Friday, February 09, 2007

The State of the South African Union

Last night Thabo Mbeki gave his much anticipated State of the Union Address (here is the text, courtesy of IOL). It was a rainy night in Cape Town, but Mbeki's address, which had been the source of much speculation and not a little concern, went off largely without a hitch. The President, who has been criticized across a whole cross-section of society for a host of sins real and imagined despite favorable ratings of as much as 70% from South Africans, acquitted himself well. Pundits and critics wondered whether Mbeki would elide the pervasive crime issue. He did not. As expected from a politician with formal training in economics, Mbeki also addressed the country's economic growth. One would never know from the sometimes shrill and always pessimistic tenor of some of Mbeki's critics, but South Africa has actually experienced almost 100 straight months of economic growth, which, though oftentimes modest, still ought to be the envy of almost every country on earth.

Crime is a dire matter. AIDS continues to haunt the country and the region. Poverty and other legacies of apartheid will continue to vex South Africa's leaders for the foreseeable future. And yet I still maintain a profound sense of optimism, even if that optimism is not blind.

Thabo Mbeki is a fascinating figure if for no other reason than that he is not Nelson Mandela. South Africa has gone through a successful transition from apartheid to resistance leadership. Though Mbeki was every bit a resistance figure himself, albeit in exile in England and thus without the romance attached to Mandela's "Robben Island University" cohort, in many ways he is the country's first post-resistance leader. Mandela's brilliant move to serve just one term, instantly bequesting unto his nation yet another gift, a rejection of the Big Man that has so terrorized much of the rest of the continent, proved a dual-edged sword for Mbeki. For Mbeki is not a God among men.

Mbeki reminds me a bit of Harry S. Truman in some small (and merely suggestive) ways. While not the humble, plain-spoken sort that Truman was, and while he operates in a vastly different context of history and his nation's political development, Mbeki nonetheless shares one thing in common with the man from Missouri: Both operate(d) under a shadow. FDR's shadow, as William Leuchtenburg and Alonzo Hamby have both so ably shown, was so overwhelming that it provided the prevailing paradigm under which American politicians operated for half a century. Mandela's shadow might prove to be even more lasting. Shadows of Gods tend to be. One wonders if, also like Truman, Mbeki will be more appreciated by historians than he is by many of the intelligentsia today. Certainly Mbeki is more popular than Truman was throughout most of his tenure, but at the same time, South African politics are dramatically different than those under which Truman operated in the 1940s. Nonetheless, both men were almost destined to look smaller than their predecessor. Truman emerged to become a significant historical figure in his own right. Might Mbeki end up playing a similar historical role?

Hmmm, In The Shadow of Madiba has a nice ring to it, does it not? I think I have a future book project.

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