Mr Mbeki and Mr Mugabe showing mutual respect earlier this year

Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president and Sussex alumnus, has had an astonishingly bad year. First came a humiliating defeat last December, when the ruling African National Congress (ANC) elected Jacob Zuma, the country’s former deputy president, to replace him as the party’s leader. Mr Mbeki had sacked Mr Zuma in 2005 after his financial adviser was indicted in a corruption scandal. Then, on September 20th, the ANC decided he should be removed from office “in the interest of making the country move forward”. This put an end to Mr Mbeki’s presidency and he stepped down.

The decision to eject Mr Mbeki follows a court ruling in early September that saw his deputy, Mr Zuma, charged with fraud and corruption. The trial was dismissed a few days later as the judge believed that Mr Mbeki and some of his ministers might have influenced the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) over Mr Zuma’s prosecution. Unsurprisingly, both Mr Mbeki and the NPA dismissed such allegations. However, Mr Zuma’s supporters believed he was victim of a political conspiracy and called for Mr Mbeki’s resignation.
During his 15 years in power, Thabo Mbeki engineered an economic recovery that put an end to the desolate, divided and sluggish South Africa left behind by the Apartheid. The country is in surplus and the economy has been growing by an average of over 4.5% a year since 2004. He encouraged an “African Renaissance”, which was meant to provide African solutions to Africa’s problems, instead of relying on western aid. He mediated talks between Congo and Burundi and supervised a power sharing deal in Zimbabwe when it seemed as if the country was about to implode. Mr Mbeki put Africa back on the map, an achievement crowned by their hosting of the 2010 football world cup.

However, there are dark clouds collecting over this picture. Mr Mbeki’s attitude towards HIV/AIDS and his lack of action at the most desperate time in Zimbabwean politics has soured his legacy. Mr Mbeki’s refusal to believe the scientific evidence of HIV/AIDS cost millions of lives in a country where it is estimated almost 5.5million people carry the virus. He also stood silent and appeased President Mugabe for far too long – letting intimidation, violence and coercion run riot whilst idly standing by and in some cases actively promoting it.

For example, Mbeki has attempted to legitimize the Zimbabwean regime internationally. It was while Mbeki was in power, after all, that Mugabe stole the 2000, 2002 and 2005 polls. In all three cases, the Zimbabwean government’s handling of the elections was condemned by the international community, save the Southern African Development Community dominated by South Africa. Also, his envoy to the UN Security Council deliberately sidelined any debate about Mugabe’s human rights abuses.

It is against this backdrop of irresponsibility that the University of Sussex Student Union (USSU) is calling on the university to revoke Mr Mbeki’s honorary doctorate. Mr Mbeki was a student at Sussex in 1966 where he gained an MA in Economics and in 1995 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lord Attenborough who paid tribute to his “charm, humour and sweet reason.” The effort to remove his honour began with last year’s sabbatical officers and is being continued by the incumbents. The former President of Sussex Student Union, Daniel Vockins, said “If our honorary doctorates are to mean anything, we’ve got to be prepared to revoke them when the recipients conduct themselves in unacceptable ways. Thabo Mbeki’s blind support for Mugabe’s regime is one of the cases where we’ve got no choice but to act.” In a letter sent to Mr Mbeki and signed by both sets of Sabbatical Officers, old and new, the union explicitly stated their position, “We are thoroughly disappointed by your lack of action against Robert Mugabe’s regime” claiming his “failure to make a stand against Mugabe has outraged… both incoming and outgoing sabbatical officers of your former Students’ Union.” Finally they called for his honorary doctorate to be revoked as his actions have brought shame on the university.

This action has been supported by Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who famously performed a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe in 1999 and in 2001. In July, Tatchell delivered a moving speech saying “I support and salute Sussex University students who are seeking to revoke the honorary doctorate awarded to …Thabo Mbeki.” Tatchell’s statement acknowledged Mr Mbeki’s importance in South Africa’s development, stating “Mbeki played an important and inspiring role in the struggle against apartheid.” Tatchell argued that “from great men we expect great leadership” and “Mbeki has failed to give a lead in challenging the tyranny and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.”

