Spotlight: Thabo Mbeki – The prickly bricklayer

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Thabo Mbeki’s weekly online Letter from the President has become something of a must read for South Africa’s political class. Profile writers once found it irresistible to describe the dapper pipesmoker as diplomatic and urbane but these days the word prickly is as often attached to his name, not least given his reputation online.

Unlike George W. Bush’s weekend address to the nation, which is little more than a saccharine homily to the heartland, his South African counterpart’s regular Friday posting is frequently tart and revealing.

It was, after all, there that three years ago he aired his fury with Tony Blair and other Commonwealth heads of government for their refusal to reinstate Zimbabwe. The trenchant headline read: “We will resist the upside-downing of Africa.” So for all those interested in the shifting axes of power in Africa and in understanding its most influential leader, it might be worth clicking on the ANC’s website on Friday.

This is an important week for Mr Mbeki. In what is, in effect, a summit of the giants of Africa and Asia, Mr Mbeki on Tuesday welcomes Hu Jintao, China’s president, to Pretoria. On Friday, he delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament amid mounting public exasperation over the high rate of violent crime.

For a leader who regards himself as something of a foreign policy intellectual – “imagine Rab Butler or Adlai Stevenson as a world leader”, said an official close to the presidency – the first event will be unquestionably the more appealing.

The summit with Mr Hu is not just the climax of the Chinese leader’s eight-nation African tour. Aides indicate that Mr Mbeki also sees it as a chance to build on his vision of a multi-polar new world order. Mr Hu cannot expect just platitudes. South Africa and China could find themselves as competitors north of the Limpopo.

Earlier this month Mr Mbeki warned that Africa should beware of falling into a “colonial relationship” with China. His rebuke chimed with concerns in the west that, by offering cheap credit and massive infrastructure projects, China was not only usurping its position but also undermining attempts to link trade and aid with good governance. It also followed pressure from South Africa’s left over concerns that cheap Chinese goods threaten the local textile industry.

But Mr Mbeki’s recent language and hints from his inner circle leave little doubt that he sees China as a partner not just in Africa but also in a world that should not remain dominated by western powers. “Mbeki believes in the importance of a multi-polar world,” said Professor Stephen Chan of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “He sees it as a new balance of power.”

Just 10 days ago Mr Mbeki delivered a sideswipe to Tony Blair that was unthinkable a few years ago, before their relationship soured over Zimbabwe and then the Iraq war. While at Davos, he accused Mr Blair of hypocrisy in scrapping the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia while allowing a probe into a controversial South African deal to continue. This echoed a persistent refrain since he took office in 1999 that the west remains prejudiced in its approach to Africa.

On Friday, however, he faces huge pressure to set aside foreign policy and address South Africa’s domestic challenges. After a series of high-profile attacks, the perception is intensifying that violent crime is out of control. Last week an African Union report on good governance warned of “creeping corruption” betraying South Africans’ dreams.

Mr Mbeki’s allies argue that his economic record – overseeing steady growth and tight fiscal discipline – and his foreign policy vision will provide a presidential legacy.

His critics, however, fume that he will be defined by his controversial stance on Aids, his reluctance to denounce Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, and his playing down of the threat of crime.

After denying the link between HIV and Aids, he has, since 2003, tacitly agreed to stay out of the debate and his government is now rolling out antiretroviral drugs. There has, however, been no official recantation and, indeed, Mbeki loyalists still refuse to talk of a policy shift, rather a “change of nuance”.

That is in keeping with his almost other-worldly refusal to pander to the soundbite culture. “He is not a spinner,” says one ally. “He takes the view that he is a bricklayer, like Pandit Nehru – that you get there one brick at a time.”

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