The Unsung Heroism of Thabo Mbeki

By Dr. Cosmas Ochieng, Executive Director, ACTS

“In our world in which the generation of new knowledge and its application to change the human condition is the engine which moves human society further away from barbarism, do we not have need to recall Africa’s hundreds of thousands of intellectuals back from their places of emigration in Western Europe and North America, to rejoin those who remain still within our shores! I dream of the day when these, the African mathematicians and computer specialists in Washington and New York, the African physicists, engineers, doctors, business managers and economists, will return from London and Manchester and Paris and Brussels to add to the African pool of brain power, to enquire into and find solutions to Africa’s problems and challenges, to open the African door to the world of knowledge, to elevate Africa’s place within the universe of research the information of new knowledge, education and information”.

Thabo Mbeki, 1998

It was Day 2 of the International Conference on the Emergence of Africa held in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire (March 19th, 2015). All the pomp and ceremony of the first day was gone: the multi-coloured African flags; the red carpet; the traditional dancers; the uniformed security; the press corps.

Neither President Alassane Ouattara of Cote D’Ivoire nor President Macky Sall of Senegal, two of the Chief Guests on Day 1 were in attendance. The UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and another Chief Guest from Day 1, had also left.

The Hotel Sofitel Conference Centre, the posh venue of this international conference had a decidedly anticlimactic feel to it. Sure, the Prime Minister of Cote D’Ivoire was still around, as were several high ranking current and former ministers for finance and economic planning, heads of central banks and distinguished academics from the African continent and beyond. The charismatic former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, Tertius Zongo, would be moderating the day’s first Plenary Session. Nevertheless, after the refreshingly wonky High Level Panel Discussion on Day 1, during which Allasane Ouattara (on total factor productivity), Thabo Mbeki (on illicit financial flows in Africa), and Helen Clark (on inclusive growth and human development) had stolen the show, Day 2 felt a bit low key. This was clearly a day for technocrats: a keynote address by a representative of the World Bank, followed by a panel discussion led by leading scholars on the development experiences of South Korea, India, Mauritius and Brazil.

The camera panned across the room and beamed a picture of a familiar looking face, seated nonchalantly deep in the audience. It was Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa, looking much younger than his 72 years. This is one of the striking things about Thabo Mbeki. He appears not to have aged much since 1994 when much of the world got to know him for the first time as he took the oath of office as Deputy President of a democratic, nonracist and non-sexist South Africa. The second most striking thing about Thabo Mbeki is his unsung heroism, especially in his native South Africa. This, despite a solid record of monumental accomplishments. For the first 14 years of post-apartheid South Africa, he had been at the centre of South Africa’s political and economic transformation – arguably the chief architect of postapartheid South Africa’s economic and social contract. For the final 10 years of apartheid rule, he had led the negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid. He had spent 28 years in exile, lost a son and a brother in the struggle, survived an assassination plot, and watched his father spend 24 years in detention.

In a political movement blessed with extraordinary talent, he rose to become the trusted aide of two of the ANC’s most revered leaders (Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela) and proceeded to beat a formidable cast of political rivals to become Deputy President, en-route to becoming post-apartheid South Africa’s second democratically elected leader.

While his place in history is certainly assured, his achievements are seldom celebrated. This architect of South Africa’s transition to democratic rule; this author of much of post-apartheid South Africa’s economic, political and social policies; this successor and ‘comrade’ to Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki; this 21st century leader of African rebirth; this originator of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development), was here in Abidjan, less than 7 years after leaving office, and is hardly noticed by those who study and practice development in Africa.

The camera hadn’t spent more than a few seconds on him. It wasn’t even clear that many of the delegates had recognised his presence. He was seated alone, no fawning fans crowding him to ask for autographs or ‘selfies’. He also appeared very much at ease and not an inch out of place in this meeting of low level technocrats. This is the third most striking thing about Thabo Mbeki. His ‘bookish’ reputation is well deserved. He is an ideas man, an avid reader who genuinely enjoys rigorous intellectual exchange. Here he was, a 72 year old pensioner, formerly the most powerful man in Africa, happy to take ‘lessons’ on the development experiences of South Korea, India, Brazil and Mauritius while the people currently in charge of Africa’s destiny were nowhere to be seen.

