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Thabo Mbeki, Fellow Traveler

Reading Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letters is alternately a mind-numbing and revelatory experience. Mind-numbing because of their length and monotony; revelatory because they really do give the reader an insight into the paranoid and aggrieved mind of the South African President.

The lead item in this week’s missive—”Che Guevara—a fond farewell forty years later!”—sounds exactly like what it is: Stalinist propaganda. Mbeki calls Guevara “our beloved hero,” remarking that he died soon after former ANC president Albert Luthuli. This is an absurd juxtaposition: Luthuli was a man of unimpeachable reputation who preached reconciliation with whites and multiracial democracy. He was also an ally of the novelist Alan Paton and his anti-Communist Liberal Party. Luthuli himself was a strong anti-Communist who feared that Communists would tarnish the reputation of the anti-apartheid movement (which they later did). Nor did Luthuli ever call for his political enemies to be executed.

In today’s South Africa, it is considered gauche to bring up the ANC’s historic ties to the Soviet Union, just as it was considered pro-apartheid to write about these ties during the years of the nation’s struggle for freedom. To do so apparently reveals one’s anachronistic anti-Communism. Contemporary South Africa, after all, is hardly going Red, in spite of the continued influence of its domestic Communist Party.

But just because the Soviet Union is dead does not mean that its admirers are, or that they have significantly altered their ideologies of governance. As the South African blogger Michael Kransdorff explains, effusions of the above kind are par for the course when it comes to the missives of Mbeki and his top associates. It is far too soon to conclude, as so many are wont to do, that post-apartheid South Africa is on stable, democratic, liberal footing. It says something ominous about the political temperament and ideology of South Africa’s leading politician when he praises Che Guevara and denounces the United States.


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