Thabo’s pen versus perceptions by Tinyiko Maluleke (Sunday Independent), 24 January 2016
Since the rising of the sun of democracy upon the magnificent Drakensberg, none of the other sons of the soil on whom we have bestowed the title of president has come close to Thabo Mbeki in speechwriting. I predict that in the year 2100, students of post-apartheid South African rhetoric the world over will continue to recognise his 1996 “I am an African” speech as a remarkable text and superbly delivered speech.
A hundred and 20 years from now, young Africans across the continent – nay, across the globe – will be engrossed as they listen, through earphones embedded in their flesh, connected wirelessly and seamlessly to a post-wi-fi, post-Bluetooth digital system, to a super-high-definition voice recording of this phenomenal speech by Mbeki, as they cruise effortlessly in self-driven low-emission cars.
These youths may not know what Mbeki was on about when he spoke of the “soil-coloured waters of Lekoa, iGqili noThukela” as these rivers, in all probability, will have run dry. Worse, after being renamed after 21st century ANC Struggle veterans like Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe, these rivers may no longer exist as such.
Many youths will not have seen the animals Mbeki referred to in his speech – the leopard, the lion, the elephant, the hyena and the black mamba – as many of these animals will, in all likelihood, have become extinct.
The only springbok they will know for sure will be the type that plays in the national rugby squad.
Thabo Mbeki is neither a Martin Luther King jr nor a Barack Obama when it comes to oratory. But he makes up for it in many other ways. Many have remarked that Mbeki has a razor-sharp intellect. He can also wield a pen in a manner few others can. If Mbeki wrote graffiti, many would find the wall and visit frequently.
There is a Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki Twitter account, whose authenticity is unverified. It has not issued a single tweet. Yet it has 17 493 followers queueing up to be the first to lap up his first tweet.
Next to Nelson Mandela, Mbeki has arguably been the most influential political leader of the first two decades of the 21st century in this country and on the continent.
His immense influence predates the July 9-12, 1987 meeting in Dakar, Senegal, between the then-banned ANC and a delegation of white South Africans, most of them Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals, led by the late Van Zyl Slabbert.
This was a precursor to Codesa, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, and Mbeki was the leader of the ANC delegation. As many have noted, not only was Mbeki pivotal to the Codesa negotiations and all that came before them, he was, in effect, President Mandela’s prime minister.
Mbeki influenced and directed South African politics, from the Union Buildings, for nearly 15 years.
All our foundational statutes and policy directions are imbued with Mbeki’s inspiration.
His supporters argue that part of the predicament of the current ANC administration is that it has not been able to match, improve or accelerate implementation over and above the formidable legacy of Mbeki in policymaking.
Add to all this Mbeki’s key role in the Organisation of African Unity’s transition to the AU, especially the conceptualisation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.
More recently, his efforts, assisted by others in the Sudan, led to the birth of South Sudan, the first African state to have been born outside the borders proclaimed by the European powers in Berlin towards the end of the 20th century.
The vision of an African rebirth, so aptly captured in Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, resonates with the April 5, 1906 speech of Pixley ka Seme, “The Regeneration of Africa”.
It is a vision that resonates with the visions of Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, William Blyden, WEB Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Julius Nyerere, Robert Sobukwe, Samora Machel, Steve Biko and many others.
Above all, the vision of an African rebirth is a vision that resonates with many Africans on the continent and in the diaspora.
Given the scenarios I have painted, you would think Mbeki’s place in history was guaranteed.
One would not expect unanimity on every aspect of his character and his reign.
That would be abnormal. Disagreements and even historical distortions may have crept in.
That is what happens to the stories of those who have dared to risk historical involvement, those who have dared consciously to insert their individual stories into the larger narrative of a nation.
Such people cannot succeed in dislodging their individual story from the story of a people.
Yet for all his faults, and there are many, Thabo Mbeki still stands like a Titan in the unfolding story of democratic South Africa and the rising Africa of the 21st century.
According to Max Boqwana, chief executive officer of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, Mbeki has apparently been persuaded by unidentified interlocutors, who have “expressed concern that if the negative things repeatedly said about him and the governments he led are false, the failure to correct them is to allow these to become established as historical truths”.
Apparently, the young among the same interlocutors, have “insisted that President Mbeki’s failure to tell his story is denying them access to experience they need as they try to develop themselves as “change agents”.
So goes the official rationale for the weekly articles we have begun receiving from Mbeki on online platforms, including the Thabo Mbeki Foundation website.
Feel free to fully believe this rationale, if you wish. I don’t. The decision to write and publish these articles is not an altruistic effort purely in response to external requests. I think it comes from deep inside the soul of our former president. At this stage of his political life, a decision to spend his time and energy in this manner seems weighty and carefully considered. Unlike many who want to quibble and speculate about the timing and the intention, I am prepared simply to accept that the question of his legacy and the “negative things repeated about him” are an extremely important
matter to him and have been for a long time. And, hey, grant the man the freedom and the latitude to choose his own priorities, including seeking to influence how he is remembered.
Even Jesus, before being taken up into the clouds, as the good book says, led his disciples through an elaborate and
rigorous drill designed to teach them exactly how to remember him.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” he is reported to have said.
Mbeki is therefore not the first leader to wish, as far as it is humanly possible, to influence how he is remembered.
Unfortunately, if what we see in some churches is anything to go by, even Jesus did not succeed in orchestrating the manner in which he is remembered by his followers, let alone his enemies. Instead of the wine that he shared with his disciples as a token of remembrance, some latter-day followers are using petrol. Instead of the bread that he broke with his friends, some are using grass, rodents and snakes. And all these people read from the same Bible!
I have no reason to believe that Mbeki’s articles will fare better than the New Testament as an aide-memoire and study guide for how to remember.
It is not as if Mbeki has promised us a sequel biography, as long as Mark Gevisser’s 892-pager.
Ten short articles cannot, even for one whose pen is as mighty as Thabo Mbeki’s, be sufficient to answer all questions about the “negative things repeatedly said” about him throughout his presidency.
Including the Gevisser biography, there is in fact a considerable body of work reflecting on Mbeki and his leadership.
There are two volumes containing his major speeches, namely Africa Define Yourself and Africa: The Time Has Come. Add to this Ronald Suresh Robert’s Fit to Govern.
Brian Pottinger’s The Mbeki Legacy may be unflattering, but it is a record of and a reflection on his leadership.
More recently, Frank Chikane, has contributed two considerable instalments, also designed to deal with “negative things repeatedly said”: Eight Days in September and The Things That Could Not be Said.
Even if Mbeki was to write a gigantic autobiography in the league of Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom it may not be enough to “set the record straight” about “negative things repeatedly said”.
As Mbeki noted coyly in his first article, history is written by the powerful.
But the memory and experience of the powerless will not be totally orchestrated and completely directed by the powerful.
In this sense the contestations between the Mbekis, the Cronins, the Sexwales, the Phosas and the Ramaphosas of this world may be irrelevant to the way ordinary people experienced Mbeki.
The Mbeki articles and the quarrels they will engender among the personally implicated will entertain us, and I do look forward to the next eight.
But I am not holding my breath about their potential to erase “the negative things repeatedly said”.