Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki File photo

Every president has a mixed legacy. Last week, Power987 gave us an opportunity to assess the legacy of President Thabo Mbeki as he turned 75, and it has triggered the necessary conversation that we need to be having as a nation. 

It was an evening of discovery on what we may never have known about how the man reflects on his own legacy, his regrets and non-regrets. 

But sometimes I wonder whether people around leaders tell them the truth about how they come across, because where Mbeki is concerned, even the ANC took months to tell him that on the HIV/Aids question, he always comes across badly. An acknowledgement that he stuffed up the government approach on this question would go a long way. 

For me it’s not about the scientific correctness or even the methodical approach to the disease – as that question was settled not by the Mbeki administration’s good heart but by the courts, which had to be resorted to by civil society. It was quite frankly about what message a head of state ought to have been communicating to ordinary people about a disease such as the one killing so many under his watch. Case closed. The rest is academic. The reality is that the Treatment Action Campaign had to go to court twice to drag the Mbeki administration to do the right thing on HIV/Aids.

Similarly, there is a huge legacy that Mbeki left behind – the legacy of the African renaissance. This isn’t explored enough, and he isn’t given enough credit for it. 

The African Peer Review Mechanism was his brainchild, and more than 30 African countries are now signatories of this tool of self-reflection. That is why I remain disappointed about his insistence that quiet diplomacy was the way to go on Zimbabwe. 

On the question of Zimbabwe, Botswana President Ian Khama is a better statesman, whose approach is more in line with the renaissance of Africa than Mbeki’s mollycoddling approach to Robert Mugabe. 

The African renaissance man must be able to say clearly that democracy in Africa must start to mean that leaders must know when it’s time to go. In the case of Mbeki, it’s a fact that he misread the mood ahead of Polokwane by insisting on a third term in office, resulting in the Zuma presidency.

In this regard, he seems to be in good company, with many of the leaders of our continent clinging to power in whatever form or shape.

This is the mixed legacy of Mbeki. On the one hand, he accentuated the African agenda and continued to live that legacy, being an instrument of peace on the continent. On the other hand, he didn’t follow his own advice in setting an example for other African leaders to let go of power when their sun has set, instead of arguing, for example, that Zimbabweans must be left alone to solve their own problems. 

Tomorrow we celebrate another icon in Nelson Mandela; another figure with a mixed legacy.

It is difficult to have a robust conversation where Mandela and Mbeki are concerned because both their statures generate fanfare. But given the freedom we all fought for, we shouldn’t be afraid.

Quite Frankly, Mandela didn’t help us resolve the national question adequately, hence the upsurge of racism and social discord 23 years into our democracy remains. His rainbow nation approach served only to paper over the cracks of the deep-seated crisis of national identity, and under his leadership, Codesa delivered dividends to only one part of the population, while leaving the majority landless.

Interestingly the first person to contradict the sanitised rainbow narrative was Mbeki. In one of his seminal speeches, he described South Africa as two nations: one poor and black; the other white and rich. No rainbow there.

Mbeki placed a more realistic picture of our lived reality as a country on the table, and this adds a positive to his legacy. The bigger question, however, is: What
follow-through was there in terms of policy impact to merge the two nations into one? 

Between Mandela and Mbeki, cumulatively and inadvertently, we have been left high and dry on bedding down the most fundamental interventions to take the country forward. 

So as we go about doing our 67 minutes, we need to get into a more robust mode of interrogation of what leaders like Mbeki and Mandela bequeathed us as a nation and what our role today should be to build on their mixed and imperfect legacies.

What can help is to ask ourselves: How can we revive Mandela’s vision for reconciliation without undermining the deprivation of the have-nots? How can we accentuate Mbeki’s African renaissance by ensuring that we break the back of poor leadership among our African leaders, characterised mostly by a reluctance to account to the people. 

How can we give a new life to the new struggle for economic emancipation? Mbeki and Mandela, in a sense, spearheaded the question of political morality. Mandela is seen as a paragon of morality, and Mbeki still spends days looking at questions of global corruption by fighting illicit flows of capital. 

How can we build on both these legacies to increase the fight against graft in order to redirect those scarce resources towards closing the inequality gap? 

These leaders have done their part in answering these questions; we must do ours by brightening the corner where we are in their honour.

Wishing you a profound Mandela Day and hoping that you will use your 67 minutes to revisit your role in building on the positive aspects of his legacy and correct the negative ones.