Lessons from the Demise of Thabo Mbeki

By Jane Duncan · 18 Sep 2013

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Picture: Former President Thabo Mbeki courtesy Esthr/Flickr.
Picture: Former President Thabo Mbeki courtesy Esthr/Flickr.

This month marks one of the most troubling anniversaries of South Africa’s post-apartheid history. On the 21st of September, five years ago, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign as President of South Africa, a mere nine months before his second term of office expired. He did so following a deeply flawed judgment by Chris Nicholson on the pending trial of Mbeki’s rival for the presidency, Jacob Zuma, and this judgement implicated Mbeki in political interference in the trial.

The Nicholson judgement unleashed havoc in the country’s elite politics, and paved the way for Zuma’s rise to power. While the removal of Mbeki did not amount to a coup d’etat, as his former Director-general, Frank Chikane, has alleged, Mbeki’s removal was an ill-founded move made with unseemly haste. It led to people perceived to be Mbeki’s supporters being purged en masse from institutions like the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), with scant attention being paid to fair procedure.

The ANC clutched at what quickly turned out to be straws to declare a loss of confidence in Mbeki. No apology was forthcoming when the Nicholson judgment was overturned, and clearly there was a strong likelihood that this would happen as the judgment was flawed even to a layperson.

Had Mbeki waited for the appeal that overturned the Nicholson judgement, which is what should have been allowed to happen, then he would most likely have seen out his term. He probably would not have served a third term as ANC president, but a more orderly change of guard could have taken place. Yet many were only too happy to see Mbeki go. By that stage, he had become the face of neo-liberal government in South Africa.

In this regard, some mainstream commentators maintain that Mbeki left behind a successful economic legacy, arguing that he stabilised the country’s economy and laid the basis for more expansionary policies. Recently, Ray Hartley credited Mbeki with creating the macro-economic space needed to increase infrastructure spending and roll out social grants. By 2008, Hartley claimed that the much-hated Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan (GEAR) was ‘background noise’, and that growth was state-led. This meant that Mbeki was removed for self-serving and not substantive reasons.

This take on Mkebi’s legacy is debateable. Because much of the infrastructure that was rolled out operated on a cost recovery basis, millions found themselves with access to water, electricity and infrastructure networks, but without the income necessary to remain connected to the networks. During the GEAR years, many local governments were forced into self-sufficiency when they did not command the tax bases necessary to support them, leading to service delivery crises that bedevil them to this day. Both these factors meant that for many South Africans, GEAR still operated very much in the foreground of their lives when Mbeki was removed, and in fact still does to this day.

Furthermore, some of the infrastructure expansion that took place involved ill-advised mega-developments and vanity projects, leading to distorted infrastructure development. Mbeki also increased South Africa’s vulnerability to international financial shocks. Massive capital flight from the country, which commenced under Mbeki, led to its own form of financial instability and a ballooning current account deficit. Clearly, at this time, a more balanced assessment of Mbeki’s economic legacy - that avoids the kind of boosterism evident in mainstream accounts – is called for.

Mbeki’s removal from office was a confusing time for many social justice activists, who struggled to make sense of this rupture in ANC politics, and its significance. Aggrieved by the neo-liberal content of his policies and his notorious intolerance, many welcomed his removal as they felt that he ‘got his just deserts’. There were those on the left, including the independent left, who were taken in by Zuma’s image as a man of the people and his promise of a pro-poor politics, and believed that his ascent would create more political space for those who had been marginalised by Mbeki’s ‘1996 class project’, as GEAR came to be known.

Others dismissed the conflagration as a conflict limited to ruling party politics, as it did not represent a significant political rupture, and was therefore of limited relevance to the lives of ordinary South Africans. The late Dennis Brutus, for instance, argued at the time that the succession battle was really a factional conflict between two sections in ANC, which was not going to make much difference, as the central ideological trajectory in the ANC would remain the same. Yet in spite of all the confusion, a strong body of opinion on the left held that Mbeki needed to go. As a result, few raised their voices about the manner of his removal, and by extension, the manner in which Zuma came to power.

Five years later, what lessons can be learned from these events? The central lesson is that democratic ends cannot be arrived at through undemocratic means. The removal of Mbeki was not merely an internal factional battle; its ramifications have been felt across broader society.

There was a time when it really appeared that the shift in the ANC’s politics increased the potential for progressive change. While it was tempting to climb on the anti-Mbeki bandwagon to remove him, those who supported his removal were being expedient, not principled; in fact, their support was misguided and even dangerous. They endorsed a form of politics that was willing to dispense with fair process, and this has not improved the quality of democracy in all its major permutations, representative, participatory or direct. In fact, it has reduced democratic spaces for elite and mass politics alike.

