South African President Thabo Mbeki’s recent attacks on press freedom and the labelling of Alliance partner, the 2.5 million strong trade union federation the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), as being “part of an international terrorist plot” to undermine his government, signals that the love affair between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and its Alliance Partners, COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP), is finally over.
In the face of growing public criticism’s of his party’s policies, Mbeki has recently accused the COSATU leaders at a recent bilateral meeting between the ANC and the COSATU in late January of “conspiracy” and of working with “international left-wing forces” to topple him. He produced a 50-page document which supposedly supported the view that the unions were trying to embarrass the government and remove him.
This follows the adoption of a “briefing document” by the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) late last year, which also accused elements in the COSATU leadership of “counter-revolutionary” and “ultra-leftist” plans to launch a political party, a ‘Workers’ Party’ based on the Brazilian model, in opposition to the ANC. Union leaders have consistently denied this and prostrated themselves at the feet of a recalcitrant Mbeki, to no avail apparently.
The Johannesburg weekly, the Mail and Guardian, who ran the story in their 18th January 2002 edition, has come under fire. Its editor, Howard Barrell, was forced to make a statement standing by the story in all its elements, which was based on a series of interviews with “impeccable sources” (see their website: www.mg.co.za, for further details). In their editorial on the 25th January 2002, the Mail and Guardian issued this disclaimer: “We have no sinister agenda, cooked up by the CIA and international Trotskyism, of disrupting the alliance”.
With Mbeki sounding more and more like a belligerent Robert Mugabe, whose tirades against supposed enemies of the State, like the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDM), white commercial farmers, and outside interference in the coming elections in March, has become legend, what does the future hold for South Africa?
Why has Mbeki suddenly begun to sound like Big Brother from up North? With thousands of Zimbabwean refugees fleeing from starvation and the excesses of Mugabe’s loyal army of “war veterans” to South Africa, what lies behind the rhetoric inside this much more developed region in southern Africa? South Africa has always been the Jewel in the Crown in this region.
Recently, Mbeki presented his ‘New Partnership for Africa’s Development’ (NEPAD) at the World Economic Forum (WEF), which held its 32st annual meeting in New York. The WEF membership is drawn from more than a thousand of the world’s biggest companies and Big Nation lobby groups. Africa and Mbeki’s continental project, the NEPAD, had been given greater prominence on the agenda than ever before.
It could be that the ANC has a need to crack down on dissidents on the political Left ahead of the Party’s national conference in December this year or it could also have to do with Mbeki’s self-perceived role as an “international statesman” (echoes of Mandela?). Hence his World Economic Forum appearance and his “international terrorism” slant, which fitted in so well in the New York of late.
Who is Thabo Mbeki?
Inside South Africa there is political turmoil and the southern African region starves. Now, Mbeki has become a firm George Bush jn. supporter, with his fight against “international terrorism”, by all possible means. However, one must remember that this is the same Mbeki who opportunistically proclaimed himself a firm “Thatcherite” in the early 1990s, just before the 1994 first free democratic elections in the country.
In dumping their previous Alliance Partners, COSATU and the SACP, the ANC now hopes to gain the support of the rump New National Party (remember them, the old National Party of P.W. Botha?) and the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosutu Buthelezi, the present Minister of Home Affairs, who have been their de facto governing partners since 1996, when the Government of National Unity (GNU) broke up. That was also the fateful year GEAR (the ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy’), was unleashed onto an unsuspecting South African public by the new Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel.
The results? There is increased social dislocation, continuing violence and gangsterism, due to increased poverty levels inside the country caused by GEAR, South Africa’s own home-grown neo-liberal strategy for growth and employment. Petrol (fuel) prices, transport costs and food prices are set to rise, giving rise to speculation of Argentina-style food-riots and its resultant political turmoil!
There has been the obvious failures in two key areas for the government: the combating of the HIV-AIDS pandemic and spiralling unemployment. An estimated 5 million of some 42,5 million South Africans are HIV positive. A recent report by the reliable National Labour, Economic and Development Institute (Naledi) speaks of 100, 000 full time jobs being lost between June 2000 and June 2001, increasing an already high unemployment rate, which some economists calculate as high as 40 percent of the total eligible working population.
An economic growth rate of 2 percent was recorded for 2001, after 3 percent in 2000 and 1,9 in 1999, well below the annual four to five percent rate needed to create jobs in the formal sector. Inflation has soared to 7.5 percent and could soon reach double-digits, as the price of maize (a staple that now has to be imported) has sky-rocketed by 160 percent since last year, coupled with a 40 percent increase in the price of red meat. Clothes, household products and books have all increased in recent weeks. Coupled with the collapse of the currency, the Rand, it spells disaster for poor households, who consume most of their disponibel income, almost two-thirds, on basic household necessities.
