Thin-skinned Mbeki, Zimbabwe and Wikileaks

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s stance on Zimbabwe and other issues in his own country raised questions about his judgment leading United States ambassador to South Africa, Delano Lewis, to describe him as a brilliant but prickly leader of “Africa’s most important state” who did not accept criticism.

In a cable dispatched on 23 January 2001, only 19 months after Mbeki had taken over as South African President, the ambassador said recent actions by Mbeki which included his views on AIDS had raised “caution flags about his ability to accept criticism and manage collegially”.

In the cable entitled: Thin-skinned Mbeki will require deft handling, the ambassador said: “The challenge for the US officials will be to accept this important, but hypersensitive, African figure as he is, and build a constructive dialogue.”

The ambassador urged Washington to invite Mbeki to the United States early on to begin the dialogue, adding that he should be invited before his predecessor Nelson Mandela “whose global stature has something to do with Mbeki’s occasional manifestation of a fragile ego”.

Lewis said Mbeki’s failure to speak out on clear human rights and rule of law violations in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe had brought him a lot of criticism and had hurt investor confidence in South Africa’s economy.

Mbeki was, however, to play a key role that brought about peace in Zimbabwe seven years later though he was accused until he retired of favouring Mugabe’s party in what was termed his “quiet diplomacy”.

Lewis was also unsparing on Mbeki’s close associates and advisors.

Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete was described as “often insulting and thoughtless” and Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as “truculent and petulant”.

“Why Mbeki, whose intelligence is widely acknowledged and who is well respected personally, should exhibit a tendency toward shrillness and defensiveness is hotly debated. Some speculate that Mbeki and the majority of ANC leaders and office holders are still handicapped by the experience of the struggle against apartheid. Then, enemies were everywhere and the world fit very neatly into shades of black and white. Others see Mbeki as an individual who must always be right,” the cable says.

 Full cable:

 

Viewing cable 01PRETORIA1173, THIN-SKINNED MBEKI WILL REQUIRE DEFT HANDLING

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Reference ID

Created

Released

Classification

Origin

01PRETORIA1173

2001-02-23 15:03

2010-12-08 21:09

CONFIDENTIAL

Embassy Pretoria

O 231553Z FEB 01

FM AMEMBASSY PRETORIA

TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7691

INFO SOUTHERN AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT COMMUNITY PRIORITY

Friday, 23 February 2001, 15:53

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 PRETORIA 001173

FOR AF AND S/S FROM AMBASSADOR

EO 12958 DECL: 02/22/2011

TAGS PREL, PGOV, SF

 

SUBJECT: THIN-SKINNED MBEKI WILL REQUIRE DEFT HANDLING

REF: A. 99 PRETORIA 12315 B. 99 PRETORIA 12316 C. 00 PRETORIA 9150 D. 00 CAPE TOWN 2150 E. PRETORIA 425 F. PRETORIA 533 G. CAPE TOWN 179 H. PRETORIA 619

CLASSIFIED BY AMBASSADOR DELANO E. LEWIS. REASONS 1.5 (B) AND (D).

 

¶1. (C) SUMMARY: RECENT ACTIONS AND STATEMENTS BY PRESIDENT MBEKI HAVE RAISED CAUTION FLAGS ABOUT HIS ABILITY TO ACCEPT CRITICISM AND MANAGE COLLEGIALLY. THE CHALLENGE FOR U.S. OFFICIALS WILL BE TO ACCEPT THIS IMPORTANT, BUT HYPERSENSITIVE, AFRICAN FIGURE AS HE IS, AND BUILD A CONSTRUCTIVE DIALOGUE. POST STRONGLY RECOMMENDS THAT HE BE INVITED TO WASHINGTON EARLY ON TO BEGIN BUILDING THAT DIALOGUE. END SUMMARY

 

¶2. (C) THE CONTROVERSIAL INVESTIGATION OF SOUTH AFRICA’S 1999 $4 BILLION ARMS PURCHASE AGREEMENT HAS SO FAR REVEALED LITTLE ABOUT THE ARMS TRADE, BUT A GREAT DEAL ABOUT PRESIDENT MBEKI AND THE MINDSET OF HIS KEY ADVISORY TEAM. AS DETAILED IN REFS A-G, PRESIDENT MBEKI AND OTHERS AROUND HIM HAVE VIGOROUSLY, SOMETIMES ANGRILY AND SHRILLY, RESISTED CALLS FOR AN INVESTIGATION OF THE TRANSACTION THAT WOULD INCLUDE THE SPECIAL INVESTIGATIVE UNIT OF JUSTICE WILLIAM HEATH, ESTABLISHED BY MBEKI’S BELOVED PREDECESSOR NELSON MANDELA. THEY ARGUE THAT SUITABLE AND COMPETENT INVESTIGATORY INSTITUTIONS WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT ALREADY EXIST, OBVIATING THE NEED FOR ANOTHER INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATOR. WE ARE INCLINED TO AGREE WITH THE SAG ON THE CORE QUESTION THAT THE SANDF NEEDED TO PURCHASE SOME NEW EQUIPMENT, AND THE PRICE THEY WILL PAY IS REASONABLE. WE CAN ONLY OBSERVE FROM THE SIDELINES THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE EXECUTIVE, LEGISLATIVE AND JUDICIAL BRANCHES, AS WELL AS THE FOURTH ESTATE, ON THE ARMS DEAL INVESTIGATION AND HOPE THAT SOUTH AFRICA’S COMMITMENT TO RULE OF LAW IS ULTIMATELY VINDICATED. BUT THE LARGER ISSUE REMAINS FOR US OF HOW TO JUDGE, AND BUILD A DIALOGUE WITH, THE MAN AT THE CENTER OF THIS DEBATE.

