Thabo Mbeki’s detractors await his defence of real areas of controversy around his rule — literally the A to Z, from AIDS to Zimbabwe, writes Tony Leon

BACK at the dawn of the last century, readers of The Strand Magazine in London lined up in droves to buy the next instalment of the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Author Arthur Conan Doyle and his publisher had hit upon the brilliant marketing strategy of doling out the story in instalments, increasing the appetite of the reader and fattening the bottom line of the magazine. Indeed, in 1901, The Strand sold an unimaginable — by today’s standards at least — 500,000 copies a month.

Appropriate to this age of instant electronic communication, former president Thabo Mbeki is attempting something similar. In weekly postings on Facebook, he is publishing defences of some of the more contentious events from his near-decade at the apex of power in SA.

So far, he has attempted to rebut the so-called “spy saga”, which dented the reputations of a troika of African National Congress (ANC) grandees — Mathews Phosa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale. Next, Jeremy Cronin was roasted for his early reference to the so-called “Zanufication of power” and Mbeki’s suppression of debate.

In the last instalment, we were treated to Mbeki’s view of Jacob Zuma’s apparently mischievous, but winning, strategy of painting himself in the colours of a victim.

Mbeki’s detractors await his defence of the real areas of controversy around his rule — literally the A to Z, from AIDS to Zimbabwe. Doubtless these will feature soon.

Diplomatically speaking, Mbeki and I did not enjoy the closest of relationships when we faced off in Parliament less than a decade ago. His disdain for his internal critics was more than matched by his icy detachment for some of those outside the party. Perhaps there’s a future posting on that too.

But for all the past controversies, there might yet be a market for Mbeki nostalgia. For barely a month into the new year, SA’s intelligentsia seems, in the apt words of Politicsweb editor James Myburgh, to have “descended into what can only be described as an era of racial madness”.

Reality, consistency, proportion and fairness are, in his view, the collateral damage of the Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart and related affairs and incidents.

The current political conflagration is, however, not as new as it seems. As the governing party and the country gear up for the state of the nation address (Sona), doubtless these race incidents will be top of mind. This leads back to Mbeki at the time of his Sona in 2000. “Gobsmacked” would be the sentiment I felt when, soon after his opening remarks and pleasantries in Parliament, he thought it appropriate to share a racist e-mail penned by an engineer from a KwaZulu-Natal sugar mill.

Mbeki read the racist diatribe in unexpurgated and hateful form, including: “I would like to summarise what the kaffirs have done to stuff up this country since they came into power”, and “All I am saying is that AIDS isn’t working fast enough.”

Mbeki drew from this venom the conclusion that “many in the country” had reached the “premature conclusion that racism in the country is dead”.

Far from it, Mbeki advised Parliament, with another quote, this time from abroad: “The bitch is in heat again.”

I opined, in response, that quoting one racially bilious e-mail was hardly proof that its noxious sentiments were widely shared and that, more positively, there were acres of positive examples of racial amity dotting the South African landscape.

What was most striking between that past debate and the outpourings Parliament will doubtless witness a few weeks hence is the difference between the barely suppressed racial fury of Mbeki, on the one hand, and his lack of consequential action or stringent remedies on the other.

Unlike the current spokesman of the ANC in Parliament, Moloto Mothapo, Mbeki did not announce a specific law to “criminalise racism and the promotion of apartheid”. He did not declare that the Constitution was imperilled. Instead, he tamely proclaimed that the government and the Human Rights Commission would convene a “national congress against racism”.

I forget the achievements of that talk fest, but looking back from today’s vantage point, it was obviously unsuccessful.

Two further reasons suggest themselves as to why Mbeki’s public fury led to few consequences or wider outrage. First, his speech occurred in an antique age: there were no Twitter warriors or trolls to beat the electronic racial tom toms. The second clue lies in the rest of his speech. He drew attention to the huge economic progress SA was experiencing back then. Gross domestic product growth was at more than 4%, the rand-dollar exchange rate was an impressive R6.95, and he arrived in Parliament fresh from a triumphant reception at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

He read to Parliament, with approval, the words of Anglo American chairman Julian Ogilvie Thompson: “Increasingly, (foreign investors) share our assessment that SA is one of the most attractive emerging markets.”

Today, of course, Anglo is more a crippled giant than market leader. The currency has crashed more than 100% in value against the greenback in the intervening period; last week, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development revealed that foreign direct investment had fallen a whopping 74% in just one year. Most critically, the relatively high growth era of the Mbeki years has sharply reversed.

Drawing sweeping conclusions from random and offensive racist utterances is thus hardly novel in our two decades as a democracy. But the poison now, whipped up by the Twitterati, is that it comes at a time of low growth and a bleak economic outlook. Hence its dangers. There appears to be no shortage of expert opinions on how to quarantine racist behaviour and antidotes against it, although some of them will do much violence to our Constitution and rights it asserts.

But as fundamental — and, alas, equally contested — are the necessary, perhaps deeply politically incorrect, remedies for uplifting the country from the low growth trap in which we are ensnared. That debate needs to move urgently to centre stage.

• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA