Be cautious of Thabo Mbeki nostalgia: Terrence Corrigan

Former President Thabo Mbeki evokes nostalgia among South Africans for his tenure, seen as prosperous compared to recent years. He’s popular, despite past controversies. Mbeki capitalises on this, highlighting his achievements, including economic growth and stability. However, his tenure was marked by patronage, racial politics, and corruption. The nostalgia overlooks these issues. South Africa’s challenges stem from systemic failures, not a counter-revolution. Mbeki’s call for a National Dialogue requires ANC reform, acknowledging past mistakes.

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By Terence Corrigan*

There is a great deal of nostalgia around former President Thabo Mbeki. For millions of South Africans, he embodies post-transition South Africa’s good years. Polling has shown him to be South Africa’s most popular leader, well ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the EFF’s Julius Malema, and both Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance. This of course reflects a degree of revisionism, but after the malaise of the Zuma years (and beyond), it’s understandable.

Mbeki himself is capitalising on this, and has drawn on the Institute’s work to rehabilitate his reputation. (It’s often forgotten how tarnished he had become towards the end of his tenure; Richard Calland, who’d been extremely sympathetic to Mbeki for most of his tenure, indignantly sniffed in 2009: ‘As every day passes, so the Mbeki government appears ever more insidious, as well as rancid.’) 

But as we have argued, and according to the evidence, Mbeki’s tenure – along with that of President Mandela – could claim some very significant achievements: responsible fiscal management, real growth exceeding 5% between 2005 and 2007, significant job creation (though with a frustratingly tepid influence on the visibly rising prosperity) and in many respects a welcome sense of stability and optimism. Incidentally, if the 5% rate had been sustained, both GDP and GDP per capita now would have been in the order of a third larger than they are now.

This is what we at the IRR termed the country’s ‘First Age’, and Mbeki has referred to it repeatedly, evidently with great satisfaction.

This theme was central to the narrative he propounded in a recent speech marking 30 years of democracy, which has attracted a lot of attention. For those who followed his presidency, this was another nostalgic moment. Mbeki’s voice is more gravelly and less fluid than it was two decades ago, but the tone and timbre of his remarks were of a piece with those of his presidency. The formal, somewhat prickly and pompous style of expression was familiar. 

Though in this instance, he wasn’t indulging in the sort of triumphalism that all too often characterised his public engagements at this time. Here he was asking what went wrong in the ‘Second Age’, (with some satisfaction, since his own tenure compared favourably with what followed).

One can’t help discerning some nostalgia in his address. This was because he was able to return to some of the themes that had contributed to his understanding of the state of the country as deputy president and then as president. Foremost here was the counter-revolution.

Those who remember the 1990s would be familiar with this. Dark conspiracies, merging all manner of opposition to the ANC were supposedly hiding in the shadows, deliberately undermining the efforts of the new government. The bases of this were, of course, to be found in apartheid-era security apparatus (the vaguely defined ‘third force’). They were of course not limited to it: assassins, newspaper editors, opposition MPs who had sworn loyalty to the Constitution, all were involved. Indeed, it was explicitly stated that counter-revolution blended legal and illegal operations. 

Claims to this effect were typically phrased in language as general and conspiratorial as the supposed conspiracies they described. As Mbeki warned in 1998: ‘These groups of the past have regrouped, reorganised.’ Evidence of this could seldom be produced, and from time to time, ministers in the new government would laud the cooperation they had received from old-order officials. Even the process of integration of formerly segregated facilities – in truth, fairly well advanced before 1994 – went on without great resistance.

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For the ANC, though, the counter-revolution probably owed less to any verifiable threat (although admittedly, in the post-transition environment, there wasn’t much trust or mutual sympathy) than to the thinking hardwired into it. Seeing itself as the embodiment of society, democratic opposition and treason were conflated; and seeing itself as the country’s infallible vanguard, failings were naturally to be ascribed to the machinations of enemies.

Mbeki’s speech was replete with this line of reasoning. The counter-revolution (clearly ‘third force’ types) was waiting in the wings at the time of transition; then the counter-revolution set about replacing the ANC leadership, which was achieved at the 2007 Polokwane Conference; and the counter-revolution set about undermining the foundations of democracy, particularly through ensuring that Eskom failed.

It’s worth reading Mbeki’s comments more than once to understand their full import. South Africa’s ‘challenges’ are essentially the workings of a dark plot, though no doubt, someone of Mbeki’s intelligence could frame this is a more erudite manner. But this is fundamentally an exculpatory tale, one that absolves the ANC of responsibility for what has become of the country in the Second Age. 

The reality is that much of what has driven South Africa to the wall was well advanced during the First Age. Obviously, corruption, incompetence and general criminality established themselves over this period. But beneath this, there were  dual pathologies: politicisation of the civil service and an obsession with race, or ‘demographic representivity’. 

Allowing for widespread political meddling in the appointment of public servants – through relegating the Public Service Commission to advisory status – guaranteed that state institutions would become sites of political contestation and patronage. Arrogating to a party committee the power to ‘deploy’ loyalists to constitutionally non-partisan bodies created multiple lines of accountability, with the inevitable conflicts of interest that this implied. Constitutionally, the state was never meant to be run this way; it was in truth the original, unabashed state capture. What we came to understand by that term represented merely a more acquisitive version.