The privilege of an honorary doctorate is, however, exactly that – honorary. The University can revoke the doctorate at any time and the committee which is in power to do so is the honorary degrees committee chaired by the Vice-Chancellor. For now, the honour remains bestowed upon Mr Mbeki as the university is unwilling to consider its removal. His connection to the university is, however, being slowly phased out of the university’s publicity literature.

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  • To correct a point in your article, Thabo Mbeki has not been in power for 15 yrs, only 9 (since the 1999 elections, before that Mandela was president.)

    Regarding Zimbabwe, no degree of antagonism from Mbeki’s side towards Mugabe would have brought about a regime change in Zim. In the face of mounting criticism from home & abroad, Mbeki continued with his policy of ‘quiet deplomacy’ believing that negotiation, rather than aggression, would be the best way forward for Zim. This policy paid off in the end, & Mbeki proved to be the only person able to bring Mugabe & the opposition to a negotiated settlement. There is now finally a prospect of political stability in Zim. The future of Zim ultimately lies in the hands of the Zimbabweans themselves, but history will vindicate Mbeki’s role in the peaceful resolution of that country’s problems.

    A further testimony of Mbeki’s strength of character was that he made a very dignified exit when the ANC no longer wanted him as president of SA. He chose not to cling to power & fling the country into a crisis; something which could so easily have happened.

    I’m not singing Mbeki’s praises, unfortunately, no one is perfect, not even presidents. Mbeki has his shortcomings, perhaps the most glaring being his handling of the HIV-Aids crisis. Also, many things went wrong under his watch, e.g. the arms deal, but ultimately his valuable contribution to SA & Africa should not be dismissed.

    I realise that as a new student to Sussex, who are not a member of the Student Union, my opnion counts very little, but I could never support a call for Mbeki’s honarary doctorate to be recalled. I have too much respect for his considerable achievements in a very troubled country & continent, under very difficult circumstances.

  • Dear Anita,

    Thank you for your response. I feel I must clarify something and perhaps apologise. What I meant by ‘in power’ was Mbeki’s roles as both Deputy President and President which he held for almost 15 years. However, this may have been misleading as ‘in power’ does indeed imply leader of a country. Also I would like to make clear that he held office for almost 15 years as he was inaugurated as you rightly say in 1999.

    Secondly, your opinion counts a great deal and anyone, without exception, should feel their voices will be heard if they have something to say. If you feel you have more to say or are interested in writing on other news stories, please feel free to email. I would look forward to hearing from you.

  • As Miss Shaw has mentioned, Mr Mbeki, was not the most perfect of presidents but neither are most of the world’s leaders either.
    Indeed, the world would have been a different place had President Bush stopped at invading Iraq and considered a careful and quieter approach to things. Yet no one seems to be voting to remove his credentials, yet.
    Perhaps diplomacy is a skill that cannot be ascribed to an African nation, perhaps it is a tool that only first world presidents and nations can use. They use it, they’re practicing détente, Africans use it and we’re promoting a dictatorship.
    Isn’t it better to avoid conflict and not be reactionaries to ‘truthiness’ . (Like revoking someone’s doctorate.)
    Perhaps we Africans can teach you first worlders a thing or two, like Mr Mbeki has shown us.

  • President Bush doesn’t have an honorary doctorate at Sussex though. Mbeki did some great things for South Africa. However, the country became awash with serious economic and cultural crises under his rule. At the time Zimbabwe needed him most, he stayed silent. Zimbabwe would not be in this position if Mbeki had been stronger.

  • The country was awash with an economic surplus, I think that was mentioned in the article. And Mr Mbeki has has borne the brunt of the press, in his own country, accusing him of being an absent president because he was spending too much time in Zimbabwe.
    And as far as being stronger:
    A reactionary approach to Mugabe, would have antagonized him to the point where he would’ve willfully refused any input. Mr Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ kept the lines of communication open. Yes, it took too long. But what would you have had him do. Have South African declare war on Zimbabwe, go in with guns blazing under the guise of liberating the country. I believe that has been tried this century and to date it hasn’t been that successful. The lives lost in that scenario would have been too much.
    In the end, it’s not about who’s stronger but about creating sustainable solutions.

  • In response to John Thomas’ comment: As a South African, I’m fascinated to hear that S.A. is ‘awash with serious economic and cultural crises’. The Mbeki government’s economic successes are well documented, I suggest you familiarise yourself with the material. In case you haven’t noticed, Western economies are currently experiencing a crisis, such is the nature of all economies.

    I’m curious to hear what you mean by cultural crisis? S.A. is a very diverse country with many cultures, but I don’t recall us experiencing any cultural crisis. Could you please enlighten me on this matter?

  • This is a good comment thread. I thought I would post the full statement human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell made about the situation:

    “I support and salute Sussex University students who are seeking to revoke the honorary doctorate awarded to the South African President,Thabo Mbeki.

    “I say this with a heavy heart because Mbeki played an important and inspiring role in the struggle against apartheid, which I supported for two decades.

    “From great men we expect great leadership. Mbeki has failed to give a lead in challenging the tyranny and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. His so-called ‘quiet diplomacy’ has been a miserable failure. Mugabe’s violence and corruption has got worse, not better. Mbeki has objectively given Mugabe a life-line and helped sustain his despotism, prolonging the immense suffering of the people of Zimbabwe.

    “Mbeki has betrayed the liberation ideals of the African National Congress and the ideals of pan-African solidarity with and between oppressed peoples. He is not the great man and African visionary that he once was.

    “In these circumstances, given Mbeki’s silence and inaction for a decade, it is no longer appropriate that he has the privilege of holding an honorary doctorate. Honours are meant for honourable men. Mbeki is no longer an honourable man.

    “He has colluded with a torturer and murderer who has killed more black Africans than even the evil apartheid regime. In one region of Zimbabwe, Matabeleland, in the mid-1980s alone, Mugabe slaughtered 20,000 civilians. This is the equivalent of a Sharpeville massacre every day for nearly nine months. Mbeki’s connivance with, and protection of, Robert Mugabe makes him unfit to hold an honorary doctorate from Sussex University or anywhere else,” said Mr Tatchell.

  • I respect Peter Tatchell’s opinion, but that is what it is, an opinion. There are many opinions about Mbeki. Here is another one:

    Sunday Independent – This is Mbeki’s legacy – judge it!This is Mbeki’s
    legacy – judge it!

    Whatever the hacks write and without the hindsight of history, future
    generations will build on his foundations

    By Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

    There are no simple answers to the vexing question of whether Thabo
    Mbeki’s reign has left us better or worse off than before. This much is
    clear following the the debate about the legacy of the former president
    launched by The Star this week,

    His legacy will eventually be judged by history, although one can attempt
    to do rough drafts, and when history eventually pronounces, a different
    picture might emerge – the impact of his actions, both positive and
    negative, will only be fully appreciated with the passage of time.

    Before one can assess some of the pointers on which an evaluation can be
    started, it is crucial to understand, especially in the current poisonous
    political climate, that the Mbeki legacy and the legacy of the ANC,
    particularly in the past 15 years, cannot be separated. Similarly, his
    legacy cannot be gauged only from his tenure in government but should also
    include his rich involvement in the liberation of our people long before
    the ANC was a ruling party.

    But it would be fair, if not definitive, to view the past 15 years as the
    defining moments of his influence.

    His legacy can be best understood by looking at three pillars: a domestic
    prophet not heeded, the sower of the seeds of continental renaissance and
    a man who has held Africa shoulder high to ascend to the world stage.

    When all is said and done, whether at home or abroad, Mbeki can be
    considered a victim of the big picture. In much the same way as Nkwame
    Nkrumah was appreciated too late by his own people, so too we are made to
    believe by many that Mbeki’s legacy has been tainted by his fall from
    power.

    At home, Mbeki was a prophet not always heeded and many concede that he
    was a general marching too far ahead of his troops. But the facts of his
    outstanding leadership of the ANC speak for themselves. Under his watch
    the ANC increased its majority in parliament three times in a row – a
    majority that was never abused or used to tamper with the constitution.

    But he leaves behind a party that is divided, an alliance that is wounded
    and an ANC that has failed to modernise. Whether the division that was
    precipitated by his unfortunate decision to run for office in Polokwane
    will prove to be good for our democracy is yet to be seen.

    Many have argued that the ANC’s unfettered power can only be tempered by
    internal opposition. Mbeki’s legacy in this regard may yet be defined by
    the unfolding events that could lead to the birth of a real and serious
    opposition to the ANC.

    Mbeki’s legacy at home cannot be fully appreciated beyond his role as a
    midwife of economic stability. Put simply, his administration inherited a
    faltering economy with a staggering deficit of more than $25 billion.
    Today our reserves are in the black – R36 billion, which is no small feat.
    He has presided over the longest sustained period of economic growth ever
    experienced by South Africa. This, too, is no small feat.

    Economic facts tell a story of a masterful steering of the economy,
    enabling the current government to talk of a surplus that can be deployed
    to increase social spending. This is the fruit of Mbeki’s toil.

    It is also crucial that his legacy must acknowledge that he presided over
    the most revolutionary redistribution of wealth ever by passing
    legislation such as the mining charter and the broad-based black economic
    empowerment codes of good practice.

    The foundations of the stock exchange were rocked by his government’s
    decision to take the bull by the horns and announce its intention to
    transform the wealthiest sector of our economy – mining. But it has now
    become commonplace to talk about interventions to deal with the second
    economy, which created an environment that saw inflation being kept under
    10 percent until this year.

    This positive story is topped by the radical amendment of the social grant
    system and a focus on other economic sectors, such as agriculture and
    tourism. The boom speaks volumes about the big vision that often
    characterised his leadership of government.

    The downside is the lack of sustainability – an attempt to be everything
    to everyone was bound to result in an unfinished story.

    The ANC, whose mandate he was implementing when he achieved all this,
    cannot afford to squander these foundations by handing them over to others
    with a misguided communist agenda. Although we have been assured that this
    is not on the cards, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

    Mbeki’s supporters don’t find it easy to point out the faults of the man.
    This often does him and his legacy no good. The man has some oddities, not
    least of which is that he is what could be termed an under-communicator.

    Though he could wax lyrical about the philosophies of the renaissance of
    Africa and the values on which we need to build a new kind of cadre for
    our nation, though he could pen thousands of letters to the party faithful
    and rebut concisely the arguments of friends and foes alike, he suffered
    from a belief that he should not always explain himself too much. No
    wonder even those who supported him were often none the wiser about his
    inexplicable decisions on HIV/Aids, his strategy on Zimbabwe and his
    insistence on keeping Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, his minister of health,
    and similar non-performers in his cabinet. I am certain he had good
    reasons.

    His under-communicator mode also kicked in unstrategically at the most
    difficult of times, leaving him vulnerable to attack and making his
    delayed response ineffective.

    His relationship with the press is a result of this mode. But belittling
    the press is not a good idea and the result of this has been seen all over
    the opinion pages. As a result, very few newsrooms are mourning his
    departure, giving leading opinion-makers, who have nothing new to add to
    their criticism of him, the opportunity to air their prejudices
    repeatedly. Some have even sought to rewrite the history of his role in
    our body politic.

