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- MAIL & GUARDIAN, JOHANNESBURG 18.06.1999
It takes greatness to pass the baton
Letter from the North
I am extremely proud to inform you that the only reason I was able to watch President Thabo Mbeki’s inaugural speech live was because your brothers and sisters in the north have begun to pull up their socks.
I was watching the ceremony on BBC World. Just as Mbeki was about to speak, they said, “And that’s all we have time for.” I quickly turned to CNN. Also no joy.
Then something told me, “Try that Nigerian station, Africa International Television. (AIT)” I did, and there it was. They were carrying SABC Africa live!
West Africa has always cared about the south. But I had to wonder: did SABC Africa similarly carry all of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s inauguration live?
Anyway, SABC Africa cannot be seen in London. You can see live pictures from Algeria, Libya, Egypt and even poor Sudan. But not from South Africa.
Laagers are difficult to break out of, aren’t they? I couldn’t even find an advance copy of Mbeki’s speech at the South African government website.
The inauguration was one of those ceremonies that bring tears to the eye. Apart from Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, no African leader that comes readily to mind has handed the baton to one of his own lieutenants to succeed him while he was still alive.
In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah did not even want to name a deputy, even though Komla Gbedema led the Convention People’s Party very ably while Nkrumah was in prison. Felix Houphout-Boigny of Cte d’Ivoire died an octogenarian in his presidential boots, as did Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi was thrown out of power by the time he was so old that he once fell flat on his face at a heads-of-state meeting.
It is pleasant to reflect that with his immense popularity and energy, Madiba could have been tempted to go the “African way” and stay on and on. That he did not speaks volumes about the man’s humility and humanity.
On his humility: I once visited him at his house in Houghton in the company of some fellow West Africans. A few African National Congress cadres were also there, and his living room was quite packed. As he entered from upstairs and saw that all the chairs were occupied, he immediately branched into the dining room and picked up a very heavy chair on which he was going to sit. I couldn’t get up quickly enough to take it from him. How could he, at his age, even think of picking up a chair to sit on? But it hadn’t occurred to him that he could ask someone else. That’s the measure of the man.
About his humanity: the son of someone who had been detained in Nigeria wanted to appeal to Madiba to use his good offices to get his dad released, and asked for my help. I sent Madiba just one fax and that was enough to earn both of us a lunch date at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Needless to say, Madiba did everything humanly possible – and more – to try and get my friend’s dad released. They don’t come better on our continent.
Farewell, Madiba. I shall miss you. Or better still, I shall not, for I know that with the burdens of the state now taken off your shoulders, you will devote even more time to humanitarian work.
Mandela will be a difficult act to follow, but I have no doubt at all that Mbeki will be equal to the task.
I was present once when he was briefing a foreign group about the ANC. I was struck by his patience and courtesy, and also his ability to carry a briefing through to a coherent conclusion, without losing the thread when he was subjected to interruptions.
He is also straightforward; he doesn’t lead people up the garden path.
What worries me about him is that I heard him say in a BBC interview recently that “governments do not create employment”. I hope he hasn’t been intimidated by the right-wing press in South Africa into dallying with neo-Thatcherism of the British Labour Party variety.
When you have a society in which state power has been deliberately used for years to enforce legalised “job reservation”; where banks and other big businesses have been deliberately nationalised and handed over, on a golden platter, to a minority section of the populace to own or control; where education has deliberately been “bantulised” – or at least deprived of resources – to a point where its products cannot, through no fault of their own, compete on an equal footing with the products of white education in a job market whose parameters are delineated by white employers; then to look solely to “market forces” to create employment and thereby allow economic prosperity to “trickle down” to the majority population. is to betray the majority.
There are certain amenities that governments, both provincial and central, can provide through labour-intensive methods.
Gangs of workers can be created to build and maintain covered sewers in the townships where open gutters or rain- created trenches now reign supreme, dispensing stench and disease to those who live near them.
People who know how to build roads in rural areas. using local stone chippings or other local materials, should be awarded contracts to build roads, rather than wait for a time when all rural roads can be tarred.
As they say, where there is a will, there is a way. I am sure Mbeki and his government possess the will. It is the duty of every one of us to help them find the way without ruling anything out on account of ideology.