The erudite Thabo Mbeki might not have been faultless, but his legacy is one of ethical leadership, says Abe Mokoena
In Nigeria, there is a Yoruba proverb that says: When a child stumbles and falls, it instinctively looks out for what lies ahead. But when elders stumble and fall, they cast a glance backward to see what lay behind.
I recalled this saying last Friday after the former president of the country and the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, dramatised the uniqueness of his humanism, common sense and humility by abandoning his motorcade during a traffic jam in central Johannesburg.
He then walked several streets, together with his wife Zanele Mbeki and bodyguards, to the City Hall to deliver his keynote address at the late Reggie September’s memorial service. Such acts of pure simplicity from leaders are as rare as snow in summer.
And to the ordinary South African, it is a source of great inspiration, as shown in this case by the bystanders who smiled at him, shouted and clapped.
His arresting and conquering simplicity reminded me of African heroes such as Ethiopian long distance and marathon runner Abebe Bikila who, in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, made history when he won a marathon in a record time while running barefoot. Mbeki also had me recalling the late Nigerian musical and philosophical genius, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who was an object of curiosity for people the world over and whose music transcended both cultural and political barriers.
I remembered our world-renowned Professor Christiaan Neethling Barnard who, on December 3, 1967, at Groote Schuur Hospital, performed the first successful heart transplant in the history of humanity, transferring the heart of 25-year-old Denis Darvall into the body of 54-year-old Louis Washkansky, who died 18 days later.
It is in situations of this nature that ordinary people feel gratified as they watch a former president walking in the streets among them, with his legs dancing like fresh foliage in the sun.
It is in moments of this nature that they feel fulfilled as they realise that we are all human – that we are all people of flesh, blood and bones. This is the case because people always crave for a moment when leaders do not live in the clouds, over and above the heads of ordinary mortals.
Mbeki does this at a time when the best of us act like the peaks of proud mountains. We cannot even dream of boarding a taxi or a bus with the people. Yet, we claim to be men and women of the very people we don’t want to associate with.
Yes, Mbeki is doing this at a time when current and former presidents and prime ministers around our continent travel in stretch limousines, large convoys and security that swoop down like eagles whenever the motorcade reaches its destination. They carry this out in the name of security while it is merely an exhibition of the illusion of importance. It is just a showoff of the prerogatives of power and wealth.
I believe that many will admit that, despite his blind spots – such as his failure to understand the changed character of the cadre of the ANC after its unbanning, failing to give sufficient attention to his party, his controversial views on HIV/Aids, his contestation for a third term as ANC president, his alleged preference of yes-men and women in his inner circles, Mbeki’s glittering legacy still makes him one of the country’s greatest heroes and a great son of the continent.
This heroic child of Epainette Mbeki and Oom Govan Mbeki, born in Idutywa in the Eastern Cape, will always be remembered for among other things, being the key driver of the African Renaissance vision on the continent. This is the same vision that gave birth to the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), the African Partnership Forum (APF) as well as the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).
He was also part of the key thinkers who played a vital role in the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union. He fought and is still fighting ferociously for the establishment of political stability for the intensification of development all over Africa.
And on a continent characterised by war, hunger, genocide, rogue and savage tyrants, he is credited with conflict resolution mediation in countries such as Lesotho, the DRC, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Sudan. Above all these, he tirelessly played a pivotal part in making it a reality that the voice of South Africa and that of Africa are heard and positively responded to on the global stage.
He will always be remembered as a man whose remarkable intellectual firepower enables him to champion the deployment of ideas with granite clarity. And most will admit that he also possesses immense verbal resources. The flames from his tongue of fire can turn a crowd into a pool of sighs.
Relish his creative flair when he says: “My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by the victories that are the jewels in our African crown, the victories we earned from Isandlwana to Khartoum, as Ethiopians and as the Ashanti of Ghana, as the Berbers of the desert.”
It is a fact that at the pinnacle of his political fortunes, through his creative turn of phrase, he had the country, the continent and the world feeding out of his hand. That is Thabo Mbeki, “the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins.”
He once woke me up from my lunatic dreams when he delivered his oration at the university of Havana in Cuba, saying, “…we have many similarities, as if our histories have been painted on the same canvas, as if our different odysseys had a common navigator, as if we hunted the same beasts, cooked and feasted from the same pot.”
Unfortunately, in Africa, we continue to witness the raping of a toddler, we see the weeping of an unemployed mother, we face a starving orphan and we are touched by the sight of a child soldier who is being denied his childhood. It is in this spirit that one remembers the Yoruba saying and casts a glance backward to see what lies behind. Like all of us, Mbeki is not perfect – but his legacy makes him a lucid manifesto of how to lead.
He represents a kind of leadership that is responsible, accountable and incorruptible. He dramatises a revolution in ethics that puts community before individualism, public good before private greed and commitment to serve before incompetence and laziness. This is the reality we should be brave to face, as poet Keorapetse Kgotsisile puts it:
“We emerge to prove that Truth cannot be enslaved in chains or imprisoned in an island inferno
We emerge to stand Truth on her two feet
We emerge to carry the banner of humanism across the face of the Earth.”
* Abe Mokoena is an independent commentator based in Polokwane.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers