Wednesday, April 09, 2003

African Grandstanding (NYT: Reg. Reqd.)

What is it with Africa leaders like Thabo Mbeki, anyway? Why do they feel a need to pronounce on far-away matters when there are grave injustices on their own doorsteps, injustices they have the power to remedy even though they refuse to do so?

One would have thought Thabo Mbeki, who has watched Zimbabwe slide into brutal anarchy but done nothing about it, would have had the good sense to shut-up (to twist a phrase of M. Chirac's) rather than pontificate on matters of precedent in distant Iraq. Who is Mr. Mbeki to lecture others on matters of morality, when he has presided over an AIDS epidemic that could have been halted were it not for his ridiculous superstitions, has left the black citizens of Zimbabwe to suffer the consequences of Mugabe's racial demagoguery, and is busy presiding over the transformation of South Africa into a lawless, corrupt one-party state, just like so many others on the continent?

I remember thinking, back in the early 1990s, how wonderful it was to see the fall of apartheid in my own lifetime, and with it the end of a legacy in which blacks were held as lesser beings within a nation in which they constituted the majority. I also remember feeling at the time a certain sense of trepidation at the prospect of South Africa ending up like rest of it's African neighbors somewhere down the road, hopelessly corrupt, conflict-ridden, despotic and broke.

In harboring such fears, I could not but let my knowledge of the Nigerian experience color my attitude. Here was a country which, on the face of it, ought to have been set on a course to prosperity, a nation gifted in natural resources, whose citizens were hard-working and eager for education and self-improvement, and yet, as we all know, the situation turned out very differently. What is worse, the same story of disappointment was common across the rest of the continent. Why should I have hoped that South Africa would be different?

And yet, hope I did, encouraged by the good start made by Nelson Mandela, who remains perhaps the only African leader to date who has ever voluntarily relinquished power after a single term in office. Mandela was an African leader with a difference, a man who genuinely seemed to believe in the principles he spoke about, who saw his term in office to bring those principles to fruition, rather than as an opportunity for self-enrichment. What a promising start he represented for the new South Africa, and what a rebuke to all the other African "leaders", whose notions of leadership extended no further than murder, theft and self-aggrandisement!

Unfortunately Mandela seems to have been an impossible act to follow. Mbeki seems very much to be in the traditional African strongman mold, an insecure, vain, paranoid egomaniac, eager to shoot his mouth off on everything under the sun, even as he presides over chaos in his "government." This shameless man, who was all-too-eager to declare Mugabe qualified to rejoin the Commonwealth barely a month ago, now sees fit to talk about international law, human rights and so on and so forth. I should be very surprised if Mbeki does ever relinquish power voluntarily - nothing he says or does leads me to think he is the sort that will.