An African above all else

No other book has il­lu­mi­nated the in­ner life of the for­mer pres­i­dent so clearly, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

My knowl­edge of Thabo Mbeki has be­come en­cy­clo­pe­dic. In­deed, for the first time since I be­gan fol­low­ing his ca­reer in the 1980s, I see the var­i­ous di­men­sions of the man and his life’s work in politics and other en­deav­ours. But more im­por­tantly, I see how they all co­here.

I un­der­stand more clearly the core of his think­ing, the tra­jec­tory of his vi­sion, the sober assess­ment of his pri­vate life, the re­jec­tion of Western dom­i­na­tion and apartheid, the salu­tary ef­fect of his be­ing African, the af­fir­ma­tive value of his clar­ion call for an African re­nais­sance and the re­demp­tive recla­ma­tion of our past.

The cat has been let out of the bag and the se­crets of his life are in the open. The po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties that shaped him are in bold print, as well as the politics he cre­ated to shape the lives of oth­ers, now per­ma­nently en­coded in our mem­ory. I see the politics of ex­ile and the re­demp­tion from that ex­ile based on a path­way to prac­ti­cal politics.

If you read be­tween the lines, you will un­der­stand ideas re­lat­ing to change, the eco­nom­ics of vi­o­lence, pro­duc­tive con­flicts be­tween hege­monic power and sub­dued sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, the agency de­rived through the col­li­sion of an over­bear­ing state with re­sist­ing in­di­vid­u­als, the model of democ­racy that works, the struc­tural rea­sons for the fail­ures of pol­icy, and the merger of for­tuna and virtù in peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions.

The cast of voices ranges widely: fam­ily, friends and ac­quain­tances from near and far, staff, jour­nal­ists, six African heads of state, mem­bers of gov­ern­ment and Cab­i­net, ad­vis­ers, am­bas­sadors and schol­ars. All speak their minds, bring­ing out the best qual­i­ties in the for­mer pres­i­dent.

The voices are gen­tle and hon­est, en­gag­ingly cel­e­bra­tory but avoid cult lan­guage. The candour is sin­cere, and the rev­e­la­tions stun­ning.

Mbeki’s life is de­fined by politics: anti-apartheid strug­gles, man­ag­ing a free South Africa, Pan-African­ism and African lib­er­a­tion. He is praised for ini­tia­tives such as the New Part­ner­ship for Africa’s De­vel­op­ment, de­mands for re­spect for Africa and Africans, and a com­mit­ment to the progress of black men and women wher­ever they may live.

Mbeki is a true mod­erniser, one who imag­ines the blend­ing of a demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal pact with the quest for eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion. The modernist agenda is part of the con­cep­tual uni­verse of Mbeki’s po­lit­i­cal thought. The pur­suit of change in­evitably re­minds us of strains and anx­i­eties, wor­ries and doubts, and in this con­tra­dic­tory di­a­logue, Mbeki is not an iso­lated fig­ure, but part of our tran­si­tional mo­ments.

The book speaks to his char­ac­ter, with many at­test­ing to his courage, em­pa­thy, hard work and ded­i­ca­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of South Africa. There is a sacra­men­tal catholic­ity in the form of a com­mu­nity spirit and bond­ing. The traits pre­sented and praised in var­i­ous ref­er­ences are those of in­tegrity.

There is dura­bil­ity in th­ese traits, as those who met him early in his ca­reer and those who worked with him at the peak of his po­lit­i­cal life are con­sis­tently united in high­light­ing his em­pha­sis on pur­pose­ful work.

There is his hu­man side, as con­trib­u­tors speak of his 40-year mar­riage to Zanele and his fem­i­nist cre­den­tials. I learnt for the first time that he is a singer and jazz lover, and that he can play the pi­ano. His close friends speak of his gen­tle de­meanour, his abil­ity to give great speeches, and his friend­ships with many peo­ple. The state­ments on his re­la­tion­ships ad­dress a larger is­sue of hu­man­ity, the qual­ity of tend­ing to oth­ers, and the cul­ti­va­tion of a hu­man nature whose holis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence is at once ur­bane, hu­mane and nur­tur­ing.

Most ca­reers have an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment. That of Mbeki’s res­ig­na­tion on Septem­ber 21 2008, seven months be­fore the end his sec­ond term in of­fice, was one such mo­ment but, as those close to him have re­ported here, he han­dled it calmly and with dig­nity.

He fell and rose im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards, work­ing on peace mis­sions, and pro­duc­ing in 2015 the much­praised doc­u­ment on il­licit fi­nan­cial flows from Africa. His de­par­ture as pres­i­dent shifted the par­a­digm from an agenda fo­cused on South Africa to one fo­cused on the en­tire con­ti­nent, us­ing the time to me­di­ate on con­flicts in places such as Su­dan, Ivory Coast, Bu­rundi and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo.

There is a vi­sion that holds every­thing to­gether: to be the best he could be as South Africa’s leader, and to move Africa for­ward. On the lat­ter, he associated with the idea of the African re­nais­sance, work­ing for the ideals and val­ues that would pro­duce a re­birth. This idea will out­live him and will be part of his legacy.

“What you do is your history,” de­clares his­to­rian Leonard Sweet. This book has recorded what Mbeki has done with his life, his history.

But, as Sweet re­minds us, “what you set in mo­tion is your legacy”. Faith in “Africa ris­ing” is his legacy: this is a be­lief, a faith in us all, and this is what he is be­queath­ing to us. This col­lec­tion ex­pands our col­lec­tive her­itage.

Falola is a Ja­cob and Frances Sanger Mos­siker chair in the hu­man­i­ties, and distin­guished teach­ing pro­fes­sor at the

Univer­sity of Austin, Texas


RE­NAIS­SANCE MAN For­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki

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