Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki

I had thought that you had started yesterday, but I was told only when I arrived here 15 minutes ago that actually you didn’t. I hope that doesn’t signify that as Africans we are always late.

We had agreed that I would speak at the opening of your symposium, because I had to go to Zimbabwe yesterday to participate at the ceremony of the inauguration of President Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe, I’m told that this was the seventh as President and more if you include his Prime Ministership. The Zimbabweans insisted that I should come, and I agreed with them because they were saying that the inauguration marked the end of the Global Political Agreement which they signed in 2008 in whose evolution we had played a part.

So, I am saying all of this to apologise for speaking to you in the evening rather than in the morning. But I really like to say to thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this symposium to look at this every important issue, the issue about solutions to Africa’s development. It is indeed very important that as Africans we must focus on all of this and mobilise the intellectual capital that exists among ourselves to answer this question.

What the principal was saying about the last Nelson Mandela Lecture here by Mo Ibrahim raising questions of leadership on the continent, those remarks were correct. I think this is an important part of our challenge as Africans, ourselves to find the solutions to Africa’s development. I don’t know how many of our leaders on the continent read books. I am sure some of them do – well apart from the Bible and the Quran, other books – but I think we have to produce these books because there are other Africans who read books. So as we meet at this symposium to look at what we do, we say as African thought leaders asking about where should we be tomorrow, it is important that we have to do this. There is nobody else to do it for us. The people who have done this for us in the past, and they are many, have said who are these Africans? What are they? What’s their past? Where should they be tomorrow? Other people have said that about us. And what has it produced? Disaster! A disaster from which we should rescue ourselves.

I was saying that yesterday, I was in Zimbabwe for the inauguration of President Mugabe. I don’t know who among us here, what opinions we have about Zimbabwe, but there are certain things which worry me greatly about Zimbabwe.

With regard to the last elections, one of the things that worried me was a very intense and sustained campaign to discredit the elections before they took place, very sustained and very intense. So I was saying to myself, ‘Why?’ And I could see quite clearly that the intention was in the event that the elections resulted in the victory of President Mugabe and Zanu PF, they would obviously be unfair. In the event that they resulted in the election of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, then they would be free and fair. That was the intention. Although it didn’t surprise me, what disturbed me was that many among us Africans seemed to buy into the story that was being told. And so I was saying to myself that this is very worrying because what it means is that we, as Africans, don’t know enough about ourselves and continue to be enslaved by a narrative about ourselves told by other people.

Any African, anybody following events in Zimbabwe for some time, would not have been surprised at the election results, not in the least, and indeed some of the people who were communicating these negative messages about the elections before they took place, even some of them actually predicted what would happen: that a particular politics of Zimbabwe meant we would have a particular outcome.

There is an old friend of mine in Zimbabwe, another intellectual like yourselves, I won’t mention his name. Shortly before the elections he says, publicly, the MDC is going to sweep in its major victory in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. So I read this thing, and I said: ‘But what’s wrong with him?’ I haven’t spoken to him for some time, but I am going to ask him that question. I said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ You could never make a prediction like that if you knew what’s been happening in the Zimbabwean rural areas in the last 10 years.

Many years ago and as part of the leadership in this region, we engaged the Zimbabwean leadership – President Mugabe and others – in a very sustained process to discourage them from the manner in which they were handling the issue of land reform. We were saying to them, ‘Yes indeed we agree, the land reform is necessary, but the way in which you are handling it is wrong.’ We tried very hard, ‘No, no you see all of these things about the occupation of the farms by the war veterans, this and that and the other, all of this is wrong’, that’s what we were saying. But fortunately the Zimbabweans didn’t listen to us, they went ahead.

The consequence of it is that, I have looked at least four books that have been written about the land reform in Zimbabwe, all of which say in fact the process of land reform in Zimbabwe has given land to at least 300-400,000 new land owners, the peasants of Zimbabwe at last own the land. The programme succeeded and has this direct benefit on these huge numbers of Zimbabweans. And so I found it very strange that this intellectual friend of mine could say the MDC would win the elections in the rural areas. They couldn’t, essentially because they were identified by that rural population to have opposed land reform, rightly or wrongly. We can discuss that. The point I am making is that 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? 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.

I was saying earlier that 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 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?

You know, all of us know, the African Union and SADC among others, deployed large numbers of observers for these recent [July 31, 2013] elections. The African Union even had placed its observers there at least a month ahead of the elections. This was to ensure… I don’t think, at least I know of no deployment of African observers of this size because between the AU and SADC, just those two, I think they had at least a thousand observers. I know of no instance when the continent has deployed that kind of number – it is because of this concern about Zimbabwe in particular. And both observer teams have essentially said the elections were peaceful and everybody agrees about that; and they have said the elections were free, and that they represent the opinion of the people of Zimbabwe.

