Late last month, UNISA Chancellor and former South African President Thabo Mbeki repeated his erroneous and discredited beliefs about HIV not causing AIDS. This is more than 15 years after his administration lost in Court over those flawed beliefs. The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has demanded that he retract his statements and apologise for making them. For all the good it will do, it may as well have told the Drakensberg Mountains to march into the Indian Ocean.
Mbeki exemplifies the simple fact that intelligence and wisdom are not the same. At age 24, he earned a Master’s Degree in Economics from the University of Sussex. Making his achievement even more impressive, he wrote his thesis in English, which is not his first language. In 1994, he was chosen to be the first Vice President under Nelson Mandela. In 1999, he was elected President of South Africa, and late in 2008, he was forced to resign from the Presidency by the ANC.
The problem with smart people is that they frequently know they’re smart, and they get arrogant and intolerant of dissension, and believe they know more than they do about things outside their field of expertise, leading to blind spots. In addition, smart people are often better at coming up with rationalisations for what they believe and are thus less likely to change their minds, even when confronted with irrefutable information that proves their beliefs wrong. It is something I’ve had to fix in myself. Mbeki is no exception to this.
Prior to repeating his wrong beliefs on HIV and AIDS, Mbeki harshly criticised the corruption and incompetence that permeates South Africa’s current government. He hypocritically disregards the fact that he was a party to, and sometimes even an instigator of, the very issues he now bemoans.
During Mandela’s presidency, President’s Question Time was suspended in recognition of his advanced age. When Mbeki assumed the Presidency, he refused to bring it back. Under him, Parliament became a rubber stamp, not a check on the Executive. He consistently and repeatedly responded to criticism, no matter how deserved, with ad hominem attacks, especially the race card. The TAC was a particular target of his ire. He shielded the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang when she was Minister for Health. He also surrounded himself with sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear and got rid of anyone who wouldn’t indulge his mindset. South Africa’s current lack of accountability is in no small part due to him.
At the ANC’s 1997 Conference where Mbeki was elected ANC President, the decision was taken to introduce Cadre Deployment.
Cadre Deployment is the strategy of making political appointments to non-political positions in government. It places political loyalty over competence, leads to decisions being taken for political reasons, not technical or professional ones, and was fundamental to State Capture. Currently, the DA is fighting a legal battle to get Cadre Deployment declared illegal and unconstitutional, a battle it will likely win given the Zondo Commission’s report.
Mbeki was an active practitioner of Cadre Deployment. Under him, Lawrence Mushwana was appointed Public Protector and did such a poor job investigating the Petrogate scandal that when the Mail and Guardian newspaper took him to court, the Court ruled that Mushwana had conducted an investigation so desultory as to be an investigation in name only, and ordered him to redo it. Another such appointment was Snuki Zikalala as Head of News at the SABC. When Jon Perlman exposed Zikalala as biased, an investigation was done confirming Perlman’s accusations, but Zikalala was kept in his position while Perlman was forced out of the SABC.
Most damaging of all was Mbeki’s treatment of Vusi Pikoli, the former National Director of Public Prosecutions. When Pikoli charged former Commissioner of Police Jackie Selebi with corruption, Mbeki first demanded he drop all the charges, then ordered Pikoli to resign when he refused, then suspended him. Frank Chikane, Director in Mbeki’s presidency, confirmed in a biography of Mbeki that Mbeki viewed Pikoli as a deployed cadre, not as someone whose independence was guaranteed by the Constitution.
Andrew Feinstein was an ANC MP in South Africa’s first democratic parliament and a member of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA). In his autobiography “After the Party”, he details how Mbeki derailed SCOPA’s investigation into the Arms Deal.
In the late 1990’s, Eskom approached government and asked for funding for a program to build new power stations and increase generation capacity. It warned government that unless generation was increased it would soon be unable to supply the increased need for electricity. Mbeki refused Eskom’s request. Not even a decade later, load shedding began. Mbeki has never fully owned his wrong decision.
Another notorious blind spot of Mbeki’s was his support for fellow African leaders, regardless of their actions. The most notable example was of course Robert Mugabe.
By 2000, Mugabe had warped from a democrat into an autocrat. That year, a new Constitution was voted on that would have allowed for expropriation without compensation. The electorate voted “No”, but then farms started getting invaded. Shortly after, Mugabe forced through a Constitutional amendment allowing expropriation without compensation.
Mbeki supported Mugabe throughout. He initially blamed the UK for suspending funding for a buy back program, disregarding that it had been suspended after connected politicians had looted funds. He sent observer missions to oversee two blatantly and obviously rigged elections. He tried to get Zimbabwe restored to the Commonwealth after it had been suspended, without success. And he condemned the sanctions laid on Mugabe and other high ranking members of ZANU-PF.
Mbeki’s refusal to condemn Mugabe led to two consequences. The first was that desperate Zimbabweans, fleeing the economic meltdown caused by the stealing of farms, flooded into South Africa, putting a massive strain on our economy. The second was the end of NEPAD.
One of Mbeki’s ideas was that of an African Renaissance. As part of that, he championed a New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Western governments were initially supportive, but when Mbeki showed he was only prepared to pay lip service to the ideal, they withdrew their support. NEPAD died a quiet death.
Even after his presidency, Mbeki continued to support corrupt African leaders. When Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo was deposed after trying to steal an election, Mbeki wrote an article depicting him as a legitimate leader deposed by a coup.
The truth was rather different.
Gbagbo was the de facto Head of State of Cote d’Ivoire. As part of an agreement with rebels, he was supposed to hold elections. He first stalled as long as possible, only holding them when violence seemed imminent.
Gbagbo then had the vote in areas where there had been violence annulled. And still lost. Then he annulled the vote in other areas until he “won”. Nobody was fooled, and an uprising began, ending with Gbagbo’s removal from power. Contrary to Mbeki’s article, Gbagbo was not a valid leader who was overthrown, but a cheat who wasn’t prepared to hand over power to the legitimately elected new leadership.
The most damaging of Mbeki’s blind spots is of course his beliefs on HIV and AIDS. Even as Vice President, he expressed scepticism over the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS. That he was not trained in research or medicine did not dissuade him, or lead him to reconsider. He claimed that ARV’s were toxic, declared that a virus on its own could not possibly cause immune deficiency, and accused pharmaceutical companies of propaganda. By one estimate, his policies on AIDS refusal to fund antiretrovirals led to some 350,000 deaths. To this day, he refuses to even consider the possibility that he is wrong. In fact, I am wondering if he is a narcissist.
There is a saying that Pride comes before a fall. And his pride is what ultimately undid Mbeki.
In 2007, Mbeki announced that several people had suggested that he run for a third term as ANC President. What had most likely happened was that he had floated the idea, and the sycophants he had surrounded himself with told him that it was a great idea. Had Mbeki gone outside his bubble, he may have dropped the idea.
In the lead up to the 2007 ANC Conference at Polokwane, people who had a better idea of how the ANC felt about Mbeki running for a third term begged him to drop out and let someone else run in his stead. Convinced that he was the only one who could defeat Jacob Zuma, Mbeki refused. And in December 2007, it all came crashing down. Even the ANC Women’s League, which Mbeki had boosted during his two terms, voted against him.
I used to cut out and keep newspaper articles. One of the clippings has a picture of Mbeki as Jacob Zuma is announced as the new ANC President. His face is a mask of disbelief and despair. I am sure that he did not realise until that moment that he wasn’t as popular as he assumed.
Wisdom demands humility, insight, and a willingness to consider and accept information that conflicts with what we want to believe. Mbeki, like many other highly intelligent people, was not prepared to subject his beliefs to proper scrutiny. And the result to South Africa was disastrous.