Thabo Mbeki's Downfall a Shakespearean Tragedy

Manila Bulletin, September 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

Thabo Mbeki's Downfall a Shakespearean Tragedy


CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Thabo Mbeki is fond of packing his speeches with passages from Hamlet and Macbeth, so it is perhaps fitting that his downfall had all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Mbeki devoted his life to the African National Congress, joining as a youth of 14. Yet in the end, the party rejected him months ago as its president and then ordered him to quit Saturday as South Africa's president in an epic struggle of power, betrayal and revenge.

Mbeki was South Africa's second black president, succeeding anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in 1999. While Mandela brought reconciliation to a troubled land, Mbeki ushered in a period of stability and growing prosperity.

His economic policies won him accolades from big business and foreign investors but failed to lift millions of marginalized South Africans out of poverty or ease the country's crushing unemployment.

His government did much to improve housing and health care but his refusal to accept the causes and scale of the AIDS crisis reversed many of the social advances, causing despair among the global scientific community and condemning an estimated 900 South Africans per day to death.

Despite his nine years at the top, Mbeki never managed to win the hearts of the masses and lacked the relaxed spontaneity of his nemesis, Jacob Zuma. He was aloof and academic, and his penchant for poetry and prose often caused puzzled shrugs in a country where 12 percent of adults can't read.

He used to play nervously with his pen while answering parliamentary questions and typically opened parliament with a new slogan each year. The promise of 2006, the "Age of Hope," faded with rising prices and slower growth. Mbeki designated 2008 as "Business Unusual" to meet those challenges - obviously unaware of just how unusual the year would turn out to be.

Mbeki devoted considerable time and energy to promoting what he called the African renaissance and believed the continent should solve its own problems without interference from the West. He was one of Africa's top troubleshooters, mediating in conflicts including the Ivory Coast, Congo and Sudan.

Yet critics often accused him of spending more time abroad than at home.

Ironically, his greatest diplomatic triumph - persuading Zimbabwe's autocratic president Robert Mugabe to share power with the opposition - came just days before the ANC ordered him to quit, although the party did say he should stay on as Zimbabwe mediator.

Mbeki was born in 1942 in the rural Transkei, the son of Govan Mbeki, one of the nation's most famous anti-apartheid fighters. …

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