Since these fateful events, Zuma has used every legal trick in the book to ensure that he does not have his day in court on the corruption allegations. Tellingly, no-one has been held responsible for the leaking of the ‘spy tapes’ that led to the dismissal of charges against him. It is difficult to believe that the State Security Agency lacks the capacity to identify those responsible.

Yet state institutions leap into action with devastating efficiency when political opponents are alleged to fall foul of the law, such as Julius Malema. The SABC remains a captive of the ANC’s internal power politics, rendering the institution vulnerable to chronic instability. ‘Good news’ journalism has become the order of the day as the ANC heads up to yet another national election.

Crony capitalism has become more pronounced on Zuma’s watch. Corruption has sunk its cancerous roots deep into the state, especially at provincial level. Whistleblowers who have spoken out against corruption in state institutions continue to be assassinated, with scant evidence of serious attempts to stamp out this problem. Political critics - such as Abahlali base Mjondolo in KwaZulu-Natal - have been subjected to increasing levels of violence.

In contrast, signs of the Zuma administration having consolidated a progressive trajectory are in short supply. Zuma’s much vaunted industrial policy and National Health Insurance plan, intended to ensure universal health coverage, have been painfully slow to emerge. His promise of five million jobs over the next decade has yet to materialise. 

These developments suggest that, on balance, Zuma serves much more predatory elite political forces than Mbeki did. Furthermore, Zuma has increased the coercive capacities of the state, relative to Mbeki, and undoubtedly they benefit from this growing securitisation of South Africa’s politics.

But on the upside, there are also signs of unprecedented levels of diversity in South Africa’s politics, and while there is little evidence of a significant challenge to the ANC’s hegemony at the moment, this may well emerge in time. This time round, it is unlikely to emerge from within the ANC, which means that these forces are unlikely to have access to the organs of state that so advantaged Zuma during his own contest for power.

The Mbeki episode teaches us that democracy means democracy for all, even, or perhaps especially, for one’s political opponents. Otherwise, the concept is rendered meaningless; a dead letter.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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18 Sep

Solid Analysis

I remember well how some well known left wing academics were celebrating Zuma as a 'man of the left'. What a joke that turned out to be. Now we see some of the independent left making the same mistake with Malema who is way worse than Zuma.

Prof Duncan is exactly right. Under Zuma there is more predatory political elite and more authoritarianism.

Mbeki had his limits but he was way, way better than Zuma.

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19 Sep

A Tough Lesson

I was one of those who bought the idea that Zuma would be a man of the people after Mbeki's aloofness, and the AIDS debacle. And Zuma did deliver on AIDS. But aside from that his presidency has been a total disaster.

I think that this article make a good point. Undemocratic means don't produce democratic outcomes.

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Paul Whelan
19 Sep

One-party Rule

An outstanding piece but, I feel, still avoiding the fundamental Issue. SA's 'democracy' is extremely young and strong institutions and conventions are weak or entirely missing, as Mbeki's removal showed. A rough-house is inevitable in the circumstances, until longer experience and, above all, opposition build and help find a mature balance and an ordered way. I remain unconvinced that Zuma presides over a much more corrupt state: we are simply further on, that's all. The signs of things to come were more than evident under Mbeki - lack of accountability, appointments through patronage and preferment and the horrid authoritarian rest - but the public memory is short (and sentimentalizes). The central point and lesson is this: you cannot with any real sense call a country run by one party a 'democracy'. Instead of being agents of change, the people are at the mercy of the party they freely choose to elect time after time and all the ills of unchallenged power are there and grow, in every direction you look.

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Robert Shell
19 Sep


I spent a lot of my professional energy ensuring that Mbeki would fall. Why? Because Mbeki was partly responsible for ensuring that AIDS would flourish in Africa. A Harvard study estimated that 360,000 in SA people died because of Mbeki's policies. Yet, not a word about that here...

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10 Jul

Mbeki did not approve of ARV's because proper research on the virus was not done, and no research team or scientists could answer all his questions he took it on himself to search for those answers on his own. When he did he find out facts about AIDS that were hidden from South Africans, facts that could actually cure the virus without having to take ARV's. If south Africans found out about these facts and followed them, American pharmaceutical scientist would not be able to get the billions estimated on ARV's. Mbeki would have saved more lives than of those that he had lost and a lot of money too. And this has been said that its one of the reasons why he was forced to resign. He knew the truth and he was not going to keep it away from his people.

Miss Z
27 Sep

The Moment It All Went Wrong

It is easy to be wise in retrospect. But it is not clear that this was the moment when it all started to go pear shaped. At the time I drank the Kool-Aid too. The AIDS debacle led me to think that Zuma would be better. But the warning signs were all there. The rape trial, Vavi and Malema saying they would 'kill for Zuma' etc.

Now we have an out and out predatory state and the Constitution and rule of law are on the way out. How do we get back on the high road? I don't see anyone with a real answer.

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