RW Johnson: The mistaken nostalgia for the Mbeki Presidency

By RW Johnson*

There is quite a strong current of opinion which holds that if only the ANC could get back to the days of Thabo Mbeki things would be, if not alright, at least quite tolerable.

This good opinion of the Mbeki period is based on several things.

First, the early 2000s saw the most rapid economic growth that South Africa had experienced since 1980. As a result business confidence soared and the country was suffused with the sense of (relative) well-being that only economic growth can bring.

Second, in the fourteen years (1994-2008) that Mbeki was in control of the government (including the period under the Mandela presidency) there were major improvements in social spending – on housing, the extension of electricity to poorer consumers, the beginning of social grant payments and so on. This had beneficent effects on many social indicators.

Third, Mbeki was decisive. If he thought ministers, provincial premiers or mayors were performing badly (or if they simply disagreed with him), he sacked them and appointed others. In the Free State he saw Ace Magashule for exactly what he was and accordingly prevented him from becoming premier, despite his many years as boss of the Free State ANC. This contrasts wonderfully with the indecision and inertia of the Ramaphosa period, let alone the corrupt cronyism of Zuma.

Fourth, Mbeki had a vision for Africa. It needed a rules-based order. Wars had to cease and there must be no more military coups. In return for this better governance the continent would receive the huge flow of foreign aid and investment that it needed. All this was encapsulated in his Nepad policy. Business was mightily encouraged by this – while the dream lasted.

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Mbeki began well by summarily winding up the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) – although, quite typically, Mbeki pretended for years that he hadn’t done this. He saw that the RDP, a vast set of spending pledges, wholly uncosted and unbudgeted, had the capacity to bankrupt the state.

This was exactly what had happened in Zimbabwe. Everyone there was very happy when Mugabe began with a torrent of social and educational expenditure, regularly running budget deficits equal to 9% of GDP. And Mugabe’s continuous talk of Marxism-Leninism ensured that there were no inflows of foreign capital to pay for all this. Zimbabweans were a lot less happy when this happy delusion ended, inevitably, in an IMF bail-out and austerity.

Mbeki replaced the RDP with GEAR, a bold programme which would have transformed South Africa if fully carried out – but, again, Mbeki lacked the political courage to face down the Left, which meant its privatisations were abandoned. And, as luck would have it, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 struck just as GEAR was beginning.

Even so, Telkom was partially privatised – which is why it survives to this day. The real reform was Trevor Manuel’s tight budget control and the run-down of debt which left the national accounts in a much healthier state. Meanwhile, Mbeki said almost nothing about land reform – he realised that white farmers were essentially feeding the country  â€“and there was certainly no talk of expropriation without compensation.

The biggest gains came from luck: the enormous rise of China triggered the commodity super-cycle which saw SouthAfrica’s growth rate rise to 5%. The combination of fast growth and the good house-keeping of a budget surplus brought in a fair amount of foreign investment. The economy purred along and unemployment fell sharply. This was the experience which business so fondly remembers and which causes some to hanker for the return of Mbeki-ism. As can be seen, Mbeki deserves some, but only partial credit for it.

However, Mbeki also brought in sweeping affirmative action (“employment equity”) and BEE. To be fair, some affirmative action was politically inevitable but Mbeki went far, far beyond that. There was a systematic under-valuation of the vital necessity of having well-qualified and experienced people in key positions and the very concept of merit was declared to be racist. SOEs like Eskom or Transnet proudly boasted in their Annual Reports of how many blacks and women they employed, as if their job was “transformation” rather than producing electricity or running ports and railways.

Mbeki repeatedly dismissed the notion that there was any shortage of suitably qualified black job applicants as “an urban legend”. After decades of Bantu Education this was absurd and irresponsible. In fact the civil service was rapidly stripped of its skills and institutional memory and something similar occurred in all the SOEs. Moreover, it was under Mbeki that the cadre deployment system was introduced. No other policy has done so much damage to the state and the national economy.

