Mbeki emerges from hibernation

Flanked by a clutch of former Cabinet ministers, former president Thabo Mbeki emerged on Thursday after a long hibernation from the public eye to deliver the inaugural lecture of the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute, which doubled as Unisa’s celebration of Africa Day, which was on May 25.

The ZK Matthews Hall on the Unisa campus in Pretoria was filled to the brim because everyone wanted to hear what “T-boz” had to say.

The evening had all the glamour of the events held when Thabo Mbeki was president—fancy cars lined up to deposit guests and everyone was clad in designer gear—it was hard to miss how almost every high profile guest had the prefix “former” to their title so-and-so”.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former ministers Aziz Pahad, Alec Erwin and Thoko Didiza, former director-general Frank Chikane, former chief justice Pius Langa and, of course, former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide ...

The Congress of the People crowd was also out in force. Lyndall Shope-Mafole was a VIP guest while other Cope supporters filled the cheap seats.

Unisa president Barney Pityana rather unkindly pointed out to the audience that Mbeki served “almost two terms” as president of South Africa.
He added that President Jacob Zuma was invited but had sent his apologies, a statement which had the audience in stiches.

Deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe at least had the decency to send a proxy in the form of Deputy Correctional Services Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize. This was an ironic choice given that Mbeki sent her as ambassador to The Netherlands before she sway the Zuma way.

Rockstar welcome
But none of this bothered the 2 000-strong crowd. They gave Mbeki a rockstar welcome when he entered the hall. However those who expected a spontaneous outburst of the Mbeki camp’s Polokwane mantra Thabo Thabo Mbeki Thaaabooo were disappointed.

“This is a mature audience,” someone explained.

Mbeki’s speech had all the elements of a former leader who is now out of power. It contained sharp criticism—even admitting that Nepad had not worked out as he has hoped—and bright, if ambitious, answers to the problems facing Africa.

He had an engaging audience, who sniggered when he mentioned the scourge of corruption and clapped enthusiastically when Mbeki urged them to be “no longer mere conveyor belts of knowledge generated by others”. He also referred to them as the “intelligensia” at every opportunity, and displayed academic humility by refusing to refer to himself as “Dr Mbeki” despite his raft of honorary doctorates. They liked this.

Economic crisis
Mbeki outlined how, through his interventions—although he was too modest to say so—Africa had slowly crawled its way on to the global leadership—from the time when the European Union had no strategic perspective on Africa to the time when the G8 adopted an action plan on Africa in 2002.

But then it all came falling down. The global economic crisis came at a time when the newly established G20 was reluctant to adopt the Africa action plan of the G8.

“The reality is that once more Africa has drifted to the periphery, contrary to what we sought to achieve,” Mbeki said.

The disappointment in his voice vibrated throughout the big hall until he lightened the mood with his six steps forward.

They are:

  • build a new intellectual cadreship committed to transforming Africa

  • develop the capacity in our state, government, business and civil society

  • resurrect the African Renaissance movement

  • increase the momentum of development and transformation

  • achieve African cohesion

  • develop the media and the means to communicate correctly
At the end of the lecture Mbeki went back to his seat to sit among his crowd of formerly powerful people. And he seemed relieved to at last be able to say exactly what he wanted, but not having to fear any responsibility to deliver on his lofty words.

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