SADC have said they need a bit of time to look at the matter of the fairness of the elections. ‘Yes indeed the elections are credible, they represent the views of the people of Zimbabwe’. The reason SADC observers said that they want to look at this is because they want to look at it in detail and say, for instance, was the media coverage of the contending parties, was it fair and balanced? They may make a determination about that and say it was not fair or fair. Was the location of voting stations done in such a way that it would ensure equal access, relatively is the access between rural and urban areas? They will make a determination about that.

They are not questioning the credibility of the elections, but want to look at this matter about what is meant by ‘fair’ in order to ensure that as a continent when we do indeed conduct elections in future we have some standards to follow in terms of what will constitute this element of ‘fair’. So they decided to leave a residual group in Zimbabwe to look at that question, and the AU agreed to join them, left another group there to do that, which is fine.

I was talking three-four days ago to a member of the executive of the SADC Lawyers Association which includes all the lawyers in this region and their law societies and this and that and the other. They decided to send an observer team to Zimbabwe, which they did. They have done their report and I have asked for a copy but they said they would send it. But what they are telling me is that one of the things that surprised them was that as soon as they made that announcement that they would be deploying an observer team in Zimbabwe, out of the blue, completely unsolicited, they got huge offers of money from the United States to say, “Look, we want to pay for your observer mission.” And they say that we never asked for this money, we had never ever been in contact with these people, we don’t know how they got to know that we were going to do this, but were very, very happy to support us with huge sums of money. But we said, ‘No’, we refused. We said, ‘No, we will finance ourselves’. The reason we did it was because we knew that if we accepted that money, then we would have to produce a report consistent with the views of the paymaster, so we said, ‘No’.

Now, the very strange thing at the end of this story which I am telling you… Well, let me say, what the Zimbabwe government did was of course to refuse that organisations like the EU which have imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe, countries like the US which have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, should have election observers for the natural and I think logical reason that, ‘You declared yourselves as an enemy, in what way would you then send observers who are going to be objective in terms of observing these elections, please don’t come.’ I think they were right. Nevertheless, they said all the countries that have embassies in Zimbabwe, the embassies are free to observe the elections, which they did. African, European, Asian – all of them.

But I am saying one of the strange things is that you have the entire continent in terms of its credible and legitimate institutions say, ‘Yes indeed there were problems, and we are going to detail those problems, but these elections represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe.’ Then you have an alternative voice in Washington, London and Brussels which says, ‘No, you Africans are wrong.’ How does that happen? Why this absolute contempt for the view of the Africans about themselves?

I was saying just these two organisations, the AU and SADC, had at least a thousand observers in Zimbabwe – I am not talking about others, even the African Caribbean and Pacific Community had an observer team there, I am not talking about those – watched this process. When the chair of the AU Commission was in Harare and talked to all the political leaders, she said none of them have raised any issues about serious problems with the elections, they hadn’t. And yet when all of these Africans say, ‘Yes problems, we will tell you what these problems were, but the result presents a credible view of the Zimbabweans,’ you have people in America and Europe who say the Africans are wrong. Why? Maybe because the Africans are stupid? The Africans can’t count… or something?

The latest SADC summit has just taken place in Malawi, in Lilongwe. In the days before the summit, during the summit, the British government were putting pressure on the government of Malawi to persuade the summit that there should be an audit done of the Zimbabwean elections.

The MDC decided to go to court in Zimbabwe to contest, as you know, the elections. And then suddenly withdrew the petition. Personally, I was very pleased that they submitted the petition, because it would give a possibility actually to look in detail at all the allegations that have been made about what went wrong with the election. I was quite upset when they said they are withdrawing the petition, because it denied us the possibility to do this thing. But later, I understood why they withdrew, because even in the petition they made various allegations and did not submit to the court any document to substantiate any of the allegations.

At some point during this electoral process, the British ambassador to Zimbabwe spoke to one of the British television channels, and said in one constituency, 17,000 people voted of whom 10,000 were assisted to vote. Now, this is allowed in terms of Zimbabwean processes if you are illiterate, you might be old, you might be blind – whatever – that the people at the voting station can assist you. You come and say, ‘Look, I can’t read but I like Morgan Tsvangirai, please tick for me where it says Morgan Tsvangirai,’ that’s assisted voting which is allowed.

So, the British ambassador says here was this one constituency, 17,000 voters 10,000 of whom were assisted – so many – but she doesn’t identify the constituency, up to today. Morgan, in his affidavit to the Constitutional Court, includes this… ‘There was a constituency where 17,000 people voted, 10,000 of whom were assisted voters’. He doesn’t identify the constituency like the British ambassador.

In the end, I can say (inaudible name) is a very ugly fellow, but if I accuse him of that in court I should prove it. And that became a problem. So, we still don’t know what was the substance, what is the substance of all the allegations made which Washington and London and Brussels have used to say the elections were not credible. We don’t know. In reality, the only reason they were not credible is because Robert Mugabe got elected. That’s all.

