Seven years on, the M&G still can't be vindicated

Also read Drew Forrest’s point to this article

That editorial was headlined A disastrous reign and though it was about the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, for many of us who read it at the time, it was also an apt description of the leadership of the newspaper at the turn of the century.

While we agree with our colleague Drew Forrest that Mbeki is a man past his sell-by date, we do not agree that the paper was ahead of its time in its appraisal of Mbeki.

The Mail & Guardian 2001 and the M&G 2008 are two different papers. In May 2008 it is obvious that Mbeki should go. In April 2001 it was not obvious and certainly not justified.

To appeal to the prescience of the editorial of that era is to appeal to the agenda expressed in that still unfortunate piece of writing and the general tone of its political and socio-economic commentary.
It’s worth noting that many of us who work here today would not have worked here then as we were turned off by the paper’s tone and its harkening after too-easy rainbow politics, too far removed from the hard requirements of transformation.

Mbeki, for all his faults now so painfully evident, was not scared of grabbing bulls by their horns.

Associate editor Sipho Seepe and editor Howard Barrell were not perspicacious commentators but men with a personal axe to grind against Mbeki. The newspaper found itself alienated, not only by the intolerance of Mbeki and his acolytes but by its week-in, week-out attacks, not only against Mbeki but against policies such as empowerment and affirmative action.

There was no political analysis of events or political trends, just criticism of an individual. Stories were deliberately welded together with other generalisations to paint a picture of a loose, unprincipled educated-for-nothing leader. At the other end of the spectrum, then Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon was a king who could do no wrong.

Unlike then, these days in our paper, as in other papers, Mbeki comes in for a roasting, but so do others who slip from the path set by our Constitution’s requirements of good governance. We try our best not to get personal but to stay principled.

Back in 2001 Mbeki was confident and initiated many programmes to improve governance. This was later symbolised by strong growth.

Pan-Africanism returned to the mainstream agenda and Africa’s voice began to reverberate louder in the corridors of Western power than ever before.

Then, he had not retreated into his cocoon and gone on one big sulk because he had lost his ANC leadership. These days the president seems to be shrugging his shoulders in despair and telling the ANC to get on with it if they want to. He seems to carefully scour the international conference calendar, desperately looking for something to escape to and to avoid a hostile ANC here at home.

It is a pitiful sight. It was not always like that.

Mbeki’s diplomatic failures with regards to Zimbabwe must be located in their proper context. In 1999 Nelson Mandela assumed that his unquestioned stature as a world statesman would render the Commonwealth decision to expel Nigeria’s military junta had gone ahead and executed Ogoni leader Ken Saro Wiwa, despite international appeals that it should not. But Mandela and South Africa were left isolated, with none of the African countries supporting South Africa’s call to kick Nigeria out of the Commonwealth.

The Nigerians scornfully called Mandela the “black president of a white country”. It is moot that the decision by African states was shameful, the fact is South Africa learned a harsh lesson in geopolitics about how it should engage with other African states. With hindsight we now all know that things did not improve there, but that should not blind us to the reasons for the way the state acted at the time.

The editorial reveals the myopic approach to race the newspaper had at the time; it followed the precepts of a narrow non-racialism and showed itself hostile to efforts to accelerate transformation and even engaged in special pleading.

“What are more certain are the results of Mbeki’s approach: black South Africans treat their white counterparts with even greater suspicion than our unhappy history might justify; whites, their capital and skills are leaving the country at an alarming rate ...”

Just as blacks were apparently earlier misled by communists into believing that there was something wrong with the political and social system, they now needed Mbeki to tell them that they had reason to be suspicious of a people who, in ever-growing majorities, voted for a system that perpetuated their oppression.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal.
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