No. 1: Portrait of An Imperial President / Mark Levin / The Mercury (South Africa) / June 2016

Published in: The Mercury (South Africa), 17 June 2016

Thabo Mbeki: Africa's Philosopher-King, Adekeye Adebajo, Jacana, 2016

Will South Africans come to view Thabo Mbeki more favourably with the passage of time? This question is asked by the Nigerian author (and former Rhodes scholar) Adekeye Adebajo in this the latest in Jacana's pocket biography series.

Adebajo attempts to rehabilitate Mbeki's mixed legacy by promoting him to the position of philosopher-king and "the most important African political figure of his generation".

Yet even in a weak field, Mbeki does not reach such heights, and in his analysis of Mbeki's years in power, Adebajo himself fails to find the evidence to justify his claim.

From childhood, Mbeki was a voracious reader with a keen intellect, but his dislike of criticism undermined the philosopher's committed quest for truth.

His imperial presidency was closer to that of a king as the source of all power.

Such lofty certainty lay at the heart of Mbeki's "greatest blot on his record", the Aids debacle, which resulted in thousands of South Africans dying through an unnecessary refusal to provide antiretroviral drugs.

The author also acknowledges the controversial arms deal and Mbeki's failure to root out corruption and incompetence in government.

It is in the area of foreign policy in Africa that Mbeki's achievements were strongest. His advocacy of an African renaissance sought to restore Africa's past glory.

In this he was a passionate advocate, but the reluctance of most African leaders to embrace this ideal is their failure rather than Mbeki's. Without his commitment after he left office, some of the institutions that Mbeki built remain fledgling.

But under his leadership, first as deputy president and then as president, South Africa transformed from being Africa's most destabilising power under successive apartheid governments to becoming its most energetic peacemaker.

In his assessment of Mbeki as a flawed but intellectually brilliant leader, the author emerges as Mbeki's champion, presenting him as a more complex and sympathetic man, whose downfall had a tragic Shakespearean nobility.

Mark Levin

Synopsis of the book »

Rate this item
(0 votes)

© 2016 Centre for Conflict Resolution 

Centre for Conflict Resolution, Coornhoop, 2 Dixton Road, Observatory 7925, Cape Town, South Africa

 Tel: +27 (0)21 689 1005 | Fax: +27 (0)21 689 1003