The price of bread is set to increase by 30 cents a loaf. Interest rates are set to go up, in the usual “monetarist” answer to the deepening economic crisis. Needless to say, wages are not set to go up, as the government is urging the populace to “tighten their belts”. On top of all this, another water price hike is expected, a 45 percent increase in the Durban region alone. In July the government introduced its free basic water system, designed to give each family 6 000 litres of free water each month. However, serious outbreaks of cholera and sanitation-related diseases were reported both last year and this year, particularly in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
Also, there has been a huge capital flight through the de-nationalization of big conglomerates such as De Beers/Anglo American, Old Mutual and South African Breweries, who are now listed on the London Stock-Exchange. This means that their profits need not be repatriated back to South Africa. The massive devaluation of the currency, two-thirds over a ten year period, i.e. the cheapening of the currency, the Rand, seems to only favour the export-industry and the rampant tourist industry. It could be that this massive capital flight in fact CAUSED the speculative wave of last year, with the Rand collapsing b 40 percent of its value against the dollar, with the government having its hands tied due to its “macroeconomic policy objectives” i.e. a liberalized market for goods and capital without ANY State intervention!
As the Rand was allowed to plummet, so did all popular support for Mbeki’s ANC-led government.
Is this the “African Renaissance” Mbeki once promised the world?
One could speculate that his attack on the press and the unions could be the paranoia of a failed politician who perceives the world as Hamlet once considered the skull of slain Yorick: with fear, trepidation and a bad conscience. Once billed as “Mr Clean”, or alternatively as “Mr Delivery”, Mbeki, regarded as an “intellectual” within the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, now presents another face. He increasingly comes across as a paranoid AIDS ‘dissident’ and authoritarian strongman. President Mbeki now emerges as a Stalin/Zhdanov-like figure, witch-hunting “Trotskyite Wreckers and Plotters” under every bed.
Could these attacks on the press and the unions help also help to explain the real fear of the present regime to opposition to its neo-liberal policies, voiced by COSATU and many NGOs, and, at for instance, the Rand 60 billion arms deal fiasco (where the Swedes also have a finger in the pie through the sale of JAS-jet-fighters), plus rampant State corruption and nepotism in the handing out of multi-billion Rand contracts to overseas conglomerates.
As Mbeki steps up to address the South African Parliament on Friday the 8th February, what will be his message? I am sure that in this, the 10th ‘State-of-the-Nation’ address, he will not mention the homelessness, joblessness, coupled with government cut-backs in social spending and its resulting effects, in his Presidential address.
Nor his disasterous HIV-AIDS policy, that has received international condemnation.
From Mandela to Mbeki: The Dismal Transition
In 1994, pop diva Brenda Fassie had a hit singing lovingly about “her Black President”, the Honourable Rohinlanla Nelson Mandela, echoing a majority sentiment then. This was to be the dawning of a New Era, after protracted talks between the then President Wilhelm de Klerk’s National Party and representatives of the black population. The major liberation grouping, the African National Congress (ANC), subsequently received a massive 60 percent of the popular vote in the first democratic election in the country’s history in April 1994.
Anyone who would utter that same sentiment about present President Thabo Mbeki today, would be regarded as a madman or a political opportunist.
Despite not having the two-thirds majority in Parliament to change the Constitution and install an ‘African-style’ One-Party State in South Africa, the de facto situation is that the ANC in power has emerged as a ‘State within a State’, a power unto themselves. It is today a completely different animal to that which fought against monopoly white rule earlier. It is like a embattled, wary male lion, bloated and diseased, waiting to steal prey from its women-folk.
Also, the Mbeki family has emerged as a key player in the nepotistic allocation of contracts and through illegal procurements procedures, in the now notorious Rands 60 billion arms deal. Some family members, like younger brother Moeletsi, have allegedly gained economic advantage from this “deal of the century”.
His father Govan, Nelson Mandela’s firm comrade and a staunch and sincere communist till his recent death, would turn in his grave had he knowledge of these goings on. The ANC is today displaying all the negative traits that one has seen before in Zaire under Mobuto and Zimbabwe under Mugabe and many other 3rd Word dictatorships.
The dismal transition from the popular Mandela to the embattled and paranoid Mbeki signals a sea-change in South African politics. Mbeki surrounds himself with ‘Yes-people’ and sycophants who all speak with one tongue, that of the President. Many are scared of jobs and income losses in a situation of economic crisis and recession and remain silent. But popular opposition to the failed policies of the government is growing.
