AT THE start of his recent series of "letters", former president Thabo Mbeki noted that, like former British prime minister Winston Churchill, he would try to write his own history so it could be kind to him.
Churchill was quoted as saying in 1948: "For my part, I consider that it will be much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself."
Though Churchill was undoubtedly a war hero, many in the global south still view him more as a reactionary, die-hard imperialist for whom the sun would never set on the British empire. Mbeki himself espoused this view as president, when he told the Sudanese parliament in January 2005 that Churchill was a vicious and prejudiced imperialist and Islamophobe who depicted Africans as belonging to an inferior race.
As Mbeki noted: "… when these eminent representatives of British colonialism were not in Sudan, they were in SA … doing terrible things wherever they went, justifying what they did by defining the native peoples of Africa as savages that had to be civilised, even against their will."
There are, in fact, similarities between Mbeki and Churchill. Both were born of aristocratic families, with Churchill’s hereditary and Mbeki’s political. Both were voracious readers from early childhood, though Churchill was not a particularly good student. Both had a distant relationship with their fathers. Both governed for nine years: Churchill took power at 65, Mbeki at 57.
Churchill was renowned for his support for European unity, advocating a "Council of Europe" and a "United States of Europe". Mbeki was a Pan-African who lived in African exile for two decades and, in power, was instrumental in building institutions such as the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.
Both men loved the English language and literature, with the war-mongering Churchill significantly winning the Nobel Prize for literature, rather than for peace, in 1953. Both delivered famous speeches, with Churchill’s "blood, toil, tears and sweat" and "their finest hour" speeches mirroring Mbeki’s "I am an African" and "two nations" — a concept borrowed from 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Both supported the building of public housing, with Churchill’s administration building 1.5-million houses and post-apartheid SA 2.3-million.
Churchill received honorary degrees from Harvard and McGill universities; Mbeki from the universities of Sussex and Addis Ababa.
Churchill had a college at the University of Cambridge named after him. The Thabo Mbeki Foundation and Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute both seek to immortalise the legacy of their patron.
While Churchill’s wife, Clementine, was educated at the Sorbonne, Mbeki’s spouse, Zanele, was educated at Wits University and the London School of Economics.
Both highly intelligent women were avid tennis players.
But there are also major differences between the two men. While Churchill was an arch-imperialist who notoriously described Mahatma Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir", Mbeki was an anti-imperialist and one of the most important leaders of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
While Churchill was rabidly anticommunist, the young Mbeki was an active Marxist who wore a pin of Vladimir Lenin on his lapel and later served as a member of the politburo of the South African Communist Party.
While Churchill warned of a Soviet "iron curtain" descending on Eastern Europe, Mbeki pragmatically courted both Soviet communism and Swedish social democracy. While the Sandhurst-trained Churchill was martial — fighting with the British army in India, Sudan and in the Anglo-Boer war — the Sussex-educated Mbeki was more an intellectual strategist and never served in the African National Congress’s military camps despite his Soviet military training.
Returning to the writing of history, while Churchill published a novel, two biographies, three volumes of memoirs — including on the Second World War — and several histories, the 73-year-old Mbeki has so far published three volumes of speeches, and his memoirs are still being eagerly awaited. He will struggle to define his own legacy without this autobiography.
However, despite their attempts to write their own history, all statesmen like Churchill and Mbeki can do is present their own subjective versions of history that can be set against other perspectives.
They cannot impose their own versions on the reading public. Trying to do so is an exercise as futile as King Canute trying to roll back the waves.
• Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg