Thabo Mbeki: An Affirmation of a President that was
Former President Thabo Mbeki was at the UWC and held the Dullah Omar Lecture on 16 February. Dullah Omar, a Muslim, was the first Minister of Justice in the new democratically elected government of 1994. He also was the one who proposed that a truth commission, badly needed to clear up the apartheid past, that the first parliament was going to decide upon, should include the word “reconciliation” in its name, as there would be no future of this nation of South Africa without a reconciling process including all. So much of wisdom from a Muslim believer…
The lecture was very well attended. The immediate host of the UWC, the Community Law Centre, of which Dullah Omar had been a founder, had, a year before the event been deeply concerned about how to get people to attend. But here they were; more than 1500 people, most of who were students, in our Great Hall.
As a remarkable contrast to the reception that President Zuma was “graced” with two days ago, this evening also started off in jubilation and singing, and dancing, but not as a movement towards the podium but on the spot; but is was powerful, the singing of the students is just so powerful, a total vibration goes through the hall and it is an inspiring feeling that is inescapable. Mbeki has just entered the podium and the deafening singing is all you get. Instead of allowing the programme take its course with opening procedures etc., Mbeki walks up to the microphone and shouts “Amandla!” and most people answer him. In doing this within a minute all are calmed down and proceedings can continue.
A lot is being said about the former President of the country at the moment, and you get a feeling from the start that again he enjoys quite some popularity. The young Indian woman who introduces him concentrates on his work in the rest of Africa in different peace missions.
We are given a lecture, a proper lecture, and no one would doubt about who has written it. He has got his own think tank and used to write his weekly blog while President already. The first part is agonizing to me. It is about how the West still likes to and indeed does interfere in African affairs, and I think more than once, that there are many things that Mbeki leaves aside, regarding non-action of many kinds on the part of the various African states and on the part of AU. He uses Libya as a case study and argues from the start that things could have worked out much more peacefully had NATO and the West not abused the Security Council resolution to create a safe air space in the region, to go in and bomb Gadhafi targets. He, however, does not defend anything relating to General Gadhafi, and he instead repeatedly states that African nations, AU, etc. were not bought by Gadhafi’s oil dollars.
Very little, if anything, is said about the legitimate need of democracy in the northern part of Africa, and the lack of movements in the direction of democracy in large parts of the rest of Africa, and I start becoming very uneasy. Is this again a blame game, giving the West, for which time, the credit of being the instigator and meddler in various African affairs (even if I readily accept and history will show that NATO went too far in its armed intervention in Libya, and many of us would have wanted Gadhafi alive; NATO could be blamed for things not turning out that way).
But I should not have worried overtly. The rest of the lecture in fact had as an overarching theme the own responsibility of Africa for whatever happens in Africa. Using literary house gods as Yates and Achebe he starts talking about “things falling apart”, and even if we all know that this is intimately linked to the colonial impact during centuries, here the blame game is totally over. It is, Mbeki pleads, for the Africans to pick up the pieces, no other. A very clear message that inspired at least me; Mbeki also has been instrumental in strengthening the creation or extension of African networks: the insistence on a peer review mechanism when it comes to evaluating emerging democracies and their economies and judiciaries (the NEPAD process) and the notion of an African Renaissance to which he also has contributed substantial things in writing.
This is not to condone various next to disastrous shortcomings in his term as President of the country, on the contrary. This is to affirm that in South Africa, even though in a rough way, a democratic process has been at work. He is no longer the President, and he seems to have been liberated from this office, and he comes to UWC and speaks his mind, eloquently. Is not democracy in working a wonderful thing!!? Even though many things were not said, the evening in my reading of it, turns out to be an evening of truth telling.
Question time was allowed and he excelled; ten were allowed the roaming microphone. One student had asked about the tendency towards self-enrichment on the part of government ministers and departmental heads etc. in the new South Africa. Mbeki: the government is well represented here in the front rows tonight, let them answer; laughter.
The Community Law Centre and the Faculty of Law afterwards laid on a reception with good South African food and drink. After having taken another few interviews with media, eventually Thabo Mbeki also entered the party tent behind the Great Hall where the party was held. He greeted people freely. I also greeted him, and reminded him that we had met once many years ago in Norway (Granavolden). I thanked him for the lecture and incredibly he said: was it OK? I said, yes indeed. What I liked was your courage to look at African affairs in such a self-critical way and also to allow contrasts between different players stand out without trying to minimize them. He mused, and others queued up and a lot of photos were taken.
Without agreeing with the former President Thabo Mbeki on every point, this was an evening well worth remembering, not least the fact that this Thabo Mbeki still is around and greatly contributes to a democratic and public conversation so badly needed, while it is not to be expected or desirable that he should return to the presidency.