The United States (US) embassy in South Africa decided in 2001 that it would deal with a “prickly, hyper-sensitive, shrill and defensive” president Thabo Mbeki by drawing him closer, with an invitation to Washington and adopting, initially, a moderate stance on him.
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In a memorandum sent by Delano Lewis, then US ambassador, and released through WikiLeaks this week, he spoke of his dilemma about Mbeki, whom he deemed intelligent but wo sometimes displayed irrationality.
Lewis recommended that dialogue with this “essential” African leader should be couched in positive, supportive language in the hope of building a relationship that would “allow us to cross swords with him at a later date”.
In a snide conclusion the embassy said Mbeki had made it known that he wanted to be invited to Washington before Nelson Mandela, “whose global stature has something to do with Mbeki’s occasional manifestations of a fragile ego”.
In particular, the US was worried about his judgment in relying on a core of advisers who lacked experience and diplomatic background.
Among others it named were Essop Pahad, Mbeki’s minister in the presidency, the “truculent and petulant” foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Mbeki’s former spokesperson, Parks Mankahlana, who it said had lost all credibility with his key audience, the South African press.
In further trying to understand Mbeki, whose “intelligence is widely acknowledged”, it speculated that he and the majority of ANC (African National Congress) leaders were still handicapped by their experience of the struggle against apartheid “where enemies were everywhere and the world fits very neatly into shades of black and white”.
The cable noted Mbeki’s reluctance to accept overwhelming scientific evidence on HIV/Aids and criticised him for saying he would withdraw from the Aids debate rather than admit that he might have erred in entering the debate.
It said his failure to speak out on clear human rights violations and breaches of the rule of law in Zimbabwe had attracted criticism and clearly hurt investor confidence in South Africa’s economy.
It noted that the South Africa media had brought these inadequacies to the public’s attention, but that Mbeki and his government had taken the wrong tack — accusing the press of racism and of attacking the government because it was predominantly black.
“Ultimately no one knows why Mbeki sometimes displays this irrational side or when it will manifest next.”
It said US officials meeting Mbeki should be prepared to recognise his defensiveness and high sensitivity to criticism.
The cable accepted that he would be a prominent feature of the political landscape for some time, but predicted that his control of the ANC could weaken over the longer term, as lack of delivery on social issues and failure to address the HIV epidemic could make him vulnerable to grassroots opposition.