A critical appraisal of the Mbeki presidency

Thabo Mbeki has shown great skill in co-opting the emerging black elite and silencing critical voices.

Summary - Before Mbeki took office he was portrayed as a reflective, urbane, pragmatic and incorruptible leader who would promote reconciliation among all South Africa’s diverse interest groups. Since then, however, this rosy portrait has been superseded by the image of a president who is arrogant, hyper-sensitive to criticism and impatient with differing opinions, and who tends to centralise power and surround himself with sycophants. His call for an African renaissance proved to be a brilliant pre-emptive strategy in that it resulted in the co-opting and silencing of the emerging black elite who should have become the government’s critics. Not surprisingly, Mbeki’s government has lurched from crisis to crisis and failed to deliver on its promises. Its economic policy is a disaster: unemployment has soared, capital has taken flight and the masses remain in poverty while billions of rands are squandered on the arms deal. Anyone who dares to speak against government corruption and ineptitude is labelled as an enemy of transformation and of black people. If they are white, they are racist; if they are black, they must be lackeys of whites. It was in this context that Mandela broached the subject of Mbeki and a third term of office, stating that Mbeki would not change the constitution to benefit himself. However, many people fear that the president is considering doing precisely that. Their concerns are understandable. Africa has had its share of rulers who treat their people with contempt and proclaim themselves life presidents, particularly in countries where there is one dominant party. But there is another reason why Mbeki will consider a third term, and that is to postpone the day when he may be held accountable for the Aids deaths that have occurred because his government has refused to provide antiretroviral drugs. The South African Medical Association chairperson is just one of numerous critics who have accused the government of committing genocide. Mbeki is aware of this, and that is why he has declared that South African issues should not be resolved in foreign courts. He has good reason to change the constitution to allow himself a third term, and the ANC’s endorsement of the violence-driven elections in Zimbabwe are a warning of what could happen here if parliament fails to condone the subversion of democracy.

Had it not been for the subsequent tragic consequences, the making of Mbeki would have emerged as 'a laudable myth creation exercise'. Before assuming office, Mbeki was portrayed as just what South Africa needs - an anti-populist president. In him the country would have a philosopher-king; a studious and reflective scholar; a diplomat; a suave and urbane democrat and a incorruptible leader. He was seen as a reconciler and pragmatist able to appease and accommodate the communists, the Africanists as well as the high-flying capitalists.

Through his timely appeal to an African renaissance, he brought together an omnibus of aspiring black bourgeoisie, black capitalists, black lawyers, journalists, academics - the very group that could become the government's vocal critics. In hindsight this proved to be a brilliant pre-emptive strategy. Leading blacks sacrificed their political, moral and intellectual responsibility on the altar of racial solidarity.

Since taking office, the rosy portrait has given way to an image of a president with a propensity to accumulate and centralise power; a man who is prepared to sacrifice his comrades to realise his ambitions. Associated with this is an image of a president who is ultra-sensitive, unable to accommodate others and who is impatient with differing opinions. This is a president who is unable to accept that he could be mistaken, and conveniently surrounds himself with sycophants.

Not surprisingly, Mbeki's government has lurched from one crisis to the next. There was the arms deal investigation, the plot hatched against senior members of his party, the controversy around HIV/Aids, heightened tensions within the tripartite alliance highlighted by embarrassing anti-privatisation protests, the Treatment Action Campaign against government, the continued stand-off between government and the media, and so on.

A Sunday Times editorial on 6th January 2002 eloquently captures this widespread political and moral crisis:
"The past few years have seen the creeping in of those tendencies that make for bad governance: arrogance, disdain for 'the people', corruption and intolerance of dissent. Many ANC politicians, particularly at provincial and local level, have been more than eager to use their positions to benefit friends and, indirectly, themselves. There have also been instances of inexcusable inefficiency and ineptitude - funds left unspent, menial tasks left undone and simple laws and regulations unenforced. And the standard response from party members to criticism of these transgressions and failures has been to close ranks and label critics as opponents of transformation."

Mbeki has failed to deliver on his promises. It is four years since taking over the reins, and the masses remain in gripping poverty. So glaring is the failure that the government has been reduced to a company that parcels food to communities. His non-negotiable economic policy has become an economic disaster. More than a million jobs have been lost and unemployment continues to rise alarmingly. Capital has taken flight out of the country. The gap between the rich and poor has risen to threatening levels. As if that was not enough, Mbeki's government squanders tens of billions of rands on warships and warplanes. Instead of delivery, we are witnessing the uncontrolled wasting of limited resources.

Those who dare speak against corruption, centralisation of power and government ineptitude are labelled enemies of black people who cannot come to terms with the transformation of the country. If they are white, they are racist. If they are black they must be lackeys of whites.

It was within this context that Mandela decided to broach the subject of Mbeki and the third term of office. During his 85th birthday celebration, and with no apparent provocation, Mandela swore that Mbeki would not contemplate running for a third term as president of the country. "Not the Mbeki I know, he could not do that. He will not change the constitution in order to benefit himself. Whether I'm alive or gone, he will respect the Constitution".