I am using this, all of this talking about Zimbabwe, as an example about our continent because all of these things I am saying relating to Zimbabwe you can find the same similar examples on the continent, but we are not challenging it as intellectuals. We are not challenging a narrative, a perspective about our continent which is wrong and self-serving in terms of the interests of other people.

The Zimbabweans now are talking about indigenisation and I can see that there is a big storm brewing about indigenisation. But what is wrong with indigenisation? What is wrong with saying, ‘Here we are as Africans, with all our resources. Sure, we are ready and very willing to interact with the rest of the world about the exploitation of all these resources, but what is the indigenous benefit from the exploitation of these, and even the control?’

You have seen examples of this, all of us have, when Chinese companies in terms of all this theory about free markets, have sought to acquire US firms, they get prohibited. ‘No indigenisation of US intellectual property. We can’t allow it to be owned by the Chinese, so, No!’ When the Africans say ‘indigenisation’, why is this a strange notion and yet when we talk about solutions to Africa’s development one of the issues that we have to address is exactly this indigenisation? How are we utilising our resources to impact positively on African development?

I am saying that because I can see that there is a cloud that is building up somewhere on the horizon when Zimbabweans say ‘indigenisation’. But we have to, as intellectuals and thought leaders, we have got to address that and say, ‘Yes indeed as Africans we are concerned about our own renaissance, our own development, and we must as indigenous people make sure that we have control of our development, our future and that includes our resources, and therefore indigenisation is correct.’ We must demonstrate it even intellectually, which I am quite sure we can.

I wasn’t intending to speak for so long, but as you can see I get very, very agitated about Zimbabwe because it’s very, very clear that the offensive against Zimbabwe is an offensive against the rest of the continent and what has facilitated that offensive is indeed wrong things that Zimbabweans have done. They have done wrong things, they have acted in ways that have been incorrect, so it has been possible for some people to stand up and say, ‘Look, look, look there is a violation of democracy and human rights’, and all of us say, ‘Yes, yes, yes what they did there was not quite right.’

But all of us make mistakes, we have made mistakes here [in South Africa], but they have been used, those mistakes, to mount a particular offensive against Zimbabwe… that offensive is not in the first instance about Zimbabwe, it’s about the future of our continent. So the Zimbabweans have been in the frontline in terms of defending our right as Africans to determine our future, and they are paying a price for that. I think it is our responsibility as African intellectuals to join them, the Zimbabweans, to say, ‘No!’

We have a common responsibility as Africans to determine our destiny and are quite ready to stand up against anybody else who thinks that, ‘Never mind what the thousand African observers say about elections in Zimbabwe, we sitting in Washington and London are wiser than they are. They say the elections were credible, we say that they are very foolish, those elections were not.’ We stand up as Africans to see an end, and really an end, to that contempt for African thought! We have to, if we don’t, this development we are talking about will not happen.

By Thabo Mbeki
The article is a transcript of a lecture delivered at UNISA’s Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) on August 23, 2013.


  1. I am not impressed with the writer of this article because he himself presided over the richest country in the continent, and moreover we cannot see any positive pan African legacy he upheld during his tenure. In other words..Thabo was in a comfort zone to radically understand that Africa is bleeding. He did not do enough to address land redistribution. He did not indigenise the economy while calling investors to come to SA to do business. He did not transform the judiciary. He was part of the Codesa negotiating team that sold the soul of SA to international capital.
    His mouth was full of American cheese and French fries to understand that Africa cannot become a colony again.

    We gave him eight full years in authority to craft Africa for Africans …but we see today is opposite of our hopes.
    My dear brother rather embark on farming in Transkei and leave politics to new Malema generation because you and your cohort misplaced our dream.

    1. we have to allow atonement brother. Thabo admitted mistakes. I’m not going to say your rebuke is wrong. accountability and atonement is a difficult balance. Atonement and forgiveness is the incentive to change wrong behavior. I know we can’t allow people to think they can say I’m sorry and get away with failed leadership.

    1. …that was in response to brother Mphanya’s comments…I fully concur with his view!…amen nangoku!

  2. Its very unfortunate that Thabo Mbeki/Mboko is speaking as if he is not aware that RSA is full of poor Zimbabweans….all over evn asf far afield as Cape Town…do you honestly think all these economic refugees like to be in your country bearing in mind that RSA is full of criminals/most of them Zimbabweans anyway….in short people are suffering here in Zimbabwe so Mr ex president….shut up…u do not know how the elections were rigged coz true Zimbabweans know that the elections were rigged….even the 300/400 people you claim to have been resettled…its a lie…this figure is way above the # resettled…anyway much of the resettled people are war veterans and a few zanu pf elites.who are still living in upmarkets surbubs of Zimbabwe they are not even at the farms..give me 1 minister who stays at the farm????..the majority is still landless and suffering…go to Botswana,Namibia, even poor countries like Zambia,Malawi and ,Mozambique they are chasing Zimboz day in and day out…so plz Thabo retire gracefully….even the people in the rural areas they do not like zanupf period…GOD WILL RESCUE US ONE DAY,

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