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Mbeki takes on mantle of elder statesman

One year after being ousted from government, South Africa's former leader is given a reception unlike those during his time in office.

The former South African president Thabo Mbeki praised the traditional village during his speech at the University of Witwatersrand.
The former South African president Thabo Mbeki praised the traditional village during his speech at the University of Witwatersrand.

JOHANNESBURG // It was a warmer welcome than Thabo Mbeki had received for a very long time. Almost exactly a year after he was humiliatingly ousted as South Africa's president by his own African National Congress, which he had led for a decade, he walked into an auditorium at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University last week to give a lecture on leadership and was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

It was an event typical of the role of retired politicians and heads of state - a speech on "The challenges faced by young emerging leaders", sponsored by a financial professionals association. His reception was not the only contrast with his time in office. As president, Mr Mbeki was a ponderous speaker with a tendency to read out speeches that were packed with statistics in a mind-numbing monotone, with no interaction with his audience.

With the cares of the presidency lifted from his shoulders and the years-long battle to remain in power ended by defeat at the hands of Jacob Zuma and his allies, Mr Mbeki is now sufficiently relaxed that he clearly feels able to engage personally with those he is addressing, particularly when he feels they share frames of reference. Mr Mbeki took his first degree from the University of London, studying at home in South Africa, before going on to take a masters in economics at the University of Sussex while in exile in the United Kingdom.

Widely read, he remains deeply intellectual and his speech made reference to US academic Walter Fluker, English philosopher AJ Ayer, German counterparts Georg Hegel and Friedrich Engels, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, financier George Soros and Afro-Caribbean author Frantz Fanon, among others. At the university, he felt sufficiently at home to be able to depart from his text to quip, after stumbling over the word "utilitarian" in one of his quotes: "You can tell it was written by a professor." The laughter that followed was not a sound that had normally accompanied his discourses in the past.

Some things, though, have not changed. Mr Mbeki has always been an Africanist and he praised the traditional village for its "system of social relations, which will favour social cohesion and therefore a value system that encourages a greater sense of human solidarity". "The leaders we must seek to build should," he said, "be inspired by a value system driven by a world outlook of humanism, as represented, for instance, by what all of us understand as ubuntu."

"Ubuntu", a word common to several Bantu languages, connotes a traditional south and central African collectivist view of the individual often summarised in South Africa as "a person is a person because of other people". But the country's future leaders face enormous tasks, he said. "Many in our country have not fully understood the scale of the challenge contained in the words we have used very often - namely, the eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid."

The resulting inequalities are starkly visible throughout South Africa, where whites, and now a few blacks, are relatively wealthy; but most people remain deeply poor, after decades of under-investment by the then authorities in their communities, and race still informs everything in the country. On top of that, he added, "our country is an inseparable part of our continent. Its future cannot be decided outside the context of the destiny of Africa.

"I remain convinced that the renaissance of Africa can and must be achieved. During the advance towards the achievement of this objective, we will experience many defeats and reversals. However, I would urge you that you should never despair. "To lead means to engage the people in an honest and sustained manner," he went on. "It means learning the habit always to tell the truth and thus cultivate the confidence of the people in you, who will be their leaders."

It sometimes involved making difficult and unpopular choices, he said, as he himself had done, and the task of the next generation of leaders will be to "reimagine the world" and remake it in favour of the people. "As Frantz Fanon once said: 'Every generation out of relative obscurity discovers its mission; it either fulfils it or betrays it'." Mr Mbeki is planning to create a leadership academy to train future African politicians, but the question remains whether he himself fulfilled or betrayed the vision laid out in his speech.

His period in office was notable for the country's sustained economic growth, but his own leadership style was always more suited to the secretive, back-room negotiations of machine politics rather than "engaging the people". The ANC has always been factional, but his determination to eradicate, politically, his internal enemies, real and imagined, exacerbated the tendency, culminating in the all-encompassing power struggle with Mr Zuma, a former ally. His exhortations to "understand objective reality" rang somewhat hollow in light of his unorthodox views and policies on HIV and Aids, which independent studies estimate cost hundreds of thousands of South African lives.

Nonetheless, at the university, one of the country's most prominent, Mr Mbeki's calls for a new kind of leadership resonated with young South Africans. "He is intellectual," said Zinhle Mkhabela, 19, a law and philosophy student. "Most of the criticism about how he was removed from the people was because he was too intellectual. A lot of ANC members saw that as a flaw in his style." M Katleho Mohono, also 19 and taking the same course, added: "He was ahead of his time. He led in a way that was beyond the norm, he looked to the future."

The implied contrast with the populist Mr Zuma is unavoidable, and he added: "We need to move away from wanting politicians to wanting statesmen ? who do not just arouse emotions but engage the minds of young people." sberger@thenational.ae