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Thabo Mbeki — a hero of our time
By Mabasa Sasa
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
MAYOMBE, the liberation war novel by Angolan writer Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos, better known as Pepetela, ranks among Southern Africa’s best ever pieces of fiction literature alongside the likes of Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain and Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger.
In their own ways, the three writers tried to deal with the physical and economic realities brought about by colonialism and their effects on the psycho-social universe of the colonised or the recently liberated African
What is spectacular about Mayombe, however, is the way in which Pepetela brought the reader closer to the personal experiences of the different guerrillas who were fighting the Portuguese settlers in Angola.
It would be impossible here to (and would only serve to belabour the point anyway) to go into the myriad themes Pepetela explores and for present purposes it would do to just home in on a statement made by one of the key characters, the Political Commissar, as he eulogises his friend and commander, Fearless.
Was Fearless born too early or too late, the Commissar asks himself right at the end of the book. Failing to find a satisfactory answer, he concludes that either way like any tragic hero he was born out of his time.
And that perhaps best sums up the Achilles’ heel of such heroes from the time of Ancient Greek theatrical productions to the time of Africa’s liberation and post-colonial literature: the tragic hero is a victim of his time.
Unfortunately, tragic heroes are not confined to fictive literature alone and the history of the world is littered with examples of men and women who after giving their all for the betterment of humanity die alone, are despised by their fellow men or live out their lives in circumstances that do not befit their contribution to mankind.
Africa’s struggle with colonialism is filled with such people — Patrice Lumumba, Herbert Chitepo, Steve Biko and many others.
The post-Independence era has its examples too.
Kwame Nkrumah was hounded out of office and died a pitiful man because he dared to believe Africa and Africans deserved a better deal than neo-colonialism.
Samora Machel was assassinated for committing the crime of believing that Africans should be masters of their own destiny.
Boutros Ghali was denied the chance to lead the United Nations for a second term because he would not allow the body to be used as a rubber stamp for America’s interventionism and hence had to make way for a more pliant Kofi Annan. (The former is thus a tragic hero while the latter merely becomes a tragedy.)
So many examples, so many tragedies.
However, the recent news that South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki would be stepping down before his term was up is probably the greatest example of a hero taking the tragic route in contemporary Africa.
South Africa is a sovereign nation with the right to chart its own destiny, inasmuch as other countries on the continent as disparate as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Libya repose within their peoples the exclusive right to determine their individual and national futures.
So no one can self-righteously place themselves on any moral or political pedestal and judge the processes that led to President Mbeki’s resignation at the weekend.
What is striking about the resignation is that it came a mere week after the South African statesman had secured the biggest diplomatic victory of his career when he got Zimbabwe’s main political parties to agree to work together.
And it is precisely in such diplomatic breakthroughs that President Mbeki’s name will be immortalised in Africa’s 21st century history and his legacy is guaranteed.
When he came into office following Nelson Mandela’s tenure at the helm of South African politics, President Mbeki made a very interesting speech that was to become the guiding light in his engagement of fellow African countries and his advocacy for the development of the continent.
By the text of the speech alone, it would be easy to dismiss it as the kind of political grandstanding politicians — whether from our continent or in a place as remote as Alaska — love to engage in whenever they see huge crowds.
President Mbeki spoke about the dawn of the African Renaissance; a rebirth of the way we approached our own development and how we related to the rest of the world.
He also gave an analogy with the appropriately named Comrades Marathon in which he said those who completed the gruelling race were never deterred by the difficulty of the stretch of road that still lay ahead. What mattered was that with each step the runner got closer to the finish line.
"African renaissance" — the statement had a nice ring to it and stirred images of an economic, political and cultural revival the likes of which had not been seen since the great age of anti-colonial nationalist- based uprisings when giants like Nkrumah bestrode the continent like colossuses.
At the same time, the people of Africa had been tickled by such pieces of oratory before and seen nothing come of it except more of the same neo-colonial exploitation that saw indigens get poorer while only multinational corporations and civil wars thrived.
But President Mbeki rejected this image of the tough-talking but largely ineffectual politician and embarked on a career of constructive engagement that would take him all over the continent in search of peace, unity and development.
Prior to this, perhaps only our own leader, President Mugabe, seemed concerned with Africa’s total liberation and, knowing that your brother’s well-being is also your won well-being, directed immense energies and resources into uplifting the continent.
And that is why Zimbabwe went to Mozambique, Angola, Somalia and the DRC.
President Mugabe lives by the indigenous wisdom that, "Umuntu, umuntu ngabantu (I relate therefore I am)," and his South African brother President Mbeki showed he, too, believed in a united, prosperous African tomorrow.
