South Africa

Mbeki’s Tropical Storm

South African President Thabo Mbeki drew fire, literally and metaphorically, at the beginning of 2004 when he traveled to Haiti to celebrate the Jan. 1 bicentennial of the country’s slave rebellion. Mbeki, who has been harshly criticized at home and abroad for his support of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, was seen by critics as being willing to prop up yet another president with an appalling human-rights record—Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

On Jan. 2, various news outlets reported that a helicopter belonging to Mbeki’s security detail had come under fire the previous day in Gonaives, in the northwest of the country. The helicopter was doing an advance sweep prior to a scheduled visit by Mbeki, who was to attend a traditional Haitian soup ceremony. The South African government subsequently denied that one of its helicopters had been fired on directly, but said that Mbeki’s visit to Gonaives was canceled for security reasons.

Mbeki’s trip was “a form of acceptance and tolerance of the fascist regime of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” wrote Gerald Oriol Junior, a Haitian, in Business Day (Jan. 6). Mondli Makhanya, writing in the Mail & Guardian on Jan. 12, agreed that Mbeki should not have given his support—and a donation of R10 million (US$1.4 million)—to Aristide, thereby “legitimizing a man who has no respect for the descendants of those heroic slaves.”

On Jan. 4, Tony Leon, the leader of South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, issued a statement saying, “Once again [Mbeki] has placed South Africa very firmly on the wrong side of the international street—on the side of would-be dictators and human-rights abusers.” Leon said he would use the State of the Nation debate in February to ask how much Mbeki’s trip had cost, and what benefits it would bring South Africa.

In the press flurry that followed Leon’s statements, some commentators rallied to defend the president. “Mbeki went to Haiti not to praise Aristide but to commemorate a highly significant, but suppressed, moment in world history,” wrote Devan Pillay in the Sunday Times (Jan. 11). In Business Day on Jan. 7, Bryan Rostron argued that Haiti’s slave rebellion of 1804 was “one of the most astonishing military triumphs in history,” and that Mbeki’s trip was a bold assertion of black pride: “While Mbeki courts international respectability by cautious political and fiscal policies, he still identifies strongly with the only successful slave rebellion in history.”

But Greg Mills, in the Financial Mail (Jan. 9), worried that the trip “could undermine Mbeki’s international standing as a progressive democrat.” For Max du Preez, writing in The Star (Jan. 8), the issue was the president’s lack of communication about the trip, which—like his refusal to explain his policies on Zimbabwe or HIV/AIDS—was a sign Mbeki had lost touch with the public. “I have a feeling that if Mbeki looked at us from the television screen and talked about the symbolism of Haiti’s independence from France 200 years ago,...the vast majority of South Africans would have said: Go, Mr. President, go represent us,” wrote Du Preez. Not to do so was “amazingly arrogant,” Du Preez observed, and South Africans “should demand to know who our president really is, and why he does what he does in our name.”