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Pan Macmillan

Calm in deportment, methodical, quiet spoken and serious looking – though his sincere smiles could be disarming - Mbeki was Mandela’s loyal, efficient controller of day–to-day-government business as deputy president. The media found him to be austere and lacking in the warmth of Mandela and perhaps unfairly expected him to walk in the shoes of Mandela.

The Thabo Mbeki I Know is a mighty engaging tome comprising 539 pages and 44 contributors – excluding the Forewords by Barney Afako and Mahmood Mamdani.  The short contributions are insightful in shedding light on the personality, politics and life of the former President of South Africa.  He was deputy president under Nelson Mandela from 1994-1999 and president from 1999-2008.

These rich reminiscences range from family friends, African leaders, former cabinet and government officials, advisors, ambassadors, cadres and comrades, support staff and media, acquaintances, friends from other countries and academics. Common in many of the contributions are aspects of the complex character of Mbeki that make him very human, despite the negative media portrayals during his period in office.

In terms of his strengths, many emphasise his intellectual prowess, his willingness to listen to opposing arguments and points of view, in addition to the fact that he was extremely conscientious or a “workaholic” (p. 413; p.102). He was a man who engaged in reflection and as Danny Schechter, a white American journalist claims, “Many took his thoughtfulness as a sense of superiority, but that didn’t make him a bad leader.” (p. 437)

Mbeki shares a number of personality traits with the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, such as having a high work ethic. Similarly, Nkrumah was a considerable voracious reader and Mbeki was known for his cerebral pursuits which made him a nightmare for journalists. As the journalist and editor Miranda Strydom comments, Mbeki would deny them tantalising soundbites for stories (p.400) and would often give lectures to journalists with the intention of helping them grasp the complexity of issues (p. 401). And yet, his efforts were often misconstrued as Mbeki being “too abstract”(p. 401). Schecter writes, “he was depicted as uncaring, overly intellectual, detached and dogmatic”. (p. 434).

 Calm in deportment, methodical, quiet spoken and serious looking – though his sincere smiles could be disarming - Mbeki was Mandela’s loyal, efficient controller of day–to-day-government business as deputy president. The media found him to be austere and lacking in the warmth of Mandela and perhaps unfairly expected Mbeki to walk in the shoes of Mandela.

Several contributors are very candid in their assessments of him and comment on media and popular perceptions of him as “being too scholarly and not charming enough” (p. 49) as Meles Zenawi comments. As Brigalia Bam reveals, he was a man who could not do “small talk”(p. 5). Yet, Albie Sachs points out, he was “sensitive and gracious in private” but “morose and obstinate in public.” (p. 430) Or in the words of Essoph Pahad, “He gave the impression that he was aloof, which he was not, because of the way he responded to the masses and they to him.” (p.109)

Frank Chikane believes that, “Another weakness with Mbeki was that he tended to expect that people would be like him.” (p. 180) He demanded excellence and often his ministers would fall short from his expectations. As Essop Pahad points out, he was “too trusting” (p. 108) of men who were lacking in calibre and competence and “[Mbeki] ended up doing the job of the ineffective cabinet minister.” (p. 108) Similarly, Nkrumah was far too trusting and tolerant of opportunist and careerist ministers and failed to deal with them appropriately and at the necessary time.

Chikane argues that, “Another classical example of a strength that became a weakness was the fact that Mbeki did not believe that ANC cadres could do what they did in Polokwane. He carried this perspective along until Polokwane and ultimately to his removal as President. When he was advised otherwise he said no, an ANC cadre cannot do that, otherwise it cannot be the ANC. He missed the point that during the new dispensation the ANC cadres had changed in terms of self-interests.”(p.182) Mahmoud Mamdani poignantly remarks:

“While none of the writers in this volume celebrates the departure of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency, none is able to make political sense of this moment when a broad coalition came together with a single agenda, to oust him from office, falling apart as soon as the agenda had been accomplished.” (p.xxxiv) As he was removed from office with scarcely seven months before his term as president expired, the determination of his opponents demonstrated their ruthlessness, vindictiveness and in the view of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, “It was done to humiliate him.” (p.119) Essop Pahad concurs (p. 113). Schecter considers the recall to have been an unnecessary “decapitation” (p.438)

Mamdani makes the very interesting and correct observation that “The single most puzzling thing about the essays in this collection is their inability to come to grips with the political defeat that was Thabo’s ouster from office. Most, like Essop Pahad, think it was the result of a failure of communication. None entertains the possibility that it may have been the result of a policy failure that made for a broad and politically unsustainable coalition of forces – left, centre and right – that would topple Thabo and dissolve the morning after.”(p.xxvii)

Despite this, many of the contributors remark on the stoicism and remarkable dignity with which Mbeki resigned from office in what Pahad describes as a “very painful and tragic” experience (p.113). Whilst in office Mbeki had been besmirched by several issues, among them being how he handled the HIV/AIDS issue; international capital as well as Zimbabwe. All three issues saw pressure from internal and external forces. 

Several commentators, among them Mamdani, provide a very good synopsis of the complexity of the HIV/AIDS controversy that emerged in the country around 1995/96 and the Mbeki government’s response to it. The media’s infatuation with sound bites simplified Mbeki’s position to one of “AIDS denialism.” In reality the careful nuanced and analytical mind of Mbeki did not deny that HIV led to AIDS but also argued that it was exacerbated by other complicating issues of poverty, lack of sanitation, safe sex, nutrition, single partners, lack of water, malaria and diabetes. In short, he did not refuse anti-retrovirals but was of the opinion that they were not the sole solution.

