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Thabo Mbeki

Following the world's favourite politician will not be easy. But with South Africa's problems mounting and the "African Renaissance" stalled, can Mbeki step out of Mandela's shadow?

By Victor Mallet   May 1999

Nelson Mandela, the 80-year-old hero of South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, is the hardest act to follow since Abraham Lincoln. But followed he must be: five years after he negotiated an end to white rule and led the African National Congress to victory in the country’s first non-racial election, Mandela-boxer, lawyer, Robben Island rock-breaker and political icon-is looking forward to a well-earned retirement with Gra?Machel, his third wife.

Fortunately for South Africa, Thabo Mbeki-the chosen successor-has been well-groomed for the tasks he will take on after the ANC wins the South African general election on 2nd June. He was born into a distinguished political family: his father, Govan Mbeki, was one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners, and Thabo has worked for the ANC for most of his life. He has also been the country’s de facto president in recent years, running day-to-day policy while Mandela promotes reconciliation at home and abroad.

Criticism of Mandela has been muted by his awesome achievement as a peacemaker. But the fact is that the ANC’s first administration has not been an unqualified success. Since those heady days in 1994, when blacks and whites were united in optimism and reconciliation, many blacks have for the first time been able to study, work and move freely in their own country. State organisations once servicing the needs of a few million whites have extended the supply of housing, electricity, clean water and telephones to previously deprived communities. But the economy is stagnant and unemployment is 30 per cent. Locked in an uneasy alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and Mbeki’s former party, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ANC has held to a policy of fiscal prudence while appeasing its left-wing partners with labour-friendly legislation, condemned as “inflexible” by domestic and foreign investors. Violent crime has increased, making Johannesburg the car-hijacking capital of the world, further discouraging investment and tipping the balance in favour of emigration for thousands of whites and Indians. (In November 1997, Mbeki’s 81-year-old mother was robbed by gunmen at the shop she has run since 1940 in the Eastern Cape.) Education, too, which should have been the ANC’s priority after years of student riots and absenteeism in the struggle against white rule, is a mess. The events shown in yizo yizo, a violent television drama set in a township school with a rapist headmaster and unmotivated teachers, are regarded as all too realistic by those working in education. The time needed to redress the inequalities of 350 years of white domination will evidently be measured in decades, not years.

The performance of the rest of Africa has also been a disappointment to Mbeki and the ANC during their first five years in power. Mbeki had hoped that South Africa would both contribute to and benefit from an “African Renaissance”-a flowering of democracy, economic growth and African self-confidence, as a new generation of less authoritarian politicians replaced the post-independence leaders. These hopes have been dashed in the past two years by a resurgence of war and instability.

Despite his reputation for secrecy, Mbeki has stated clearly how he believes his presidency will differ from Mandela’s. Mandela practised reconciliation between old enemies; Mbeki will concentrate on “transformation”-a more determined drive to right the wrongs of the past. The future president does not suggest that reconciliation should be abandoned; he knows he must walk a tightrope between those who say that the ANC is not doing enough for the “previously disadvantaged” (the official phrase for all groups other than whites) and those who accuse it of discriminating against whites. As far back as 1995, Mbeki reflected on this problem: “It’s an art, handling this relationship between reconciliation and transformation. It’s not a mathematical thing. It’s going to define South African politics for the next 15 years at least.” Real reconciliation has not happened. Most whites still live in white suburbs and have white friends (and black maids and gardeners); most blacks live in black townships and have black friends. So when Mbeki speaks of a country of “two nations”-one white and rich, the other black and poor-he is simply being honest. He also wins credit for plain-speaking-even among suspicious whites-for his statements on two of the country’s biggest problems: corruption, and what he calls a “culture of entitlement.”

The damage done by corruption throughout Africa is obvious enough. But this is a problem closer to home, too. The ANC’s reputation has been tarnished by the emergence of an overpaid elite, beneficiaries of the same state patronage enjoyed by their white predecessors. The gravy train is still running, says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it just stopped at the station to pick up new passengers. The second problem, people’s belief that they are entitled to something for nothing has a peculiarly South African history. During the anarchic, street-fighting years of the 1980s, black South Africans boycotted schools and refused to pay rents and electricity bills owed to the state. But the ANC in government now suffers from the strategy of non-cooperation which it employed to bring down apartheid. The habit of non-payment lingers in many areas, prompting Mbeki to lecture about how freedom requires responsibility.

