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By Clive Leviev-Sawyer

History will probably a great deal kinder to South African president Thabo Mbeki, who has agreed to step down, than commentators about him in the days that he prepared to succeed Nelson Mandela or for that matter, many of his detractors on the left wing of the African National Congress and his Western critics who have highlighted South Africa’s failures on Zimbabwe and HIV-AIDS.

Typing that last conjunction of the words HIV and AIDS brings back stark and unpleasant reminders of the issue on which Mbeki most directly exposed himself to criticism. After taking office in 1999, Mbeki hamstrung his own credibility by calling into question mainstream science about the endemic. It is no wonder that anti-AIDS activists in South Africa became, to put it mildly, so frustrated at Mbeki’s administration’s views that led to Pretoria keeping strange company with AIDS dissidents, even as the vulnerable in South Africa cried out, in confusion and fear, for help.

Right from those early days, as the poorest of the poor in South Africa felt the cutting edge of the endemic, Mbeki sowed the seeds of his own political destruction. It was no wonder that he became the butt of cartoonists and commentators for his reported penchant for sitting up late at night on the internet exploring the obscure corners of the debate on the medical science on HIV.

I well remember attending a news conference presided over by Mbeki’s lieutenant, the absurd Essop Pahad, at which Pahad deliberately insulted the attendant political correspondents by saying that the then government’s report on HIV should be read by science correspondents, in Pahad’s view a cleverer breed than political correspondents. Pahad held that science correspondents would find great substance in that report. I wonder what ever became of it. We know what happened as the pandemic continued to spread, in a situation in which pseudo-science and pseudo-intellectualism could be of no help at all. The very opposite.

Mbeki will be criticised for years to come, as he has been during his entire term of office, for South Africa’s flaccid response to HIV-AIDS. But it should not be forgotten that the neglect long predated his presidency, dating from the closing years of the apartheid regime, during which the attitude seemed be the dangerously (and probably deliberately) malicious view that the endemic was God’s revenge on gays. This crypto-Calvinist policy of the closing years of the apartheid regime prepared the ground for the graves; it is tragic that the first years of a democratic South Africa did little or nothing to correct this fatal legacy.

Yet it must be remembered that notwithstanding South Africa’s prolonged foreign policy failure on Zimbabwe, in which Mbeki is undoubtedly complicit, should not take away from the sensible and sober foreign policy that South Africa has conducted under the Mandela presidency (in which Mbeki was the de facto foreign minister) and under Mbeki himself.

It was unfair in the days that Mbeki prepared to succeed Mandela that the then president-elect was depicted as too tiny for the giant shoes of Mandela. While the mbongii of Mbeki may have overstated his prowess as an intellectual, there can be little doubt that a policy wonk of the variety of Mbeki was good news for a South Africa that had to find its way in a changed world under the guidance of a clear and powerful mind.

For all the criticism of Mbeki as cold and distant, it should be remembered that what South Africa needed in the days after apartheid was a firm hand steering a sustainable economic policy, something which Mbeki has always been well-qualified to do, along with other brilliant minds such as those of Trevor Manuel and Tito Mboweni. That Mbeki lacks the common touch hardly matters in the context of an economy that needed the right numbers. The poorest of the poor need economic growth that is dynamic enough to benefit all the people of South Africa. All of the things that have hamstrung the hardest-hit by poverty during the Mbeki years, one that cannot be factored in is that Mbeki is not a very good dancer.

On foreign policy, it cannot go without acknowledgment that South Africa has pursued a path that perpetuates good bilateral and multilateral relations all over the world. On our planet in the 21st century, polarised between North and South, Muslim and non-Muslim, pro-American and anti-American and with every other fracture imaginable, a South Africa that is on good terms with all and that could help to broker agreements is a much-needed commodity. Leaving aside Zimbabwe, where the recent deal brokered by Mbeki is of questionable sustainability, South Africa under his leadership has done well.

In contrast to this state of affairs, it may prove a matter of concern if a Jacob Zuma presidency prefers to make common cause with the other populists of the planet; the others who may well now (in South America, especially, where economies are a lot less well-placed to survive the kind of trauma currently being seen in North America) be acting in a way that will mean misery for years to come. If under a presidency headed by Zuma or his nominee, South Africa takes a quantum leap to discredited populist policies, more than just the South African economy will be the worse for it.

It has not been a bad thing that South Africa under Mbeki has done its best to steer an even path keeping good relations with Washington, London, Teheran and Havana, for example, all at the same time. Pretoria’s silence on Kosovo may prove more constructive in the long term than had it clearly stated a position. Perhaps, though this is stretching a point, Mbeki’s publicly limp failure to excoriate Mugabe may have helped him come in as a mediator, in the context that few others would have been acceptable to the tyrant of Harare.

Now the torch will pass to Zuma and those close to him, and it is to be hoped, albeit it being a faint hope, that domestic fiscal policies will be based on common sense rather than the ultimately destructive policies being pursued across the Atlantic in other Southern countries. Right now, it seems almost laughable to hope for improved action against violent crime, to say nothing of corruption, to say nothing of the Mbeki administration’s damage against institutions such as the Scorpions, the judiciary, and the SABC and the media in general, the latter especially in the light of the resolutions carried at Polokwane. Again on foreign policy, there may be little hope that South Africa moves to a more constructive position on the Middle East, given that a failure under Mbeki has been its de facto move, whatever is said officially, to an anti-Israel position. This latter move has crippled Pretoria’s prospects of playing a genuinely helpful role.

This evening of September 20 2008, on which news of Mbeki’s readiness to step down as president of South Africa is spreading through the country and among South African communities abroad, represents a turning point that has had an inevitability since the heady days of Polokwane. Unless a presidency of the country in a Zuma era has sustainable solutions in economic, domestic and foreign policies emerges, the time may come that the poorest of the poor – whose opinions matter a great deal more than those of media commentators and historians – look back with longing to the stability and growth of the Mbeki years. If a new new South Africa fails on more than HIV and Zimbabwe, and compounds the profound shortcomings in dealing with poverty, Mbeki may well be looked on a with a new reverence. Either way, the presidency of 1999 to 2008 (or thereabouts) is certain to be better judged by posterity than by the present.

* Clive Leviev-Sawyer, currently Editorial Director of Sofia Echo Media Ltd, was a political correspondent and parliamentary editor in South Africa from 1994 until 2001.