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.