Mbeki hits right notes in attack on tribalism
One of the main emphases in Mark Gevisser's book Thabo Mbeki, the Dream Deferred is on how the former president was uncomfortable with being identified as an Eastern Cape boy from Mbewuleni, despite it being his place of birth.
In the last chapter of the book, Mbeki confirmed that he had never been back to Mbewuleni, 17 years after returning to South Africa from exile, though he was aware that the people there were pining for his homecoming, and he promised to go at some point.
So, it made sense to me when Mbeki spoke out this week against tribalism and Cabinet ministers hiring people from their home town or region because they were comfortable with them.
With all his imperfections, Mbeki could never be accused of having paid disproportionate attention to development of the Eastern Cape during his presidency. But there was always talk of a "Xhosa nostra" and of the government being dominated by people from the Eastern Cape.
It is difficult to find empirical evidence to support this claim.
And even if it was true, it is even more difficult to say it was done at his bidding.
Speaking at Unisa's College of Human Sciences on Monday, Mbeki said: "When a minister comes from a certain region, so will the officials in that department." Mbeki called it a "homeboy" phenomenon.
"They conspire in one language, and this is one of the challenges we need to address.
"One of the things that has worried me is that the ANC is 102 years old this year and, at its formation, it said [that] part of its task was to bury the demon of tribalism. But in South Africa, 102 years later, tribalism is raising its head again."
But as a former president forced to resign in hostile circumstances, Mbeki can never escape suspicion that his strong views are a criticism of the government.
For a long time, he refused to speak out on dynamics in the political space. But of late, Mbeki has shed his inhibitions, and first raised eyebrows when he commented on the need to improve the quality of leadership in the country after Nelson Mandela's death.
So, it was no coincidence that the supporters of President Jacob Zuma reacted angrily this week, believing that Mbeki's comments were directed at the incumbent.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said last year that Zuma appointed Cabinet ministers mainly from his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
"Zuma's appointment of the Cabinet from his own province has given an impression [that] the IQ levels of people from other regions are low.
"You can go to the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] head, you can go to the Cabinet, the clusters [of ministries] – the economic clusters, social cluster and security cluster – they are dominated by one region. [Zuma is] suffering from a laager mentality … [which] means you surround yourself with your own," Holomisa said.
My view is that Mbeki's remarks are a welcome intervention by the former president. It is a message that must not only be heard in Nkandla, but must also reverberate throughout the continent. Apartheid South Africa was built on entrenching tribal identities and on accentuating differences among black people that did not actually exist.
Of course, there were black people who bought into tribalism and proceeded to embrace apartheid's homelands, creating little fiefdoms with no legitimacy.
Eradicating the damage done by resettling blacks in those homelands will take time. And so will changing mind-sets, especially as such narrow tribal thinking exists among some of our rulers. We must continue to shun and isolate those who harbour cultural superiority and promote regionalism.
I am aware that, in a few circles, there is irritation at Mbeki "reinventing himself as voice of moral conscience" when he was no paragon of virtue as a president.
But the fight against tribalism is a crucial one and Mbeki hit all the right notes. That the phenomenon might have existed during his presidency should not be used to muzzle him now.
To use an old cliché, let's listen to the message rather than attack the messenger.