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Former South African Leader Weighs In On World Cup


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We have our Friday features for you. On Faith Matters, we talk about faith and oil - specifically, we're going to check in with two faith leaders in the Gulf whose congregations are directly affected by the oil spill, and we're asking how they and their congregants are responding to the disaster on a spiritual level and a practical level.

And trash talk alert: We'll talk about the NBA Finals with the Barbershop guys.

But first, we'll bring you the second part of our conversation with Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa. He's in Washington this week as part of his work as the chair of the African Union's High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. That's an African-led group that's trying to address the long-standing conflict in Darfur, as well as the upcoming referendum on independence for Southern Sudan.

We spoke yesterday in detail about the violence in that country, which is Africa's largest. We talked about the likelihood of secession by Southern Sudan next year and the indictment of the Sudanese president by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. If you'd like to listen to part one of my conversation with Thabo Mbeki, you can find it on the TELL ME MORE program page at npr.org.

But then we turn to other matters, including World Cup, which is going on now and which Mr. Mbeki, as president, lobbied to bring to South Africa. So I asked Mr. Mbeki if he felt vindicated amid all the excitement being generated by World Cup in his country.

Mr. THABO MBEKI (Former President, South Africa; Chairman, African Union's High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan): Yes, no, no. I'm very happy, indeed, that the World Cup did, in the end, come. We took a decision that it would be important to try to have this World Cup hosted not so much by South Africa, but by Africa. And this is our intention, that we want the African continent to host the World Cup to make a statement, to make us an important statement about Africa, Africans on the continent and Africans in the Diaspora.

The Africans everywhere, we are very much a part of this common humanity. That, I mean, the Europeans had hosted the World Cup, Latin America had hosted the World Cup, Asia had hosted the World Cup, why not the African continent?

MARTIN: But how do you address the resource question, though? There are those who still say there's just too people, there are too many people who are still too poor, still suffering, still don't have what they need to really live and thrive to spend that kind of money and time and energy on something like this. What do you say to that?

Mr. MBEKI: So, indeed, I mean, it's obvious that once we got the bid, well, even when we worked on the bid, we knew that it would cost something. But we would gain something, also. It's there for - to make the statement about us, the Africans - including to ourselves, as Africans - that we're actually as capable as anybody else in the world to host a tournament as big as this meant, also. That we have got actually the capacity to solve all the major challenges that we face.

Now, so the consequence when they bid, when the president of FIFA announced South Africa has won (unintelligible), we had huge celebrations in South Africa, but even bigger celebrations in countries like Nigeria, like Mali, even bigger than South Africa. And why did these Africans take to the streets? They knew the cost, including the South Africans. They knew that this thing, it would mean that you'd have to put the resources into building stadia and sort of(ph) houses, and all that.

But they celebrated because they knew what it signified: an accession of the dignity and the capacity and the humanity of the African. That's why the ordinary people celebrated. And then you haven't seen an ordinary, poor South African standing up and saying, but why is this Cup here? Because money could have been spent on a road or a school. No, they are not saying that because of the critical message. The hosting of the Cup, the critical message it communicates to us, Africans and about us, as Africans. And this thing is really of great value.

MARTIN: Are you sorry to be here instead of there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You could be partying. You could be...

Mr. MBEKI: Yes, indeed, they are. I mean, but...

MARTIN: But we're glad to see you. But...

Mr. MBEKI: There's still work to be done.


Mr. MBEKI: There's work to be done. And fortunately, there's television, so you can still watch the games.

MARTIN: What do you think your legacy will be? Along with World Cup clearly will be part of your legacy as president. And I know you're still very active, obviously, as we've been talking about on many of the issues of the day. But what else do you think will be your legacy as the president of South Africa?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, I don't know. I think everything that's happened in South Africa during those years when I was in government, really, I do think can be attributed to particular individuals. But I think that part of what I really was happy about is that once South Africa became a democracy in 1994, that stopped the threat of the possibility of a racial war in South Africa. And fortunately, that's been sustained ever since.

You haven't had any conflict of a racial nature, which was always, always very possible. But I think the thing was managed properly. And secondly, when we got into government in 1994, we inherited an economy in decline. It was actually shrinking, just making everything worse: poverty worsening and standard of living going down and the infrastructure collapsing, and all that.

And we turned that around now. You even have, just recently, the IMF issuing a report to saying one of the best forming economies in the world in the light of the global economy crisis has been the South African economy. It's because of what's been built before. And I think also the progress towards the creation of a non-racial society much more integration in the schools, in sports teams.

