Thabo Mbeki in the shadow of Nelson Mandela

By Mwaura Samora

With the glowing tributes paid to Nelson Mandela by various world leaders during his memorial and his stature being compared to godlike figures like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi, the narrative of the supremacy battles the iconic leader engaged with his successor Thabo Mbeki sounds un-Madibalike.

The topsy-turvy relationship between the duo brought out a side of Tata that few in the world will ever know, or believe.

Having taken the reigns of power from the “Grand Old Man”, Mbeki fought hard to step out of the great man’s shadow not only in South Africa but also across the world. This attempt, more often than not, ended up triggering rifts between him and Tata.

To understand the extent of this highly unpublicized conflicts between the man and his political mentor we analyzed, among other sources, Mbeki’s world acclaimed biography Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.

Penned by one of South Africa’s finest scribes Mark Gevisser, the highly objective book took eight years of research where the writer had numerous interviews with the subject, family, close associates, critics and political friends and foes besides visiting his alma mater in Sussex, Moscow and Mbewuleni, his place of birth in Transkei.

“Given Mbeki’s history as the African National Congress’ (ANC) ranking diplomat, their first major public clash happened in the arena of foreign policy,” Gevisser explains in the 900-page tome. “And although it appeared to be a brushfire-lit with the callous malice by the Nigerian Dictator Sani Abacha- it pointed to a problem that would become the fault line of their relationship, and would eventually cause it to break down almost entirely”.

Mbeki preferred Mandela handle Abacha with velvet gloves while the latter, under intense pressure from world leaders, wanted to punch Nigerian dictator bare knuckled. The hanging of Saro-Wiwa left Mbeki egg-faced and Madiba fuming.

The same differences emerged between the two on the issue on Zimbabwe. While Mandela clearly stated that the likes of Mugabe should not be tolerated due to his rubble-rousing land issue, Mbeki embraced the Zimbabwean strongman in public and accused his critics as racists out to demean Africans leaders.

The Mandela-Mbeki rivalry sometimes spilled into the public galleries in the full glare of cameras.

During Mandela’s 80 birthday in 1999, a day after he married Graca Machel, the newlyweds were feted with a mega concert televised globally and graced by the likes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

In his trademark love for classical literature, the then vice-president got carried away and chose for his toast to Madiba a misplaced passage from Shakespeare that brought the entire gathering into a tense silence.

Come let’s away in prison.

We too alone will sing like birds in th’ cage.

…so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues.

“In other words: go away. Retreat into the dotage of idle chit-chat, with the wife young enough to be your daughter, and leave us alone to carry on with the real work,” Gevisser notes. “He all but shocked the rambunctious event into silence, as it carried King Lear’s tragic words to his daughter Cordelia just before his death”.

Besides being faulted for comparing Mandela to the autocratic Lear, poetizing prison to a man who had spent 27 years in jail was criticized by the media and those present as distasteful and lucking decorum.

After being asked by the press whether he would fit in the old man’s shoes during his acceptance speech as the ANC President after Mandela stepped down in December 1997, Mbeki crudely joked that Madiba wears “such ugly shoes” and “I would never be seen dead in such shoes”.

But the most dramatic spat between the two post-apartheid heavy weights was captured by a BBC documentary filmed during a wedding event in 2003 to which both men were guests. Infamous for his tendency to show up in events late, Mandela was not impressed by the fact that Mbeki was forty five minutes behind schedule. The microphone picking the old man’s snapping “we are hungry” to his predecessor Mbeki, who instead of apologizing hits back by “I’ am sure you are”.

But Madiba, being a true fighter, would not take the jibe lying down.

“In the late thirties there used to be a president of the ANC who used to say ‘I am the black prime minister. I cannot come early to meetings. I must come late, and all of you must see what a black prime minister in this country looks like’,” the old man said when he stood to speak. “I think my president here has taken after that president”.

To show his displeasure, Mbeki snubbed the old man’s calls for three months.

Another point of departure for the two men were their leadership styles which, analysts have observed, were dictated by the nation’s needs at the times each was at the helm.

 Mandela’s was pre-occupied with being the father of the nation hell bent on national reconciliation, which included assuring whites that the economic strata won’t be forcefully disrupted. On the other hand, Mbeki pursued transformation which would lift blacks out of poverty without forgetting, and probably not forgiving, centuries of white domination that have pushed millions into despondency.

“If people dislike Mbeki, it’s because he is the anti-patriarch. He doesn’t have a family. He’s not a ‘whose your daddy?’ kind of a guy,” an intelligence operative well versed with the introvert leader told his biographer. “He doesn’t want to be anyone’s daddy. He wants to engage with you as an equal, and if you are useless, he’ll tell you. He’s not going to soften things for you”.

Lacking what he referred to as “Mandela Exceptionalism” that endeared the revered icon to comrades and crowds, Mbeki preferred stringent management approach and concentrating power at the center. This, Gevisser notes, led to a more consolidated presidency and controlled political structures as opposed to Madiba’s lose system and style, which triggered many to brand Mbeki a despot.

