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Analyst Warns Mbeki Exit could Weaken Democracy in South Africa


Analysts are expressing concern over the situation in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki has formally offered his resignation. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) pressured Mr. Mbeki to step down before his second term ends next year. This follows a judge’s suggestion that the president may have interfered in a corruption investigation to ensure the prosecution of ANC leader Jacob Zuma, a political foe of Mr. Mbeki.

“Shock” and “uncertainty” are just two of the words Professor Pieter Fourie uses when describing the current situation in South Africa, where citizens yesterday watched their president give a television address in which he announced he’d soon leave office.

Fourie, the author of a number of books on Mr. Mbeki and his policies, says such a momentous and unprecedented event in the country’s history has “understandably” given South Africans cause for concern about their future.

“Opposition parties, especially, are saying that Mbeki’s sacking…by his party has been a big mistake. Then again, some regular, normal South Africans on the street are saying that it’s a good thing and that the president had it coming,” says the head of the University of Johannesburg’s political science department.

He adds that the manner of Mr. Mbeki’s resignation – effectively being “forced” from office by the party he’s supported since boyhood – is indeed an ignominious end to Mr. Mbeki’s reign as the president of one of the most powerful countries in the developing world, with the continent’s largest economy.

Mr. Mbeki is praised for presiding over economic growth in South Africa but is accused by many South Africans of creating a new black economic elite and distancing himself from the country’s poor majority. Analysts say while the economy has undoubtedly grown under Mbeki, this growth hasn’t filtered down to the masses of people who continue to live in dilapidated shack-lands and struggle for daily survival.

Zuma is accused by state prosecutors of accepting numerous bribes from foreign companies in connection with an arms deal. Fourie says it’s important to remember that, as Zuma’s supporters revel in Mr. Mbeki’s fall from grace, that high court judge Chris Nicholson, who last Friday dismissed the corruption case against their hero, did so on a technicality and did not absolve Zuma. Nevertheless, says Fourie, it’s now increasingly likely that the ANC leader will escape prosecution for corruption and will eventually become South Africa’s next president.

Mr. Mbeki is in many respects the architect of his own demise, says the analyst.

He explains, “When Mr. Mbeki fired Zuma from his post as South Africa’s deputy president in 2005, after one of Zuma’s advisors was found guilty of soliciting bribes on his behalf, the president set the scene for deep political conflict and unwittingly created a precedent for his own removal from office.”

In now deciding to pressure Mr. Mbeki to go, he says, the ANC has “ironically” used the same argument against him that he used against Zuma three years ago.

“There was no legal case against Jacob Zuma; his financial advisor was simply accused and found guilty of fraud. And then Mbeki himself said it would be inappropriate for Zuma to stay on as deputy president. Now the Zuma camp (in the ANC) says that as the judge implicated Mbeki in political conspiracies…it is now inappropriate for Mbeki to remain as president of the country.”

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu has criticized such “tit-for-tat” and “retributive” politics.

However, Fourie is convinced that “we should look to Mbeki and the flaws of the man himself” when analyzing the present situation in South Africa.

“We had in Mbeki a supposedly intellectually brilliant leader, but someone who came to be completely out of touch with people – not only in the rest of the country, but throughout his ruling party. He has been accused of being intellectually conceited and so self-assured that he expects the people to trust him implicitly (no matter what). In the process, he lost contact with grassroots support.”

Fourie says there’s evidence of this in a “series of denialist (sic) tendencies” that Mr. Mbeki has demonstrated.

The South African president has been widely condemned for disagreeing with mainstream scientific opinion that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS. As a direct result of this conviction, the president’s policies denied anti-retroviral treatment to South Africans. Mr. Mbeki also employed a health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who advocated a diet consisting of fresh vegetables rather than anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV. AIDS activists have thus accused Mr. Mbeki of being responsible for the premature deaths of thousands of South Africans, by either denying them treatment or misinforming them about the possible benefits of certain medication.

Mr. Mbeki has also received international condemnation for his policy of “quiet diplomacy” as a way to deal with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and end the economic and political chaos in South Africa’s neighbor. Many say Mr. Mbeki’s alleged favoritism towards Mr. Mugabe has prolonged the suffering of Zimbabweans, despite optimism following the recent Mbeki-brokered power-sharing pact signed in Harare.

Fourie is convinced that it’s “naïve” and “disingenuous” to sell Zimbabwe’s recent power-sharing agreement as proof of Mr. Mbeki’s foreign policy success in the region, despite the fact that he has been lead mediator in the impasse for a number of years.

“The agreement has been touted by the Mbeki camp as an example of how quiet diplomacy has worked, but in reality what we saw was the outcome of a month-and-a-half on intense mediation by the lieutenants of Thabo Mbeki, and Mbeki simply swooping in to co-sign the deal.”

Fourie says the ANC is “smart” in deciding to continue deploying Mr. Mbeki to the ongoing negotiations in Harare, “because by all indications the deal is unraveling. There is no final agreement on the cabinet and senior political governance in Zimbabwe, and Mbeki will probably have to jump in there to try to save the situation.”

During his tenure, Mr. Mbeki also repeatedly denied the extreme severity of crime in South Africa.

All these factors, says Fourie, offered evidence that the president had “completely lost touch with reality.”

“He surrounded himself with ‘yes’ men and women, and he’s now paying the price for that failure.”

Fourie describes Mr. Mbeki’s ouster as a “great tragedy.”

“We had someone with so much promise ten years ago, who did a lot of good in stabilizing the (economy) in this country, someone who was a thinker, who came up with the idea of a continent-wide African Renaissance, which led to the (New Partnership for African Development). He did very good things in terms of the profile of the continent, was invited to (World Economic Forum) and G8 meetings, but who has become so…self-assured that his own conceitedness has led to his downfall.”

As for the immediate future, Fourie expects the ANC to be “magnanimous and to make sounds regarding national unity in order to assuage the local financial markets especially.”

Zuma has immediately set about assuring investors that South Africa’s economic policies will remain “stable, progressive and unchanged.” ANC sources have also named the party’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe – a close ally of Zuma’s but regarded by many analysts as a sensible choice – to replace Mr. Mbeki until elections next year, which Fourie says Zuma will likely win.

“Make no mistake, Mr. Mbeki’s ouster…. has now opened the road up for Jacob Zuma to take over.”

In terms of the legal position of Mr. Zuma, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) says it will appeal the judgment that dismissed the corruption case against Zuma. But Fourie says the NPA is “likely to be unsuccessful. There will be immense political pressure to drop the legal case.”