Mbeki: a man for our time

Published: 17-JAN-05

Time Magazine’s fawning decision to name US President George W Bush as its Person of the Year must go down as one of the more bizarre moments in journalism in 2004.

The magazine’s editors lauded Bush “for sharpening the debate until the choices bled, for reframing reality to match his design, for gambling his fortunes - and ours - on his faith in the power of leadership.”

Let’s look at the facts. Here is a man who has taken America from relative prosperity to a record budget deficit of almost US500bn. Mr Bush’s budget deficit is so big that there aren’t enough savings in the US to soak up the bonds he’s issuing. The prime reasons for the deficit are easy to find: tax cuts which favour his rich cronies, and the vast cost of the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq.

Ah, the conflict in Iraq. Did Time Magazine happen to miss the way Bush blatantly lied to his people and the world about why he started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Bush likes to talk about the global use of what he calls “American influence”, but his ill-disguised attempt to grab Iraq’s oil reserves may yet come back to haunt him.

Another reason Time Magazine gave for its decision was that Bush “remains a polarising figure in America and around the world.” Well, they got that right. But the fact that he narrowly scraped an election victory against an opponent with all the charisma of a wooden spoon hardly qualifies him as a dashing leader.

Mind you, it’s not the first time that Time has made controversial selections. In 1938 it selected Hitler, and in the following year Stalin.

We at Business in Africa Magazine would like to think that our choice of South African President Thabo Mbeki as Africa’s Person of the Year for 2004 is far more apt. Like his American counterpart, Mbeki is not universally popular, but his unstinting efforts to bring peace to the continent he loves made him an easy choice.

A man of the people he is not. He is far too much of an intellectual for that. And his propensity for launching scathing attacks on anyone who dares criticise him – including South African icons like Archbishop Desmond Tutu - is neither becoming nor stately.

South African opposition leader Tony Leon goes so far as to accuse Mbeki of practicing “intellectual necklacing”, a reference to the apartheid-era vigilante practice of placing burning tyres around the necks of suspected informers. It’s a lurid analogy, but Mbeki needs to be more tolerant of dissenting voices, even within his own ranks. They are a vital part of democracy.

Still, his contribution to easing strife in Africa has been immense. More than any other leader, he has been prepared to be the catalyst in bringing people together around a table when all seems lost. He has soothed towering egos, cajoled stubborn stakeholders and taken a firm line with pouting dissenters, playing a direct role in peace breaking out in several region.

Of course, 2004 also saw its share of high-profile Africans who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about covering themselves or their countries in glory. Many of them are the usual suspects: the power-crazed Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe, the greedily acquisitive Rwandan Paul Kagame, the election-fiddling Cameroonian Paul Biya.

But the clear winner of the 2004 “Not The Person of the Year” award would have to be Swaziland’s King Mswati III, who did his best imitation of a Roman emperor by buying himself a $500 000 luxury sedan while his debt-ridden country fights massive Aids infection rates and crippling poverty.

Called a Maybach 62, the car features – wait for it - a television receiver, DVD player, 21-speaker surround-sound system, refrigerator, cordless telephone, heated steering wheel, interior pollen and dust filter, golf bag and sterling silver champagne flutes.

Swaziland has a population of 1 million. It has the highest Aids rate in the world (38,8%), an unemployment rate of 40%, and 70% of the nation lives on an average income of $11 a month. Fully one-third of the Swazi people rely on food aid for survival.

The Swaziland government owes its suppliers more than $25m, which dates back to 2002, and the country’s budget defi- cit stands at $135m. This clearly doesn’t bother Mswati one bit. On his birthday in April, he bought 10 BMW 7-series vehicles for himself and some of his wives, and he is currently building 10 new palaces for his wives at a cost of some $20m.

If he ever gets his snout out of the trough, he would do well to pay his neighbour Thabo Mbeki a visit. Then he could see, firsthand, how REAL leaders do it.

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