Do you remember the politically late Thabo Mbeki? Yes, the pipe-smoking Aids denialist who has read only one poet whom he relies on rather slavishly to sound ‘deep’. Isn’t it funny – this is what I actually want to say – how everyone is suddenly missing the man? Or, at the very least, remembering him with fondness? A case of jarring native nostalgia.
I read all the coverage this past week – including every weekend newspaper – of Mbeki’s launch of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (based at Unisa) and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. Almost every article about Mbeki this past week dripped with nostalgia. (A welcome exception was Makhudu Sefara, Sunday Independent editor). The praise that was heaped on him for his famous native intelligence was almost sickening. A case of bestowing honour on Brutus. My considered use of sarcasm is something I would happily defend. We’ve got to ask ourselves, folks, whether the summers really were hotter during the times of one Thabo Mbeki?
The answer is ‘no’.
A conservative estimate of preventable Aids-related deaths that can be attributed to government-sponsored Aids denialism (with Mbeki at the helm) is about 330 000, according to an academically well-received study at Harvard. It is neither here nor there whether Mbeki should be held legally accountable. What is beyond dispute, however, is that he is morally blameworthy for this macabre fact.
Yet, a not untypical response to this recent historic fact from many Mbeki lovers seem to be, “But...besides the Aids denialism, what else did he do wrong? And what about his positive achievements??!!” Holy cow! That’s a little bit like saying, “I know Verwoerd was responsible for Apartheid and stuff...but what ELSE did he do that was wrong? And what about his positive achievements?” Actually, the politically late Thabo Mbeki DID have positive achievements; and he DID have failures unrelated to Aids.
But what I find shocking about these retorts (even though I have answers available) is that they show a callous disregard for just how spectacular a case of moral failure Mbeki’s Aids denialism amounts to. We need not construct a complicated balance sheet about the rest of Mbeki’s leadership narrative to already conclude that, on balance, his was a presidential failure of gigantic proportions. So it is a moot point whether or not we can point to other weaknesses or strengths. And if you think otherwise, I invite you to speak to the families who remain affected by loss and suffering as a result of Mbeki’s wayward intellectualism getting in the way of the early provision of life saving drugs for his people – when such drugs had already been shown, through rigours peer-reviewed scientific processes – to be effective.
For what it’s worth, here is a terse hint at the rest of the ‘balance sheet’:
a) on the negative side, Mbeki might not be solely responsible for failing to bring about a change in the organisational culture of the African National Congress, but, dammit, as a power-wielding leader he COULD HAVE – had he not suffered a large dose of insecurity – take deliberate steps to make the ANC a more internally democratic, and open, party, fit for a modern, liberal democratic space ---- contrary to its liberation history and ethos;
b) furthermore, the later Mbeki (there was an early Mbeki who understood identity much more sensibly, more sensitively....) developed a pernicious racialism that hindered, rather than helped, the development of a healthy intergroup dialogue, and sound race relations ;
c) on the plus side, I have consistently argued (and still do) that Mbeki’s greatest achievement was being, in effect, Prime Minister of SA from 1994 until 1999. He was responsible for day-to-day pragmatism while Madiba was smiling, and attending to photo shoots . For example, the economic policy transformation from RDP madness to GEAR – which I think was the right move – was in part due to Mbeki’s centrist, pragmatic thinking. Beyond that, his work on the continent remains praiseworthy.
What, then, is the ‘on balance’ conclusion? He had some good moments, yes. But the bad moments – including the most important ‘bad’, Aids denialism – were so spectacularly BAD that it is madness to remember him with fondness, and nostalgia. We are better off without the politically late Thabo Mbeki.
Does this mean that president Zuma is doing a fine job? No, not at all. But perhaps it is most apt to end this note with a very mundane cliché – two wrongs don’t make a right.