Rise and fall of Africa’s philosopher-king
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One of Mbeki's greatest legacies will be the self-confidence and assertion of an African identity he imparted to SA’s black middle class, writes Adekeye Adebajo.
The idea of a philosopher-king is derived from Greek philosopher Plato’s Republic in which the best form of government is said to be one in which philosophers rule as part of the vision of a just city.
The philosopher is thus the only person who can rule well, since he or she is intellectually and morally suited for this role.
South Africa’s second post-apartheid leader, Thabo Mbeki, is the most prominent African philosopher-king of his generation, just as Ghana’s founding president, Kwame Nkrumah, was the most famous of his generation.
Despite perverse attempts to compare Mbeki to racist leaders like Jan Smuts, his political leadership must be understood within a historical pan-African context.
Both Mbeki and Nkrumah believed in Africa’s ancient glory and sought to build modern states that restored the continent’s past.
Both were Renaissance men: visionary and cosmopolitan intellectuals committed to pan-Africanism and to restoring the dignity of black people whether in Harare, Harlem, or Haiti.
Both Nkrumah and Mbeki hosted pan-African conferences and were instrumental in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the African Union (AU).
While Nkrumah championed the “African Personality”, Mbeki promoted the African Renaissance. Both leaders were also active peacemakers.
Both were accused of monar-chical tendencies, and in the end, were toppled in apparent acts of regicide: Nkrumah by Ghana’s military, and Mbeki by his ANC party.
But there were clear differences between the two leaders.
Nkrumah was charismatic and, for a while, enjoyed the unparalleled adulation of the Ghanaian masses.
Mbeki did not inherit Nelson Mandela’s charisma, and relied more on ruthless technocracy to rule.
Nkrumah was able to mobilise and rally the masses; Mbeki relied on political manoeuvring within his own party.
Nkrumah favoured a more federalist “United States of Africa”; Mbeki’s regional integration vision was more gradualist.
Nkrumah adopted a personality cult and “Nkrumahism”was developed into an anti-imperial ideology of pan-Africanism.
Mbeki ruled as a constitutional monarch and no ideology bearing the name “Mbekism”ever came into being placing Mbeki in a pan-African context of monarchical rule. There were other influences - conscious or unconscious - on his political leadership style based on his two decades in exile between 1971 and 1990.
Two of the African leaders with whom Mbeki worked most closely - Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere - were themselves philosopher-kings who sought to promote socialism based on African traditional forms of communalism.
Both were thus political prophets who attempted to provide visionary leadership, as Mbeki himself would later seek to do as president.
Mbeki’s pan-Africanism had been shaped from his youth in Lovedale College as well as by his two-decade exile in Swaziland, Botswana, Nigeria, and Zambia. Mbeki’s African Renaissance sought to promote the continent’s political, economic, and social renewal.
This vision was inspired by his shock at what he regarded as the “slave mentality”of black South Africans after his return home from exile in 1990.
As Mbeki put it: “The beginning of our rebirth as a continent must be our own rediscovery of our soul... It was very clear that something had happened in South African society, something that didn’t happen in any other African society.”
The repeated observation is that: “These South Africans are not quite African, they’re European.”
Mbeki also criticised his country’s black intelligentsia, many of whom he felt were timid and too deferential to their white colleagues.
One of his greatest legacies will be the self-confidence and assertion of an African identity he imparted to South Africa’s black middle class.
The area of foreign policy - particularly in Africa - is likely to be the most noteworthy legacy of Mbeki’s presidency.
He acted as a “Pied Piper of Pretoria”playing the diplomatic tunes to which warlords, rebels, and politicians danced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, and Burundi.
Mbeki’s two-decade exile in Africa was particularly significant to his pan-African diplomacy, providing him with an intimate understanding of the issues and some of the personalities involved. His time in Nigeria as the founding head of the ANC office between 1976 and 1978 forged a crucial personal relationship with then military leader - and later civilian president - General Olusegun Obasanjo.
This resulted in the most strategic bilateral relationship under Mbeki’s presidency that proved instrumental in building the institutions of the AU, Nepad, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP).
Both leaders also sought to fight for Africa’s interests by appealing to the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries to support continental economic and military initiatives.
Under Mbeki’s foreign policy, South Africa established solid credentials to become Africa’s leading power.
He deployed 3 000 troops to the DRC, Burundi, and Sudan’s Darfur region.
The AU was mandated to intervene in cases of egregious human rights abuses and regional instability.
The 15-member AU Peace and Security Council has since played a significant role in efforts to manage African conflicts, but other institutions such as Nepad, the APRM, and PAP remain fledgling and under-resourced.
Further afield, Mbeki worked with influential countries like Brazil and India to increase the leverage of the global South in international politics, presaging the creation of the Brazil, Russia, India China, and South Africa (Brics).
One of the most important aspects of Mbeki’s foreign policy was its pan-African outlook and diasporic reach.
In 2000, he travelled to the Brazilian state of Bahia, a region whose population was largely descended from African slaves.
After reading from a poignant poem The Slave Ship by the 19th century Brazilian poet, Castro Alves, South Africa’s president noted: “Brazil cannot achieve its full identity unless it celebrates, also, its historical and cultural connection with Africa.”
Mbeki also promoted the African Renaissance at Cuba’s University of Havana in 2001, and visited the US several times, notably addressing an African-American audience at Martin Luther King jr’s famous Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta in 2000.
Four years later, Mbeki was the only African leader to attend the bicentennial celebrations of Haiti’s slave revolt against France which won the country its independence as the world’s first black republic.
During his student days, Mbeki’s favourite play had been Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
This was the tragedy of a heroic Roman soldier whose demise was brought about by his obduracy and pride.
The flaw in Coriolanus’ character contributed greatly to his downfall: he refused to swagger, to celebrate his battlefield victory, and to show off his war wounds, insisting: “I play the man I am.”
Mbeki admired Coriolanus for being prepared to go to war against his own people whom Thabo described as “rabble... an unthinking mob, with its cowardice, its lying, its ordinary people-ness. “
The similarity of the fates of Coriolanus and Mbeki are eerie: both were seen as aloof and arrogant; both refused to kow-tow to popular perceptions of how a leader should behave; and both were ultimately brought down by character flaws of obduracy and arrogance.
* Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg. His mini-biography Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s Philosopher-King was published by Jacana this week.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.