End of an era

2007-12-12 00:00

There can be few instances in modern history where a leader with such a record of economic success as Thabo Mbeki has been ignominiously cast aside by his own party. Yet that appears to be the fate awaiting the president in Polokwane next week. The question is why?

Presiding over an economic boom is normally the surest ticket any politician can have for re-election. So why is President Mbeki heading for Polokwane as the underdog to Jacob Zuma?

His economic record is striking. When the ANC came to power in 1994 the country was close to bankruptcy. In the 13 years since then, Mbeki, first in the role of what was effectively a prime minister to the Nelson Mandela monarchy, then in his own right as president, has presided over an economic recovery that has turned South Africa into a leading emerging market.

We have undergone 36 successive quarters (nine years) of economic growth, the longest period of sustained growth in our history.

Our foreign exchange reserves, down to three weeks of imports in 1994, are now at record levels.

This year we produced a budget surplus for the first time.

For the first time, we have maintained single-digit inflation through a consumer-driven boom and a major oil price surge.

For the first time, we have been given a succession of strong credit rating upgrades by all the world’s leading rating agencies.

Yes, it is true that the growth has been largely jobless and that the new wealth has been unequally distributed, so that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever even though the divide is no longer strictly between white and black.

But even the poor are better off than before. Under the Mandela and Mbeki administrations the social welfare allocation has grown to nearly R17-billion, which at nine percent is the single biggest item on the national budget.

Some 2,3-million RDP houses have been built since 1994, while electricity and clean water have been brought to many millions living in shantytowns and rural areas — so that the quality of life for even the poorest of the poor is better.

This is not the record of a failed government or a failed leader. Why then the impending ouster?

Many reasons are being offered, most of them to do with the personality and style of President Mbeki. The great leadership struggle has been conspicuously short on any meaningful policy debate.

Mbeki’s biographer, Mark Gevisser, suggests that Mbeki has estranged ANC members because he has lost contact with his cultural roots; that, in Mbeki’s own phrase, he has become “disconnected” from clan and tradition and is therefore not seen to be fully a man of the people.

Others argue that he is too cerebral, an intellectual who is disengaged from realities on the ground. These critics point to his Aids denialism, his baffling public statements that he knows no one who has died of Aids and has never heard of the drug “tik” that is causing such devastation in the Western Cape townships, while even the strength of the Zuma challenge seems to have taken him unawares.

Then there are those who accuse Mbeki of concentrating too much power on himself, of appointing premiers and metro-council mayors whom the people don’t want and of treating his alliance partners with disdain.

Yet others go further and say he is manipulative and shows streaks of paranoia, regarding those who disagree with him or criticise him as “enemies” and using the institutions of state to sideline them, while protecting his sycophantic supporters regardless of manifest incompetence.

There may be elements of all these factors in the mix that is poisoning an otherwise successful presidency. Certainly the manner and the timing of what have probably been Mbeki’s two most damaging blunders — his firing of

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who dared show up the uncaring incompetence of her boss,

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and his suspension of National Prosecuting Authority chief Vusi Pikolo to protect shady Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi — raise serious questions about the president’s political judgment.

Yet I wonder whether there is not another factor in the mix that has less to do with Mbeki than with the ANC itself. As I listen to the ferocity of this power struggle and read about the shameful offers of jobs and money to persuade Polokwane delegates to change their allegiances; when even the hot-headed Winnie Madikizela-Mandela feels the need to urge ANC leaders to restrain themselves and for both Mbeki and Zuma to step aside and allow tempers to cool; then I ask myself whether the ANC itself has not lost its way.

The absence of any meaningful debate on policy issues, the fact that Zuma tells his populist audience at home that he is going to champion the poor, then tells his business audiences in Texas and Los Angeles that “nothing will change” when he becomes president, is glaring evidence that this whole struggle is not about policies or ideals but about power — about who will have it and who will wield it to whose advantage.

Power and egotism. For there are certainly big egos at stake in this clash of the titans.

Which prompts the question of what has happened to the ANC that it has allowed itself to degenerate in this way? Is it not perhaps the same as what has happened to other liberation movements around the continent once their founding objective, that of liberation, was achieved? That there is a loss of that sense of mission and idealism that bound its disparate members together in comradeship once the mission itself is accomplished and all that is left is the vehicle that got them there — a vehicle now to be seized and controlled to carry individuals to power?

No doubt whoever wins at Polokwane will make peace offerings to the defeated camp, for the victor will need the skills and the experience of the other side to cope in a country where those commodities are in short supply. Already Zuma has begun waving olive branches, and Polokwane will doubtless end with a show of affected unity.

But the writing is on the wall. This conference marks the beginning of the end of the ANC as the anachronism of a “liberation movement” in power. The liberation struggle is over and a new era has begun in which a modern, sophisticated nation needs to be governed by competing political parties with clearly articulated policies from which an informed electorate can choose.

The ANC can either reinvent itself as a proper political party, with more democratic internal processes for running itself, developing new policies and choosing its leaders, greater respect for adversarial political campaigning, and an end to seeing itself as the body incarnate of the nation within which all politics must play itself out, or it can remain as it is, a lumbering vehicle to be used and abused.

For as Xolela Mangcu, the most interesting of our new crop of young intellectuals, put it in a perceptive analysis the other day, this country is well ahead of both Mbeki and Zuma.

And, I would add, of the ANC itself.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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