Notes from underground

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Mbeki: ‘Thank you and goodbye’

The Prez has gone.

President Thabo Mbeki resigned under pressure from his own party, after hanging on for nine months after he was replaced as ANC president at its conference at Polokwane last summer.

The Times – Mbeki: ‘Thank you and goodbye’:

Announcing his resignation as president last night, Mbeki defended his legacy, which suffered a major blow when a Pietermaritzburg High Court judge ruled that he and his cabinet had interfered with the work of the independent prosecuting authority.

‘We have never done this and therefore never compromised the right of the NPA to decide whom it wished to prosecute or not to prosecute. This applies equally to the painful matter relating to the court proceedings against the president of the ANC, comrade Jacob Zuma,’ Mbeki said.

Other bloggers have commented ad nauseam, so why am I adding my chirp? I suppose it’s because of the reference to his legacy, and because the manner of his going is reminiscent of the departure of Tony Blair last year, which invites comparisons.

Thabo Mbeki and Tony Blair were pretty much political contemporaries, though in character they were very different. Tony Blair was more extrovert, Thabo Mbeki was always more taciturn. But they both dominated the politics of their countries from 1997-2007 — though Mbeki only became president in 1999 he was nevertheless taking a more active role in the couple of years before that as Nelson Mandela neared retirement.

Both made an impact on foreign affairs, though in different ways. Tony Blair was a belligerent warmonger, and led his country into three foreign wars — in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Thabo Mbeki was more of a peacemaker, trying to bring peace to troubled areas of the continent, though his extraordinary patience with dictators like Robert Mugabe did not seem to produce much fruit.

When I looked at the leaders of other countries, like George Bush and Tony Blair, I was glad we had Thabo Mbeki.

At home, however, he was far more ruthless, and just how ruthless is only now beginning to be revealed. He was ruthless in eliminating potential rivals — like Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma. When Sexwale and Ramaphosa abandoned politics for business I at first thought they were selling out, and showing that they were more concerned with making money than nation-building. But it now seems that they were keeping quiet out of loyalty to their ANC struggle comrades, and preferred not to cause a split. Only now has it been revealed to those outside the inner circle how they were forced out of politics.

One day historians will have to add up the pros and cons of Thabo Mbeki’s legacy, but on the whole I’m inclined to be sympathetic.

For me the most memorable moment of his career, and perhaps symbolic of the positive aspect of it, was when he acted out of character, threw aside his usual taciturnity, and joined in the celebrations of South Africa’s victory in the rugby world cup last year. The team hoisted him on their shoulders and that moment captured the best of his presidency and the best of South Africa and South Africa’s hopes. I can’t imagine the English team doing that to Gordon Brown if they had won.

It didn’t last, of course. The rugby team came home to acrimonious in-fighting and the dismissal of the successful coach, and Thabo Mbeki came back to much the same thing. But whatever his faults, and they are many, history can’t take that away from his legacy. It was a glimpse of what might have been, and in some sense still is.

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