It is obvious that Mbeki has lost his bearings. This includes the devastating HIV-AIDS situation, which cynically leaves millions to continue to suffer, due to the inadequate State provision of the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine to pregnant, HIV-infected mothers. It has been estimated that about 250,000 have died of AIDS last year alone. Many ordinary medical personal are today actively opposing this crazy policy.
If this pretentious and lack-lustre personality has no compass nor strategy to combat South Africa’s most pressing problems, how can he then speak on behalf of continental Africa, many ask. President Thabo Mbeki is a man short in stature, short on ideas and short on long-term strategy. The vast majority of black South Africans still living in the slums are already weary of this caricature of a “Black President”, who has failed them dismally.
Journalist Charlene Smith writes in the February 6th number of the Daily Mail and Guardian:
“Perhaps the most important coalition formed last year was that between COSATU, the Churches (led by Archbishop Ndungane of the Angligan Church) and civil society (represented by the Treatment Action Campaign -TAC, the anti-AIDS grouping) to fight the government’s genocidal inaction with regards to HIV/AIDS.
There is a sense now – as there was under apartheid – that this government doesn’t care about us, so why should we care about them?”
Will Mbeki signal a change of strategy when the South African Parliament opens on Friday the 8th?
With his HIV-AID’S policy in tatters and his “macroeconomic policy objectives” under attack from the unions, the NGOs and from the ordinary consumer in the street, there seems, though, little hope that Mbeki will change track. He has shown himself to be deaf to criticism, dumb in understanding the real causes of the AIDS pandemic, blind in seeing the extent of jobs losses, mute on human security and the loss of human life.
This dismal personality wants again to drag Africa back to be begging bowl of external investments and loans, Big Power charity and outside intervention in the field of health-care. Back to the carving-up of Africa in a new Scramble by the rich Western Nations for potential human victims, profits and investment opportunities. Whatever obfuscations and evasions he will serve up in Parliament in Cape Town on the 8th is however unimportant!
What is important is that there is growing grass-roots opposition to him and his government’s right-wing policies. He stands naked in his Emperor’s New Clothes, without any credibility or popular support. No wonder he must travel abroad to drum up support for his tarnished reputation inside South Africa. Like some latter-day Napoleon, he hopes his foreign adventures will compensate for his domestic failures.
Small wonder then that President Mbeki is following in Big Brother Mugabe’s footsteps.
Important works on South Africa’s difficult transition include:
Patrick Bond: Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa , Pluto/University of Natal Press, 2001. (see review, www.mg.co.za/mg/books/005/000502-transition.html); and
Hein Marais: South Africa: Limits to Change. The Political Economy of Transition. Revised and New Edition, Zed Books/UCT Press, 2001. (see review, www.mg.co.za/mg/books/april98/980511-marais.html).
Dr Selim Yusuf Gool Copenhagen, 8st February, 2002 [email protected]/
As expected, President Thabo Mbeki did not signal any significant change to his government’s controversial AIDSA policy nor to the GEAR neo-liberal strategy for employment and growth, still now regarded as ‘non-negotiable’ in his Presidential ‘State-of-The-Nation’ speech in Parliament on the 8th February. Mbeki did not make any concessions to repeated calls for using anti-retroviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This goes against the call by Nelson Mandela, made the day before, on Thursday the 7th , that the government is considering a change in its AIDS policy. Surely this signifies an important split in the ruling party’s policy makers?
On the economy, Mbeki defended his government’s “macro-economic objectives”, reiterating that: “…the path of an open economy that we have chartered for ourselves a few months ago is not open for review.” The Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass character of Mbeki’s pronouncements and the real suffering of the people he is supposedly to lead, could not be more revealing. Last year, the ANC government was willing to spend Rand 100 million on a (senseless) “Conference on Racism” and this year in August intends to spend Rand 300 million on the World Summit on Sustainable Development plus the hosting of the inaugural meeting of the African Union (AU) in July.
Instead, the focus is on a ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ (BEE) strategy, which supports the growing black elite and their crooked cronies in the State. The tax cuts offered to the populace are totally inadequate measures due to the huge scale of unemployment. In all, there were no concrete measures for job creation or of controlling the spiralling inflation rate, except the non sequitor that : “the economy has remained strong despite the volatile currency” (sic). For someone who has allegedly studied economics at Sussex University in the 1960s, this all sounds somewhat strange. In other words, President Thabo Mbeki does not have a clue of what he is talking about in the economics field, apart from uttering the pious slogans of the Washington Consensus ad nauseam. He has clearly lost his grip on social reality.