Over the last couple of months South Africa, Africa and the wider world is treated to the uncensored at times scathing, from the heart, mind and fist views of former President Thabo M. Mbeki.
With Mbeki’s abrupt departure by way of now historic recall from High Office, a vacuum was created that perhaps shaped a deepened mystical notion of an Mbeki. There have always been those who attached a sense of mystery around his persona from the days of an ANC exile.
Quickly he assumed for some the proverbial dreaded disease that needed to be rid off. Yes he became the maximum – villain and claims of an obdurate, arrogant, aloof know-it-all king who demanded loyalty at all costs. One who for some makes up a part of a liberation-aristocracy, the pipe touting one who prides himself in quoting Yeats at the drop of a hat. Yet one whose thinking and style of leadership separated him from his organization and people as is vociferously claimed be some.
We hear some of this as Adekeye Adebajo in his mini- biography “Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s Philosopher – King” claims Mbeki an admirer of the character of Coriolanus in the Shakespeare play and how the life of Coriolanus tragically became Mbeki’s in equal political power end.
Whilst others saw the above, yet for others he became the ultimate victim, someone so wrongly done in, forever ill-treated and insulted thus one worthy of absolute defence. Some took it upon themselves to become defenders of him in a form resistance until COPE manifested these equally accorded him a status of almost uncontested royalty in admiration for his intellect. One would be fooled to argue against the presence of the notion of the personality cult. Perhaps we can confirm that the personality cult so often bandied around in our politics was not absent during and after the Mbeki era.
For the better part of the eight years since that dreadful night in September 2008, Mbeki has remained silent. He has kept his peace and explained this silence on his part as an unwritten rule of Statesmen not to attempt or to be seen as ruling from the grave.
In one of two letters he penned to me during 2010 he was at pains not to be drawn into the day-to-day party politics of the South Africa. Those who care to remember will recall how he reprimanded some not to speak on behalf of him or without his permission as to whether he will be campaigning for the ANC or not in the aftermath of that volatile moment.
Besides the core focus on Africa, issues of Renaissance, peace negotiations and the work that occupied the stratum of his thinking and conviction as attaché to AU and in his UN in deployed functions Mbeki steered clear from domestic politics in what I may coin a self-exiled sense.
Except for one other time late in 2011 when the brief incumbent of the SIU office accused him of a litany of things Mbeki never responded and allowed SA to think what it wanted to on him.
Fast forward to late 2015 and we started seeing an Mbeki actively taking the time to clear his chest on a plethora of things for which he oft was blamed, accused and even judged. He started writing almost weekly instalments on a history of SA politics under his leadership. From his controversial HIV & AIDS stance, to his Zimbabwe Quiet Diplomacy, GEAR, the Arms deal and in-between commentary on current political leadership veiled at times.
It became clear that Mbeki wanted to set the record straight at least his record by taking us into his confidence on issues pertinent in his epistemology of South African politics where he was a part. Some even accused him of an attempt of rewriting history.
Today we can say Thabo Mbeki is part of our discourse and he must be welcomed as evident in his every day responses as one who sojourns.
Not as villain neither as king but an ordinary South African citizen who can hear people challenge, question and engage him as equals for Mbeki is finally demystified and a commoner of Mzansi. No more do we want to hear his story as we protested because we are treated to his side. It should not matter that we agree or see things diametrically opposite.
What really matters is he is no longer a silent South African, affording some to speak on his behalf. So ordinary has Mbeki become that Luthuli- House does not even respond to his daily views.
I hold it does not even matter if his engaging today predicated on or bereft of any political agenda, Thabo Mbeki is an ordinary man who opines and we both read and ignore him, because he is one of many voices among what I have termed ‘The Thinking Masses’ in SA.
Let him speak as much as he can for as long as we have him with us! Nobody can guarantee he will get his side accepted as the ‘true gospel’. Thabo Mbeki is emboldening our discourse as one of us.