Added to this was the drive to make institutions mirror South Africa’s racial makeup – this being the case, even though it bore no relationship to the existing (and deeply inadequate)  skills profile.

Mbeki, it might be recalled, would dismiss as racist any criticism of the government’s chosen path. An ANC MP, later ‘deployed’ to the Public Service Commission was even more candid. It was, she said, ‘imperative to get rid of merit as the overriding principle in the appointment of public servants.’ (It’s a significant point to bear in mind when Mbeki noted in his address that Eskom lacked the skills to manage projects as complex as the construction of power stations.)

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Nor was corruption a rare phenomenon at this point. South Africa’s controversial arms deal – again, stoutly defended by Mbeki, with the predictable race-laden invective against critics – remains a wound on the country that has never been properly treated, nor healed.

And while Mbeki is correct in pointing to the huge damage done to the country by the suborning of the SA Revenue Service, it might be remembered that it was he who appointed (and later defended) Jackie Selebi as police commissioner. Selebi embodied a great deal of what was coming to all South Africa: appointment without expertise, an embellished sense of his own importance, and outright corruption. Not only did this inflict huge damage on the police, but Selebi managed to humiliate South Africa globally by having been the first INTERPOL president to be jailed for corruption.  

This, incidentally, is something to be remembered when people wax nostalgic about the Mbeki years. Thuli Madonsela recently told an interviewer that the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies were different from that of Zuma in that the quality of deployments was superior, and that corruption at this time had been ‘minimal’. While the ANC at the time had, overall, a better calibre of ‘cadre’ to put forward, Selebi’s case shows that this was hardly universal, and that the political imperatives that intruded were themselves a blight on the future. If nothing else, they set a predictable precedent for what came under Zuma. And corruption was not ‘minimal’. Kgalema Motlanthe said in 2007 that that phenomenon was ‘worse than anyone imagines.’ He went on to state that: ‘This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC’s problems are occasioned by this.’ At this time, Mbeki was president of both the ANC and the country, Motlanthe the secretary general of the party.

This was the case too regarding the policy choices that were made in this era. Mbeki claimed that the onset of load shedding during his term of office ‘had absolutely nothing to do with any failures by Government’ (flatly contradicting the admission he’d made at the time). With some justification, he pointed to the running down of coal stocks. True, though this was intimately bound to reducing coal stockpiles to reduce operating costs (fair enough, provided ongoing deliveries could be skilfully maintained) and a procurement policy that established a ‘hierarchy of procurement’. This was an early example of BEE preferencing, but was utterly unsuitable for reliably supplying the volumes of coal needed to run a fleet of power stations. 

It is perhaps one of the great underdiscussed dynamics of South Africa’s energy crisis that it was driven in large measure by a policy deliberately embarked on and executed. 

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BEE, racial politics, political meddling in impartial institutions – all of this continues today, proudly and loudly defended. 

The nostalgia for the good times of the Mbeki presidency, and for his presence in the public debate should not blind us to the realities of those times and of how the choices made and the conduct legitimised in this period – and by Mbeki himself – brought us to where we are now.

Indeed, if indeed there was a counter-revolution waiting in the wings, it needed very little help. It was dishonest at that time and is even more dishonest now to attribute the failures of post-1994 South Africa to the supposed counter-revolution. If indeed this was ever a serious threat, many of its objectives were achieved by the predictable workings of official policy and the venalities that were tolerated or denied for political reasons.

South Africa’s problem was not the counter-revolution, but the ‘revolution’ itself. Post-1994, South Africa was considered – officially – a constitutional state. A ‘revolutionary’ agenda was never compatible with a constitutional order, nor with the policies and incentives that would have made for a sustainably growing economy. Our anaemic growth, the riots of July 2021 and the inability to keep the lights on are the inevitable outcomes.  

Drawing his remarks to a close, Mbeki played on another nostalgic chord: the need for a National Dialogue, harking back to the deliberations around the transition and the writing of the Constitution, and the mystique that South Africa has a unique capability for negotiation and compromise.

This is only true insofar as the circumstances in South Africa in the late 1980s and 1990s were recognised as dire enough for the protagonists to be willing to make serious and biting sacrifices, and to reassess long-held assumptions about politics and governance and what was possible. It was a transactional relationship forced by a mutually hurting stalemate.

There is no miracle in dialogue, nor in South Africans’ ability to undertake it. And if a National Dialogue – or something like it – is a feasible idea, it will depend on the willingness of the ANC and its leading lights to accept some far-reaching compromises. In fact, it would mean dispensing with its ‘revolutionary’ pretentions altogether. They have inflicted no small degree of harm on the country. Seen from this angle, Mbeki’s address was less an analysis of the problems confronting South Africa than a restatement of why they persist.

The rest of South Africa’s people would be well advised to abandon their naïve nostalgia for Mbeki’s incumbency. 

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Terence Corrigan* is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. 

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission