Thabo Mbeki is a moderate politician but he has become defined by extreme positions on Zimbabwe, Aids and internal party dissentby Tom De Castella / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC by William Mervin Gumede (Zebra Press, £16.99)
Thabo Mbeki the enigma has become a cliché. But so far there have been few attempts to fathom the man who in 1999 was given the impossible task of replacing Nelson Mandela. William Gumede’s unauthorised biography is therefore to be prized. It is not only a long overdue study of a major world leader, but a detective story that tries to unravel the Mbeki paradox—the moderate who admires European social democrats like Tony Blair and Göran Persson but who has become defined by extreme positions on Zimbabwe, Aids and internal party dissent.
Internationally, Zimbabwe has become Mbeki’s millstone. With western leaders reluctant to be cast in the role of neocolonialists, South Africa and Mbeki became the conduit for change. George W Bush, during his first state visit to South Africa, declared Mbeki his “point man” on Zimbabwe. But Mbeki’s leadership and public statements on his northern neighbour have led to bemusement and anger in Zimbabwe itself. Mbeki has refused to attack Mugabe, and recently said the country’s huge debts were a consequence of generous spending on social services. And yet, Gumede argues, behind the scenes Mbeki has been as frustrated as others by the Zimbabwean dictator.
So why has the leader of southern Africa’s only superpower been so timid? The first clue Gumede presents is Mbeki’s reaction to the brutal farm invasions choreographed by Mugabe: “This is another Abacha,” he told colleagues. He was referring to one of the first diplomatic challenges to face the newly installed ANC government, when in 1995 Nigeria announced that the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was to be executed. Mandela sent Mbeki, his deputy, to persuade the Nigerian military leader Sani Abacha to spare him. But Abacha accused the South Africans of being puppets of the west, and Saro-Wiwa was killed. Later Mbeki was to say that the Saro-Wiwa execution “highlighted the potential limits of our influence as an individual country… and the need to act in concert with others and to forge strategic alliances.” Nevertheless, the difference between faraway Nigeria, boasting a population of at least 115m, and neighbouring Zimbabwe, with 12m, suggests that Mbeki may have been over-cautious.
Mbeki has shied away from applying economic pressure to the Mugabe regime, such as cutting fuel and electricity supplies. Even in the wake of Mugabe’s recent “clean-up” operation, in which hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers were made homeless, South Africa contemplated lending its neighbour hundreds of millions of dollars to help it stave off expulsion from the IMF. (Mugabe turned down the offer, angrily rejecting the reform conditions that came with it.) Mbeki’s finance minister, Trevor Manuel, recently gave an insight into his president’s thinking, saying: “The worst thing we can have is a failed state… on our borders.” And yet with several million Zimbabweans having crossed the Limpopo in the last few years to escape hunger and repression, this argument seems to have been overtaken by events.
Fear of regional meltdown was probably the answer to another mystery: why Mbeki chose to ignore Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC party, despite, as most observers believe, its “victories” in two rigged elections in 2002 and 2005. Mbeki feared that an MDC victory would foment a military coup, which in turn would lead to regional chaos. Gumede points out that Mbeki never forgave the MDC for approaching the mainly white South African opposition Democratic Alliance for support. Others have gone further, suggesting that Mbeki was warned by South African intelligence that if the MDC’s coalition of business and labour succeeded in unseating a “liberation movement” like Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, the same fate could befall the ANC at home. In any case, Mbeki made a fatal decision to back the young Turks within Zanu-PF rather than support the growing democracy movement. With most of the pretenders up to their necks in corruption and intimidation, it was a distasteful strategy. It has also proved ineffective. Since Gumede’s book went to press, Mugabe, seemingly always one step ahead, has banished his heir presumptive Emmerson Mnangagwa to a minor post. Meanwhile, the MDC has become fatally split over how to oppose Mugabe’s police state, worn down by six years of intimidation and South African antipathy. It leaves Zimbabwe’s 81-year-old despot stronger than ever. Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” was based on a false premise—that Mugabe craved international respectability more than absolute power.
The most intriguing aspect of Gumede’s book is the exploration of the parallels between Mbeki’s handling of Aids and Zimbabwe. The Aids debacle began in 1996 when a group of scientists at Pretoria University claimed to have found a cure for the pandemic. The drug, Virodene, was refused a licence by South Africa’s drug regulator, but Mbeki, who was busy devising a bold vision of “African renaissance” was won over. “In common with other black leaders of his generation,” writes Gumede, “Mbeki detests the stereotype of Africa holding out the begging bowl, and the notion that South Africa had beaten the international scientific community to the draw in finding an Aids cure was irresistible.” Mbeki accepted the scientists’ claims that the regulator had rejected the drug because of pressure from big international pharmaceutical firms, and agreed to fast-track Virodene. But when the South African Medical Research Council found the drug was highly toxic, he had to abandon his hope of an African cure to Aids.
Then, like a teenager on the rebound from a break-up, Mbeki stumbled across the website virusmyth.net and was soon embracing the scientific dissidents who denied the link between HIV and Aids. In April 2000 he wrote to Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan defending the dissident scientists and arguing that his foreign critics were waging a “campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism” similar to “the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed.” So purple was his prose and so extreme his position that White House officials initially thought the letter was a hoax. Most damaging of all was his government’s dogmatic refusal to provide anti-retrovirals to the population. Things turned to farce when Mbeki’s health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang advised people that they should ward off Aids with garlic, lemon, olive oil and African potato. Mbeki, for his part, came over as a man more interested in tackling racial stereotyping than dealing with the pandemic itself, attacking Aids campaigners for prejudice against black Africans: “They proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.” The government has now compromised on anti-retrovirals but there has been no apology from Mbeki himself.
Thus a pattern emerges of the South African president choosing an unorthodox political course, based on a highly theoretical argument that fails to match up with reality. When his position becomes untenable he goes into denial, stubbornly defending himself in ever more extreme language. Millions of people—the vast majority poor and black—are paying for Mbeki’s intransigence on Zimbabwe. Moreover, Mbeki’s brainchild, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, in which African good governance is rewarded with western investment, has been undermined by his inability to control the dictator across the Limpopo. An African enigma indeed.