Africa this week lost another leader, an important and special one, who will be better judged by history than by his own ANC party. After nearly 10 years as president of South Africa and five as Nelson Mandela's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki was ignominiously forced to step down on Thursday just six months before his term in office was due to end.
It didn't have to be this way, and it is a great shame that it was. It was a harsh, ungracious and unnecessary way to deal with an essentially decent and proud man, who had done a lot for his country and for southern Africa. And it says a lot for Mbeki, born and bred a loyal ANC cadre, that he bowed to the democratic process, even though denied the pomp and ceremony that would have been his after April's elections.
The next day, contained and dignified, he appeared on television to thank, without a flicker of bitterness or irony, the ANC "for giving me the opportunity to serve in public office". He talked of his successes, mostly on the economic front, but also acknowledged "the abject poverty we still find coexisting side by side with extraordinary opulence". And he reiterated his vision "of a South Africa that is democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous". And then he was gone – just like that. By Thursday South Africa had its third post-apartheid president – Kgalema Motlanthe, a moderate and respected ANC official who will keep the seat warm until Jacob Zuma takes over next April.
Ten years ago, as Nelson Mandela prepared to step down after only one five-year term as president, the great cry was: "What happens after Mandela?" What happened was Mbeki and another 10 years of political stability and economic growth. Those years have put South Africa in a much better place than it was at the end of apartheid, and Mbeki has had a lot to do with it.
Even when Mandela was president, it was Mbeki who did the heavy lifting, ran the government and developed the free-market economics which are greatly admired around the world and which have spawned a rich black middle class and even richer white and Indian communities.
It is true that the electricity supply has lagged behind demand; there is a major skills shortage and crime is close to being out of control. But Johannesburg today is the finest and most modern city in Africa; shopping centres, airports, roads, rail and ports are first world; white farmers still farm; vines are harvested; international mining companies still dig out bountiful quantities of platinum, gold, chrome and coal. This is no Zimbabwe, nor ever will be.
Mbeki gets little credit for it. In the immediate aftermath of his departure, his image, inside and outside South Africa, is of a flawed, austere and stubborn man whose legacy is an economic boom which has unfortunately has left the poor behind: unemployment is at 38 per cent and six million people (out of 43 million) are HIV positive, the majority of whom will almost certainly die from Aids. He is also seen as the man who couldn't say "boo" to Mugabe, even though he did at the very end cobble together a kind of peace deal there.
That's the case for the prosecution. The case for the defence is more complex, and elusive. Mandela was always wonderfully fruitful territory for historians and biographers and books, but students of Mbeki have found the ground hard going. Mark Gevisser, a fine biographer, after years of research and 800 pages admitted he never got below the surface of the man inside the Turnbull & Asser shirts and beautifully tailored suits.
Mandela, who never liked Mbeki and openly admitted that he had made "a mistake" in accepting him as his deputy, once remarked: "The trouble with Thabo is he is not an African." It seems an extraordinary thing to say about a fellow Xhosa who created the whole concept of what he called the "African Renaissance", but Mandela meant something different.
Somewhere, maybe during his student years at Southampton University or the Lenin Institute in Moscow, Mbeki seems to have lost touch with his roots. Along the way he developed a reputation as an aloof, intellectually arrogant and humourless man. Someone once said of Mbeki that he was "the only African who can't dance", and it was almost true.
As president he became more and more isolated and distant. His cultural tastes, although fairly eclectic, are often more Western than African. He once quoted an entire Yeats poem to 5,000 bemused ANC delegates, many of whom didn't even know where Ireland was, let alone Thoor Ballylee.
For relaxation he often read Heaney or the Shakespeare plays. He researched his own speeches, sitting up half the night browsing the internet, reading blogs and absorbing odd bits of sometimes irrelevant information. It was always alleged by his inner circle that he first formed his eccentric views on Aids when he stumbled on a site where perfectly respectable (then) scientists and opinion-formers argued that the Western Aids lobbies had, for their own financial reasons, vastly exaggerated the seriousness of the pandemic, and that HIV was unproven as the sole precursor to full-blown Aids which could just as easily be the result of malnutrition. Under Andrew Neil, The Sunday Times held pretty much the same view.
Mbeki has never tortured or killed anyone, as Mugabe and so many African (including South African) leaders have. He has rigidly fought against corruption in his own government, and striven to embed respect for the rule of law and human rights "as the cornerstone of our democracy".
None of this makes him a bad man. He deserves better.
Ivan Fallon is Chief Executive of Independent News & Media UKReuse content