John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Thabo Mbeki on Sovereignty and Democracy in Africa

by John Campbell
February 23, 2012

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, head of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, delivers his public lecture at the Nyakuron cultural centre in Juba, Southern Sudan, January 7, 2011. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, in a February 16 lecture (PDF), reflects on the threat of Western re-colonization of Africa in the context of enduring racism as a way to encourage greater African unity.

The speech is vintage Mbeki–thoughtful, sometimes outrageous (from an American perspective), and with extensive and appropriate quotations from Chinua Achebe and W.B. Yeats. It also provides insight into how this statesman sees South Africa’s role in Africa and the world. It is tightly argued, requires close reading, and does not lend itself to bumper-sticker summaries, including this one.

Mbeki focuses on Libya while acknowledging that intervention in Ivory Coast also carries many of the same lessons. He recalls the adoption by the African Union Peace and Security Council of a roadmap for the resolution of the Libyan conflict, which secured Qaddafi’s agreement. The AU then forwarded its decision to the UN and the Arab league.

However, the UN Security Council ignored the African Union and took as the justification for its actions the positions taken by the Arab League. It adopted Resolution 1973, which provided the justification for NATO “to intervene in Libya to impose a violent resolution to this conflict, centered on regime change—which was not the intention of Resolution 1973.”

Mbeki charges President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, President Sarkozy, and the UN with imposing their own solution on an African state. (He denies that Qaddafi was intent on making war on his own people.) It particularly sticks in his craw that the UN gave greater weight to the Arab League than to the African Union; in effect, he accuses the UN of detaching Libya from Africa.

However, he blames the shortcomings of African governments for this state of affairs: “the Libyan tragedy and debacle occurred because things fell apart…we had learnt the ways of cheating and allowed those who have the means to abuse state power to control us, our institutions and our minds.”

He calls for African states to reinforce democracy and respect for human rights, develop an African capacity to resolve conflict in the context of a commitment to find African solutions to African problems, and to strengthen the AU “to give practical meaning to the objective to achieve genuine African unity and solidarity…” Otherwise, he argues, Ivory Coast and Libya show that the West remains determined “to attach Africa to themselves as their appendage, at all costs…”

The pervasiveness of racism in the West’s relationship with Africa is a theme throughout his speech. Near the conclusion he cites WEB du Bois’s call for black solidarity and refers to Pew data that the median wealth of white American households is twenty times that of blacks and eighteen times that of Hispanics as evidence of the persistence of “the problem of the color line.” Nowhere, however, does he acknowledge President Obama’s African-American origins.

Mbeki has been out of power for a long time and is assuming the role of an elder statesman. (He has been outspoken on African homophobia, for example.) Hence, his speech should not be seen as a guide to the foreign policy of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma government. However, it does provide a window into the thinking of South African intellectuals who are wrestling with South Africa’s role in the world.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by vuyo

    good summary.

  • Posted by Quantum

    Thambo Mbeki is definitely in a position to know what he is talking about, no doubt about this. His speech, as stinging it may be to the American, English and French’s ears, he is truly speaking from experience and from the realty of the state of affairs, and based on this sumnary above, his speech is well balance. He denounce the West in their colonial master mentality attitudes, but at the same time condems the African leaders for been thieves.

  • Posted by John Fox

    Libya ia also a meditereanean Arab state, and its actions have a direct effect on Europe, whereas it has little effect on Black Africa. Mbeki, whom I respect as a man of conviction, ignores the true ethnic rather than his stated geographic basis. Black sub-saharan Africa has little in common or outlook with the Arabic Mediterranean basin countries. They look East to both the Afro-Arabic lynchpin, Egypt, and to the Middle East oil countries in general. After their fellow Arabic nations, they generally look to Europe, especially Spain, France and Italy which have genuine ethnic roots in the North African Arab countries going back over 2000 years.

    Current S African history is being rewritten and the Black history is being distorted to meet the current political agendas. Accept the true history, and build on truth and reality, not some modified view that is a travesty of the truth. In the last 20 years the ANC has attempted to tar everyone with an aparthied/(neo)colonial agenda, but overlooks that there is now no longer a positive discrimination in favour of the Black population, but a developing negative anti-white discrimination, if not quite an black managd anti-white aparthied policy. The equality of the Mandela era is long gone.

    So I say to Ex-Presient Mbeki, put your own house in order before pointing fingers at the Europeans who had as much, if not very much more than Black Africa, vested in resolving Libya’s civil war. What has Black Africa done to resolve the Chad/Sudan Dhafor conflict or Somalia, or Eritera?. I grant that AU Nigerian troops have recently helped in Liberia and Ivory Coast, but where is S Africa seen to be the lead force for conflict resolution in Black Africa. Zimbabwe, but that has been acknowledged as an abject failure.

    Just remember that he who points a finger also points 3 fingers at himself!

  • Posted by omar

    Mbeki is one of write thinking African of our time his comment should be look at with a great interest.

  • Posted by Lawrence Freeman

    I fully agree with the remarks by former RSA President, Thabo Mbeki on the contemptuous treatment by the west of the sovereignty of African nations. There was no doubt that President Obama, the French, and the Brits were out for regime change in Libya from the get go. Mbeki is also right that that now the westrn powers will use the so called “responsibility to protect”- R2P as an opportunity to violate the sovereignty of nations, in particluar African nations. Although, Obama is foolishlly and dangerously, adhering to R2P, led by his UN ambassador, Susan Rice, it was Tony Blair who first advoated the end to the 1648 Westphalian concept of sovereignty in favor of global intervention by the world’s strongest militaries. This proves once agin that Mbeki is one of the smartest and most courageous leaders in Africa.
    Lawrence Freeman, African Desk, EIR.

  • Posted by Aminu Wouba

    I mean what more does Mbeki have to say for Africans to wake up? What more can he say?
    Former President Thabo Mbeki understands Africa completely.
    May God continue to bless him.

  • Posted by Maduka

    John Fox,

    You are wrong. Libya and most of North Africa may lie in the Mediterranean, but to say that the are essentially Europe influenced and east facing is to deny at least a thousand years of a shared history with Sahelian and Sub-Saharan Africa.

    It will interest you to note that the Kanem-Bornu Empire once extended to Southern Libya and the genetic and cultural footprint of Sub-Saharan Africa can be seen every major city in Northern Africa. You may not know that Kano in Northern Nigeria has remained an important trading hub with North Africa for at least a millennium.

    A significant proportion of Libya and indeed North Africa’s population is of Sub-Saharan African origin.

    An unspoken reason why Mbeki’s analysis is popular in Sub-Saharan Africa is because the Libyan war is viewed by many as a being racially motivated – the non-black peoples of Libya were assisted by the West while Gaddafi stood for the blacks.

  • Posted by Saa Kaimachiande

    Mbeki’s experience with the whiteman is deep and wide. First, as an ordinary citizen of Apartheid South Africa, second, as citizen under a free nation, and third, as the President of South Africa. The cumulative experiences he gathered over those years gives him a hawk’s eye-view on the issues of South Africa, Africa and the world at large that cannot be rivaled by all the PhDs. in the world. His views on African issues is not only encyclopedic but also absolutely authorative. In my estimation, his notions on Africa are Gold-Standard.

  • Posted by Stutt

    It is such a shame that Corcasians try by all means to justify Democracy from their own view of thinking as in the constant case of accusing Zimbabwe as a failed state when it is by far one of the most african states in africa with minimal foreign interference (besides China). Or is it accepted as common fact that if you have minimal foreign influence then you are not a democracy?

    Libya has never distanced itself from the continent and for that matter the League has never played any significant role in Libya’s matter as Gaddaffi worked closely with the AU. It is of interest why the League which had no significant connection to the Liyans either than ethnicity would be the preferred voice to the AU the only “group” whom Gaddaffi would entertain.

    And if you fail to understand why the speech would have a “racism” undertone, look at how france is puppetering the regions it once colonised and how they are blocking by every means trading amongst african countries

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