Celebrating Africa’s Philosopher-King—Adekeye Adebajo reviews Building Blocks Towards an African Century: Essays in Honour of Thabo Mbeki.
Building Blocks Towards an African Century: Essays in Honour of Thabo Mbeki
Edited by Barney Pityana
Real African Publishers, 2018
In a short 2016 biography, I described former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who held the office from 1999 to 2008, as ‘Africa’s Philosopher-King’ and the most important African political figure of his generation. Building Blocks Towards an African Century, edited by South African scholar-activist Barney Pityana, contains twelve substantive essays by leading Pan-African intellectuals, and covers a broad canvass of politics, economics and global perspectives, with Africa as the thread at the centre of the work, reflecting Mbeki’s worldview.
Pityana’s introductory chapter acknowledges Mbeki’s pivotal role in creating South Africa’s post-apartheid state. Having served as president Nelson Mandela’s de facto prime minister between 1994 and 1999, Mbeki was the dominant political figure in South Africa for fourteen years. Due to a long personal relationship with his subject, spanning nearly five decades (though not as a member of Mbeki’s inner circle), Pityana’s chapter is sympathetic without being hagiographic. As a member of the African National Congress’s Youth League and of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness (BC) Movement, Pityana served as a bridge between the two, and he highlights Mbeki’s nuanced understanding of these two key platforms in the South African liberation struggle, which saw Mbeki reach out to BC activists, many of whom he also helped to recruit in exile.
Pityana is appalled by Mbeki’s removal from power by the ANC in 2008, an action which he considers to have been unconstitutional. He describes, in depth, the various assessments of Mbeki as enigmatic, aloof, impenetrable and autocratic. His own portrayal of Mbeki is as a calm, cultured, thoughtful, selfless, ethical anti-populist; a hard taskmaster and voracious reader; and a leader deeply steeped in ANC traditions of ‘servant leadership’, having been mentored by the movement’s president-in-exile, OR Tambo. Pityana also presents Mbeki as a strategic leader who was the architect of South Africa’s post-apartheid governance structures. He notes that Mbeki’s greatest achievements were in the realm of foreign policy and the building of the institutions of the African Union (AU)—the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP)—several of which have, however, since become moribund.
Pityana could be more critical in assessing the lack of party and popular consultation before the government’s conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy was enacted in 1996. He could also have focused more attention on such issues as why Mbeki did not use his ministers and other key figures more prominently as prophets promoting his idea of an ‘African Renaissance’. The concept has not really been widely imbibed in post-apartheid South Africa (as sporadic xenophobic attacks on African immigrants demonstrate). Pityana also could have probed more deeply into why it was so difficult for Mbeki to build a state with the capacity to reverse centuries of colonial and apartheid-induced black poverty. South African author Mark Gevisser’s seminal 2009 biography of Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, had asked if the president could have shown more courage in dealing with domestic businesses that had colluded with apartheid, and also whether he could have been less fearful of the wrath of foreign investors.
Pityana’s assessment of Mbeki’s diplomacy in Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is essentially sound. But as a mediator Mbeki could surely have been less disdainful of the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai. Pityana might also have addressed the critique of Caribbean delegates that Mbeki and other African leaders betrayed the continent and the Diaspora at the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban by not pushing harder for reparations for slavery and colonialism. However, Pityana does part ways with Mbeki on three key issues: first, for Mbeki’s loyalty to incompetent ministers; second, on the failure by Mbeki’s administration to condemn xenophobia more openly; and third, Pityana suggests that the president should have left technical matters of science, particularly with regard to HIV/Aids, to the experts, rather than debating these controversial issues in public.
One of the best essays in the book is by the British Marxist Peter Lawrence, who studied as a classmate of Thabo Mbeki’s at the University of Sussex in England in the nineteen-sixties. Both pursued Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in economics, and so had similar training. Lawrence provides a magisterial historical sweep, from the three Keynesian decades following World War II to the triumph of neoliberal and monetarist economics in the nineteen-nineties. He argues that this global context was important in constraining Mbeki’s economic policies as president. The run on the British pound in 1964 and the left-leaning Labour government of Harold Wilson being forced to obtain a $3.75 billion bail-out loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) occurred while Mbeki and Lawrence were studying at Sussex, and must have had a great impact on the young Thabo, shaping some of his cautious economic policies in power, as surely as Kenneth Kaunda’s disastrous nationalisation of Zambia’s copper mines (which entailed the collapse of copper prices) had done while Mbeki was in ANC exile in Lusaka.
