49. New Mbeki critique a welcome contribution to the field

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
9 July 2018
Business Day (South Africa)

A book of essays on former South African president, Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), Building Blocks Towards An African Century, has recently been published. Edited by former vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Barney Pityana, the volume’s 12 substantive chapters cover a broad canvass of politics, economics, and global perspectives, with Africa as the thread weaving them together, reflecting Mbeki’s worldview.

Chapters have been contributed by five leading African intellectuals. South Africa’s Barney Pityana’s comprehensive introduction acknowledges Mbeki’s pivotal role in creating South Africa’s post-apartheid state. Due to a long personal relationship with his subject spanning nearly five decades, Pityana’s chapter is sympathetic without being hagiographic. As a member of the ANC Youth League and of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness (BC) movement, Pityana served as a bridge between the two movements, and highlighted Mbeki’s nuanced understanding of two important strands of South Africa’s liberation struggle, in which Thabo reached out to BC activists, many of whom he helped to recruit into the ANC in exile in Swaziland.

Pityana describes the various criticisms of Mbeki as enigmatic, aloof, impenetrable, and autocratic. Instead, he portrays him as calm; cultured; thoughtful; selfless; ethical; respectful; a voracious reader who eschewed populism; a hard taskmaster who mastered not just his own presidential brief, but those of his ministers; and a leader who was deeply steeped in ANC traditions of “servant leadership,” having been mentored by O.R. Tambo. Pityana also presents Mbeki as a strategic leader who was the architect of South Africa’s post-apartheid governance structures, though he notes that his greatest achievements were in the realm of foreign policy.

Pityana parts ways with Mbeki on three issues: first, being too loyal to incompetent ministers; second, the failure by his administration to condemn xenophobia more openly; and third, while showing an understanding of Mbeki’s analysis on HIV/AIDS, Pityana suggests that the president should have left technical matters of science to experts.

Nigeria’s Adebayo Olukoshi competently – if not particularly originally – covers the ground in analysing contemporary global economic policies and their impact on Africa, peppered with sporadic quotes from Mbeki. The author could, however, have engaged in far more detail with Mbeki’s Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), placing them within a global context. Olukoshi argues that Mbeki’s African Renaissance vision pushed Africa to organise itself to own and drive all aspects of its development agenda. The complaints about BEE benefitting a handful of politically-connected individuals should, however, have been addressed, as should critiques of NEPAD’s overreliance on foreign funding and being too top-down and failing to consult civil society.

The leading prophet of Afro-centrism, African-American scholar, Molefi Asante, then assesses Mbeki’s African Renaissance concept within a Pan-African context, describing Mbeki’s message as “Afrocentric”. I am not sure, however, that Mbeki would describe his own ideas in such a limiting manner. South Africa’s former president is more of a cosmopolitan polyglot, as much at home with Xhosa poetry as Shakespearean prose; and as comfortable with the Harlem Renaissance’s griot, Langston Hughes, as the Irish poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, then tackles the controversial issue of “humanitarian intervention” in an essay that is replete with clever phraseology not matched by the author’s characteristic sharpness. Mamdani’s main point is that the United Nations (UN) has somewhat betrayed its mandate to deal with intervening “rogue states,” and become solely concerned with conflict-ridden “failed states”. Even though powers such as the United States and France have manipulated UN interventions for more parochial agendas in countries like Libya and Mali, the reality is that Africa still lacks the capacity to maintain its own peace. Surprisingly, Mbeki is not mentioned once in this chapter, and an analysis of his peacemaking efforts in Burundi, the Congo, and Darfur would surely have enriched this essay.

Finally, South Africa’s Chris Landsberg examines Mbeki’s foreign policy, praising his building of AU institutions, South-South strategy, and engagement with the Group of Eight industrialised countries. While there was certainly vision and strategy, the author fails to assess the impact and concrete results of these policies which were somewhat limited.

This book is an important contribution to the growing Mbeki corpus, taking its place alongside the 2016 45-chapter The Thabo Mbeki I Know.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.