Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thabo Mbeki's problem

David Beresford reported in yesterday's Guardian that:
Justice Malala, the highly regarded former editor of the defunct newspaper This Day, accused Mr Mbeki of "stepping into the worlds of [the late Zairian president] Mobutu Seso Seko and [Zimbabwe's Robert] Mugabe".

"Mbeki's Stalinist leanings are fully on show," he wrote. "Journalists and editors arrested, opponents jailed upon trumped up charges; everyone in government living in fear that they are being followed, watched and bugged."
I accept that outsiders, not least white ones from former colonial powers, can too easily and without even being aware of it slip into unduly facile condemnation of some post-colonial African leaders. But Mbeki's trajectory as described by Justice Malala doesn't seem surprising to me.

An anecodote. More than ten years ago I was in San Francisco to report on a conference organised by Mikhail Gorbachev with the aim of bringing together leaders and thinkers from different cultures to help chart a course for the 21st century less insane than the 20th. Participants included the late, wonderful Carl Sagan, Jane Goddall, Richard Leakey, Gorbachev himself and Thabo Mbeki, who at that time was deputy president of South Africa (Nelson Mandela was still president). Most of the participants I spoke to impressed me with their humanity, warmth and absence of bullshit -- including, to some degree, Gorbachev himself, who at least the very least displayed a convincing simulacrum of humanity, but had not succeeded in shaking off Soviet-era abstractions and bromides in his language.

I had about ten minutes with Mbeki, who I was told was more than usually busy as he was (I think) engaged in intense long-distance discussions relating to the new South African consititution. Mbeki instructed me ('instructed' would be the right word) in how remarkable and progressive the document was -- explicitly recognising, for example, the rights of homosexuals. (And I have no reason to doubt that the South African constitution is indeed an impressive document). But I felt no spark of warmth or connection, only ideology, in his mini-sermon.

Now one should always make allowances for politicians being over-tired, over-stretched and so on. Mbeki may have a warm side. Obviously he operates in tough circumstances. But all I can say is that the vibe was not great. I found it a little creepy in fact, and at odds from what one felt from other participants in that struggle, including of course Mandela himself.

Another ancedote, from Desmond Tutu (reproduced by Jonathan Glover) about his mother, an uneducated black woman in Apartheid-era South Africa:
In the eyes of the world this lovely person was a nonentity. I was standing with her on the hostel verandah when this tall white man, in a flowing black cassock, swept past. He doffed his hat to my mother in greeting. I was quite taken aback; a white men raising his hat to a black woman! Such things did not happen in real life. That gesture left an indelible impression. Perhaps it helped deep down to make me realise we were precious to God and to this white man; perhaps it helped me not to become anti-white, despite the harsh treatment we received at the hands of these white people.
The tall man in the cassock was Trevor Huddleston. Many years later (but some years before the San Francisco conference) I, a confirmed atheist at least as far as this universe is concerned, gave him a lift to and fro in a crapped-out Hillman Imp (which I had failed to look after for friends) so that he could give a blessing to some native North Americans plus Buddhists who were running from London to Moscow for peace (yes, this was the during the gap in the reign of fear between the Berlin Wall and 9/11). Huddleston was a Mensch.

For a recent, moving insight into some of the long-term consequences of Apartheid, and related catastrophes, see Anthony Sher on A tidal wave of violence.

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