My only regret, how much richer our discourse may have been if former president Nelson R. Mandela was this active in the Mbeki era.
It would have been interesting to hear how Mandela would have been seen or experienced by both those in an outside of power. Would we have claimed Mandela active in a political agenda? The answer remains out.
Old man Mandela talked about not wanting to be seen as ruling from the grave and denied us his honest opinions of the success and failures of the Mbeki administration and governance!
Mbeki in one of his two letters to me quotes the old man (Madiba), as he too didn’t want to be seen to be ruling from the grave. I have always felt there is no true rule for former presidents to be quiet, although I understood that after a certain time lapse they pen their memoirs.
My unsolicited advice engage Mbeki as he is an active political player and commentator in this era, and must be welcomed as that!
I for one am glad I may never have to read another book about the Mbeki era from those who worked with him and cannot disagree with him. We get it from the proverbial horses mouth.
Finally he speaks for himself and no one needs to defend him, because he is very capable to articulate, opine, explain and if needs be defend his take on anything.
I welcome him from his self-imposed exile, we need to engage for there are many sides to what we lived through and are living through now!
What Mbeki’s return from what I dubbed his second exile helps us with perhaps can be summarised by the following points:
- He is demystified as a character and has become ordinary as one of us whose mind we can read from the thoughts he expresses. Ordinary because for he is sojourning and we find him interesting, insightful, boring, laborious, reactive and even recalcitrant and defensive. That is how we experience ordinary people.
- It affords us no more to guess or second guess him as led by some who have made it their careers to firstly interpret and secondly defend him as a victim. Mbeki the mystified character has unmasked himself and is walking among us daily in his opinion pieces. He bids like all of us for attention to get his view across.
- Mbeki’s participation in our discourse is helpful, helpful not in rhetoric of right and wrong but helpful in adding another perspective.
- Mbeki’s presence in our discourse affords us to hear him castigate, reprimand and argue with others. This is all healthy for our young democracy and it can only bode well for future presidents to do the same.
- Mbeki’s return from his self-imposed exile is finally confirming for many what they always knew about him yet for others it is also an occasion to get to know the prism of his thought provocation, the public can hear him anytime on anything.
- I don’t think there will be a huge need to read a biography even if he pens it because the pertinent issues that attest the fulcrum of his success and failures perceptively or real has been laid bare with his self-willed articles.
- We know now how Mbeki thought throughout his tenure and we know he thinks the same today. So in a sense he is perhaps eternalized and entrenched as both villain for some and a victim for others. He afforded us to test our assumptions to validate our opinions and to assimilate our collective views of him.
- One thing is certain Mbeki in retirement; active in our public discourse continues to divide us in entrenched binary patterns no different to current President Jacob Zuma. Perhaps this is what all presidents should do once they leave office be active in every discourse and quit pretending being muzzled by a self-consciousness of not ruling from the grave claim. In discourse no one rules, for we all are equals just a bunch of opinionated elites. For what is certain we will never all agree that he was a villain neither will we all agree he was victim.
We must wait to see if history judges this public engagement of Mbeki in this epoch as having fixed his legacy or if it confirmed his legacy as defined in September 2008.
For now I enjoy and will defend him to clear his chest, even if it annoys whomever, with the proviso it is his version not necessarily the correct version, he can be wrong like all of us, for he too has like all of us a blind spot.
We must wait to see who will use his current active role in our discourse for their personal political agenda, that is the nature of politics.
I sleep better because Mbeki is back from his self-imposed exile and treats us to his thinking crooked or straight. In a sense a thinking some of us have always known. Yes, I sleep better because Mbeki is an ordinary old man, grumpy, cocky and entitled to fart that causes a stink wherever he wants to, but sharing his valuable views and less of a mystery today than what some who attempted to prove their own intellectual worth have tried to sell us.
Long love public discourse, long live ordinary citizens and long live those who participate, in this arena we are all equals.
Clyde N.S. Ramalaine
An ordinary thinking South African !