Enthusiasm ‘to wane’ for Mbeki’s renaissance vision
Dr. Zoulou Jn Bertrand Aristide and Tabe Mbeki ex-presidents.
ALICE - It was meant to be a South African-led renewal of African culture, society and economy, but 13 years after famously declaring “I am an African” former president Thabo Mbeki’s can expect waning enthusiasm for his vision after the April 22 elections.
“Mbeki’s idea was that South Africa would champion an African rebirth, but we must not expect the same level of enthusiasm for the pursuit of things African,” said Professor Kofi Etsiah, a political science professor at the University of Fort Hare, the institution which trained leaders such as former president Nelson Mandela and Mbeki’s father Govan Mbeki.
“It is a phenomenon in African politics that a new group will try to erase what the previous group started to do.
“There seems to be a general expectation that one group should do things differently to the next. So don’t expect the same level of enthusiasm for African affairs.”
Etsiah said Mbeki wanted South Africa to have the same stature in the international community that it had before 1948 when Jan Smuts was prime minister.
“Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister had written the preamble to the United Nations. Then because of its system of apartheid it became isolated and lost all its respect.
“Mbeki took the view that the only way South African could regain its stature was to take an intellectual and philosophical lead in Africa.”
In 1996 on the adoption of South Africa’s Constitution, Mbeki made his now famous “I am an African” speech in Parliament, outlining his vision for Africa.
“I am an African,” Mbeki’s said. “I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa. The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
Mbeki demonstrated his commitment to his vision by sending South African troops into troubled African countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He granted asylum to Haiti’s ousted leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom he regarded as a symbol of the African diaspora.
Mbeki even launched initiatives such as starting a trust to build a new library to house thousands of Timbuktu Manuscripts dating back to the thirteenth century which document aspects of Africa’s past.
South Africa’s new administration however, is likely to think twice about taking up costly initiatives such as these.
“It will happen gradually, it won’t happen overnight, but I expect that resources will be diverted from Africa to meet the huge needs in this country,” Etsiah said.
“The government will find plausible excuses to scale down its operations in Africa. Increasingly people will ask if South Africa should have any obligations outside of its borders.
“People will say we don’t have any obligations beyond Africa. They will say for example ‘why must we help Gambia? It is not even an important trade partner for South Africa’.
“You cannot influence a country unless you have relations with that country,” he added.
Xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa in the past year had also done enormous damage to the idea of a South African-led African Renaissance. Africans were now more likely to greet the idea of a South African Renaissance with cynicism rather than enthusiasm.
“Foreigners were killed by South Africans. This showed that there is an underlying discomfort with people from outside the borders of South Africa,” Etsiah said.
Mbeki’s vision for Africa was met with scepticism for his soft or “quietly diplomatic” approach to African leaders accused of human rights abuses, such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who has been one of the champions of the African Renaissance, might stay on in her post as Foreign Minister when the new administration comes to power, but eventually might be retired by the ruling party.
“We might see her being retired by the ANC in favour of a minister who fits in with the new way of thinking,” said Etsiah.
The African Renaissance would continue however, but it would be led by other African countries.
Mbeki’s former economic advisor, Wiseman Nkuhlu, who chaired the steering committee for the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) project, expected Mbeki to keep pursuing his vision for the continent.
“The former president is still deeply involved in African issues,” Nkuhlu said.
ANC president Jacob Zuma was likely to keep South Africa committed to Nepad, an African Union project to promote peace and economic prosperity.
“The idea of an African Renaissance goes beyond the differences between leaders,” Nkuhlu said. “In this area there will continue to be close co-operation.
“There will possibly however be a change of emphasis on certain issues.”
Steven Gruzd, of the SA Institute of International Affairs, said Zuma would offer a “different energy” to African affairs to Mbeki.
“We haven’t seen signs of any grand plans from Zuma to remake the African architecture,” he said.
“We will see a different energy to what we saw under Mbeki. Both men have different educations and different life experiences. They are two very different people.”
Gruzd believed there was likely to be some continuity in African issues when Zuma took charge. Zuma had shown some commitment to African affairs when he worked as a mediator in peace negotiations in Burundi.
“Many African countries are key trading partners of South Africa,” Gruzd said.
“South Africa has massive business interests in these countries. Culturally however, Zuma will not have the same vision as Mbeki.”