Thabo Mbeki would be more at home as a London banker

Thabo Mbeki's urbane sophistication held the country enthralled when he returned from exile a few years before the dawn of democracy.

Thabo Mbeki's urbane sophistication held the country enthralled when he returned from exile a few years before the dawn of democracy.

Unlike a horde of returnees, he was not from the bush. He was a pipe-smoking economics graduate from the UK.

When, as deputy president of the African National Congress, he recited his now famous poem, I'm An African, the entire nation, including the white community who feared a backlash once power shifted from their hands was seduced.

A lot has happened since. Mbeki has rubbed many people, including entire communities, up the wrong way.

On the other hand, since his inclusion in the first democratically elected cabinet, first as the deputy president under Mandela in 1994, Mabeki, - as many non-Africans pronounce his name - has relentlessly crisscrossed time zones in an emboldened attempt to save Africa from itself on the one hand, and to repackage and sell the continent as a new, improved product, on the other.

Thirteen years into his "super salesman's" role, it emerges that the continent of his birth is much more of a damaged product than he originally thought.

With coups, intertribal in-fighting, growing corruption, stolen elections, wholesale genocides and generally making a bloody nuisance of ourselves every other week, the South African president, known for his intense dislike of personal failure has worked even harder on his "African Dream".

Along the way, he has effectively taken away a lot of headaches from the West and as a reward, he can break bread with George W Bush in the West Wing or have English high tea at Number 10 Downing Street any time he wishes.

Along the way, he has, for all intents and purposes, disempowered his foreign affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and reduced her to a bit-part showgirl.

Casting his eyes wider has come at a price. The results are now evident for all to see: The once indefatigable great man is showing the strain that comes with ambition.

He has flirted with some quack scientists who discount the existence of Aids, has effectively told members of the ANC tripartite alliance to go fly a kite and has accused the SACP boss, Blade Nzimande of "extraordinary arrogance".

He scrapped Nelson Mandela's Reconstruction and Development Programme and replaced it with Gear (growth, employment and redistribution). But even his attempt at micro-economics has been criticised.

Sipho Seepe has this to say in an article that appeared in Helen Suzman's Focus : "Mbeki's performance on key issues has been lacklustre. He was billed as a crime buster, an anti-corruption crusader, a deliverer of jobs, an entrencher of democracy and an ardent contributor to the non-racial project. The reality of his rule suggests otherwise."

Funny that the president should accuse Nzimande of being arrogant and is then tarred with the same brush himself.

Political analyst and scholar, Xolela Mangcu, among others, has questioned the president's democratic bona fides. He urged him to be more open to criticism and to be inclusive. Writing for Business Day, he argued: "It is the very nature of human beings to want to have a voice on anything and everything, and the vehicle they use for such expression is the networks we call civil society."

He said organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign and Cosatu should be given a voice in the policy-making process.

Mbeki's perceived disdain for opposition parties and his constant mention of race to dismiss white critics irks Mangcu, who says his outbursts trivialise the real problems of racism affecting ordinary folk on a daily basis.

"We've been there, done that and have the T-shirts to show for it, literally."

Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats has, however, defended the president regarding the accusation that he treats the opposition with contempt.

In an interview she said whenever there were important state functions or when heads of state visited South Africa, Mbeki always invited opposition parties to attend.

"Some parties, like the DA, most of the time are a no-show. For that, we can't blame the president," she said.

A senior ANC member, with the "greatest respect" for his leader once told a small, but extraordinary tale about Mbeki.

He said that during high-powered meetings at Luthuli House, Mbeki could often be seen looking at the ceiling for long periods, bored out of his skull.

"He lacks intellectual humility," he said.

I have seen him at rallies when he tried the charm offensive. In the Free State he once donned a traditional Basotho blanket and straw hat. Besides sweating profusely and showing signs of discomfort, I could see he would have preferred being home surfing the Net, sipping his matured Scotch and stuffing his pipe with good tobacco.

The Mandela and Zuma jitterbug thing is not for him. He just goes through the motions when he's expected to jump to Solly Moholo's mumbo jumbo. He would, perhaps be far more in his element lightly swaying his legs to the classics or reading Yeats.

Give him a Saville Row suit any time rather than expect him to put on a Cosatu T-shirt at their annual congress.

That's just him - a suave man of the world more suited to being a London banker than the leader of a country that expects him to footstomp to an unsophisticated beat.

De Lille said the problem with many people in South Africa was that they expected Mbeki to be a Mandela.

"The two are different. Mbeki has his own style."

While Mandela's leadership concentrated on harmonising race relations, Mbeki, who is an economist, has his eyes set on making the country an economic success story.

Seepe added that the reality was a far cry from Mark Gevisser's 1999 depiction of Mbeki in a newspaper article at the beginning of his presidency.

Gevisser described him as "the prophet supreme, the astute strategist, the philosopher king, the reconciler who is forthright and pragmatic, able to appease and accommodate the communists, the Africanists and the high-flying capitalists".