Mbeki horsewhipped in court of world opinion over Zimbabwe

by Rian Malan

Some years ago, in the course of a largely farcical attempt to recast myself as the Boer Bob Dylan, I wrote a song about President Thabo Mbeki's struggle to suppress his internal black man, a groover who kept threatening to embarrass His Excellency by bursting out and dancing to Meadowlands.

Friends took it as a savage satire, but it was actually a love song for a lonely intellectual who was lost in the cold and darkness of ideological outer space and seemed in need of any friend he could get.

I thought Mbeki was the most interesting politician on the planet. I also suspected that we had something in common, at least to the extent that he also spent much of his time dopping, smoking twak and tapping away at a keyboard.

He was the most literate politician since Winston Churchill, the first pol to understand that he who lowers himself to type the agenda for any meeting is well on the way to controlling the outcome. Mbeki typed his way into power in exactly this fashion and, once he got there, produced a body of literature that rivals Churchill’s in size, if not in lucidity.

I refer here to his weekly blogs, all of which I dutifully read, along with Ronald Suresh Roberts’s bizarre book on presidential thought processes and Mark Gevisser’s thousand-page behemoth on the presidential life and times.

That’s an awful lot of reading, considering that some of the material was so dense I had to reread it four times before it made any sense. I submit that this makes me something of a lay expert on our inscrutable president. And, like all Mbeki experts, there is much I don’t understand.

I have never met Mbeki, but I once saw him across an airport lounge. He cut a very fine figure in his ambassadorial black suit with red tie and cuffs shot just so. The year was 1988 and Thabo was the ANC’s “Prince Charming”.

Everyone who met him was smitten. Women wanted to sleep with him and businessmen thought he was destined for greatness. Van Zyl Slabbert said: “I would die for that man.”

Today, these people presumably find their gushings of yore a bit embarrassing. The star has dimmed. The nation watches in eerie silence as Mbeki marches towards what could be his Waterloo, with barely a voice raised in protest or mourning.

What went wrong? It’s hard to say. Mbeki came into office on a high, his reputation bouyed by his visionary 1996 “I am an African” speech. Capitalists loved him. Feminists too. His every utterance seemed unspeakably profound. Leftists were sceptical about GEAR, but enthusiastic about its promised social welfare component.

Mbeki was big chommies with the then US vice-president Al Gore, who seemed to share his excitement about the African Renaissance. If there were any reservations, they pertained largely to Mbeki’s inability to dance, laugh and commune with ordinary people. After JM Coetzee, he was the stiffest man in Africa.

Some thought this spoke of an unhealthy obsession with his own dignity. I thought it pointed to deep-seated insecurities. Either way, it was his greatest failing as a politician.

Let’s consider Aids, the mother of all Mbeki’s policy fiascos. I have no desire to start another civil war, but new evidence compels us to revisit the fateful events of 1998, when Mbeki uttered his first doubts about Aids science.

The Aids lobby and its outriders immediately set upon him with heavy weapons, accusing him of questioning the very existence of a disease that was killing a quarter of a million South Africans every year (according to UNAIDS). That’s more deaths in a single year than all the local wars of the past three centuries put together.

If UNAIDS was correct, then Mbeki was indeed crazed, but even the New York Times now concedes that the agency’s estimates were outrageously inflated.

Local scientists knew this, and were way ahead of UNAIDS in revising their numbers downwards. Today, they’d say the true number of Aids fatalities in the late nineties was closer to 50 000 a year – a fraction of the dumbfounding total claimed by UNAIDS.

Under the circumstances, Mbeki was entirely justified in asking, what’s going on here? Where are the mountains of dead? In fact, he would have been mad if he hadn’t asked questions. It was his enemies who were hysterical, not him.

Unfortunately, this insight came too late to save Mbeki from a brutal mauling at the hands of the world press. “Off his rocker,” said The Spectator. “It’s fine to be open-minded,” said Newsday, “but sometimes you can be so open-minded your brains fall out.”

Humiliated, Mbeki retreated into sullen silence, where his wounds festered and started producing the sort of psychic pus we would later see in his Internet newsletters.