Can Mandela's statement be believed? I think not. For one, in recommending Mbeki for presidency of the ANC and the country, Mandela could not have anticipated that a mere two years down the line, Mbeki would consort with the lunatic fringe of medical science, that Mbeki would treat medical world opinion on HIV/Aids with contempt. Surely Mandela was subtly echoing the sentiments, fears and concerns in the minds of many South Africans, black and white, within and outside the ruling party, and thereby trying to dissuade Mbeki from even thinking about a third term.

We needed someone of his moral and political standing to broach the subject. Mandela could not be accused of being the enemy of the ANC, or anti-revolutionary and anti-black government - epithets generously dished to those who dare question the presidency or the ruling party. Such is the lot of those who dare question the wisdom of the ruling party on policy matters.

Mbeki has not yet started his second term as president, yet fears abound that he might be privately considering a third term in office. There is perhaps no other statement that questions Mbeki's fitness to govern more clearly than this concern. Mbeki has assumed the mantle of ruler rather than that of a leader. As long as the ANC remains dominant, and for as long as Mbeki has an iron grip on the organization, he can afford to disregard the concerns of his countrymen. As a result society has become powerless. It is unable to call its leaders to account, itself a serious weakness in our body politic and the constitution.

It would appear the only recourse available for the ANC and society in general is an appeal to the courts to invoke the constitutional principle of a two-term president. Of course, the ANC will, if need be, use its majority to change the constitution.

In the context of our region, the concerns or rather fears are understandable. Africa has had its share of self-styled revolutionary leaders overstaying their welcome in office. The trappings of office, material benefits, and the lure of power has led to most African leaders thinking that they are God's chosen rulers. And so they start to treat their people with contempt. In the worst cases, they declare themselves life presidents. This is made easier in those countries where there is one dominant party. Obsessed with making a mark in history and bereft of ideas, the leaders resort to the construction of meaningless monuments and pursuance of unsustainable schemes and projects. These worrying signs abound in South Africa.

There is however another reason why Mbeki will consider a third term. Ironically, the imperatives of justice and accountability, of which he is a proponent through his championing of Nepad and participation in world fora, will sooner than later come to haunt him. In the court of world opinion he is already found guilty. Although putting a different spin on it, Baffour Ankomah (The Star, 20th November 2000) captures eloquently how Mbeki is presented in the international media. The descriptions include "the president who lets babies die in pain... The president who has declared himself a medical expert who understood his country's Aids epidemic better than global authorities" (Observer, 20th August 2000); "Mbeki is suffering from a gargantuan persecution complex" (The Times, 23rd August 2000); "Enemy of the people" (United Kindgom's Sunday Times, 27th August 2000).

Echoing similar sentiments, the City Press editorial (23rd December 2001) had this to say: "No amount of verbal gymnastics or sophistry to justify government's position can take away the simple fact that refusal to provide [anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women] is ill informed and ultimately callous. What voices must speak before president Thabo Mbeki retreats from this obvious madness? Young children are being condemned to early deaths by a leader and government which claim to care for the poorest of the poor. How many thousands of graves must be dug before our own Pharaoh can be made to realise that this is too much? It is apparent that the government's refusal to provide these drugs is not based on scientific reasons but purely on the whims of a president whose ego has been bruised and who refuses to accept that his views on HIV/Aids are wrong."

Perhaps more chilling is the description by the South African Medical Association chairperson regarding Mbeki's policy on HIV/Aids. He writes: "South Africa is the only country in the world that does not have a policy for the treatment of HIV/Aids. As such, millions of South Africans are dying from a disease for which there is treatment, albeit not a cure. Consequently, South Africa's government, medical profession and society are effectively part of a system that is committing genocide… The death tolls of South Africans in both world wars and the armed struggle against apartheid pale in comparison to the numbers of those killed by the deadly disease."

Former Medical Research Council president Malegapuru Makgoba concurs: "History may judge us, the present Africans, to have collaborated in the greatest genocide of our time by the types of choices political or scientific we make in relation to this HIV/Aids epidemic."

With the epidemic having entered the death phase by the time Mbeki's second term draws to a close, millions of lives will have been lost. It is for this reason that he would do everything possible to escape the judgment of history. Already calls have been made that he be charged in the International Criminal Court for genocide.

Mbeki is alive to this reality. Hence his calls that South African issues should not be resolved in foreign courts. He has laid the firm foundation to ensure that he does not suffer the same fate as former presidents who are being hauled before the courts. Mbeki has good reason to change the constitution to suit him. While agreeing with some of the points of his address to the Africa Conference on Elections, Democracy and Governance, one notes the ominous caveat;
"Great Britain does not limit the period which a person may hold the position of Prime Minister, to say nothing about the hereditary position of Head of State… I have never heard of international observers verifying whether any British election was free and fair".

He has at his disposal control of the state repressive apparatus through having control of the appointments. It is also not surprising that the ANC leadership, which he controls, has opposed a more accountable electoral model proposed by a committee headed by Dr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert - a mixture of constituency-based and party list models. This ensures that the ANC MPs remain subservient to his plans.

He could attempt to exploit greed and the lack of integrity of most members of the ANC and thus subvert democracy through parliament. The alliance with the NNP would be necessary in this regard. The ANC's endorsement of the violence-driven elections in Zimbabwe should sound a warning of what might happen should parliament fail to fulfil its duty and condone the subversion of democracy.