The challenge of understanding our own African reality

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki

The former South African President Thabo Mbeki is likened to an intellectual by many in the ranks of the ANC camp. For that reason, the majority of the movement’s militants consider him as lacking some strong connections with the everyday’s life experience of South Africans, especially the poor. Some think this perception led to his dismissal from the leadership of the political party.  

I agree with many of his analysis of the African society and politics and most importantly the solutions he suggests for our challenges as a people. The following is an excerpt from Thabo Mbeki’ speech at UNSA delivered on 23 August 2013. 

The full transcript of the text is an objective critic about how Africans let themselves be seen by the rest of the world. In the selected section of his speech he highlights one of the reasons the international community, particularly Western countries with special business interests in Africa, watch closely events occurring in Zimbabwe. 

“…we still have a challenge to understand our own reality, and I am using the example of Zimbabwe to say that I have a sense that even with regards to this issue, which for some reason for years has been a major issue in the international media and politics and so on, that even we as Africans still have not quite understood Zimbabwe. I think it’s your task to change that, so that we understand ourselves better.

I think we should also ask ourselves the question: Why is Zimbabwe such a major issue for some people? Zimbabwe is a small country, by any standard, there is no particular reason why Zimbabwe should be a matter to which the New York Times, the London Guardian and whoever else . . . why are they paying so much attention to Zimbabwe? Why?

I know why they pay particular attention to us, because they explained it, they said ‘You have too many white people in South Africa. We are concerned about their future. They are our kith and kin. We are worried about what you would do to them, so we keep a very close eye on what happens.’

So we understand, we may not agree with the thinking, but we understand. But I am saying why this focus on Zimbabwe?

Towards the end of last year they asked me to speak at a conference on Zimbabwe diamonds. So I went, and what surprised me about the conference held at Victoria Falls was that everybody and anybody who has anything to do with diamonds in the world was there.

From America, from Israel, from India, from Brussels — everybody. It was not about diamonds in the world it was about Zimbabwe diamonds. So I was puzzled, saying but why have they all come?

Maybe two hours before we left the conference to come back, we sat in a session which was addressed by one of the Indian diamond people. In the course of his presentation he explained why, he gave an answer to this query in my head. He said in a few years’ time, Zimbabwe will account for 25 percent of world production of diamonds.

So I said I now understand, I understand why everybody is here. But I think the reason there has been this kind of focus on Zimbabwe is that for many years now the political leadership in Zimbabwe have been communicating a message which many among the powerful players in the world find unacceptable.

“…in a few years’ time, Zimbabwe will account for 25 percent of world production of diamonds.”

I was saying earlier we opposed, we tried to discourage Zimbabweans from taking the particular steps they took with regard to land reform, acknowledging that it was indeed necessary to have land reform, and I was saying they ignored us. It is I think exactly the manner in which they came at that question of land reform that offended other forces in the world who said, ‘This is wrong, we don’t like it’. And unlike us who said, ‘Well, they are not listening.

They have done what they want to do about their country, we have to accept that’, these others said, ‘They have set a bad example which we don’t want anybody else in Africa and the rest of the world to follow, so they must pay a price for setting a bad example.’ Bad example, bad in the instance of the interests of these other people, not bad in terms of the interests of the people of Zimbabwe.

So, I think this is part of the reason that there is so much attention, globally, to a country on the continent which is actually in itself — never mind the diamonds — is not that particularly important, but is important because it is setting in the minds of some, a bad example which must be defeated.

But principally are we as intellectuals telling that story? Are we explaining that, in the first instance to ourselves so that we know what is the correct position to take in our own interests; in our own defence? My sense is that we are not doing it, we are not explaining why, what is this enormous interest in a small African country here in southern Africa which really basically — I can’t think of any particular reason why it would have such enormous, global, geo-strategic importance, but it has. Why?”

I intentionally left Thabo Mbeki’s last question hanging so you could think through by yourself what could be the reason [s]. Otherwise if you cannot stomach your own answer, you can find out Mbeki’s views by reading his full speech through the link provided earlier. 


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