Exit Mbeki

Published : Oct 24, 2008 00:00 IST

Thabo Mbeki at a special Cabinet meeting in Pretoria on September 21, a day after his party asked him to step down as President. He resigned soon after.-ALEXANDER JOE/AFP

Thabo Mbeki at a special Cabinet meeting in Pretoria on September 21, a day after his party asked him to step down as President. He resigned soon after.-ALEXANDER JOE/AFP

Thabo Mbeki bows out after a court finds substance in charges of his trying to influence the case against ANC president Jacob Zuma.

IT was a sad way to go for a man who once devoted his life to the liberation struggle. Thabo Mbeki, fresh from his diplomatic triumph in Zimbabwe, was asked, within days, to resign as the President of South Africa by the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). The trigger was the ruling by a judge on September 12 that accusations against Mbeki, and some of his close associates in government, of unduly influencing the prosecution in the case against Jacob Zuma relating to corruption and fraud were plausible. The court also ruled that the charges against Zuma, who is now the ANC president, were invalid because correct procedures were not followed. Judge Chris Nicholson said that the case had become a cancer that is devouring the body politic and the reputation for integrity built up so assiduously after the fall of apartheid.

Zumas supporters, who felt vindicated, immediately went for the jugular. Zuma, who replaced Mbeki as the ANC president earlier in the year, initially urged that the status quo be maintained and that Mbeki be allowed to complete his term, which ends in April 2009. But his statement that it would be a waste of energy to beat a dead snake was not helpful. After the acrimonious ANC meet in December 2007, in which Zuma defeated Mbeki for the party presidents post, the general impression was that Mbekis days in office were numbered. The influential ANC Youth Wing, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the trade union movement, Cosatu, had all acrimoniously parted ways with Mbeki.

Though lauded abroad for his management of the South African economy, described as the engine driving the African continent, Mbeki was criticised at home for his adherence to neoliberal policies influenced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In 1996, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel introduced the economic strategy of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR). The policy embraced open markets, privatisation and foreign direct investments. In the eyes of his critics, Mbeki, a former Communist Party member, had betrayed his ideology. Though the country experienced steady growth despite inheriting a bankrupt economy from the apartheid era, the high unemployment rate and the rising cost of living embittered the radical sections that the ANC depended on for votes. The ANC has a formal alliance with the SACP and Cosatu.

The SACP has been vociferous in its criticism of GEAR. In 1998, the partys Central Committee said that GEAR was a wrong policy for the country and was flawed in its overall strategic conception. At the end of the day, we cannot allow our entire transformation struggle to be held hostage by conservative approaches to the budget deficit, it said in a statement. In May this year, Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP, wrote that South Africas self-imposed structural adjustment programme, GEAR, failed to make a dent in unemployment and eroded the capacity to build a developmental state.

Mbeki, however, can legitimately claim credit for many diplomatic triumphs. The Zimbabwe power-sharing deal, which he clinched almost single-handedly during the last days of his presidency, is only one of his many achievements. He was the architect of the New Partnership for Africas Development (Nepad). He played a key role in mobilising the support of African leaders for this ambitious project aimed at the rejuvenation of Africa. His quiet diplomacy has helped many African countries, such as Congo, Ivory Coast and Burundi, achieve peace, albeit a fragile one. Under Mbeki, South Africa has been playing an important behind-the-scenes role to bring about lasting peace in Sudan. It was under Mbeki that South Africa extended recognition to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the only country in the African continent that remains occupied.

During his long years at the helm, first as Vice-President under Nelson Mandela, when he ran the day-to-day affairs of the state, and then as President, Mbeki made many enemies within the ANC. Among them were Cyril Ramaphosa, once touted as Mandelas successor, and Tokyo Sexwale, a former Governor of Gauteng province where the commercial capital, Johannesburg, is situated. In 2001, Mbekis Cabinet colleagues alleged that these two were involved in a plot to remove the President from office. Ramaphosa and Sexwale, as members of the ANC National Executive, are reported to have played an important role in Mbekis ouster. Mbeki had sacked Zuma as Vice-President in 2005 following allegations of corruption, accentuating the old rivalry between the two men.

In his resignation speech, Mbeki acknowledged some of his governments shortcomings. Stressing that he had been a loyal member of the ANC for 52 years, he said that South Africa needed to overcome the challenges posed by poverty, crime and corruption. Despite the economic advances we have made, I would be the first to say that even as we ensured consistent economic growth, the fruits of these positive results are still to be fully and equitably distributed among our people, hence the abject poverty we still find co-existing side by side with extraordinary opulence, he said. Among the gains made under his watch, Mbeki mentioned the empowerment of women, the choice of South Africa to host the Football World Cup in 2010, and the countrys longest period so far of sustained economic growth.

He also rebutted the inferences made by the judge on the Zuma trial. He said that neither he nor his government ever interfered with the functioning of the judiciary or the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which had filed charges against Zuma.

Some South African commentators have described the ANCs decision to recall a sitting President as regicide. Bishop Desmond Tutu, outspoken as usual, said that he feared that South Africa might become a banana republic if the ANC did not provide strong leadership in the wake of Mbekis sudden departure from the political scene. Zuma has appealed to South Africans not to panic and insisted that the current changes were nothing extraordinary.

The ANC Youth Wing, which played a key role in denying Mbeki a third consecutive term as ANC president and ensuring a thumping victory for Zuma at Polokwane, again played a crucial role in the dramatic events of September. The unspoken fear among the grassroots activists was that Mbeki would manipulate the levers of government in his remaining months in office to make the corruption charges against Zuma stick. The charges relate to a $5-billion arms deal with European companies. Zumas financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of trying to solicit a bribe from the French defence firm Thales. Shaik was also convicted of depositing 1.3 million rands with Zuma to further his business interests.

South Africans are deeply divided over the corruption scandal. The ANC rank and file are not convinced about the case against Zuma and feel that he is the victim of a smear campaign. Many in the ANC and the SACP accused Mbeki of duplicity even after his resignation. They were of the view that he did not bow out gracefully. More than half his Cabinet, including Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, resigned in solidarity with Mbeki. This was viewed as an orchestrated attempt to sow disunity in the government. An SACP statement said that Mbekis actions after deciding to resign betrays a reckless disregard for stability in our country and for the standing of South Africa internationally.

Kgalema Motlanthe, before being sworn in as the new President, was deputy leader of the ANC. He is known to be close to Zuma. Motlanthe, like Mbeki and Zuma, played an important role in the liberation struggle. He spent 10 years on Robben Island as a prisoner with Mandela and other legendary figures. He has been mandated by his party to ensure a smooth transition and project a united front until the elections in mid-2009. He is viewed as a caretaker President. There was speculation that Mbeki and his close associates might quit the ANC to form a new party. However, though many of Mbekis senior Cabinet colleagues resigned in solidarity with him, most of them were quick to rejoin the Cabinet after they were requested to do so by the newly appointed President. Only five die-hard Mbeki loyalists preferred to stay out.

Even the controversial Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been retained, but she was shifted from the Health Ministry to the Presidential Office. The Minister was criticised for being lukewarm about implementing HIV/AIDS policies. Mbeki himself had invited ridicule with his insistence that the AIDS pandemic was a creation of Western pharmaceutical companies trying to maximise their profits. Mbeki had advocated traditional and alternative healing practices to combat the AIDS scourge.

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