The South African leader showed he was truly concerned about Africa’s development and that is why he occupied himself in trying to assist in the resolution of crises in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and the Sudan.
It is hoped that just because he will no longer be South Africa’s leader he will stop the noble work he was presently actively engaged in across the continent.
The peoples of Africa can only benefit from President Mbeki’s astute facilitation of dialogue wherever there are political challenges.
After all, no less a statesman and politician than Cde Mugabe himself admitted he was impressed by President Mbeki’s diplomatic skills during his facilitation of dialogue in Zimbabwe.
And Zimbabwe really should do something to honour President Mbeki for his dedication to the ideals of Africa’s development and recognition of the sanctity of the sovereignty of the diverse countries of the continent.
Yesterday, The Herald published a letter by Pius Matoro in which he called for the authorities to name a street after the South African leader.
He wrote: "It is my humble proposal that Government officially honour this great son of Africa by naming a street in capital, Harare, after him.
"He surely deserves such an honour as much as the other great sons of the soil who have streets named after them in Zimbabwe. It is a small token, but it means that for generations to come Cde Mbeki’s name will be remembered by the grateful people of Zimbabwe."
Perhaps the authorities could start by reconsidering the name of that road that leads from Rotten Row, past Zanu-PF’s headquarters and on into Rainbow Towers and the Harare International Conference Centre where President Mbeki sealed his legacy on September 15 2008.
Why, after all, should that road be named after Colonel Pennefather, the leader of the Pioneer Column, when people like President Mbeki have no such honours in this land?
Even the manner in which he spoke passionately about the need for Sadc to draw from its fecund origins in the Frontline States was evidence of his great love for his African brothers and sisters.
President Mbeki is a man with a very good head on his shoulders and his work across the continent over the past few years is testimony to the fact that the old boy also has his heart in the right place.
Hopefully, this does not read like an obituary because it is hoped — for the sake of Africa — that he does not stop the wonderful work he has been doing just because he is no longer head of state.
And if, for whatever reason, in future, South Africa needs anyone to mediate in their internal process, President Mbeki can leave office assured that millions of people from Zimbabwe, Rwanda, the DRC, Cote d’Ivoire and the Sudan, would rush to assist at the drop of a hat.
Below are some quotes from President Mbeki’s resignation speech.
On his decision to resign after the ruling African National Congress agreed to recall him in the interests of party unity:
"I have been a loyal member of the African National Congress for 52 years. I remain a member of the ANC and therefore respect its decisions. It is for this reason that I have taken the decision to resign as President of the Republic, following the decision of the National Executive Committee of the ANC."
On the achievements of his government:
"Among many things we did, we transformed our economy, resulting in the longest sustained period of economic growth in the history of our country . . . We made the necessary advances so as to bring about a developmental state.
"(Others) include our achievements with regard to many of the Millennium Development Goals, the empowerment of women, the decision to allow us to host the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup and our election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council two years ago."
"I would be the first to say that even as we ensured consistent economic growth, the fruits of these positive results are still to be fully and equitably shared among our people, hence the abject poverty we still find co-existing side by side with extraordinary opulence."
"Work will . . . have to continue to strengthen and improve the functioning of our criminal justice system, to provide the necessary resources for this purpose, to activate the masses of our people to join the fight against crime and corruption, and to achieve new victories in the struggle for moral regeneration. "
On the independence of the judiciary:
"I would like to restate the position of Cabinet on the inferences made by the Honourable Judge Chris Nicholson that the President and Cabinet have interfered in the work of the National Prosecuting Authority. Again, I would like to state this categorically, that we have never done this, and therefore never compromised the right of the National Prosecuting Authority to decide whom it wished to prosecute or not to prosecute."
"I would like to thank my colleagues, the many Heads of State and Government on the African continent whose abiding vision is that Africa must be free; that all our countries, individually and collectively, should become democratic, developed and prosperous, and that Africa must unite. These African patriots know as I do that Africa and Africans will not and must not be the wretched of the earth in perpetuity."
On the next administration:
"I am convinced that the incoming administration will better the work done during the past 14-and-half years so that poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, illiteracy, challenges of health, crime and corruption will cease to define the lives of many of our people."
A message to all South Africans:
"I would like to say that gloom and despondency have never defeated adversity. Trying times need courage and resilience. Our strength as a people is not tested during the best of times. As we said before, we should never become despondent because the weather is bad — nor should we turn triumphalist because the sun shines." — Quotes courtesy of AFP