Thabo Mbeki is a moderate politician but he has become defined by extreme positions on Zimbabwe, Aids and internal party dissentby Tom De Castella / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC by William Mervin Gumede (Zebra Press, £16.99)
Thabo Mbeki the enigma has become a cliché. But so far there have been few attempts to fathom the man who in 1999 was given the impossible task of replacing Nelson Mandela. William Gumede’s unauthorised biography is therefore to be prized. It is not only a long overdue study of a major world leader, but a detective story that tries to unravel the Mbeki paradox—the moderate who admires European social democrats like Tony Blair and Göran Persson but who has become defined by extreme positions on Zimbabwe, Aids and internal party dissent.
Internationally, Zimbabwe has become Mbeki’s millstone. With western leaders reluctant to be cast in the role of neocolonialists, South Africa and Mbeki became the conduit for change. George W Bush, during his first state visit to South Africa, declared Mbeki his “point man” on Zimbabwe. But Mbeki’s leadership and public statements on his northern neighbour have led to bemusement and anger in Zimbabwe itself. Mbeki has refused to attack Mugabe, and recently said the country’s huge debts were a consequence of generous spending on social services. And yet, Gumede argues, behind the scenes Mbeki has been as frustrated as others by the Zimbabwean dictator.
So why has the leader of southern Africa’s only superpower been so timid? The first clue Gumede presents is Mbeki’s reaction to the brutal farm invasions choreographed by Mugabe: “This is another Abacha,” he told colleagues. He was referring to one of the first diplomatic challenges to face the newly installed ANC government, when in 1995 Nigeria announced that the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was to be executed. Mandela sent Mbeki, his deputy, to persuade the Nigerian military leader Sani Abacha to spare him. But Abacha accused the South Africans of being puppets of the west, and Saro-Wiwa was killed. Later Mbeki was to say that the Saro-Wiwa execution “highlighted the potential limits of our influence as an individual country… and the need to act in concert with others and to forge strategic alliances.” Nevertheless, the difference between faraway Nigeria, boasting a population of at least 115m, and neighbouring Zimbabwe, with 12m, suggests that Mbeki may have been over-cautious.
Mbeki has shied away from applying economic pressure to the Mugabe regime, such as cutting fuel and electricity supplies. Even in the wake of Mugabe’s recent “clean-up”…