A staunch defender of Mbeki’s position in the book is Antony Mbweu who was executive director of research at the Medical Research Centre from 1996 to 2005 and its president from 2005 t0 2010. He is of the opinion that behind the international furore against Mbeki was “the threat that President Mbeki posed to the global order and the vested interests that work within that global order, be they governments or corporates, was not about HIV and AIDS; it was primarily about the whole issue of Africa.”(p. 220) Mbeki was seeking to restructure the global order with his promotion of an African Renaissance in which Africans would determine their own economic and political futures; would seek an end to debt and also demand fair trade as a continent with abundant mineral and agricultural resources. Mbewu writes: “So I think the issue was not about Mbeki asking questions about HIV and AIDS; the threat was here was a man who threatened to unite Africa.”(p.221)

Another issue that irked international capital was the fact that “Big capital was opposed to Thabo Mbeki from the beginning because they know that in him they had a serious opponent; an economist who understood the economy but who was determined we needed to change the patterns of ownership of our economy, that we need to empower the majority of our people, we needed to implement Black Economic Empowerment polices and positions and we need to take positions on international issues.” (p.109-110) Neither did the French like Mbeki interfering in the political reconciliation in Cote d’Ivoire during the crisis in the country in 2004 as the French considered “Francophone Africa” their backyard.

Frank Chikane writes, “Because of Mbeki’s positions on the ‘principles of equality’, which he pursued with ‘uncompromising zeal’, he was identified as a ‘hindrance to the interests of dominant countries in the global governance system’, which is based on ‘the relics of the colonial traditions and practices.’ (p. 171)

Many Western countries wanted to see regime change in Zimbabwe and in Mbeki they had no “yes man” to do their bidding. Instead, as Chris Landsberg remarks, Mbeki pursued “his quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe.” (p.517)

Imbued with deep-seated political convictions and a pride in being African, Mbeki challenged the common negative stereotypes of Africa as the “hopeless continent” and Africans as incapable of managing their own affairs without Western intervention. Therefore, his promotion of the necessity of an African Renaissance and the New African Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) were launched at the beginning of the twenty-first century to claim a new trajectory of the continent and African people i.e. the African century. Both initiatives appear to have not had much traction among ordinary Africans across the continent, but both have received some critical scholarly attention.

In the book, Patricia McFadden is candid in writing, “I have always critiqued the NEPAD programme, largely because it caters for the African middle and upper classes in terms of aspiring to promote even further the entrenchment of capitalist enterprise and the extraction of African wealth at the expense of the working people…” (p. 524) There are others outside this voluminous book who would more trenchantly argue that Mbeki “talked left and walked right.” [1] Perhaps future historians will reassess this more soberly than those who know him.

 A manifestation of his African Renaissance philosophy was his stand with Haiti that is noted by Randall Robinson who comments that on 1 January 2004 Mbeki and his wife Zanele attended the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution in Haiti. Mbeki took his message of the African Renaissance to Haiti stating, “We are engaged in a struggle for the regeneration of all Africans, in the Americas, the Caribbean, African and everywhere, because we want to ensure that the struggle of our people here in Haiti, in the Caribbean, in the Americas, Europe and Africa must never be in vain.” In genuine and commendable Pan-Africanist solidarity, Mbeki’s government offered the deposed President Aristide exile in South Africa from 2004 to 2011. Mbeki was also to play a role in assisting resolution of the political conflict in the DRC (p.403) which is remembered by Botswana’s second president, Ketumile Masire.

For all his flaws and despite the appalling circumstances Mbeki represents a precedent of an African leader that was willing to step down and hand over power in a continent that has very few examples of such leaders doing so, for they are more noted for their “stayism” in power. Moreover, he has shown that there is a productive, rewarding and impactful life after high office in the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute (TMALI) that he set up with others in 2010. As Landsberg eloquently argues, “Aristocratic in his demeanour, he does the nightshift now that he is out of office as much as he did while in office.” (p.509) Barney Afako points out,  “Through his Leadership Institute he is helping to nurture the next generation of leaders…” (p.xviii)

Since stepping down as head of state, Mbeki also led the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa that launched its report in Addis Ababa in January 2015 bringing attention to the fact that illicit flows from Africa could be as much as $50 billion per annum, which undermines the future potential for economic and technological development.

While in office and out of office Mbeki has been perceived as playing a prominent role in promoting good governance in the African continent and a key architect of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Brigalia Bam who became Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission in 1999, also commends him for supporting the empowerment of South African women.

Albie Sachs comments on meeting Mbeki at a birthday party and reflecting on his complex feelings about Mbeki replete with “ambivalence about him, admiration, anger, disappointment and love all mixed up.” (p.427) Few individuals evoke such a range of emotions in others. Overall, this book assembles a breadth of political and personal accounts of engagements with Mbeki from individuals from diverse backgrounds. It shows Mbeki as a principled visionary, a pragmatist and an intellectual. What shines through in this book is a very human and complex individual. One may not agree with aspects of his politics and praxis. However, future historians and political scientists will fill in the much-needed gaps analysing the reasons for his callously enforced demise and its impact on the ANC, South African politics and the extent to which Mbeki’s government served big business and aided South Africa’s poor.

[The Thabo Mbeki I Know’ is edited by Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu and Miranda Strydom, published by Picador Africa, 2016].

* Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist and living in the UK.


  1. See P. Bond, ‘Limits to Class Apartheid’ in Zuma’s Own Goal edited by B. Maharaj et al, published by Africa World Press, 2011, p. 50.