Thabo Mbeki's strategy

The president's search for scapegoats is part of a shrewd strategy for political survival, writes Lawrence Schlemmer.

IN HIS ADDRESS to the South African Council of Business (Sacob) on October 24, President Mbeki finally gave the business community and the markets the reassurance that they have been waiting for since the farm invasions in Zimbabwe began in late February. Land redistribution in South Africa will occur within the law, he stated. The president was endorsing what Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni had felt compelled to say two weeks earlier when the Rand fell following deputy president Jacob Zuma's sympathetic remarks about land reform policy in Zimbabwe.

One's first reaction to the president's Sacob speech is appreciation that he has recommitted his government to pursue its land redistribution programme with respect for property rights and the principle of compensation. Land and agriculture minister Thoko Didiza had at times appeared to use the Zimbabwe land issue to warn South Africa's commercial farmers that the willing-seller, willing-buyer principle would not necessarily always apply in dealings over land redistribution.

But the relief in the marketplace has discouraged the exceedingly cautious business and agricultural establishments from asking the obvious question - why did it take so long for Mbeki to issue what should have been a simple reassurance founded on the principles embodied in the new Constitution? The answer is, I believe, bound up with the president's overall strategy for his government and his party.

Hardly a week goes by without negative commentary on Mbeki's latest statement or policy stance: whether on Zimbabwe, international drug companies, conspiracy theories involving the CIA, playing the race card against the white Opposition parties, or his unconventional views on HIV/Aids. The press that Mbeki has been getting is dramatically at odds with the almost seamless political correctness of most of South Africa's prominent newspapers.

Their basic criticisms are both understandable and correct. South Africa cannot afford the luxury of complex debate about what causes Aids when the HIV infection rate is growing daily. The government cannot afford to allow its neighbour - and largest trading partner on the continent - to commit economic suicide. Nor can South Africa's head of state be perceived to be remotely sympathetic to the self-seeking and manipulative rule that has all but destroyed investor confidence in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Attacks on the drug companies ignore the realities of globalisation, while the renewed obsession with race will carry a heavy price, just as it did in the past.

The weakness of most commentary on Mbeki's alleged idiosyncratic behaviour is not that it exaggerates the consequences of that behaviour but that so few writers have considered the motives that lie behind it. Many of their conclusions are prefaced with polite references to Mbeki's intellect, but they do not go on to ask why so obviously intelligent a man should behave in the way he does. Dubbing him the "Velcro president" to whom any mistake sticks may be catchy but explains nothing. Between the lines they imply that the president is "weird", over-stressed or worse.

The editor of Focus, R.W. Johnson, is one of the exceptions. Writing in the British weekly The Spectator (August 26), he risked the historical fate of messengers when he not only pointed out what influential opinion-formers abroad were saying, but also offered four possible explanations for Mbeki's "problem". One is that he is vulnerable to attack from the left and uses "Africanism" as a shield. Another is that the manipulative character of all exile politics has left him uncomfortable with opposition criticism in a democracy. The third is that he is over-stressed by the difficulties he faces in living up to the expectations of his constituency in a limping economy and the fourth is that he feels he has to play the race card to justify setbacks in delivery.

The last explanation suggests a shrewd anticipation of real challenges ahead and is worth further exploration. By emphasising the struggle against racism and accusing his white political opponents of being racist, Mbeki is preparing the rationale for actions that may be needed to defend his own position and the hegemony of his party. He is drawing the lines in the sand for a battle of survival. He will not have missed the early warning signs.

The latest Idasa national opinion poll conducted by Research Surveys suggests a dramatic fall in Mbeki's popularity from around 70 per cent early in the year to 50 per cent in October. It also records rising levels of dissatisfaction with government performance and a fall in identification with the ANC among the mass electorate. At the same time, however, voters say they support the ANC at much the same level as in the past. This survey, which was limited to metropolitan areas, may be overstating a trend. (If "quota" sampling was used the results may over-represent the more articulate people in each category.) However other surveys by Markinor and MarkData confirm the Idasa findings.

