by Adekeye Adebajo
A book of essays on former president Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) entitled Building Blocks Towards an African Century was published recently. Edited by former University of SA vice-chancellor Barney Pityana, the volume’s 12 substantive chapters cover a broad spectrum of politics, economics and global perspectives, with Africa as the thread weaving them together, reflecting Mbeki’s world view.
Chapters have been contributed by five leading African intellectuals. Pityana’s comprehensive introduction acknowledges Mbeki’s pivotal role in creating SA’s post-apartheid state. Due to a long personal relationship with his subject spanning nearly five decades, Pityana’s chapter is sympathetic without being hagiographic.
As a member of the ANC Youth League and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness (BC) movement, Pityana served as a bridge between the two. He highlights Mbeki’s nuanced understanding of two important strands of SA’s liberation struggle, in which he reached out to BC activists. Pityana acknowledges the various criticisms of Mbeki as enigmatic, aloof, impenetrable and autocratic, but portrays him as calm, cultured, thoughtful, selfless, ethical, respectful and a voracious reader who eschewed populism; a hard taskmaster who mastered not just his own presidential brief but those of his ministers; and a leader who was deeply steeped in ANC traditions of “servant leadership”, having been mentored by OR Tambo.
Pityana also presents Mbeki as a strategic leader who was the architect of SA’s post-apartheid governance structures, though he notes that his greatest achievements were in foreign policy. Pityana parts ways with Mbeki on three issues: first, being too loyal to incompetent ministers; second, the failure by his administration to condemn xenophobia more openly; and third, while showing an understanding of Mbeki’s analysis of HIV/AIDS, Pityana suggests the president should have left technical matters of science to experts.
Nigeria’s Adebayo Olukoshi competently, if not particularly originally, covers the ground in analysing contemporary global economic policies and their impact on Africa, peppered with sporadic quotes from Mbeki.
The author could, however, have engaged in far more detail with Mbeki’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan, black economic empowerment (BEE), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), placing them within a global context. Olukoshi argues that Mbeki’s African Renaissance vision pushed Africa to organise itself to own and drive all aspects of its development agenda. The complaints about BEE benefiting a handful of politically connected individuals should have been addressed, as should critiques of Nepad’s overreliance on foreign funding and its failure to consult civil society.
The leading prophet of Afrocentrism, African-American scholar Molefi Asante, then assesses Mbeki’s African Renaissance concept within a pan-African context, describing Mbeki’s message as “Afrocentric”. I am not sure, however, that Mbeki would describe his own ideas in such a limiting manner.
SA’s former president is more of a cosmopolitan polyglot, as much at home with isiXhosa poetry as with Shakespeare and as comfortable with the Harlem Renaissance griot, Langston Hughes, as he is with WB Yeats.
Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani then tackles the controversial issue of “humanitarian intervention” in an essay replete with clever phraseology not matched by the author’s characteristic sharpness. Mamdani’s main point is that the UN has somewhat betrayed its mandate to deal with “rogue states” and become solely concerned with conflict-ridden “failed states”.
Even though powers such as the US and France have manipulated UN interventions for more parochial agendas in countries such as Libya and Mali, the reality is that Africa still lacks the capacity to maintain its own peace. Surprisingly, Mbeki is not mentioned once in this chapter, and an analysis of his peacemaking efforts in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur would have enriched this essay.
Finally, SA’s Chris Landsberg examines Mbeki’s foreign policy, praising his building of AU institutions, South-South strategy, and engagement with the Group of Eight industrialised countries. While there was certainly vision and strategy, the author fails to assess the impact and concrete results of these policies, which were limited.
This book is an important contribution to the growing Mbeki corpus, taking its place alongside the 2016 45-chapter The Thabo Mbeki I Know.
• Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. This article first appeared in the Business Day newspaper.