    On the HIV/Aids debate in particular, I believe his biggest missed
    opportunity was his failure to inspire the nation to rise up against the
    monster. The public needed inspiration. It was sorely missing and, sadly,
    now threatens to define his presidency – which is a pity when you consider
    that, despite these debates, South Africa soldiered on to create the
    biggest antiretroviral roll-out programme in the world. Its strategic plan
    is today the envy of the world – a fact often conveniently forgotten by
    those seeking to crucify him.

    Similarly on Zimbabwe. At the beginning of the crisis, Mbeki wrote a long
    note of rebuke to Mugabe, something that everyone conveniently chooses to
    forget. It is plain to the level-headed that, as a mediator, you cannot
    possibly take the route of shouting from the rooftops.

    Blame for failing on the Zimbabwe crisis, given that it is an issue driven
    by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), is more sound and
    fury on the part of the media rather than a serious debate about what
    could help to solve the problem. When all is said and done, history will
    tell a story different to the current noise on Zimbabwe.

    Mbeki’s legacy as a sower of the seeds of African renaissance is probably
    his most remarkable achievement – he made the development of Africa his
    big vision, he made it his business and he put a stamp on it that many
    can’t deny.

    He saw to the adoption of a sensible plan in the New Partnership for
    Africa’s Development and, by supporting the peer-review mechanism, stepped
    up to the plate, which many African leaders had until then only talked
    about in hushed tones.

    It is crucial that the resources that Mbeki’s government dedicated to
    peace-making and peace-keeping on the continent be seen as a mark of his
    leadership – to put our money as a country where our mouth is as promoters
    of the reawakening of Africa’s self-reliance.

    His mantra, African solutions for African problems, underpinned everything
    he did about Africa. No wonder we played host to the relaunch of the
    Organisation of African Unity and became the headquarters of the African
    Parliament. Africa was Mbeki’s throne and this did not always sit well
    with his peers, so not all are mourning his departure.

    It is yet to be seen what his future role on the continent will be. The
    fact that both SADC and the ANC have asked him to continue as mediator in
    the Zimbabwe crisis vindicates his stance on the matter, despite some in
    both the ANC and SADC speaking with forked tongues about the matter when
    it suits them.

    All the world was Mbeki’s stage. In his wake, Africa is being taken a tad
    more seriously, the United Nations will be restructured and the G8 will
    cease to be a club of the privileged – thanks to his daring. Developing
    countries are also awake to the possibilities of collaboration and his
    successor will marvel at the opportunities he has created – Africa will be
    heard on a world stage, a stage where it has never been heard before.

    This is the stuff that legacies are made of – indelible footprints that
    can only benefit future generations, who will know how to assert
    themselves and, as the people of the second-largest continent, stand up
    against those who have always sought to control Africa.

    Needless to say, Mbeki’s independent-mindedness in the global arena did
    not always win him friends. He has annoyed the West in many instances – as
    an agent of change, that was an indicator that he was on to something
    good.

    There is little that you can fault where his mastery of foreign affairs is
    concerned. A foundation that built on a renewed South Africa has been laid
    – foreign direct investment has increased a hundredfold and tourism
    numbers are soaring and will be knocking at the 10 million a year mark by
    2010 when we will bask in yet another of Mbeki’s gifts to us – the Fifa
    World Cup.

    So, could we really live with ourselves if we were to say that we are
    worse off because of Mbeki? Could the ANC live with itself if it were to
    rubbish or isolate his legacy? Could Africa look at itself and wish his
    Midas touch away? Could the world claim it did not drink something from
    his cup of brilliance? Could commentators, including those who cannot
    write a single sentence in his favour, really have us believe that he
    should be consigned to the dustbin of history instead of the hall of fame?

    Methinks not. You be the judge.

    Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is the group executive at Altron and a media
    commentator. He is writing in his personal capacity

    Published on the web by Sunday Independent on October 19, 2008.

    © Sunday Independent 2008. All rights reserved.