The latest Markinor poll shows the same pattern - high levels of dissatisfaction with delivery of services but, at the same time, high levels of support for the ANC. Recent MarkData surveys show that overall support for the ANC, both committed and nominal, has been increasing in recent months. In November 1993, just before the first open election, the ANC was the choice of 54 per cent of all South African voters. This fell slightly to around 52 per cent in late 1999, but rose to 59 per cent - the highest level yet - by June/July this year.

We are seeing an increasing disjunction, or strain, between party support, on the one hand, and the popularity of and commitment to the party and the president on the other. Support for the ANC and frustrations over its performance in government are peaking simultaneously.

This is not as odd as it may look. It is over-simple to assume that political parties are supported only because of the benefits that they achieve for their constituencies. A party may also be supported on ethnic, ideological, habitual, symbolic and historical grounds. The ANC's efforts to label the largest Opposition parties as "racist" may be succeeding in bolstering the support base of the ANC by erecting a symbolic barrier between parties. While the Democratic and New National Parties, now merged as the Democratic Alliance (DA), have a non-racial ticket, the accusations of racism against them may have aroused sufficient doubt in the minds of black voters to block any potential shift of black support towards the DA at this stage.

Voting behaviour is often a reconciliation of material satisfaction and the other factors that bind voters to a party. Voters can temper their dissatisfactions with hope and the expectation that their circumstances will improve. A 1997 study by the Human Sciences Research Council in KwaZulu-Natal made it clear that where delivery of services was perceived as poor, the rank-and-file citizens compensated by expressing high levels of hope for future improvement. In other words, a political party that is not meeting immediate expectations can take out a political "overdraft" by making promises and keeping hope alive.
But living on the political credit of hope and promises is inevitably a temporary strategy. Hope unfulfilled eventually turns into apathy or cynicism. The rise in dissatisfaction that the Idasa poll reflects could be the first stage in a gradual weakening of electoral support for the ANC. The gap between tangible rewards and the other bases of party support widens and eventually the strands of commitment that hold the support base together begin to snap. Only then will the voters begin to consider other parties.

It is thus too early to expect the Opposition to benefit from rising popular dissatisfaction. What will happen first, as in Zimbabwe some ten years after independence, is that the motivation of ANC supporters to cast their vote will decline. Lower turnouts at election time will be the early warning of an eventual shift in support. Focus went to press before the results of the December 5 local government elections were available, but the turnout figures will indicate whether this process has begun.

The ANC does its own research and must be well aware of the dangers. But its political overdraft can still be extended for a while. Given the size of the party's majority, the ANC and the government probably have five to ten years' grace. However, in much of Africa losing majority support usually means losing all influence for a long time, and a mere five or more years of grace is scant comfort. As a consummate strategist Mbeki knows he has to address that long-range challenge without delay.

As an economist he knows that, in the short-term, the country is unlikely to achieve the economic growth rates which would deliver significantly more jobs and larger tax revenues. The benefits of greater international competitiveness and improved export performance are possible medium-term rewards, but their effects will take time to filter down to the ANC's constituency. By then unemployment and Aids-related damage to the economy could be irreversible. Furthermore, Mbeki's problems with organised labour are chronic and the capacity of the state machinery to plan and implement programmes of service implementation will get worse before they eventually get better. Turning round the dismal records on crime and educational output will also take at least ten years.
Mbeki's strategy is to deflect attention from delivery and establish alternative criteria by which the success of his administration should be judged. He will not be the first or last politician to realise that he needs scapegoats to denounce at rallies and take the blame for his own failures. Nelson Mandela's benign vision of reconciliation will not do for this purpose. The former president left his successor without a source of effective scapegoats and as a result Mbeki may have felt that he had no alternative but to engineer - with the help of the Human Rights Commission - the crisis of racism. The racism that is alleged to exist is not merely the inevitable residue of the crude and direct discrimination of the past, which is serious but limited in scope. It is presented as a pervasive web of institutional, structural and even subliminal attitudes that is defined by the victims and therefore cannot be disproved.

