Thabo Mbeki: The Fall of Africa's Shakespearean Figure

Article excerpt

In exile, Thabo Mbeki excelled at the secretive work of building left-wing support for his liberation movement, the African National Congress.

As president, Thabo Mbeki succeeded in creating an African Renaissance - securing a decade-long economic expansion, nurturing a rising black South African middle class, and defining a new African diplomacy, where African leaders solve African problems themselves - without Western intervention.

Now that Mr. Mbeki has been ousted this weekend by his own party, he is likely to be remembered as much for his failures - to recognize the mounting AIDS crisis, to extend the nation's prosperity to its poor majority, to deal with rising crime and government corruption - as for his successes.

"He's a highly intelligent man with a firm grasp of policy issues, and he's often way ahead of the debate; he's also surrounded himself with highly intelligent people," says Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg. "But I think this shows that you can have a highly intelligent leader who doesn't keep contact with at the base level of the voters. If you don't reach out to people, then it's not going to fly."

The announcement on Saturday that South Africa's president would be "recalled" by his own party sent reverberations throughout the region. After all, South Africa is the largest and most developed economy on the continent. Its political leadership has been involved in peaceful mediation in Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, its troops serve in African Union peacekeeping missions in Sudan, and its political reforms have helped bring the notion of government accountability to the continent. Mbeki's absence, even a temporary leadership vacuum, will easily be felt in capitals as far away as Dakar and Djibouti, Lagos and Khartoum.

"He has a strong legacy in terms of what he has pioneered, with African constitutional governance and guiding the country through an economic expansion," says Francis Kornegay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "He has to be given credit for that even as they are booting him out. It's a mixed legacy."

On Saturday, President Mbeki announced that he had accepted the request of the African National Congress's (ANC) National Executive Council to resign as president. His resignation will not be immediate and is likely to follow after his party nominates a successor within 30 days of his resignation. Mbeki's replacement must be a member of parliament.

The Zuma factor

Mbeki's downfall comes just a week after the collapse of a lengthy corruption case against Mbeki's personal rival, Jacob Zuma. In 2005, Mbeki fired Mr. Zuma as his deputy president after Zuma's financial adviser was found guilty of soliciting bribes from a French weaponsmaker in a major procurement scandal. …