Mbeki's Legacy

Mbeki's Legacy

President Thabo Mbeki, who has led South Africa since 1999, agreed
Saturday to go quietly after the ruling ANC asked him to resign. Mr.
Mbeki leaves behind a largely incompetent government fraught with
nepotism and corruption, and a despondent country with weakened
institutions, declining education and health standards, out-of-control
violence and an HIV/AIDS pandemic. Troublingly, Jacob Zuma, the man who
is likely to replace Mr. Mbeki, inspires even less confidence for the
future of South Africa.
To understand the disappointment of the last decade in South Africa, it
is important to contrast Mr. Mbeki with his predecessor. When Nelson
Mandela emerged from his 27-year incarceration, he preached forgiveness
and compassion and set about to forge a nation in which the whites --
his former jailers -- had an important role to play. Mr. Mbeki, on the
other hand, remained a Marxist ideologue who never overcame the pain and
prejudices of his life in exile.
In Mr. Mbeki's view the West oppressed the rest of mankind. Obsessed
with race and colonialism, Mr. Mbeki undermined the response to the
HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. To him, orthodox science "portrayed
black people...[as] victims of a slave mentality." Rejection of the
HIV/AIDS orthodoxy was necessary to confront "centuries-old white racist
beliefs and concepts about Africans." Hundreds of thousands, maybe
millions, of South Africans died needlessly while Mr. Mbeki defended
rejectionist scientists who claimed AIDS wasn't caused by HIV.
Similarly, it was Mr. Mbeki's warped ideology that led him to support
Zimbabwe's dictator. Robert Mugabe couched his devastating economic
policies in revolutionary terms -- as a just fight against alleged
British plots and other delusions. For eight years the South African
begged for more time for his "quiet diplomacy" while Zimbabwe burned. If
the recent power-sharing deal between Mr. Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai
works, it will do so not because of Mr. Mbeki's diplomacy but because of
his departure. Mr. Mugabe may yet find it more advantageous to
compromise with Mr. Tsvangirai than to deal with Mr. Zuma who criticized
Mr. Mugabe in the past.
Mr. Mbeki' accommodating policy toward Mr. Mugabe exemplified a growing
gap between the high-minded principles the South African claimed to
follow in foreign affairs and the sordid reality of his policies. He
cozied up to Cuba, Iran, and Libya. At the U.N., his diplomats worked
with China to prevent a debate on human rights abuses in Burma. South
Africa's intelligence minister visited Iran last year, where he praised
Hezbollah and Hamas. In sum, Mr. Mbeki never encountered an anti-Western
tyrant he did not like.
At home, he exhibited the authoritarian tendencies he had learned during
his stint in the Soviet Union. He transformed the state-owned South
African Broadcasting Corporation into a personal propaganda machine that
banned some of his critics from appearing on it. He banished some of his
competitors in the ANC by accusing them of trying to assassinate him.
External dissenters, like the opposition Democratic Alliance, were
weakened by persistent accusations of racism. That stifled public debate
over the direction of South Africa's economic and social policies,
including a murder rate that is nine times higher than that of the
United States, and a healthcare system which according to the World
Health Organization is worsening.
Mr. Mbeki was rightly praised for following good macro-economic policies
that saw the budget deficit and public debt fall, and growth increase.
But being reasonably tight with the public purse did not make Mr. Mbeki
"businessfriendly" -- as he was sometimes mischaracterized. Businesses
in South Africa are heavily taxed (at 35%) and regulated. They also have
to follow onerous race guidelines in employment and promotion.
Micro-economic over-regulation has kept growth low (expected to come in
at 2% this year) and contributed to a 26% unemployment rate. The number
of people living in absolute poverty has doubled since the ANC came to
power in 1994. Mr. Mbeki's breathless drive to monopolize power has led
him to attack the independence of the judiciary. According to a High
Court judge, he tried to influence the judicial proceedings against his
nemesis, former Deputy President Jacob Zuma. It was that apparent abuse
of state power that finally gave the ANC leadership an excuse to ask Mr.
Mbeki to resign.
Following Mr. Mbeki's departure, Mr. Zuma will most likely take over
after the election in 2009, while a caretaker president will run the
state affairs in the meantime. But Mr. Zuma is a deeply flawed man as
well. The accusations of corruption against him persist. Moreover, his
judgment has been called to question. When, during his rape trial, he
was asked about the wisdom of having unprotected sex with an HIV
positive woman, Mr. Zuma replied that there was no problem, because he
"showered" afterward.
There are also questions about his commitment to South Africa's fragile
democracy. Mr. Zuma once famously predicted that the ANC would remain in
power until "Jesus comes back." For all of Mr. Mbeki's faults -- and
there were many -- South Africans may yet look back at his tenure with
Mr. Tupy is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global
Liberty and Prosperity.
Mbeki's Legacy - WSJ.com


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