No. 2: Mbeki ... Africa's Philospher King / Adele Jinadu / African Independent / August 2016

Published in: African Independent, 5 August 2016

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

Thabo Mbeki: Africa's Philosopher-King is a thoughtful book that aims "to rescue Mbeki from the parochialism of South African perspectives and restore him to his rightful stature as an important pan-African political figure".

It is an excellent sympathetic tapestry woven from variegated threads, reflecting the tortuous path Mbeki's career criss-crossed.

The introduction paints a portrait of Mbeki as an important player "in laying the foundations for a post-apartheid state" and defines him as "a complex figure, full of contradictions and paradoxes".

Chapter 1 uses Plato's concept of philosopher-king to underscore the driving vision and mission of Mbeki's political career. It compares him with another African philosopher-king, Kwame Nkrumah. It highlights inherent limitations in the political role of philosopher-kings, arguing that "the biblical saying that prophets are not honoured in their land epitomises the fate" of the two African philosopher-kings.

Chapter 2 is a condensed account of the "experiences that shaped Mbeki's politics". The experiences sowed the seeds of resentment and opposition against him among critical ANC cadres, as he climbed the greasy pole of political power. The resentment revolved around his "political pragmatism"; preference for "evolutionary to revolutionary change"; "reputation... for being arrogant and ambitious"; and his "improvised polyglot identity".

Chapter 3 recounts Mbeki's mine-infested path to the leadership of the ANC and the presidency. It offers a succinct narration of contradictions spawned by schisms, arising from contending ideological, ethno-regional, racial and intellectual tendencies within the ANC.

Chapter 4 examines Mbeki's domestic policy, framed around his personality, leadership style, political philosophy, the fractious ideological, ethno-regional and racial tendencies within the ANC, and the structural character of the inherited political economy of post- apartheid South Africa. The picture that emerges is a mixed one.

The chapter analyses the complex relationship between Mandela and Mbeki, raises such question as: why did Mbeki, a trained Marxist development economist, not make a more radical analysis of the inherited contradictions of the apartheid state and take decisive action to transform the socio-economic conditions of the black masses?

Why was he so keen to win credibility from domestic and foreign business interests even in the face of policies that clearly were not achieving their desired outcomes? Why did he not address "the urgent need for wealth redistribution and the reduction or elimination of the gross poverty and inequality that prevailed"?

The chapter offers an illuminating account of the controversy that raged within the ANC, and between it and its allies, over the substance and direction of the "national democratic revolution"; over the replacement of the "redistributive state-led reconstruction and development programme" by the "neo-liberal, market-led Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy"; and over the "implementation, and seeming failure of the Black Economic Empowerment policy".

The chapter records that the socio-economic profile of South Africa for much of the Mbeki presidency was a gloomy and dire one. It also offers interesting illustrations of the leadership style of Mbeki, as a Leninist czar, an imperial president, a micromanager and workaholic, and a Machiavellian, who practised "a top-down, technocratic approach".

Chapter 5 provides a masterful account of Mbeki's foreign policy, whose legacy is its "pan-African outlook and diasporic reach" and "re-globalisation of pan-Africanism". It enumerates Mbeki's "five key priorities for external relations": restructuring the AU and SADC; reforming regional and international organisations; hosting international conferences; promoting peace and security in Africa and the Middle East; and fostering ties with the G-8. The chapter notes the asymmetry of trade relations with several African countries: "By 2002 the rest of Africa accounted for 16.74 percent of South African exports, while imports... from the rest of Africa amounted to... 3.62 percent."

The trade imbalance elicited "expressed unease about... South Africa's xenophobic and mercantilist trade policies under Mbeki's rule", including "complaint about the aggressive drive by South Africa's mostly white-dominated corporations in search of new markets north of the Limpopo", although "criticisms should be balanced against the creation of jobs and improvement in infrastructure and services".

Chapter 6 narrates Mbeki's life-after-office as president: his transition from a philosopher-king to an international statesman and mediator, involved in peacemaking efforts, investigating illicit financial flows from Africa; and speaking the truth to power on "major foreign policy and, increasingly, domestic South African issues".

Chapter 7 concludes that Mbeki's legacy "will inevitably be a mixed one", with his socioeconomic policies to "lift millions out of dire poverty and social misery", and his foreign policy in Africa and the diaspora, and his "self-confidence and proud assertion of an African identity" on the positive side; and the "Aids debacle", "controversial arms deal", "his monarchical leadership style" and "South Africa's deep socio-economic inequalities and injustices" on the negative side.

I have the following issues. First, is it not too soon to write a political biography of Mbeki, less than 10 years after he left office? But, "why not now?" For Mbeki is not only about the place and relevance of ideas in politics but also an informed commentary on contemporary South African and African politics

Second, the book illustrates the power and limits of the intellectual vocation in politics. The philosopher-king metaphor shows the driving power of knowledge and the possibilities it offers for visioning and understanding public affairs. The problem is the nature of the knowledge required: how is it defined, acquired, through what kind of preparation? How is it applied, given the complexities of human nature in politics?

Third, the account of the division within the ANC over "national democratic revolution", raises a problem for armed liberation struggles in Africa, and their legacies in Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe: a two-phased strategy of socialist revolution, with a bourgeois revolution preceding but followed by a socialist revolution, a structural necessity or a pseudo-problem that should be avoided?

The South African experience confirms Fanon's premonition that once the national petty bourgeoisie is allowed to consolidate power it would betray the national democratic revolution.

Fourth, the book touches on two issues about democracy and development in Africa: the imperial presidency and the deficit of human security. The imperial presidency persists in Africa, despite efforts to tame it with constitutional provisions for separation of powers, because of constitutional provisions for panoplied presidential powers of appointment and patronage disbursement. But the fate of Mbeki illustrates that strong countervailing expression of voice by social forces in state and society, the occasional exercise of oversight by the legislature and judiciary, and presidential term limits, can constrain the imperial presidency.

The human security issue is the structural one of poverty, unemployment and social inequality; and the constitutional one of the responsibility of public authorities to provide the social and economic facilities to enable their citizens to enjoy human security. Thabo Mbeki offers no discussion of the land question as a human security one in South Africa under the Mbeki presidency. It remains a landmine ready to explode, if not urgently and proactively addressed.

Thabo Mbeki: Africa's Philosopher-King is published by Jacana and available at Exclusive Books and other book stores for R140.

Adele Jinadu

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