Lawrence talks about their development economics textbooks at Sussex teaching about state-led development and competitive markets, in contrast to the oligopolistic companies that increasingly existed in the real world. Many of these large companies—the energy-mineral conglomerates—dominated South Africa’s own domestic market, and Mbeki, as president, cooperated with rather than challenged their hegemony. He defended them against American extra-territorial class-action lawsuits for apartheid crimes, and was keen to avoid killing the fat geese that lay South Africa’s golden eggs, as Robert Mugabe would do in Zimbabwe. Lawrence also notes that the South African state—unlike the successful developmental states in Asia—lacked control over its own banking sector, and had weak research and development capacity.
The triumphant neoliberal economics of the nineteen-eighties stressed a minimalist state, mainly facilitating private sector productivity and maximising shareholder value, while cutting taxes, particularly for rich corporates and individuals. It was often noted by neoliberal prophets that there was no alternative to this new gospel, which even rich countries could not avoid, given the power of capital flows across borders, as well as currency speculation. Lawrence argues that neoliberal economics failed to transform African economies, and left them integrated into the global economy as exporters of raw materials with a lower share of world trade and production than sixty years earlier. Mbeki’s Gear and Nepad have been criticised as being based on these very neoliberal foundations, and a World Bank official, Richard Ketley, was brought in to advise the South African Treasury under Mbeki’s presidency. Critics have also argued that the ANC abandoned its socialist roots to run the economy not too differently from how the white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition would have run it: in the interests of a powerful 10 per cent white minority, rather than the black majority that had elected it to power, 55 per cent of whom still live in grinding poverty.
Why did Mbeki abandon his progressive Sussex economics training once in power? Was it a loss of nerve—as he seemed to suggest to Gevisser—or did he simply feel that the theoretical classroom was too far removed from the real world of governance, and that South Africa was too small a country to wage economic battles against local and global corporate titans? In the end, Lawrence—an insider who was intimately familiar with Mbeki’s intellectual evolution—disappointingly fails to provide us with answers to these fundamental questions, pulling his punches somewhat in not directly wanting to criticise his former Sussex classmate. Instead, the Marxist scholar ends by suggesting that an alliance between the South African government and grassroots organisations, civil society, trade unions and progressive media may have tamed corporate capital in South Africa, and made it more developmental.
Ugandan–Swedish educationist Catherine Odora Hoppers’s chapter, which involves a critique of the corporatisation of education across Africa and the damage of the World Bank and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), is accurate. But Mbeki’s use of the ‘African Renaissance’ as a guiding philosophy for the continent is not thoroughly interrogated or explained. The fundamental question also has to be addressed: Why, if Mbeki was the Prophet of Africa’s Renaissance, were South Africa’s ivory towers not transformed into ebony ones during his fourteen years as the most powerful leader in South Africa? Why are Eurocentric paradigms and white professors still so disproportionately ubiquitous in contemporary South African academe?
Nigerian scholar Adebayo Olukoshi’s chapter competently—if not particularly originally—covers important ground in analysing global economic policies during the Cold War era and their impact on Africa, peppered with sporadic quotes by Mbeki. It would, however, have been more interesting to read an essay which engaged in far greater detail with policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), Gear, and Nepad within the global context. Olukoshi stresses Mbeki’s African Renaissance as having 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 would have been useful to engage here, but the question is left aside. The critique by late Nigerian economist and foe of the Bretton Woods institutions’ SAPs, Adebayo Adedeji, who felt that Nepad’s overreliance on foreign funding departed from the self-reliance goals of his Lagos Plan of Action of 1980, is also not examined. African civil society often felt that Nepad had been too ‘top-down’ a plan, and not sufficiently consultative.
