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The Fall Of Mbeki
By Greg Mills and Terence McNamee
Thursday, September 25, 2008
It is hard to think of a more ignominious end for Thabo Mbeki. As deputy to Nelson Mandela and then as president, he has run South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Last Saturday he was "recalled" from the presidency by the National Executive Council of the governing African National Congress and forced to resign. The move followed a series of blunders that have shattered the image of the man once revered as an African Machiavelli, coolly puffing his pipe while outsmarting all before him.
Mbeki's rise through the ranks of the ANC, the party his father Govan Mbeki once led, was meteoric. He often boasted that he was "born into the struggle" for liberation from white oppression. But his ousting was inevitable after he arrogantly overestimated his base within the ANC and failed to be re-elected as party leader last December.
In totting up his domestic legacy, South Africa's impressive growth rates, political stability and widening black economic empowerment will have to be balanced against his failure to tackle the twin epidemics that continue to grip the country - crime and AIDS. Many regard his crackpot views on the disease as contributing to the needless deaths of thousands of South Africans who were unable to gain access to effective treatment.
Throughout his tenure, Mbeki's passion for diplomacy was palpable. He loved the international stage and believed that he alone possessed the skills and vision to recast his beleaguered continent in the eyes of the world. This idea became manifest in his "African renaissance." That one rarely, if ever, hears this term today is emblematic of his dismal record in foreign affairs. The recent deal he brokered in Zimbabwe , which looks increasingly tenuous, should fool no one: Mbeki's legacy as an international statesman is disappointing.
His predecessor's vision that human rights would be the light that guided South Africa's foreign policy, making the country a beacon of hope for the world and for African development, may have been utopian, given the harsh realities of African politics.
Nevertheless, Mbeki inherited an enormous reserve of political capital built up by Nelson Mandela. The country's diversity, its status as the only nuclear power to voluntarily give up its weapons, the lessons of its transformation process, the muscle of its economy - one-third of sub-Saharan Africa's total - all this was an extraordinary foundation on which to build a uniquely African development model.
Mbeki never demonstrated that he possessed a clear understanding of South Africa 's national interest or how to balance ideological considerations and the country's priorities in trade, investment and international politics.
At the United Nations, for example, short-term tactical politicization routinely overshadowed strategic considerations. Instead of leading the African voting bloc, the UN's biggest, on trade access and help to the continent, South Africa blocked UN managerial reform, obstructed the interests of Western powers and maneuvered around tougher action on Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran. None of this did one bit for Africa or Africans.
The anti-imperialistic tenor of Mbeki's foreign policy was understandable, given his background. Less explicable was his failure to apply to Russia and China the same opprobrium he reserved for the West, especially the United States . Whatever the issue, under Mbeki South African opposition to U.S. policies often appeared more reflexive than considered.
For several years, Mbeki tried to encourage President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe down the path of electoral politics. Against all evidence that this was possible in a state disintegrating under hyper-inflation and violent repression, Mbeki doggedly stuck to his plan. His unwillingness to act against Mugabe - to simply even state that what was happening there was wrong - gave succor to Harare 's regime and amplified the crisis.
Did Mbeki misjudge Mugabe? Or did he believe the tyrant's liberation credentials excused all else?
Clearly, Mbeki sought to project himself as a liberator. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in seeking to ameliorate the crisis in Zimbabwe , Mbeki was greatly inhibited by his own determination to safeguard the ANC's liberation narrative. His shameful response to criticism of Zimbabwe by outside powers, and their calls for South Africa and other African governments to do more to resolve the crisis, exposed his deep personal sensitivity on questions of race.
If the new administration in Pretoria can unshackle itself from the ANC's inhibitive liberation ethos, Mbeki's departure from office could revitalize South Africa 's standing in world affairs.
Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and Terence McNamee is with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.