Thabo Mbeki’s mixed legacy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mbeki belongs in a council of elders, but after reflecting on his presidency

First published in BusinessLive


Former ANC and state president Thabo Mbeki turned 80 in 2022. His public engagements in recent months have generated nostalgia and controversy.

This sprightly elder statesman of liberation movement politics has continued to be a prominent figure even in his twilight years. Surely a national council of the elders could be created to draw on the experience of such widely respected veterans?

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mbeki’s rival in the bitter battle to succeed Nelson Mandela more than 25 years ago, offered a seemingly generous tribute on Mbeki’s birthday in June. Mischievously likening Mbeki to an oak tree — “strong, enduring and wise” — Ramaphosa described it as a “personal comfort … to know we continue to rely on your honesty when we are not living up to the expectations of our people”.

Mbeki demonstrated just such frankness the same month at the memorial service for ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, lambasting Ramaphosa for tardy and ineffective leadership. “There is no national plan to address these challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality … Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa when he delivered his state of the nation address in February … said in 100 days there must be an agreed social compact to address these matters. Nothing has happened. Nothing.”

Mbeki also took the opportunity to rehearse a long-discredited theory from political science, famously advocated by his brother Moeletsi in 2011, that SA would face a “Tunisia moment” as economic reversals and unaffordable social grant programmes precipitate a popular uprising. “One of these days”, the former president claimed, “it is going to explode.”

Such commentary has attracted both praise and scorn. Demands for Ramaphosa to “crack the whip” with underperforming ministers certainly struck a chord. But many citizens have found it difficult to know how to treat Mbeki’s recent interventions.

Most societies show some respect for the wisdom of their ageing members. Neurologist and psychiatrist Prof Dilip Jeste, director of a “health ageing” institute at the University of California, San Diego, suggests older people develop capabilities for controlling their emotions, expressing compassion and using pattern recognition to take better decisions.

However, it is noteworthy that retired people can become embittered and bad tempered — even insufferable — in old age. Decreasing testosterone and variable blood sugar levels result in mood swings. The deterioration of eyesight and hearing, and pain from arthritis and other age-related ailments, may lead to outbursts of anger.

Perhaps more importantly, many old people find their memory fails them, feel their legacy is misunderstood, and sense they are reviled where once they were beloved.

Certainly, some critics of Mbeki bewail the unresolved and unexplained legacies of his long political career: his approach to HIV/Aids; his decisions with regard to former justice system officials such as Vusi Pikoli and Jacki Selebi; corruption at PetroSA and in the arms sector; the apparent failure of SA’s Zimbabwe policy; paranoia about the media; attacks on internal democracy in the ANC; the pursuit of a third term as ANC president; and kick-starting the collapse of Eskom and wider parastatal looting through the Chancellor House investment vehicle.

These are just a few of the controversies Mbeki has had plenty of opportunity to explain. But he has chosen not to do so.

There are many attractions to the idea of a council of the elders in which luminaries of the past, such as Mbeki, Inkatha founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi and DA veteran Helen Zille could reflect together and then advise the current leaders of the nation. However, a degree of prior reflection and the ability of members to learn from and admit to their mistakes would seem to be obvious preconditions for success.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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