If you look now in the crowds that sit around in the South African stadia watching all these matches, it's something that you probably wouldn't have seen 10 years ago, of black and whites sitting next to each other, blowing vuvuzelas together, making a lot of noise together. But, I mean, progress, I'm saying. The racial stability in the country, the economy, social progress has been achieved and the integration, the building of a nonracial society.

MARTIN: Can I ask, to that end, you are another conflict of a region that you were involved in is that Zimbabwe trying to address the ongoing - which is ongoing - political discord there between the sort of two opposing camps, one led by the long-time leader Robert Mugabe, and, of course, the opposition, which is led by Morgan Tsvangirai. They are now in this kind of tenuous power sharing agreement, which participated in.

Do you have similar optimism about this country, which has, at one point - was the breadbasket of the south, and their economy has been in freefall. There are some sort of positive signs, but many people look at that situation and wonder how it will be resolved. Do you have similar optimism there?

Mr. MBEKI: No. We had taken the position with regard to the Zimbabwe thing, as we do with all of these matters on the continent, that essentially, the solution to the problems of Zimbabwe must come from the Zimbabweans. You can't impose the solutions from outside without creating new problems.

And so we have spent many years trying to persuade these two groups, political groups in Zimbabwe, to get together to say, look, this is your country. You are the political leadership of Zimbabwe, and you must solve this thing. As a consequence of which they then agreed, 2008, to form this inclusive government. I am quite confident that that government will survive. It will work together. There would be tensions among these parties...

MARTIN: Why are you so confident, sir?

Mr. MBEKI: Because they have no choice about it. The global political agreement concluded by these parties in 2008, which included the provision to form this inclusive government, that global political agreement, we were the facilitators. But it actually was drafted from page one to page last by the Zimbabweans themselves. It's them. They wrote this thing. They debated it among themselves, who were there. And then they said, okay, we've agreed on this, let's draft it. It's a Zimbabwe agreement. And they came to that agreement because they could see that this was the only out for the country.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. President, in addition to World Cup, you have much to celebrate and I understand that a birthday is coming. As we are speaking on Thursday, I understand that you're celebrating a birthday tomorrow. Can we be the first to wish you a happy birthday?

Mr. MBEKI: Thank you very much. I had forgotten about that.

MARTIN: Wait, you had forgotten? Well...

Mr. MBEKI: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: Well, then, we are glad that we did not forget. So you have no special plans to celebrate?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, now since NPR has raised this matter, maybe I might come back if you buy a cake and we...

MARTIN: Well, I think we can arrange that. And, finally, I did want to ask if you've recovered from South Africa's loss to Uruguay. And have you been able to kind of deal with this setback?

Mr. MBEKI: Well, I'm hoping that - we've still got one more match to play in this round. And I'm hoping that we win that match. I think if we win that match, we would still be in the running to go into the next round. I am really hoping that that's what will happen. And so, fingers crossed, I think the South African team is capable of winning this next match.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask, what do you think of the U.S. team?

Mr. MBEKI: I think the U.S. team is very good. I watched the U.S. team when they played in the Confederations Cup. And so they got Brazil into a difficult situation. And I think the fact that they drew this first match they played with England, I think says - makes a very interesting statement. I think this is one of the dark horses of the tournament.

MARTIN: That was so diplomatic. Spoken like the diplomat that you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MBEKI: I really think that this is one of the dark horses. And the U.S. team may surprise a lot of people.

MARTIN: Well, finally, I have to get your take on one of the controversies of the cup, the vuvuzela. You know, a lot of the international community is a little having some trouble with the vuvuzela. So, vuvuzela, thumbs up, thumbs down?

Mr. MBEKI: I think we should just people have to accept that this is a standard feature of South African soccer. Personally I would never take a vuvuzela to a match.

MARTIN: You wouldn't?

Mr. MBEKI: No, I wouldn't. No, I wouldn't.

MARTIN: You don't have one?

Mr. MBEKI: I don't have one and I will not get one. But I think that people just have to accept it. You get used to it, even if you are sitting in that stadium for one match. After awhile it just becomes a bit of background noise. So, but it is possible to enjoy these matches even if they have vuvuzelas there.

MARTIN: Thabo Mbeki is the former president of South Africa. He is leading the African Union's high level implementation panel for Sudan - one of the reasons he was here in Washington, D.C., where he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Mr. President, we thank you so much for joining us, and happy birthday once again.

Mr. MBEKI: Thank you very much, Michel, and thanks for having us. I'll come back for the birthday cake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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