Alas, poor Thabo, brought low by that obsession with his own dignity. It rendered him utterly incapable of admitting error, changing course or laughing at his own expense. In many cases, even explaining himself was beneath his dignity.

Consider Zimbabwe, another issue that saw Mbeki horsewhipped in the court of world opinion. Nobody could understand why a man so concerned about human rights elsewhere was indifferent to their rape on the far bank of the Limpopo.

Beaten to a pulp yet again by a massed army of pundits, the president retreated into another sullen, festering silence which endured (at least in my case) until I visited a safari camp where I met a retired intelligence officer who’d served on the administration’s Zimbabwe desk. He said Mbeki’s policy was based on tribalism.

Mugabe is a Shona, a member of Zimbabwe’s dominant tribe. Because Shonas are unlikely to deviate in their primordial loyalties, the best hope of progress lay in quietly encouraging other Shonas to remove him from office.

This seemed fairly persuasive. Why didn’t Mbeki just loosen his tie, sit down with some TV talk show host and chat about it?

One accepts that Mbeki was largely indifferent to what the local media said about him. His constituency didn’t read newspapers and ignored their gripes entirely, returning him to office with an increased majority in 2004.

On the other hand, Aids and Zimbabwe were ruining his international standing, and that was something he appeared to care about deeply.

At times, he seemed to be living a fantasy in which he starred as a great statesman, descending from the sky in the presidential jet and marching down a red carpet into a forest of microphones to deliver a speech laced with quotes from Yeats and Shakespeare, leaving the western world shaken to its racist core by the sight of an African more suave and civilised than it could ever hope to be.

I say western advisedly, because it remains unclear whether Africans are impressed by this sort of intellectual flash. The audience whose approval Mbeki most deeply craved was white and western – the very audience alienated by his incomprehensible positions on Aids and Zimbabwe.

Which is not to say that Mbeki was a failure as a president. Politics is a game of seduction; all politicians lie all the time. The only true test of their integrity is a willingness to at least occasionally pursue policies that might make them unpopular.

By the time he came to power, Mbeki appeared to be fully converted to the view that tight fiscal discipline and market-friendly policies were the key to growth.

For the ANC’s socialist wing, this was heresy, but Mbeki grit his teeth and almost single-handedly steered economic policy in a centrist direction.

He must have known this would leave him hideously vulnerable to attacks from the left, but he had the courage to do what he saw as correct, and in the end, his gambit bore fruit: the economy began to grow and the tax harvest swelled to record proportions, enabling Mbeki to finance Africa’s first welfare state. This is an enormous achievement, by any reckoning.

When it comes to free speech and civil liberties, Mbeki’s record is also impressive. As leader of a party that enjoyed an unassailable electoral majority, Mbeki’s power was near-absolute, but he never used it to silence the critics who were making his life a misery.

Yes, his blogs were full of bitter complaints and paranoid fulminations, and yes, hacks like yours truly waxed hysterical about what appeared to be punitive moves against the Sunday Times a few months ago, but in truth, we don’t really have a case against Thabo Mbeki. In fact, if it weren’t for Aids, crime, unemployment, collapsing hospitals, crippled bureaucracies, Zimbabwe and the arms deal, we’d have to cast him as a great president.

I find myself chuckling over that last sentence. South Africa is a strange and wonderful country, beset by problems far to deep to be resolved by one man.

It is totally unfair to blame Mbeki for all our woes, but those are the rules of the game: if you’re the president, everything that happens on your watch is your responsibility. Mbeki would have been a far greater leader if he’d accepted this with good humour, rather than retiring to his study to write retaliatory blogs in which almost all criticism was interpreted as racist, even if the person uttering it is black.

By 2007, those blogs had taken on a slightly deranged quality, with the president depicting himself as the victim of some great, swirling counter-revolutionary plot, orchestrated by a vastly improbable alliance of reactionaries and ultra-leftists.

It wasn’t that, Mr President. It was politics as usual. Leaders come, leaders go, and familiarity breeds contempt, even if in some cases it is underserved.

Your party appears to feel that you have reached your sell-by date, and that it’s time to anoint a successor. I suspect we might miss you more than we imagine, but meanwhile, sit back and enjoy our attempts to muddle through without you. – First published in Sunday Independent.

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