Whatever one thinks about Mbeki’s presidency, there is no doubt that he deserves criticism on a few points. His centralization of power in the presidency minimized meaningful participation and engagement in government by the party membership, as well as its alliance. His autocratic, at times hyperdefensive, grudge-nursing leadership style stifled debate and exchange of ideas, in a country that badly needs to develop a thoughtful, civil, and dynamic tradition of public discourse, free of the threat of retribution.

His economic policies were decidedly conservative, and were aptly described as ‘Talk Left, Walk Right’. At minimum, he should have engaged more with his party and alliance to explain his economic strategy, which required tremendous sacrifice on the part of the masses. His privatization and corporatization strategies were in many cases disastrous. SAA was shambolicly protected from the market and subsidized by taxpayers even as quality of service declined, and Telkom was allowed to monopolistically gouge customers and distort the market, to our collective detriment.

Not to even mention HIV/AIDS.

So, to be clear, I believe Mbeki has a lot to answer for, as almost any leader of a nation would and should after 9 years in power (12 if you consider he effectively took over the reins of government from Mandela in 1996). However, I am not at all impressed by the new-found courage of the ANC alliance leaders, who only found their voice after his successor was all but confirmed. There is no value in holding President Mbeki accountable for perceived wrongs when he is months away from the end of his term. Where were they the past 10 years?

Where were they when dissent carried a price? Were they more concerned about keeping their heads down so they could rise within the party? Were they more concerned about remaining in favor so as to be eligible for desirable positions and privileges?

It was then when he needed to be held accountable, to be questioned, to be disagreed with. It was then when he needed to be held up to scrutiny, and asked to answer tough questions. It was then when he needed to be made not to take his authority for granted. It was then when he needed to be reminded that his authority existed only though the consent of the governed.

For the most part, Mbeki’s presidency, so criticized and decried today, rolled along without a peep of protest. To be fair, COSATU and the SACP criticized economic policies in the wake of GEAR, which they felt were not pro-worker and pro-poor, and grumbled fairly publicly about a lack of consultation.

But in the ANC? The silence was deafening. Party leaders, officials deployed to government, and MPs rarely disagreed publicly with the president. Toeing the party [Mbeki] line was the rule, dissent was the rare exception. Mbeki would brook no perceived challenge to his authority, bristling against any input from Nelson Mandela, public or private. He was decidedly ungracious with those who irritated him, physically pushing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a 2001 Youth Day rally when she tried to greet him with a kiss. Winnie was said to be instrumental to his elevation to ANC president, giving him her endorsement to succeed Mandela in the party election of 1997. Irritated by Frene Ginwala’s refusal to step down as Speaker of Parliament, Mbeki alone sat down as she received a standing ovation on her last day in Parliament in 2004.

Mbeki’s presidency definitely deserves a thorough, objective examination. Taking the baton from President Mandela, his two-term presidency has profoundly shaped our young-old country, and his considerable achievements, successes and failures should be objectively studied and discussed, that they may yield lessons for us. He should be lauded for the positives of his tenure, and held accountable for the negatives. This is a worthy subject of public debate.

What is unworthy of our public discourse, is bandwagon-based attacks on Mbeki in the twilight of his presidency, instinctively turning against the old King’s cult of personality, in advance of the new King (Zuma). It would be even less worthy if this bandwagoning is based partly in the desire of individuals to position themselves favorably in advance of an all-but-certain Zuma presidency. Let us hope we are not seeing the construction of a new cult of personality, being built around Zuma.

One of the lessons of the Mbeki era, is that we South Africans are not as exceptional as we imagine, in comparison to other African nations post-independence. We are no less susceptible to cults of personality, engaging and holding our leaders accountable as public servants, rather than treating them deferentially as absolute rulers.

We must do this in the moment, not after the fact.

As another King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and the moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”

PS: Personally, I think forcing Mbeki to step down at this point would be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. He is an ANC president, an ignominious end would be an indictment on the ANC, who elected (66% of the vote in ’99) and reelected (70% of the vote in ’04) him. Also, the damage to Mbeki will likely be less than the damage to the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa, its esteem domestically, and its prestige abroad. The institution will outlast Mbeki, and those taking aim at him should be careful they do not damage it as well.

What do you think? After all, I am just one man.

One Man is an occasional column by Lionel Isaacs on overstand.co.za . Lionel writes from Johannesburg, South Africa, and can be reached at lionofjozi@gmail.com