First attend to faults at home

The president should attend to faults at home before promoting his Millennium Plan for Africa.

AT DAVOS, President Thabo Mbeki revealed the first instalment of his "Millennium Plan for Africa" - and we are told more is to follow. Already it is clear that the plan will encompass wide-ranging proposals for more aid and sweeping changes in the trade and investment regimes. More, undoubtedly, will follow. One hears repeatedly about the need for "a Marshall Plan for Africa". But the Marshall Plan was put into action after the terrible winter of 1947-48 when it was feared that, faced with another such winter, western Europe might succumb to communism unless it received massive and immediate US aid. None of these considerations applies to Africa in 2001.

There is a fallacious tendency to believe that "the fall of Africa" can be solved by resisting reality. After the commodity price collapse of 1974, the Group of 77 was formed to demand "a new international economic order". Essentially this came down to the notion that commodity prices - and thus the terms of trade - should be frozen at their record levels of 1973. Although the group has subsequently expanded to over 120 nations, it has got precisely nowhere. Today's cries that we must resist globalisation are equally foolish; as is the idea that the West can be shamed and pestered into pushing more resources into Africa.

The key point - it has been gospel at the IMF, the World Bank and among other donors for over a decade now - is that what is really wrong in Africa is bad governance: incompetence, corruption, oppression, a refusal to allow democratic alternation in power - and war. Understandably, donors and investors have become increasingly unwilling to put their money where they believe there is bad governance; where there is no rule of law, backed up by an independent judicial system and a transparent system of tendering and contract allocation. As the Asian crisis of 1997 showed, governance, even corporate governance and banking supervision, could be just as potent a factor in success or failure as economic fundamentals.

Mbeki would do well to review his government's performance through that prism. Currently the prize for the worst governance in Africa - despite keen competition - is clearly still held by Robert Mugabe. Mbeki's support of Mugabe thus sends signals not just about land, property rights and the rule of law, but about South Africa's tolerant, indeed supportive, attitude towards bad governance. The only possible reason for the government's signal failure to condemn the bombing of the Harare Daily News is that, despite Mugabe's protestations, Pretoria assumes that he is guilty and therefore remains silent in order not to appear to criticise him. This suggests that the government regards the bombing of newspapers as a minor peccadillo.

Zimbabwe is not the only worry. The truth is that the government is now beleaguered on almost every front. The health ministry is not coping with Aids or cholera; the transport ministry is not maintaining the roads; the justice ministry seems unable to make the criminal justice system work; the defence ministry has let the army fall into chaos; the finance ministry and central bank cannot maintain the value of the currency; home affairs cannot issue work permits to skilled foreigners; the education minister cannot make many of the universities work; the minister of public service and administration bemoans the declining levels of public service delivery; the minister for public enterprises seems unable to privatise anything; the communications minister has failed to liberalise telecommunications; the minister for trade has botched the lottery he has taken over, sending charities to the wall; the minister for minerals and energy is intent on pushing through a bill which threatens investment in minerals. The list could go on.

The president has vowed to root out corruption, but despite his extraordinary powers of intervention does not seem able to dismiss even quite publicly crooked local councillors from his party. In addition almost every public official connected with the arms purchase probe has proven that if the president's office pulls one way and the independence of their offices another, only a fool would expect them to be independent. South Africa, in other words, now has a serious governance problem. More and more, the ANC's decision to turn its back on real power-sharing looks like a critical strategic error. It needed - and still needs - far more help from outside its ranks than it has felt able to admit. Mbeki would be unlikely to acknowledge this, but his high-profile punting of plans for the whole continent at international gatherings are unlikely to get very far if this critical question of governance is not faced squarely. There is work to do at home.