09/03/2017 19:27 GMT | Updated 10/03/2017 07:35 GMT

Mbeki Has Again Reminded Us All Why South Africa Had To Let Him Go

How a stubborn denialist Mbeki almost torpedoed his own brain child.

Gallo Images / Sowetan / Mdu Ndzingi
Former President Thabo Mbeki addresses University of South Africa (Unisa) students in October 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa.

Sometimes we need a little reminder why a difficult ex-friend is exactly that, no matter how much we love them now.

President Thabo Mbeki, the country's favourite former friend for almost a decade now, did us that favour on Thursday when he over-intellectualised this issue of xenophobia instead of catching some feelings.

Better still, he did so at an event filled with African ambassadors and dignatories, organised to celebrate the 14th birthday of a great African tool of which he was one of the founding fathers.

Mbeki told the gathering that the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a self-assessment tool for African countries, can bring African solutions to African problems, democracy, peace, and prosperity. So far it's done well in persuading 34 out of the 55 African Union states to sign up voluntarily, and it actually managed to do 17 rather thorough country reviews.

But the APRM didn't always have the necessary buy-in, even of its founders.

For example, Mbeki used Kenya as an example of a place where the APRM quite accurately picked up the threat of post-election violence even before the 2007/8 elections happened. Not enough follow-up was done on the report and the violence turned out to be quite bloody, but Mbeki didn't quite put it like that.

Mbeki told the gathering: "At the end of the review system the country was supposed to report back to the peer review mechanism to say this was the mechanism to put in place, in order to respond to the peer review.

"There is no excuse. You can't say I can attend to this, I can't attend to the other. The review being done, the peers having met, this is the programme of action, so there can't be any excuses for people to say I can't do this because of costs."

Mbeki has some really great ideas, but this doesn't leave much space for thoughts he doesn't like.

For instance, he didn't mention South Africa's country review in his example. It was done in the same year as Kenya's and it also contained warnings about serious violence which also broke out the next year.

South Africa's APRM report said there was a threat of xenophobia in the country which should be nipped in the bud, and it also pointed to a crime problem.

Mbeki denied both, and the rest is history.

On Thursday he also said South Africans are not xenophobic, even as foreigners in this country are moving around cautiously amidst sporadic attacks and harassment.

"To attach this label, 'xenophobic', results in many instances of us not understanding this issue, to understand what is the source of this issue."

"I'm really trying to discourage this idea that there's an African population in South Africa that hates other Africans," he said.

He does have a point. Throwing all the recent anti-foreigner violence in one big xenophobia basket is to miss the nuances of the grievances, many of which can be traced back to weak governance and a perceived struggle for scarce resources.

But then Mbeki elaborated, saying South Africans have lived and worked peacefully for centuries with fellow Africans, who came here for employment.

He also said there are about 45,000 Ethiopians in Johannesburg and there are no reports of all of them being attacked, so it's not xenophobia.

Similarly, Nigerian academics and doctors in South Africa aren't being targeted for violence, only the criminals. So that's not xenophobia either, he said.

And the stabbing of Emmanuel Sithole was "common township thuggery", he went on. (At least the pipe smoker is now conceding that crime is a problem — remember how he drove critics to hysteria by talking it down?

Only about half of the room applauded him. The other half probably felt like Zambian High Commissioner Emmanuel Mwamba, who confronted Mbeki with a list of institutional, legalised xenophobia, such as schools now requiring the children of foreign nationals to show their permits, and police regularly stopping and harassing foreign nationals for their papers — much like during the old apartheid dompas system.

"Xenophobia and Afrophobia should be condemned very strongly, like apartheid," he reminded Mbeki.

Mbeki later conceded that, if the ambassadors say it's xenophobia, then maybe it is. He almost sarcastically said he would like to meet with them because maybe they could teach him something he doesn't know about his own people.

Did it occur to Mbeki that this wasn't a moment for technicalities and debates about narrow definitions? Mwamba's criticism was really an indictment against the man who made that moving I am an African speech 21 years ago.

How could he be so out of touch with sentiment amongst fellow Africans, who are made to feel their foreignness on their skins every day in South Africa, thanks to Mbeki's own compatriots?

Nostalgia for the former president is bound to become a little thinner at the reminder that our vintage Mbeki also includes this stubborn president whose academic denial of a link between HIV and Aids led to an inhumane approach to the disease.

Expecting Mbeki to acknowledge that crime and xenophobia can exist in the same space and should both be tackled equally, might have been a bridge too far.

To get back to the APRM, Mbeki could be one of the reasons why his own brainchild floundered a few years ago (it seems to be on the up now after it was carefully nursed back to life by a few committed individuals).

Steven Gruzd, an African governance analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs who has worked on the APRM for many years, said countries opening themselves up to examination could expect criticism.

"South Africa felt other countries that needed the peer review more than we did, that our governance was good and this was more for other countries," he said.

Some of the issues flagged in South Africa's country review, like floor-crossing, were attended to, but the APRM wasn't acknowledged. Similarly, the National Development Plan came from the APRM but didn't mention it, so there was a "policy disjuncture", he said.

"If you look at the report, it unearthed some of the key issues of the day which are still here today. (South Africa's) is one of the most honest and solid reports, but nobody's really implemented their reports well, and that's been one of the problems."

So if there is anyone around who has only been starry-eyed and nostalgic about Mbeki the African Renaissance Man and the great thinker — don't forget to remember the aloof, stubborn, denialist who sometimes shoots himself quite painfully in the foot.

Mbeki has just reminded us all why South Africa had to let him go