As Mbeki pursues “transformation,” he knows that he has to accommodate white-owned business and white individuals who pay the taxes and have most of the skills. They cannot be expected to remain silent when they see wealthy black entrepreneurs evading tax and unqualified people taking jobs on the basis of colour. Meanwhile, black South Africans are demanding redistribution of resources on a large scale: they want land, civil service and private sector jobs, and the ownership of businesses large and small. They, too, must be catered for, and they make up three quarters of the electorate. It is Mbeki’s task to lead the country out of economic stagnation, criminal violence and cynicism, while meeting both sets of demands.

born in idutywa, Transkei on 18th June 1942, Thabo was one of four children of Xhosa-speaking ANC stalwarts, Govan and Epainette Mbeki. He won his political spurs in the ANC Youth League in the years before and after the ANC was outlawed in 1960, and was ordered by the organisation to go into exile in 1962. He then represented the ANC in London, Botswana, Swaziland, Nigeria and Zambia. Between postings, he took an MA in economics at Sussex University and underwent military training in the Soviet Union in 1970. He married Zanele Diamini in 1974, but his personal life has been marked by tragedy: his only son, Monwabisi, fathered during an earlier liaison when he was only 16, vanished after leaving the country in 1981. His brother, Jama, also disappeared in exile. None of this past shows. Mbeki’s calm demeanour and ever present pipe would suit the senior common room of an Oxbridge college. For years he quietly defended the legitimacy of the ANC’s armed struggle against white rule and pressed for the imposition of sanctions against the regime. Appointed to the ANC’s national executive in 1975, he climbed up the hierarchy, working first for the late Oliver Tambo, then taking over as head of the ANC’s international department. In his dealings with foreign governments he avoided the revolutionary jargon of his comrades and continued to believe that a negotiated settlement was possible. “Whenever the ANC put its foot in it, which was often, Thabo was on hand to extract it,” says one western diplomat.

He also played a key role in the talks which led to the transition to democracy. These talks began in a Zambian game park in 1985, where a delegation of South African businessmen, led by the Anglo-American Corporation’s Gavin Relly first talked directly with the ANC. To their surprise, the visitors concluded that Mbeki and his colleagues, including Chris Hani, the communist guerrilla leader, were people with whom they could do business. Further meetings followed in Britain, Senegal and elsewhere. More businessmen, academics, journalists, church leaders and pillars of the Afrikaner community, risked denunciation by the cantankerous PW Botha, then South African president, in order to meet leaders of the ANC, who were still demonised in the official media.

The figure almost always at the heart of the talks was Mbeki. A critical meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in 1987 showed him at his best. Many of the delegates were Afrikaners, and he won many hearts when he began his address in Afrikaans, with the words: “My name is Thabo Mbeki. I am an Afrikaner.” His ability to maintain his ANC credentials while accommodating white fears was a key factor in the whole process. On his return to South Africa after Mandela’s release in 1990, Mbeki’s main rivals for power within the ANC government-in-waiting were Hani-who was gunned down outside his house in 1993 by a right-wing assassin-and Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC secretary-general and former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose strikes in the 1980s helped to build up black self-confidence. As the ANC’s main negotiator in the talks to establish a new constitution, Ramaphosa seemed the most likely candidate for the deputy presidency. Yet it was Mbeki who was endorsed by the ANC Youth League when he made his successful bid for the chairmanship of the ANC in 1993. Ramaphosa then declined a cabinet post in the new government and said he would concentrate on strengthening the ANC. Later, he went into business and is now one of the country’s best-known “black empowerment” figures. He swears that he has no desire to return to politics, but his rivalry with Mbeki is well-known and few South Africans believe that he will not return to the fray if the opportunity arises.

One of the criticisms of Mbeki as a politician is that he appears more comfortable in boardrooms and international conferences than at political rallies. Quoting Yeats, Pliny and Shakespeare goes down well at the World Economic Forum, but has no resonance in the shanty towns where millions of ANC supporters still live. Even educated South Africans-desperate for action on crime, education and investment-are showing signs of fatigue with Mbeki’s uninspiring public persona. His wooden performance in a recent nationally televised speech, warning about the country’s serious Aids problem, became a national joke.

Mandela can make friends with anyone: white or black; one year old or 100 years old; Betsy Verwoerd, widow of the architect of apartheid, or Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader. Mbeki will never be able to do this, but his spin doctors are coaxing him into opening up as the election approaches. Perhaps they were alarmed by the findings of a recent opinion poll, which asked people which leaders they most disliked and distrusted: Mbeki was fourth with only Buthelezi, Eugene Terreblanche (the extreme right-winger) and FW de Klerk more unpopular. Since then Mbeki has taken to wearing T-shirts and going on walkabouts to talk with ordinary people about crime, democracy and the need to use condoms.

But how will he command the ANC’s second administration? Like Mandela, he has shown that he has no intention of being pushed around by the left. The bigger worry is that Mbeki will surround himself with yes-men, drawn mainly from the community of former exiles. Already there is talk of “an imperial presidency.” Robert Schrire, politics professor at the University of Cape Town, has predicted that Mbeki will choose a lightweight team who will pose no threat to his leadership. And Wilmot James, director of South Africa’s Institute for Democracy, attracted protests from Mbeki’s office after the leak of a fundraising letter which said that the new administration would “need closer and more demanding human rights monitoring.” It is true that Mbeki and his office are exceptionally sensitive to media criticism; the editors of South Africa’s robustly independent newspapers are understandably worried that their freedom will be curtailed.

Many South Africans also worry that the ANC will remain too dominant-it may even win two thirds of the vote in the coming election and thereby have the power to alter the constitution. Other parties are small and weak. The New National Party, a repackaged version of the party which imposed apartheid, has been the second biggest party and the official opposition since 1994, but its support is ebbing and some of its politicians have defected to the ANC or the Democratic Party (DP). The DP has mobilised the gatvol (“fed up”) feelings of many whites and may become the biggest opposition party, but is weakened by its limited appeal to other races. Chief Buthelezi’s mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party remains strong in KwaZulu-Natal, but it has little national appeal. And the multiracial United Democratic Movement of Bantu Holomisa (formerly of the ANC) and Roelf Meyer (formerly of the National Party) lacks money and clear policies.

In the long term, Cosatu and the SACP are likely to find their interests diverging from those of the ANC, and it is possible that the alliance will split into a moderate, economically conservative group around the ANC, and a rival left-wing party led by communist and trade union radicals. For the moment South African civil society is lively and undaunted, but the experience of the rest of Africa, where some ruling parties monopolised power for decades after independence, is at the back of every liberal’s mind. (At least the ANC has remained meticulously non-racial and non-tribal; future splits will not be on tribal lines.)

A more short-term concern is the quality of Mbeki’s political judgement. Over the past year he has taken positions which have baffled even his admirers. First, he publicly supported a supposed anti-Aids therapy called Virodene although doctors dismissed it as a quack cure and pointed out that its main ingredient was an industrial solvent. Second, he insisted that South Africa’s invasion of the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho was justified, in spite of the evidence that it was ill-conceived and poorly executed. Third, he backed the ANC’s bizarre last-minute court challenge to the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. The case was lost and the report published, but not before the challenge had ensured extensive international publicity for the short passages in the report criticising the ANC’s activities in exile, including the murder of dissidents. Mandela rebuked Mbeki. And Archbishop Tutu, the commission’s chairman, said: “I did not struggle against one tyranny in order to substitute it for another.”

tyranny, or at best incompetent leadership, still casts its shadow over most of sub-Saharan Africa, where it is hard to find a charismatic and democratically elected leader (other than Mandela) who can put Africa’s case in global forums. Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria? He has yet to prove himself. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda? There are too many doubts about his democratic credentials and his involvement in the war in the Congo. Others are too corrupt or their countries are too small and poor. And which economy is strong enough to pull the continent towards east Asian growth levels? It has to be South Africa and it has to be Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki is certainly not afraid of the African vision thing. His “I am an African” speech, delivered in Cape Town to welcome South Africa’s new constitution, was a passionate, if overblown, affirmation of all that is right about Africa and a condemnation of so much that has gone wrong. “I am an African,” Mbeki said. “I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades… My body has frozen in our frosts and in our latter-day snows. It has thawed in the warmth of our sunshine and melted in the heat of the midday sun. The crack and rumble of the summer thunders, lashed by startling lightning, have been causes both of trembling and of hope.” He went on to say that as an African he suffered the pains of conflict in Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Burundi and Algeria, and understood the shame of poverty. Mbeki concluded on an optimistic, “African Renaissance” note. “However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!” His argument-similar to the “black consciousness” or “Africanist” policies of the ANC’s political rivals-is that after centuries of colonialism, Africans need to recover their self-confidence, to throw off “the ton of lead” which has weighed down the African spirit. He sees a new generation of African leaders, many of them, like himself, educated abroad, rebuilding their countries without the burden of colonial-era inferiority complexes and at ease with free markets and globalisation.