The fourth most striking thing about Thabo Mbeki is his unsung Pan Africanism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his contribution to the ‘New African Renaissance’. Yes, he was talking about this and getting pummelled mercilessly for it by the South African press long before the emergence of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. While he cannot claim all the credit for the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, it is hard to deny his role in the continent’s economic and political governance over the last two decades. His leadership on (a) good governance on the continent (b) African ownership of, and solutions to Africa’s problems, (c) redefinition of African foreign policy (towards Afro-centric and non-confrontational diplomacy - a rejection of ‘victimhood’ and Afro-pessimism in favour of an Afro-centric, proactive, nonconfrontational African engagement in international affairs ), and (d) the ‘African Renaissance Coalition’ (Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame of Rwanda) combined to create conditions favourable to the emergence of ‘Africa rising’ narrative.

I have lived in South Africa and I am aware that Thabo Mbeki remains a controversial figure in that country. Many South Africans consider him ‘bookish’ and ‘detached’ or more concerned with ‘Pan-African’ rather than ‘South African’ problems. Notably, his focus on African Renaissance seemed to have rubbed many of his compatriots the wrong way. In the complex history of race relations in South Africa, his work on the ‘African Renaissance’ has been misconstrued in some quarters as not being inclusive of South Africa’s ‘non-black races’. This perception is misguided but it hasn’t been helped by the affirmative action policy with which Mbeki is also closely associated: Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Criticism that benefits of the BEE were narrowly targeted at black South Africans instead of all ‘races’ that had suffered marginalization under apartheid led to the revision of the programme in 2007 to something called Broad Based BEE. Broad Based BEE continues to suffer from much of the original criticism levelled against the original BEE.

There are as many legitimate critiques of the BEE as there are of Pan Africanism. Why South Africans should single out Mbeki for particularly harsh judgement over the ‘sins’ of BEE and African Renaissance, is the puzzle. After all, both African Renaissance and BEE were championed by the sainted Nelson Mandela and no one has ever accused him – post-apartheid - of being insufficiently invested in South African problems or of being insufficiently inclusive in his ‘African Renaissance’. While it is true that Thabo Mbeki has given stirring speeches on African Reinassance and dedicated much of his life, before, during and after his presidency to this cause, it is also true however that nobody has made a grander, more heartfelt and policy focused speech on South Africa’s role in the ‘new African Renaissance’ than the much beloved ‘Madiba’: “Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it be because we want to discuss what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African Renaissance. Let it be because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African city of Carthage. Africa cries out for a new birth, Carthage awaits the restoration of its glory. . . . Tribute is due to the great thinkers of our continent who have been and are trying to move all of us to understand the intimate interconnection between the great issues of our day of peace, stability, democracy, human rights, cooperation and development. . . . We know as a matter of fact that we have it in ourselves as Africans to change all of this. We must, in action, assert our will to do so. We must, in action, say that there is no obstacle big enough to stop us from bringing about a new African Renaissance.” Nelson Mandela For some reason, Thabo Mbeki tends to be judged more harshly than others. This is true of three of the most enduring criticisms levelled against him: his response to the HIV/Aids epidemic, his ‘quiet diplomacy’ on Zimbabwe, and his obsession with ‘African Renaissance’. Let’s examine each in turn.

Mbeki and HIV/Aids: A damning and deserved criticism

The strongest criticism against Thabo Mbeki rests on his ‘enabling’ of what can fairly be described as state-led ‘HIV/Aids denialism’ in South Africa during his time as president. The government of Thabo Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids can be characterized as follows:

  • Official questioning of the global scientific consensus on the causes of HIV/Aids;
  • Official reluctance to embrace early implementation of anti-retroviral drugs therapy;
  • Government inaction, interference, pseudoscientific wars, and outright antagonism towards the country’s leading scientists, professional medical societies and HIV/Aids organizations

Mbeki personally questioned the scientific link between HIV and Aids. He expressed doubt that HIV caused Aids and suggested that Aids was caused by socio-economic factors (i.e. poverty) and lifestyle choices. His ministers questioned the efficacy and effectiveness of early anti-retroviral drugs (especially AZT and nevirapine) while indulging in pseudoscientific arguments. At the 16th Global Aids Conference in Toronto, Canada, the South African Department of Health formally exhibited garlic, lemons and beetroot, alongside anti-retroviral drugs.

So let’s be clear. On HIV/Aids, Thabo Mbeki failed South Africa and Africa. He should have recognised the magnitude of the scourge and provided timely and clear leadership in combating it. In fact, the ANC recognised the severe implications of the HIV/Aids epidemic as early as 1990. That was four years before the party ascended to power. At the Fourth International Conference on Health in Southern Africa, held in Maputo, Mozambique, then Head of the ANC’s armed wing and General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Chris Hani, asserted: ‘‘We cannot afford to allow the Aids epidemic to ruin the realization of our dreams’’

Thabo Mbeki’s government should have done more to combat the disease. South Africa had the knowledge and wherewithal to do so. For a firm believer in African solutions to African problems, Mbeki failed his own African leadership test. A leading advocate of harnessing science, technology and innovation for accelerated development in Africa, his flirtation with HIV/Aids denialism and his indulgence of HIV/Aids deniers is indefensible. 