 

¶3. (C) THIS LATEST EPISODE IS ONE OF SEVERAL WORRISOME SIGNALS FROM MBEKI AND HIS CAMP THAT RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS JUDGMENT. MBEKI’S RELUCTANCE TO ACCEPT OVERWHELMING SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE ON HIV/AIDS HAS BEEN MUCH NOTED AND DISCUSSED IN INTERNATIONAL CIRCLES AND WITHIN SOUTH AFRICA. HIS FAILURE TO SPEAK OUT ON CLEAR HUMAN RIGHTS AND RULE OF LAW VIOLATIONS TAKING PLACE IN MUGABE’S ZIMBABWE HAS ALSO BROUGHT HIM MUCH CRITICISM AND HAVE CLEARLY HURT INVESTOR CONFIDENCE IN SOUTH AFRICA’S ECONOMY IN THE PROCESS. MBEKI’S RELIANCE ON A CORE OF ADVISORS THAT LACK THE EXPERIENCE AND DIPLOMATIC SEASONING ALSO UNDERCUTS MBEKI’S IMAGE EARLY-ON OF THE COOLLY RATIONAL MANAGER. THE MINISTER IN THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY ESSOP PAHAD HAS LAUNCHED BLISTERING ATTACKS ON THE PRESS WHEN HIS BOSS IS CRITICIZED. XXXXXXXXXXXX. HIS FORMER SPOKESPERSON, THE LATE PARKS MANKAHLANA HAD LOST ALMOST ALL CREDIBILITY WITH HIS KEY AUDIENCE, THE SOUTH AFRICAN PRESS IN THE MONTHS BEFORE HE DIED OF A DISEASE THAT MOST WERE CONVINCED WAS AIDS, BUT HE WOULD NEVER ADMIT. MBEKI REMAINS UNBLINKINGLY LOYAL TO CABINET MINISTERS, SUCH AS THE OFTEN INSULTING AND THOUGHTLESS MINISTER OF SAFETY AND SECURITY STEVE TSHWETE, WHO OUTRAGED THE PORTUGUESE COMMUNITY HERE BY QUESTIONING THEIR PATRIOTISM WHEN THEY CRITICIZED MBEKI’S HANDLING OF CRIME ISSUES, OR THE TRUCULENT AND PETULANT FOREIGN MINISTER NKOSAZANA DLAMINI-ZUMA (REF H), OR HIS HEALTH MINISTER WHO CIRCULATED TO THE ENTIRE CABINET LARGE SECTIONS OF A BOOK BY AN TOTALLY DISCREDITED AIDS DENIER.

 

¶4. (C) SOUTH AFRICA’S REPORTERS AND EDITORS HAVE BROUGHT THESE INADEQUACIES TO THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION WITH UNRELENTING ZEAL. EVEN PAPERS HISTORICALLY SYMPATHETIC TO MBEKI AND THE ANC, SUCH AS THE SOWETAN HAVE JOINED A CHORUS OF CRITICS QUESTIONING MBEKI’S LEADERSHIP. SIPHO SEEPE, FOR EXAMPLE, A POLITICAL ANALYST SYMPATHETIC TO THE ANC, WRITING IN THE SOWETAN ASKED IF MBEKI IS FIT TO GOVERN. IN RESPONSE, MBEKI AND HIS TEAM OF ADVISORS HAVE TAKEN EXACTLY THE WRONG TACK. THEY ACCUSE THE PRESS OF RACISM (ATTACKING THE GOVERNMENT BECAUSE IT IS PREDOMINANTLY BLACK), OR OF BEING A MOUTHPIECE OF OPPOSITIO N PARTIES, OR OF HAVING A PERSONAL VENDETTA AGAINST MBEKI. MBEKI’S AND THE ANC’S SOLUTION TO THIS “PROBLEM” IS NOT TO ENGAGE THE MEDIA ON AN INTELLECTUAL BASIS BUT RATHER TO SET UP ITS OWN “NEWS” WEBSITE TO “INFORM” SOUTH AFRICA’S PEOPLE (PRESUMABLY THOSE WITH COMPUTERS) WHO HAVE BEEN “MISINFORMED” ON THE ISSUES.