But Mbeki’s optimism about the rest of Africa has been misplaced at worst, and premature at best. Angola today is back at war following the collapse of a pact between the regime and Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel Unita movement. And the confidence placed in Laurent Kabila, new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been betrayed. He has failed to introduce democracy or revive the economy, and rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda are fighting against an alliance of Congolese, Zimbabwean, Angolan and Namibian troops while South African diplomats try to arrange a ceasefire. Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries supposedly in the vanguard of the African Renaissance, are now fighting each other.

It is a decade since Africa apparently embraced democracy, inspired by the collapse of communism and cajoled by western donors. Military leaders and one-party civilian regimes from Ethiopia to Zambia succumbed to the fashion for multi-party elections. Since 1990, Mbeki noted seven years later, no less than 25 African countries had held democratic elections. Up to a point. Real democracy is struggling to take root in a continent lacking the institutions which underpin it: the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a competent civil service and a liberal middle class. “African leaders are becoming adept at holding elections that are just open enough not to incur sanctions by the international community,” says Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is too early to talk of democracy.” The Afro-pessimists-favourite targets for criticism by Mbeki-have been proved right and the Afro-optimists shown up as wishful thinkers.

The economic case for Renaissance is limited, too. Africa has embraced foreign investment, privatisation and stock exchanges. And after more than two decades of economic stagnation or decline, the rate of economic growth is finally outpacing the rate of population increase. “There are more grounds for optimism today than there have been for a long time,” says Tony Killick of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, “but the obstacles remain extremely large.” Even if real per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa continue to grow by 1 per cent a year, they will still be lower in 2006 than they were in 1974. The outbreak of a new round of wars is a further deterrent to investors and aid donors. Last year, aid in real terms was down by a quarter from 1990.

In a bitter speech in July last year, Mbeki pointed to the disasters in Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Guinea Bissau and Togo. Put yourselves in the shoes of television viewers in small-town America, he told his African audience, and the vision of a stable, democratic and famine-free continent seems risible. “The small village of Dead Man’s Creek, Mississippi, is laughing at the notion of an African Renaissance… They saw the African children with emaciated bodies… with aid agencies attending to them. And again they laughed and said the African politicians must be the best comedians in the world when they told us of an African Renaissance.”

Mbeki has openly confronted Africa’s failure, but offers no new insights into why Africa’s recovery efforts have brought few benefits, or how a truly democratic culture can be established on a continent dominated by ethnic and tribal allegiances. In recent weeks, he has acknowledged that it will be many years before the Renaissance becomes reality. “The idea that you can have the Renaissance in three, five or ten years is wrong,” he told Sunday World. “The European Renaissance lasted 200 years. During 100 of those years Europe was immersed in war.”

In the meantime he has some interesting ideas about exploiting South Africa’s unusual position as a “bridge” society between the developed and developing world. Mbeki wants to speak up on behalf of smaller countries, like South Africa, which are losing sovereignty to the global economy. “There must be a way for them to be compensated with a role in the global system of governance,” he said recently. South Africa is still essentially an underdeveloped country-dependent on the export of gold and other commodities (seldom have prices been lower) and on international investors (still nervous about emerging markets). But if the country does become a stable and prosperous democracy, it may be able to “bring together the interests and aspirations of the developing world and the technological and financial capacities of the developed world.”

The record in neighbouring countries with similar histories is discouraging. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, 75, has been in power since independence 20 years ago and shows no sign of giving up; his Zanu-PF has changed the constitution and clings to what has become a de facto one-party state. In Namibia, Sam Nujoma has used Swapo’s majority in parliament to change the constitution so that he can serve a third term as president.

Can South Africa be different? The ANC says that it wants a two-thirds majority in parliament in the June election, but denies that it wants to change the constitution which limits the president to two five-year terms. Will that be time enough for Mbeki, 56, intelligent, reserved, still a little insecure, to step out of Mandela’s shadow, start the transformation of his country and see his African Renaissance come closer? We will know the answer by 2009.

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