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Thabo Mbeki

© flickr user worldeconomicforum under a CC license. World Economic Forum / Eric Miller,

There was general agreement in South Africa that May’s ugly attacks against desperately poor foreigners in Johannesburg and elsewhere marked a low point in that country’s post-apartheid history. Fifty lives were lost and an estimated 50,000 foreigners forced to flee the country. It also marked yet another low point in the dismal 13-year-long presidency of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki distinguished himself by his lack of response – flying off from a bankers’ meeting in Mozambique to an African heads of state confab in Tanzania, while foreign-owned shacks and shops went up in flames. He finally managed a statement of regret although, unlike his political rival Jacob Zuma, he never did get around to visiting the affected communities. South Africans were enraged by the behaviour of their increasingly remote and out-of-touch President.

Nelson Mandela was always going to be a hard act to follow as President of South Africa. He combined a sharp political mind with a sense of higher purpose. His warmth and humanity almost always shone through. Years of imprisonment on Robben Island had failed to make him bitter. Thabo Mbeki did, however, at first seem like a good bet as Mandela’s successor. He was sober and dignified, with sterling academic credentials from Britain’s University of Sussex. Mbeki came from a longtime African National Congress (ANC) family and was part of the generation of political leaders that had passed a good deal of time outside South Africa during the darkest days of apartheid. While he lacked Mandela’s popularity, many felt he was the right pair of hands to guide the country from the euphoric days of liberation to making South Africa a functioning democracy on a day-to-day basis.

But the storm clouds started to gather early. Despite consistent economic growth, the Mbeki Government did little to address the gap between wealth and poverty that was the core inheritance of white domination. Mbeki and his inner circle instead counted on the emergence of a black middle class to change the dynamics of race polarization in South Africa. The ANC deal with the South African business community to end apartheid but leave business interests untouched proved an increasingly serious obstacle in the way of social progress. It did, however, fit neatly with the neoliberal programme of privatization and fiscal prudence that Mbeki’s policy inclinations favoured.

The results aren’t pretty – poverty levels at 45 to 50 per cent of the population, one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world, a shrinking manufacturing sector and a population squeezed by escalating food prices and ruinous interest-rate rises. South Africans have not taken any of this lying down – social movements to defend water rights and prevent electricity cut-offs by private utility companies have, for example, become commonplace.

Oddly, while Mbeki has failed to challenge whites’ structural economic domination (whites still control 98 per cent of the Johannesburg stock exchange), he has proved unusually sensitive to other slights to African integrity. His paranoid style is particularly attuned to discovering white racism behind the HIV crisis or behind any criticism of his old comrade-in-arms, Robert Mugabe. This has led Mbeki into some odd positions: a quasi-denial of the existence of AIDS while millions of (mostly black) people die of the disease; and a refusal to break publicly with Mugabe while thousands of (again mostly black) Zimbabweans are brutally suppressed.

He has criticized the preoccupation with crime (currently 50 murders a day) as ‘exaggerated’ and characterized the views of anti-rape activist Charlene Smith as racist – ‘a view which defines the African people as barbaric savages’. Such positions do extreme disservice to Mbeki’s vision of an African Renaissance free of the legacy of colonial subordination. Conspiracies and unfair press there may be, but an equitable development path would do far more for the continent than tilting at dubious windmills.

Mbeki has maintained a highly centralized administration and has sought to suppress criticism when it came too close to home. He fired the director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli for trying to arrest South Africa’s police chief Jackie Selebi (then head of Interpol and a close ally of Mkebi) for destroying evidence in a murder investigation and having links to figures in organized crime. He has stood by the country’s disgraced health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, best known for advising those with HIV to eat garlic and beetroot but also convicted of stealing the property of hospital patients in Botswana.

Although Mbeki may not be worried about crime, his controversial retirement home (which cost three million dollars to construct) in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton has been fitted with almost $500,000 worth of security features at public expense. No breaking and entering here. Many South Africans feel the massive walls surrounding the house make it an appropriate place for their remote and publicity-shy President to spend his declining years.

In his balanced biography, The Dream Deferred, Mark Gevisser observes that Mbeki ‘knew that because people would never love him the way they did Madiba [Mandela], they would need to respect him, even if it meant fearing him’. But respect needs to be earned and fear can turn very quickly to hatred. Last December’s ANC conference, where 4,000 delegates threw out Mbeki as party leader (and next presidential candidate) in favour of his rival, the militant and controversial Jacob Zuma, proved just how easily this could happen. The democratic stirring in the ANC indicates that an increasing number of South Africans are unwilling to defer the dreams of the anti-apartheid movement for much longer. Thabo Mbeki’s tragedy is that he has become a roadblock in the road to liberation.