he (Zuma) had a bigger following in ANC than President Mbeki. When opinion on the “dark instincts” of Mbeki became loud and even echoed by the Press, Mbeki reacted by his characteristic intellectual stance accusing the media of playing the race card of projecting “the repulsive and terrifying stereotype of the African barbarian.”
Mbeki’s low blow removal from office came after Judge Chris Nicholson’s findings (presumably) of political interference in the work of the National Prosecuting Authority. To me, this frivolous verdict was not reason enough to rush to such a weighty penalty.
This was pay-back time from Jacob Zuma, who had felt humiliated when Mbeki had earlier asked him to resign. Zuma’s legal wrangles that followed the rift cost taxpayer money R10m. Then to Mbeki’s shock, the final hammer from the ANC supreme organ of NEC fell on him (with vengeance?) after his Presidency allegedly stood-by while 42 lives from neighboring states were cut short under his watch in May due to xenophobia!
Mbeki’s history of public service was “a follow-daddy’s footstep affair”. His father Govan Mbeki was a party stalwart of the African National Congress (ANC) and his son Thabo “was born into the struggle” and became active from age 14.
Mbeki, a native Xhosa speaker went to school in South Africa before enrolling as an external student with the University of London where he earned his economics degree.
In 1974, he married Zanele at Farnham Castle, in the United Kingdom. He spent 28 years in exile when ANC was banned in South Africa and returned only after the release of Nelson Mandela.
While in the UK, he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Sussex before going to the Soviet Union for military training. He then served ANC in its offices in Botswana, Swaziland, Nigeria, and Zambia
In 1989, he led the ANC delegation that conducted secret talks with South African apartheid regime that led to the un-banning of ANC and the release of detainees. He actively took part in most deliberations that gave birth to the democratization of South Africa.
Mbeki became deputy President in 1994 when South Africa attained universal suffrage. He succeeded Nelson Mandela as ANC president in December 1997 and as the president of the Republic in June 1999. He was re-elected for a second term in April 2004. He has been removed from office before next elections of 2009 where he could not contest as the constitution does not allow a third term.
During his 9 years in office as President, Mbeki became a successful power broker in Rwanda, Burundi, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. He was founder President of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and African Union (AU).
His critics have branded him “remote and academic”; but a modern leader nonetheless who was very comfortable with Information and Communication Technology and the Internet. He called for “end to global apartheid” by seeking to end poverty globally. He however differed with many on what caused HIV-AIDS. He saw poverty as the root cause of the pandemic and accused pharmaceutical companies of playing dirty with the search for a cure.
On the flip side, did Zuma rape an HIV- positive woman? Did he believe that taking a shower would cleanse his body of possible infection? Did he engage in corrupt practices? A divided ANC with Zuma as president will be put to the test if it will succeed to navigate and sustain a recovery course for South Africa torn by many years of war and racial confrontation; and lately by party squabbles in the ANC.
Will South Africa remain on course to continue the reconciliatory healing spirit and national unity initiated by Mandela? Or is this the beginning of more division and chaos to follow? The whole world is watching as the new South African leadership takes over while sympathizing with Thabo Mbeki’s unearned stab on the back.
Africa will record Mbeki’s chapter as that of a great Pan-African hero who gave in to political blackmail from those who despised him in the hope of keeping his mighty country united. Africa salutes him with all respect for choosing to go down in history as the gentleman elder politician who relinguished power when his accusers said it was time for him to go (literally without a fight)!