In this vision the victims - of apartheid, colonialism or exploitation - are absolutely distinct from the beneficiaries of the apartheid state. While no one can deny that there were victims of apartheid and that many of the baneful consequences of former policies are still present, it is a nevertheless a complex field of cause and effect. Some former Bantu education schools barely achieve 10 per cent matriculation pass rates while others that suffered the same historical disadvantages excel with pass rates of nearly 100 per cent. Historical disadvantage can be an excuse for lack of discipline and opportunism, but such complexities have been glossed over in absolute, and by now "official", distinction between former victims and beneficiaries of apartheid.

This basic moral distinction is used to justify the entire edifice of transformation and empowerment policy. The most politically incorrect thing that anyone can do is to blame the disadvantaged classes for any aspect of their condition or to question their virtue in their suffering. In general this distinction has been accepted by the corporate sector, albeit hypocritically, and by Western aid donors. For strategic purposes the principle of virtuous and deserving "victims" is precious - a political resource of almost limitless possibilities.

The only issue that fails to fit the framework is HIV/Aids. While few people would say so publicly, at base the epidemic is driven by sexual behaviour hardly congruent with the image of the "victim". The many women who are infected as a result of sexual abuse and rape are certainly victims, but for others its consequences are rather more self-inflicted. Well-intentioned liberals and social democrats abroad are brimful of sympathy for the victims of the former apartheid system, but are distinctly uneasy about HIV/Aids. Aside from its appalling consequences, the disease suggests a population that has lost control of itself, which can easily tarnish the image of the "deserving society" that the government wants to project. Any good politician knows intuitively that the image of his constituency is paramount. HIV/Aids is a dire threat to South Africa's image, both as an investment and tourist destination. Aids is an issue of acute embarrassment in circles that count. Something had to be done to limit the damage.

At great cost to his own reputation Mbeki acted, and acted decisively. He blamed Aids on poverty and on the debilitating effect of other poverty-related diseases in Africa. His general strategy is to cultivate moral leverage on the rich nations, in search of debt relief and increased financial aid. If Aids is primarily a consequence of poverty then western and white people's greed can be blamed for the epidemic.

The strategy was at least understandable and consistent with Mbeki's general approach to development in Africa. The real problem was the way he chose to do it. His espousal of the flawed hypotheses of maverick scientists was a public relations disaster. Had he relied on (or been able to rely on) subtle and highly skilled propagandists, he could have pulled it off. A carefully crafted theory of how deep poverty and hopelessness causes self-destructive hedonistic tendencies, coupled with claims of the destruction of African family authority by apartheid, could have won the day among sympathetic audiences. For some reason to be found in the dynamics of the president's office, the opportunity was missed.

In the wake of this misjudgement some of his other strategies have received a rather more hostile reception than they would otherwise have done. Mbeki may, however, recover from these setbacks and resume the programme of shifting the blame for setbacks in the effectiveness of his administration onto forces of victimisation. He may even extend the ANC's political "overdraft". Hence Mbeki is not "weird" - from the point of view of his party and his challenges, he is remarkably far-sighted.

But if the government survives on this basis the consequences could be dire. His supporters will increasingly believe him and blame white racists, white farmers, white business and the rich countries for their woes. Pressure will be successfully deflected from the performance of his own administration but at the cost of alienating limited sources of technical and managerial skill and domestic and foreign investment. At worst, if Mbeki sticks to his strategy of emphasising and exploiting "race victimisation" rather than reconciliation, he could risk what investors here and abroad fear most - a racial conflagration. In which case his political overdraft will most certainly break the bank.