Proponents of the despot theory pointed towards the way all functions of the state revolved around the presidency, parliament was whipped to submission and key party positions were filled with Mbeki yes-men. This apparent intolerance to dissent and the obvious quest to consolidate state power around his office, apparently, multiplied enemies.

Powerful political heavyweights like Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) leader Zwelinzima Vavi, South Africa Communist Party (SACP) supremo Blade Nzimande, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and ANC Secretary General Kgalema Montlante all became antiMbeki crusaders.

This gang would prove deadly in the ANC rebellion that eventually horded the “Jew of kaffirland” out of office in 2008.

“When we spoke about it, he offered up a practical example, to make his point that Mandela’s status precluded good government, and that his executive style privileged personality over process,” Gervisser notes in his objective and engaging narrative. “There were also several instances-particularly following Mandela’s retirement in 1999-when demands or requests came through from Mandela which Mbeki felt that he had to veto, because they were inappropriate. This undoubtedly created tension between the two men”.

The friction between the duo played in the international scene where many world leaders, according to Mbeki, were “slow” in noting that he was now the president a few months after the old man’s retirement. Sometimes the new leader went overboard in a bid to assert his authority.

Being a close friend of the then US President Bill Clinton, Mandela once visited Washington just a few days before Mbeki made an official state visit as the head of state in 2000. Madiba’s rapturous welcome in the American capital all but buried his successor’s tour.

Determined to make a point to both Clinton and Mandela, Mbeki made an unexpected visit to Texas to meet with the Republican frontrunner for that year’s elections George W. Bush.

“Mbeki had told several people that, when he first met Al Gore, the vice-president and Democratic Party candidate arrogantly told him what needed to be done in Africa,” his biographer claims. “Bush said, in his good-ol’ boy way, ‘Gee, I don’t know nothing about Africa. You tell me what you think I should do”.

This personal chitchat, perhaps, explains why Mbeki had an unparalleled access to White House during the entire Bush presidency despite South Africa’s harsh stance on certain American policies like the Iraqi war and Zimbabwe.

“At one point, Bush allegedly complained to Mbeki that he felt awkward being phoned by Mandela when it was Mbeki, now, who was his South African counterpart,” Gevisser further says. “Meanwhile, Mandela would complain that in the course of the day he could call all the world leaders and the only one who would not return his call immediately was ‘my own president’”. 

But while most of these differences were subtle and well concealed Mbeki controversial perception on the AIDS pandemic, according to analysts, invigorated the aging Madiba into full fighting spirit.

The second black South African president had stirred controversy across the world by claiming that he did not believe in the conventional theory that HIV caused AIDS, hence delaying his government’s response to a disaster that was claiming 800 South Africans daily.

Besides openly saying the president was wrong and criticizing the government slow adoption of a nationwide ARV programme, Mandela’s quest to meet Mbeki and discuss the issue face-to-face was allegedly spanned off for a year.

“Finally, when Mandela got to see Mbeki privately in early 2002, he felt he was treated dismissively-said those close to him-as a ‘quarrelsome old man’”, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred alleges.

This, Mbeki men claimed, triggered Madiba to take the AIDS campaign with fervor and zeal. When the government was appealing against a court order demanding that it provides pregnant women and rape victims with Nevirapine, Mandela approved the awarding of the two medics who have pioneered the treatment with Nelson Mandela Prize for Health and Human Rights.

Asked whether he thought Madiba was waging a proxy war against his government, Mbeki was straight forward in the claim that the old man was trying to remain relevant in a world where he couldn’t influence government policy any more.

“’That was the problem, it’s that disempowerment… I think, to some extent, it came up close to him as a conscious effort on my part to disempower him’”, he told Givesser during an interview. “But at the same time, he was implying that Mandela had ‘strayed’ into AIDS not just out of heartfelt conviction, but also as a response to the disempowerment he had felt at the hands of his successor”.

Another issue that triggered a rift between the two is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Mbeki was opposed to the report demonizing ANC freedom fighters for supposed gross human rights violations for their treatment of detainees in their Angolan camps in the mid eighties,

On the hand Mandela, due to retire from the presidency in six months, made a point of calling TRC chair Desmond Tutu to let him know he accepted the report in its entirety, a fact that irked Mbeki as the ANC President.

“The TRC was wrong and misguided in its scurrilous attempts to criminalise the heroic struggles of the people of South Africa,” he objected. “These struggles had, in fact, brought about the dawn of peace, democracy and justice”.

But despite these differences the two men had many meeting points.

Besides Mbeki writing many of Mandela’s speeches including the one at his historic inauguration in May 1994, the old man trusted his vice-president with the running of government while he concentrated with national reconciliation and global engagements.

By the time Madiba was subdued by illness and old age up to his eventual demise a few weeks ago, the two comrades had, apparently, fully reconciled.

“Mbeki made peace by agreeing to draft an exquisite 85th birthday message to Mandela in July 2003, in which he lauded his predecessor as “God’s gift to the world” and a “monument to the triumph of the human spirit”,” the biographer concludes. “Shaun Johnson who edited the publication in which the message would appear recalls taking the message to show Mandela: He reads it twice and his eyes tear up. He calls Zelda(la Grange, his assistant) in, and asks her to get “my president” on line…”.