Having said that, one might be tempted to think that Mbeki is an anomaly as far as global leadership on HIV/Aids is concerned. Unfortunately, the history of HIV/Aids is characterized by ‘denialism’, silence and failure of political leadership. The list of leaders who failed in this respect is long and diverse. Arguably, the Reagan Administration takes the cake.

The first cases of HIV/Aids in the US were reported in 1981. President Reagan did not make a formal statement on the disease – despite intense pressure from US medical and public health agencies - until May 31st 1987. By this time, the disease had spread to 113 countries, killed more than 20,000 in the US alone and infected another 36,000. That same year, the US imposed a travel ban on those with HIV/ Aids from entering the United States, a policy that would remain in force until late 2009, when it was lifted by the Obama Administration. The effect of the travel ban was to stigmatize the disease and to constrain US leadership in this fight. Dozens of other countries would follow the US lead in imposing such travel bans. Some of these remain in effect.

The process for lifting the ban was actually initiated in 2008 by a true hero in the fight against HIV/Aids: George W. Bush. His PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) initiative has saved many lives and fundamentally transformed African and global approach to HIV/Aids. Reagan and Mbeki are not alone in their failure to lead on HIV/Aids. Many African leaders in the 1980s and 1990s were slow to recognise the gravity of the epidemic. Some engaged in their own pseudo-scientific analysis. For example, the idea that the disease was limited to gays, was a particularly widespread misconception in the continent in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Curiously, the failures of many of these leaders have either been forgotten or forgiven. Reagan was twice elected president of the United States and remains popular to this day. (Mbeki was twice elected too, although he is not exactly the most popular person in South Africa today). Today, 24.7 million people live with HIV in sub Saharan Africa – more than 70 percent of all people living with HIV worldwide. Not a single African leader has ever lost his job because of inaction or inadequate response to HIV/Aids. None is even particularly remembered for their slow or ineffective response to the epidemic. Yet, criticism of Mbeki’s response to HIV/Aids remains withering and unyielding.

As I have said, it is well deserved. My concern here relates only to why this is true of Mbeki and not the others. Perhaps Mbeki engaged in his pseudoscientific analysis much later than most (i.e. when the weight of scientific evidence on the causes of HIV/Aids was already considerable). Perhaps a lot was expected of South Africa, a country with a long and proud history of scientific excellence, especially in medicine. (It should be noted that the apartheid regime also failed South Africa here, wasting valuable time engaging in its own brand of HIV/Aids conspiracy theorising and pseudoscience). Perhaps a lot was expected of Thabo Mbeki personally. He is a smart man, after all. Some tin pot dictator in some banana republic could get away with some crazy, pseudo-scientific ideas. Perhaps the ‘bookish’ Mbeki deserved a full blown intellectual pushback. He could do real damage, given his political legitimacy, moral authority and intellectual credentials. Tinpot dictators of banana republics are never taken seriously. They can cause real harm but only by coercion rather than persuasion, and there are limits to what coercion can achieve. Persuasion, as Mbeki very well knows, can be achieve unbelievable things. Perhaps. The point is, Mbeki appears to be subject to a double standard here.

Mbeki and Zimbabwe

Mbeki is also subject to a double standard when it comes to the question of Zimbabwe. It is a complex matter but the gist of the criticism is relatively straightforward. On account of ‘electoral fraud and human rights violations’, the European Union and the US imposed targeted but restrictive sanctions on Zimbabwe following the 2002 presidential election. The idea was that the sanctions would force a change in the behaviour of the government of Zimbabwe towards improved democratic and economic governance. When this didn’t appear to be happening, an argument arose that given the degree of ‘integration’ between Zimbabwean and South African economies, the only effective sanctions would be those imposed by South Africa. True to his Afrocentric, proactive, non-confrontational African diplomacy, Mbeki opted for ‘quite diplomacy’ instead: seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis by talking directly to the government of Zimbabwe. That ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Zimbabwe (and other African countries) has been roundly criticised.

This struggle that we face now is more complicated. It is even difficult to see who is an enemy. I think because we are dealing with this complex situation, that’s when we need to raise the level of leadership. Surely we can’t lower the level of leadership.

Arguably, Mbeki bears some level of responsibility for the trajectory of events that took place in Zimbabwe between 2002 and 2008. He was the OAU/ AU Chairman at the time of the controversial 2002 presidential elections in Zimbabwe. Many of his critics consider his approach to the 2002 election as the embodiment of the failure of the ‘Quiet Diplomacy Approach’. Their Exhibit A? The Khampepe Report.

On the 14th of November 2014, following a ruling of the Constitutional Court, the South African government was forced to release the Khampepe Report on the 2002 Elections in Zimbabwe .The Khampepe Report is a report of a Judicial Observer Mission (JOM) appointed by President Mbeki on 12th February 2002 and sent to monitor the 2002 presidential elections in Zimbabwe, held in March of the same year. It was written by South Africa’s Constitutional Court judges Dikgang Moseneke and Sisi Khampepe.

The terms of reference of the JOM were to observe and to report to the President of South Africa, on whether in the period before, during and shortly, after the elections, the Constitution, electoral laws and any other laws of Zimbabwe relevant to the elections could ensure credible and substantially free and fair elections. The JOM’s chief conclusion was as follows:

‘‘It was principally the pre-polling, legal and other environment, which informed our assessment of the conduct of the elections. We recognise that opposition parties fully participated in the electoral process to the end. We acknowledge that on polling days, no significant irregularities, save in Harare and Chitungwiza occurred. The counting of votes was completed regularly and timeously. Notably, the polling occurred peacefully…However, having regard to all the circumstances, and in particular the cumulative substantial departures from international standards of free and fair elections found in Zimbabwe during the pre-election period, these elections, in our view, cannot be considered to be free and fair’’.

Critics of Mbeki’s ‘quiet’ diplomacy, including Freedom House, opine that had the report been made public at the time, it would have had far reaching consequences on South Africa Zimbabwe relations, with potentially democratic and human rights gains for Zimbabwe.

Perhaps. Criticisms of Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy miss several important things. The first and most important is the central role that ‘quiet diplomacy’ has played in Mbeki’s life and his many successes with this approach in South Africa and elsewhere. ‘Quiet diplomacy’ is to Mbeki what ‘Realpolitik’ was to Otto Von Bismarck. Mbeki used ‘quiet diplomacy’ or secret channels to negotiate the end of apartheid. He used quiet diplomacy to rally the support of international and domestic businesses against the apartheid regime long before many people believed that the system could fall. He had used quiet diplomacy to rally international public opinion against the apartheid regime. Finally, after he became president, Mbeki successfully used quiet diplomacy to encourage good governance and democratization on the African continent. Notably, he helped transform the old, backward looking Organization of African Unity (OAU) into a new, relatively vibrant African Union (AU), with a potentially even more dynamic intellectual arm: New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Reaching out to parties he might disagree with in order to extract something for the ‘greater good’ is an art Thabo Mbeki has perfected. Nobody has ever questioned his anti-apartheid credentials, yet he opened and successfully concluded secret negotiations with that regime. To view Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy as tacit approval of some of the actions of African leaders would be a fundamental misreading of the politics and philosophy of the man. Thabo Mbeki has no time for mediocre leadership in Africa. When it comes to political leadership in Africa, he is probably the most frustrated man out there. Here he is in 1998, enraged by political mediocrity on the continent:

‘‘Africa has no need for the criminals who would acquire political power by slaughtering the innocents as do the butchers of the people of Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal. Nor has she need for such as those who, because they did not accept that power is legitimate only because it serves the interests of the people, laid Somalia to waste and deprived its people of a country which gave its citizens a sense of being as well as the being to build themselves into a people. Neither has Africa need for the petty gangsters who would be our governors by theft of elective positions, as a result of holding fraudulent elections, or by purchasing positions of authority through bribery and corruption… The call for Africa’s renewal, for an African Renaissance is a call to rebellion. We must rebel against the tyrants and the dictators, those who seek to corrupt our societies and steal the wealth that belongs to the people. We must rebel against the ordinary criminals who murder, rape and rob…’’. Thabo Mbeki SABC, Gallagher Estate, 13 August 1998

Less than two years ago (December of 2013) Thabo Mbeki used the occasion of the memorial for Nelson Mandela (at Midrand’s Calvary Methodist Church) not to praise the man he reveres but to call for ‘quality’ leadership in Africa. “This struggle that we face now is more complicated. It is even difficult to see who is an enemy. I think because we are dealing with this complex situation, that’s when we need to raise the level of leadership. Surely we can’t lower the level of leadership.”

Those who are quick to criticise Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa might want to reflect on his historical successes with this strategy and his personal commitment to ‘African renaissance’. Of course, simply because his quiet diplomacy succeeded elsewhere does not mean it is the right one for each and every circumstance. I am only saying that an appreciation of his overall record with this strategy might help explain his preference for it in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa.