BEE was almost equally ruinous and led to massive corruption and the enrichment of a narrow stratum of the politically connected. In addition, of course, this deliberate re-introduction of racially based legislation into the worlds of employment and business was a backward step in every sense. Both affirmative action and BEE undermined business confidence and led to the large-scale emigration of skilled people, a huge and unaffordable loss.

In addition, of course, Mbeki was chiefly responsible for South Africa’s electricity crisis. Eskom had performed admirably for over 70 years as an independent agency, though it supplied only a smaller portion of the population. It ran at a profit, made its own decisions when to build new power stations and financed them itself. Ignoring the dictum that you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, Mbeki turned Eskom into an SOE, depriving it of the ability to build new power stations when they were needed.

Instead, the government would now decide if and when power stations needed to be built. At Mbeki’s urging the government decided to get the private sector to build more power stations but then made such a mess of the tender requirements that there were no bids at all.

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The government then simply ignored Eskom’s request for new power stations until power cuts began. Then the immensely corrupt exercise of building Medupi and Kusile was launched. Their design details were manipulated to ensure that Hitachi and the ANC’s Chancellor House got the contract. The result was a huge bonanza for ANC funds and two power stations which have never worked properly….

So, overall Mbeki did far more lasting harm than good to the economy and even the good that he did was largely based on the luck of China’s huge demand.

Mbeki’s record still looks good when compared to what little has been achieved under Zuma and Ramaphosa: indeed, under them most social indicators have gone backwards, with real per capita income falling year after year.

The greatest single gain in that period was Zuma’s reversal of Mbeki’s mad policy of denying ARVs to those who were HIV+.This reversal, maintained by Ramaphosa, has been largely paid for by American generosity and has resulted in a sharp improvement in life expectancy, which had dived under Mbeki.

However, some recognition must also be given to non-economic factors. Mbeki’s Aids denialism killed at least 350,000 South Africans, mainly black women and children. This is by far the worst thingthat any South African president or prime minister has ever done. The entire apartheid period was responsible for only a tiny fraction of the unnecessary deaths caused by Mbeki.

Mbeki justified his Aids denialism with paranoid fantasies about the big pharmaceutical companies preying upon andpoisoning the African people. He even thought they might arrange for his own assassination. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both came to the conclusion that Mbeki was psychologically disturbed and their opinion was decisive. This was why Mbeki was never offered a job in any UN organisation after he retired.

Similarly, when Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum in 2000 Mbeki summoned all the southern African liberation movements to Jo’burg where he told them this setback was part of an imperialist offensive aimed at overthrowing first Mugabe, and then all of them. Accordingly, Mugabe must be supported at all costs. This too was pure paranoia.

Mbeki succeeded in keeping Mugabe in power – at a huge cost to Zimbabwe. And to South Africa too. Zimbabwe’s collapse robbed South Africa of a major export market and it also resulted in millions of Zimbabweans pouring into South Africa, causing adverse reactions.

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Finally, Mbeki brought the Rainbow Nation period of Mandela to a juddering halt. He declared that there was not one nation but two, one black, one white. Many of his speeches were clearly anti-white in emphasis and rhetoric. In particular he was given to bizarre ramblings in which he imagined racist whites depicting blacks as dirty, diseased, sexually rapacious and irresponsible. Mbeki dwelt on these imagined failings almost with delight, glorying in the victimhood that he had conjured up as he whipped up anti-white feeling. Most critics again described these speeches as paranoid.

So Mbeki was not a President to be emulated. He did much harm to South Africa (and Zimbabwe) and he was clearly psychologically unbalanced. It may be objected that he was nonetheless the best President that the ANC has produced. (Mandela, by common consent, was a fine symbol but never attempted to be an executive President.) It would be fairer to say that the ANC has yet to produce a good President.

*RW Johnson is a British journalist, political scientist, and historian who lives in South Africa and has been a citizen and passport holder of the country for almost thirty years. Born in England, he was educated at Natal University and Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years and remains an emeritus fellow.