Zambian academic Hellicy Ng’ambi covers Africa’s development challenges, going through the various plans of multilateral bodies like the AU, Nepad and the UN, without offering any really rigorous critique of the flaws in some of their activities. She also investigates various theories of leadership, praising what she considers to have been Mbeki’s visionary leadership of the continent’s socioeconomic development. Ng’ambi describes herself as a ‘disciple’ of Mbeki’s vision, but a more critical distance may have produced a more balanced essay.
Anthony Mbewu, who was president of South Africa’s Medical Research Council under Mbeki and also chaired the Ministerial National Task Team of South Africa’s HIV/Aids Antiretroviral (ARV) Plan, provides a history of the country’s HIV/Aids epidemic in which South Africa—with 6.4 million infected people by 2012—had the highest infection rates in the world. Mbewu, however, refrains from criticising Mbeki’s HIV/Aids policies. A 2008 Harvard University study estimated that the Aids debacle resulted in an estimated 365,000 preventable deaths under Mbeki’s watch due to the reluctant and slow roll-out of ARV treatment: this will undoubtedly be the greatest blot on the former president’s record. In contrast to this record, the much-maligned Jacob Zuma administration developed the largest Aids treatment programme in the world, from which 3.4 million South Africans had benefited by 2016.
Pedro Tabensky, a philosopher and national of Chile, Australia, Hungary and South Africa, contributes an essay that is part autobiographical, somewhat distractingly talking about migrating to, and living in, South Africa. Tabensky acts as a psychologist in seeking to unpack the moral decay in South African society—rape, woundedness, ‘spaces’ of public and private life that need ‘mending,’ xenophobic violence, ‘whisky revolutionaries’, corporate greed, whiteness—before calling for more ‘humility’ in tackling these challenges. A deeper and better-informed diagnosis is, however, surely required in order to treat the ills ailing the South African patient.
The leading prophet of Afrocentrism, African–American scholar Molefi Kete Asante, assesses Mbeki’s African Renaissance idea within a Pan-African context. He describes Mbeki as ‘a revolutionary hero who dares to visualise an Africa freed from the clutches of colonial thinking’, and calls Mbeki’s message ‘Afrocentric’. While Mbeki often acknowledges Africa’s ancient glories of Egypt, Timbuktu, Fez, Carthage, Benin and Zimbabwe, I am not sure our subject would describe his own ideas in such a parochial, essentialist and limiting way as ‘Afrocentric’. Mbeki seems more of a cosmopolitan polyglot, as much at home with Xhosa poetry as the prose of Shakespeare, and as comfortable with the griot of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, as the Irish poetry of WB Yeats.
Asante holds back from challenging the Mbeki administration’s failure to transform South Africa’s education system to one that was more rooted—ideologically and geographically—in Africa. He notes Mbeki’s support of Haitian leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who was granted asylum in South Africa after being deposed from power in March 2004), and his identification with Haiti as the world’s first black revolutionary republic. Asante is similarly gentle in praising the idea of the African Diaspora as the AU’s sixth region, without discussing how this idea has been largely devoid of substance. He fails to ask why, for example, Mbeki and his fellow African leaders could not have invited Caribbean leaders to their summits for dialogue about building closer links with the Diaspora. Asante could also have interrogated more deeply the criticism of whether the African Renaissance was more illusory promise than implementable policy.
Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani tackles the controversial issue of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in an essay that is replete with clever phraseology not, however, matched by the author’s characteristic sharpness. Mamdani’s main point is that the United Nations has betrayed its mandate to deal with intervening ‘rogue states’, and become solely concerned with conflict-ridden ‘failed states’. He argues that the United States (US), which has often defined others as ‘rogue states’, is now itself a rogue state. Mamdani notes that Washington has been able to manipulate the international system to ignore its own transgressions—in countries such as Iraq and Libya—which it tries to justify as ‘humanitarian interventions’.
Even though countries like America and France—as veto-wielding permanent members of the fifteen-strong UN Security Council—have indeed manipulated UN interventions for more parochial agendas, the reality is that Africa still lacks the capacity to maintain its own peace—what the late Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui described as Pax Africana. There is no African Standby Force—promised since 2003—and the AU and Africa’s sub-regional bodies still lack funding and logistical and other support. Also missing in Mamdani’s analysis is the fact that most of the wars in the post-Cold War era have been intra-state rather than inter-state—which has not been the UN’s doing. These conflicts also often have regional dimensions, spilling over to destabilise neighbouring countries, as evidenced by civil wars in Liberia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from the nineteen-nineties onwards.
Mamdani’s question about how the UN—created to maintain international peace—came to promote domestic peace, is therefore rather silly. UN peacekeeping has, in fact, been a useful innovation and helped bring stability to countries like Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Such interventions must be distinguished from more self-interested ones in Iraq and Libya. Mamdani also fails to note the praiseworthy Africa-led interventions in intra-state conflicts: the Nigeria-led sub-regional interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the nineteen-nineties, at the cost of over 1,500 military fatalities; and the South Africa-led interventions in the DRC and Burundi in the two-thousands. Would both African hegemons also be considered ‘rogue states’ in Mamdani’s perverse definition? Surprisingly, not once is Mbeki mentioned in this chapter, and an analysis of his peacemaking efforts and deployment of peacekeepers to Burundi, the DRC and Darfur would surely have enriched this essay.
Bissau-Guinean development economist and administrator Carlos Lopes tackles the issue of the Pan-African political economy. After a potted history of Pan-Africanism, he notes that Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah’s Marxist views ‘lacked the more comprehensive understanding and sophistication’ of Martinique’s Frantz Fanon and Guinea-Bissau’s Amílcar Cabral. Fanon and Cabral, of course—unlike Nkrumah—never had to confront the multiple challenges of running a modern state in a difficult Cold War environment. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie is bizarrely portrayed as an architect of Pan-Africanism, despite a pragmatic, deathbed conversion to the ideology after African states began to gain their independence from the nineteen-fifties. Côte d’Ivoire is described as a ‘successful economic model’, despite this French neo-colony descending into civil war six years after the three-decade autocracy of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Lopes’s comparison of the economic fortunes of Africa and Asia are also simplistic, ignoring the strategic Cold War Western support for Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, in contrast to their fueling of Africa’s destructive proxy wars. There is not much evidence today of Lopes’s depiction of Mbeki’s era coinciding with a ‘turnaround’ in Africa’s fortunes, as many of the AU’s atrophied institutions that the Bissau-Guinean praises remain weak and underfunded.
Finally, South African academic Chris Landsberg assesses Mbeki’s foreign policy, praising his building of AU institutions, South–South strategy, and engagement with the Group of Eight. While there was certainly vision and strategy, the author fails to assess the real impact and concrete results of the creation of the India, Brazil and South Africa Dialogue Forum and the New Asian–African Strategic Partnership; Africa’s constant engagement with the G8; and efforts to transform the Non-Aligned Movement and institutions of global governance like the UN Security Council, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. Success in these areas was, in fact, rather limited. Landsberg’s statement that Mbeki ‘commanded an influence in world affairs usually reserved for great powers and superpowers’ is therefore clearly hyperbolic.
Despite its shortcomings in rigour and depth, this book is an important contribution to the growing Mbeki corpus, taking its place alongside the several biographies and more recent forty-five-chapter book of essays The Thabo Mbeki I Know (2016). Pityana concedes in his Introduction that this current volume is ‘gentle and appreciative … and celebratory in tone.’ Its chapters are substantive and cover important issues. However, my two concluding criticisms are, first, the failure to commission a chapter on Mbeki’s decade-long post-presidency—involving peacemaking in Sudan, chairing a UN commission on illicit financing, overseeing a Foundation and Leadership Training Institute—which is a glaring omission. Cameroonian scholar Elias Bongmba’s final essay deals only briefly with this important issue. Second, perhaps a few more critical essays with diverse perspectives would have enriched this book, and resulted in a more rounded picture of Africa’s Philosopher-King.
- Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of Thabo Mbeki: Africa’s Philosopher-King (2016) and The Eagle and The Springbok: Essays on Nigeria and South Africa (2017). He obtained his doctorate from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.