Missing Mbeki; fearing Zuma. A prediction from 2008

Published in Business Day on 19 May 2008 under the title, ‘Lovable Zuma may be harder to keep from perpetual power’. Anthony Butler

When former President Nelson Mandela last week praised the new African National Congress (ANC) leadership at a ceremonial to mark his acceptance of the Freedom of the City of Tshwane, he may have been speaking from a sense of personal regret.

Mandela, after all, chose Thabo Mbeki to be his deputy president. He then set precedents, such as the neglect of HIV/AIDS, informal schmoozing with business people, and the cultivation of a personality cult, that prefigured some of the worst aspects of his successor’s rule.

By the time Mandela realised Mbeki’s limitations it was too late to stop him. OR Tambo’s determined protégé quickly fused, and so multiplied, the powers of the offices of state and ANC president.

It is not an easy time to reflect on lessons to be learned from President Thabo Mbeki’s rise and fall because a chorus of his former praise-singers are noisily blaming him for each and every ill that afflicts the region. Nevertheless, it is only prudent to consider the potential dangers posed by his most likely successor, Jacob Zuma, a man inexplicably buoyed by an airy and inappropriate optimism.

It is comforting for some to attribute all of SA’s ills to the person and personality of Thabo Mbeki, and to suppose that once he has departed a great cloud will be lifted. However, three major weaknesses undermine this rosy scenario.

First, Mbeki possessed certain valuable capabilities that will be greatly missed when they are gone. He was willing to shoulder the immense unpopularity that came with championing economic stabilisation, and he fiercely protected his finance minister’s right to take controversial decisions.

He resisted blackmail by special interests in the trade union movement and big business, and he astutely ignored the South African Communist Party’s empty threat to throw itself on the mercy of the electorate. He refused to humour white denialists about their culpability for apartheid, and he rejected the easy pretence that race does not matter any more. In all these respects, Mbeki’s replacements already show a tendency to find and then to follow the paths of least resistance.

Second, the practical problems that destroyed Mbeki have not gone away. The social environment has worsened dramatically as a result of the maturing HIV/AIDS epidemic which will very soon leave a million – and then two million — South Africans in need of anti-retroviral drugs. Obstacles to sustainable and universal ARV provision remain deeply entrenched and there is little reason to hope that more rational leadership can turn around this deepening crisis.

Service delivery shortfalls will continue to grow, in part because the low-hanging fruit of the Mbeki era have already been picked. Only hard cases now remain in areas such land reform, household services, and the education system. There will also be a Polokwane payback period which will divert energies and involve a costly rotation of snouts at the provincial procurement trough.

Third, the uniquely favourable economic environment Thabo Mbeki enjoyed for a full decade is over, and inequality, poverty and unemployment can be expected to maintain their hold.

The successor will endure continued political turbulence and he may be forced to respond to it in very much the same way as Mbeki. Centralisation in Luthuli House had the primary functions of controlling factionalism, neutralising ethnic and racial entrepreneurs, regulating the worst extremes of corruption and patronage, and maintaining the liberation movement as a professional electoral machine. The stifling of debate, imposition of office-holders, and insulation of leaders from competition were mostly unintended side-effects of this well-meaning – and perhaps necessary — process of central control.

The new ANC leadership has emphasised that collective decision making will replace Mbeki’s factionalist power monopoly. The National Executive Committee’s array of redoubtable sub-committee chairs, and a secretary general now armed with a policy institute, will supposedly keep a rein on the state president and control appointment and deployment processes.

Such hopes fly in the face of history. Once Jacob Zuma is entrenched in the Union Buildings, with a landslide election victory behind him, he is certain to expand his authority rapidly. Even the leaden-footed and unsympathetic Mbeki was able to accumulate powers relentlessly and to sideline rivals and antagonists using the instruments of state power.

Patronage and political intelligence, once injected with the emotions of sycophancy and fear that a president excites, propelled even Mbeki dangerously close to perpetual power. How much harder will it be to contain the ambitions of the loveable, resilient and quick-footed Jacob Zuma?


Butler teaches public policy at UCT

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