The criticism of Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy with reference to Zimbabwe also overlooks two critical points. One, alternative approaches (e.g. sanctions) were already being applied – to arguably no effect. Those who championed these ‘failed’ approaches are not subject to the same level of criticism directed at Thabo Mbeki.

Finally, why Mbeki gets a disproportionate share of the blame for the crisis in Zimbabwe is also a puzzle. Yes, he bears some blame. South Africa is one of Zimbabwe’s most important neighbours. And yes, he led a number of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis there including the 2008 Power Sharing Agreement. To the extent that all these are important and/or problematic, he has his share of responsibility. But what about political leaders in Zimbabwe? Other neighbours of Zimbabwe? SADC? The African Union? The Commonwealth? The UK? The European Union?

Thabo Mbeki is also held to a different standard with respect to his work on ‘African Renaissance’. While it might come as a surprise to modern day South Africans (partly because of the banning of the ANC for much of the 20th century and the skewed nature of the apartheid education system), the idea of an African ‘regeneration’, ‘revival’ or ‘renaissance’ has been a bedrock ideology of the ANC (African National Congress) since its formation. Successive leaders and leading thinkers of the ANC have been fierce promoters of this idea. This idea has evoked some of the most stirring speeches or writings from the leadership of the ANC. ANC co-founder and former President, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme gave one of the earliest, most powerful speeches on the subject as an undergraduate student at Columbia University in 1906. His speech on the ‘Regeneration of Africa’ won him the George William Curtis Medal, Columbia University’s highest oratorical award.

As can be seen from this passage from the ‘Regeneration of Africa’, Mbeki’s speeches and writing on the subject mirror Pixley Ka Isaka Seme’s: ‘‘The African people, although not a strictly homogeneous race, possess a common fundamental sentiment which is everywhere manifest, crystallizing itself into one common controlling idea. Conflicts and strife are rapidly disappearing before the fusing force of this enlightened perception of the true intertribal relation, which relation should subsist among a people with a common destiny. Agencies of a social, economic and religious advance tell of a new spirit which, acting as a leavening ferment, shall raise the anxious and aspiring mass to the level of their ancient glory’’.

The idea of the African renaissance is also to be found in the writings and speeches of many of the ANC’s leading lights including: Richard Victor Selope Thema, Zachariah Keodirelang Matthews, Ashby Peter Mda, Solomon T. Plaatje, John L. Dube and Nelson Mandela. Unlike many of these people, Mbeki did get an opportunity – as President of South Africa - to do more than speech making. As aforementioned, he helped foster the creation of both the African Union and NEPAD in addition to shepherding numerous efforts to promote good governance on the continent. Perhaps this is why he gets much of the criticism. That would be understandable but still problematic.

While his commitment to Africa’s renewal is directed at the overall wellbeing of the continent, it has been beneficial to South Africa. It helped ease South Africa back into the community of African nations. Today, South African businesses and products litter the continent. A South African, a former South African minister for foreign and home affairs, Dr Nkosazana DlaminiZuma, is the current chairperson of the African Union Commission. These are no mean accomplishments. Africa has a complex relationship with ‘big powers’. It took enormous skill to integrate South Africa smoothly into the rest of the continent. The fact that South Africa continues to enjoy considerable prestige and popularity across the continent (despite the recent xenophobic attacks) is a testament not only to the power of its moral triumph over apartheid, but also to the diplomatic skills and vision of its post- apartheid leadership, most notably, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

South Africans may owe a lot to Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘African renaissance’ than they realise. Yes, whether South Africa should have used its moral authority more aggressively to foster good governance across the continent remains a legitimate question. On the question of HIV/Aids, Thabo Mbeki clearly failed the continent. His domestic policy record, which we have not reviewed here, may also have its problems. However, after all is said and done, it seems to me that his work before, during and after his presidency, has a number of transformative elements that should not only assure his place in African history but might be worth highlighting as the continent begins to grapple with many of the questions that Mbeki has grappled with for decades.

Thabo Mbeki is a leader of 21st century Pan Africanism. He is a different kind of Pan African leader: Afro-centric, democratic, pro-active, pragmatic and non-confrontational. He doesn’t play the African ‘victimhood’ or ‘pessimism’ card. This alone constitutes real progress in the movement’s journey. A shared colonial experience has been the chief unifying force of the Pan African movement for decades. Mbeki is trying to move the movement towards the creation of a new galvanizing force: the creation of a newly ‘emergent’ Africa: characterized by economic, social and political development as well as scientific and technological progress. There is one thing that Thabo Mbeki shares with 20th century Pan Africanists such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana or Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia: not being particularly adored at home.