 

¶5. (C) WHY MBEKI, WHOSE INTELLIGENCE IS WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED AND WHO IS WELL RESPECTED PERSONALLY, SHOULD EXHIBIT A TENDENCY TOWARD SHRILLNESS AND DEFENSIVENESS IS HOTLY DEBATED. SOME SPECULATE THAT MBEKI AND THE MAJORITY OF ANC LEADERS AND OFFICE HOLDERS ARE STILL HANDICAPPED BY THE EXPERIENCE OF THE STRUGGLE AGAINST APARTHEID. THEN, ENEMIES WERE EVERYWHERE AND THE WORLD FIT VERY NEATLY INTO SHADES OF BLACK AND WHITE. OTHERS SEE MBEKI AS AN INDIVIDUAL WHO MUST ALWAYS BE RIGHT. WHEN THE FORCE OF MEDICAL AND PUBLIC OPINION ON THE CAUSAL LINK BETWEEN HIV AND AIDS GREW TOO GREAT, MBEKI ANNOUNCED THAT HE WAS “WITHDRAWING” FROM THE DEBATE RATHER THAN ADMIT THAT HE POSSIBLY HAD ERRED. MBEKI HAS POSITED THE VIEW THAT NONE OF THE CRITICISMS HE HAS RECEIVED WORRIES HIM BECAUSE HE KNOWS THEY AREN’T TRUE, AS HE TOLD THE EDITOR OF DRUM MAGAZINE RECENTLY. IN THAT SAME INTERVIEW, MBEKI SAID THE OPPOSITION WANTS SOMETHING BAD TO HAPPEN IN SOUTH AFRICA “SO THEY CAN THEN SAY ‘LOOK HOW BAD THIS GOVERNMENT IS.’”

 

¶6. (C) ULTIMATELY, NO ONE KNOWS WHY MBEKI SOMETIMES DISPLAYS THIS IRRATIONAL SIDE, OR WHEN IT WILL MANIFEST NEXT. CERTAINLY, HE IS MORE FREQUENTLY REASONABLE, INTELLIGENT, AND CAPABLE, AS HE DEMONSTRATED AGAIN IN THE FEBRUARY 9 STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS. MBEKI IS AN AVID READER AND IS ACUTELY AWARE OF THE CRITICISMS BEING LEVIED AGAINST HIM. HE MUST ALSO BE AWARE OF THE STREAM OF RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE MEDIA THAT HE SHOULD SURROUND HIMSELF WITH AN ADVISORY TEAM THAT IS INTELLIGENT, WELL VERSED IN CURRENT AFFAIRS, AND ABLE TO MAKE RATIONAL DECISIONS.

 

¶7. (C) USG OFFICIALS MEETING WITH MBEKI SHOULD BE PREPARED TO RECOGNIZE HIS DEFENSIVENESS AND HIGH SENSITIVITY TO CRITICISM. GIVEN HIS CURRENT GRIP ON THE REINS OF THE ANC, WE ANTICIPATE THAT HE WILL BE A PROMINENT FEATURE OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE FOR SOME TIME TO COME. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT HIS CONTROL OF THE ANC COULD WEAKEN OVER THE LONGER TERM, AS LACK OF DELIVERY ON SOCIAL ISSUES BEGINS TO JEOPARDIZE HIS AND HIS PARTY’S PREDOMINANCE. HIS PERCEIVED FAILURE TO EFFECTIVELY ADDRESS THE HIV EPIDEMIC, IN PARTICULAR, COULD MAKE HIM VULNERABLE TO GRASSROOTS OPPOSITION, POSSIBLY FROM WOMEN’S GROUPS.THE NEXT NATIONAL ELECTIONS ARE NOT UNTIL 2004, HOWEVER, AND THE TWO-TERM LIMIT IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN CONSTITUTION COULD ALLOW HIM TO SERVE UNTIL 2009.

 

¶8. (C) DIALOGUE WITH THIS ESSENTIAL AFRICAN LEADER SHOULD BE COUCHED IN POSITIVE, SUPPORTIVE LANGUAGE, IN THE HOPE OF BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP THAT WILL ALLOW US TO CROSS SWORDS WITH HIM AT A LATER DATE IF WE HAVE TO. AMBASSADOR LEWIS HAS ALREADY BEGUN TO ESTABLISH A RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT MBEKI THAT ENCOURAGES MBEKI TO ADOPT A MORE MODERATE TONE WITH HIS ADVERSARIES AND A LESS CONTROVERSIAL STANCE ON CRITICAL ISSUES (SUCH AS HIV/AIDS) THAT AFFECT THE WELL-BEING OF SOUTH AFRICA.

 

¶9. (C) WE RECOMMEND INITIATING AN EARLY AND HIGH-LEVEL DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE ADMINISTRATION AND MBEKI. HE HAS MADE IT KNOWN TO US THAT HE WOULD LIKE TO BE INVITED TO WASHINGTON BEFORE NELSON MANDELA, WHOSE GLOBAL STATURE HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH MBEKI’S OCCASIONAL MANIFESTATIONS OF A FRAGILE EGO. aWE SUPPORT HIS REQUEST AND HOPE WASHINGTON WILL BE ABLE TO ACCOMMODATE THIS BRILLIANT, PRICKLY LEADER OF AFRICA’S MOST IMPORTANT STATE.

LEWIS

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