IN 1884-85, the Berlin conference of the leading European powers carved up Africa. That same year, 1884, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, ending the promise that the reconstruction of the South once held out. In 1885, slavery was abolished in Brazil. These events, affecting African communities on either side of the Atlantic, inspired an international movement that was decisive in shaping the modern world among people of African descent.

The vision of renewing our continent and freeing its people that had inspired pan-Africanists since the birth of the movement in the 19th century was taken up with vigour by Thabo Mbeki after 1994. Driven by the idea of an Africa free at last from colonialism and apartheid, he hoped the 21st century would entail African leaders grasping the opportunities to regenerate Africa and equip it to assume its rightful place in world affairs.

Mbeki dubbed his project the African Renaissance, expecting an epoch during which Africa by steady economic growth, the maintenance of peace and deliberate application of new technologies would realise its full potential as a player in world affairs.

Nigeria’s Nmamdi Azikiwe had written of a renascent Africa during the 1930s, but Mbeki brought to it the strengths of the continent’s largest economy and the prestige of an international African icon. He hoped the African continent could redefine its relationship with the dominant economies of the world. The New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development was conceived as the first step in that direction.

In Southern Africa, the site of a regional war since the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1975, democracy in South Africa brought the region peace, an essential condition for economic growth and development. An African Renaissance would require the containment and reduction of conflict on the continent.

While in the Presidency, Mbeki was a consistent advocate of quiet diplomacy as South Africa’s preferred course of action in international relations. Having honed his own diplomatic skills in two decades of interaction with the international community, he had impressed senior members of apartheid South Africa’s press corps who visited Lusaka. He was a consummate diplomat, renowned for a capacity to see an adversary’s point of view.

Mbeki devised a style of diplomacy that compelled adversaries to abandon zero-sum attitudes and search for solutions in which there are no apparent victors or vanquished. The outcome itself, however, is invariably also movement forward from an impasse.

The immediate results of this style often are shoddy compromises in which principles have been sacrificed to attain the more palpable prize of peace.

During the Mbeki years, South Africa’s policy toward Zimbabwe was regularly denounced as permissive if not treacherous. Yet who can dispute that the tenuous peace it has produced in Zimbabwe is preferable to the civil unrest that a dogmatic insistence on principle would have precipitated.

For decades since independence, a low-intensity war raged between the northern and southern Sudan. Africa and the world took notice only when it escalated during the 1980s and 1990s. Africa chose Mbeki to negotiate peace and deliver Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan. Like a conscientious pediatrician, he was summoned again when renewed conflict with the north threatened. Mbeki has received a well-deserved accolade, "African of the Year", from the Daily Trust for preventing this war.

Pan-Africanism was a movement born in the struggle to radically change the condition of Africans in the modern world. It dates from 1787, when an African-American clergyman in Massachusetts, Prince Hall, campaigned unsuccessfully to return impoverished freed Africans to the continent. The Quaker shipbuilder, Paul Cuffe, foresaw Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line by setting sail in one of his own ships with 40 other African-Americans and founded a settlement in Sierra Leone in 1815. The first recorded instance of solidarity action was in 1893, when a black gathering in Chicago adopted resolutions condemning French colonialism in Sudan.

The struggle for African freedom, liberation and independence had its origins in the African diaspora. An African Association, with Henry Sylvester Williams among its leaders, was formed in 1897. He convened the first Pan-African conference in London during 1900, bringing together the Anglophone trans-Atlantic African communities. African intellectuals and leaders from the Caribbean and the US would continue to play an important role in the movement well into the 1950s as the names of WEB du Bois, Paul Robeson and Alpheus Hunton from the US; and those of George Padmore and CLR James from the Caribbean testify.

Civil rights for African-Americans and the end of apartheid are probably the pan-African movement’s most significant achievements. Five decades after The March on Washington, the US’s first African-American president was re-elected with a convincing majority. A week that commenced with victory for Barack Obama was concluded with laurels for Mbeki. Congratulations Zizi! You have done us proud.

• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.