I SEE that former president Thabo Mbeki has decided that remaining silent in the proverbial political shadows while everyone continues to have a go at his legacy will no longer work for him and, possibly, for posterity as he imagines it.
From a purely personal brand management perspective, I sympathise with him. Behind all successful brands stand men or women – including self in case of personal brands – making sure they project the right kind of vibe and are seen in the best of lights.
But personal brands are often harder to manage because they easily get entrapped; they become arrogant and behave irrationally, and they’re generally unpredictable because they’re always products of a specific upbringing that might have left them with invisible scars, anger, yearnings, etc.
This all the more when brands are constantly in the public eye, like sportspeople, politicians, film stars and many others. History is replete with stories of such personal brands who have risen and fallen, some to rise all over and fall once again, with others remaining standing after receiving a second chance.
Some in the latter group only survived as shadows of their previous selves.
Thabo Mbeki’s rich African tapestry
Our former president is a particularly complex political brand because of his very rich life and political trajectory. Much has been said and written about Thabo Mbeki but no one, in my view, has captured his story and philosophy of life and politics as well as Mark Gevisser did in “The Dream Deferred”.
Having left South Africa as a youngster to follow thousands of others who wanted to contribute to the fight against apartheid, Mbeki was brought up by the African National Congress in parts of Africa, Eastern Europe and Western Europe, particularly England.
His life was thus shaped by experiences in different parts of the world, where the exiled liberation movement could find a home and base to operate from. When he finally returned to South Africa as a mature adult, almost 30 years later, Mbeki had to demonstrate the leadership qualities he had learned from many years of nurturing by the late ANC president, Oliver Tambo, and prepare to follow in the footsteps of another giant, the late president Nelson Mandela.
His biological father, Govan Mbeki, had been languishing in an apartheid jail throughout the young Mbeki’s years in exile.
Aids was his undoing
Upon taking over from Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki did not waste time before telling us all that he would not even try to fit into Mandiba’s shoes as, he jokingly said, they were ugly. More unforgettably, he wrote and read his “I’m an African” speech which reverberated in much of the continent and, word has it, the watching world.
With that one speech, he assured all South Africans at home and in the diaspora that they all belonged and that, like him, they were also products of the rich African tapestry.
But Mbeki was also known as an interested, participative leader. For example, people had a much better idea of how South Africa’s foreign policy was formulated under him than they do under his successor. Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (SACP) were tripartite alliance partners and that is as far as they went.
On a number of occasions, Mbeki also had to remind the SACP that the ANC, not the communists, were the ruling party in government. He is said to have taken the time required to read and scrutinise reports that were presented to him and ensured that none of his ministers could draw wool over his eyes on any topic. He was an interested president.
Mbeki’s undoing, in my view, began when he refused to acknowledge publicly that his views and utterances on HIV/Aids were totally strange and contrary to existing scientific facts, even when a great deal of evidence was presented to him.
He did this even when he knew that his media spokesperson at the time, Parks Mankahlana, was dying of Aids. Mankahlana’s job was to defend his boss’ views on the topic, while he himself had to look this disease in the face every day when he shaved or brushed his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror.
Not long after Mankahlana’s death, Mbeki declared publicly that he had never known anyone who died of Aids. He was probably being technical, as people often die of Aids-related opportunistic infections, but this stance seemed devoid of empathy.
He also defended even stranger views on HIV/Aids by his incorrigible minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Given that Mbeki has never publicly distanced himself from Tshabalala-Msimang’s utterances, it is safe to assume that he shared those views; he was her boss and she served at his pleasure.
He later defended Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir and a few other African despots on the ostensible basis that they were African brothers and that political stability would never be achieved anywhere in Africa without them. In his strange view, Africa needed to find African solutions for African problems while continuing to extend a begging bowl for Western money to make this possible.
He insisted that the West should give its taxpayers’ money to Africa unconditionally. He did not seem to care that, unlike African leaders, Western ones would have to account for that money to their taxpayers.
Essentially, the replacement of the erstwhile Organisation of African Unity with much fanfare by the African Union, which Mbeki spearheaded, was just a farce and a waste of money, time and energy.
Lest we forget – like Zuma did with Nene, Mbeki was prepared to sacrifice a respected director of national public prosecutions for taking his job too seriously, just to shield his friend.
To succeed in taking advantage of hindsight by trying to repaint his political portrait, Mbeki will have to write many, many, more letters on many, many more topics than he apparently plans to. His attempts to rewrite history might simply open old wounds and hurt his image even more.
In his place, I would probably let lying sleeping dogs lie and simply bask in the glory of being favourably compared to our hopeless incumbent. But then again…