The Fall of Thabo Mbeki and the Future of South Africa

I had almost literally just finished reading William Gumede’s acclaimed biography of South African President Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC: Second Edition (New York: Zed Press, 2007), when it was announced that President Mbeki was being sacked by the leadership of the African National Congress. To say that I was stunned would be no overstatement. Knowing a little about the South African political situation, I was aware that an individual – including the president of the country – could be recalled by their party, but it was more the fact that the ANC actually recalled President Mbeki that was startling.


Despite the fact of this dramatic action, the coverage has been largely uninformative. With the notable exception of the new South African journal Amandla (www.amandla.org.za) there has been little analysis of what actually took place. In that light I would strongly recommend that you, the reader, take a look at the analysis presented by Amandla.


As noted by Amandla, the key observation to make about the removal of President Mbeki is that it does not reflect a difference around policy within the leadership ranks of the African National Congress. There have certainly been very questionable actions taken by President Mbeki since his days as Deputy President and later President of the Republic of South Africa. He has been the chief architect of the neo-liberal economic policies (privatization, deregulation, casualization, pro-free trade) that the ANC adopted after jettisoning its more progressive 1994 platform for reconstruction and redistribution of wealth. Despite very heavy opposition from progressive social movements in South Africa, President Mbeki was not removed.


President Mbeki was also not known to be a great leader in the fight around HIV/AIDS. Slow to respond to the depth of the crisis, he spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to justify overwhelmingly rejected positions on the origin of HIV/AIDS, the connection between each, and the steps necessary to address the pandemic. The situation became so tense that former President Nelson Mandela had to speak out publicly against the policies of his successor, a step that he had been loath to undertake. Despite domestic and global condemnation of his policies towards this pandemic, President Mbeki was not removed.


What appears to have tipped the scale represented more of a reflection of a combination of an internal power struggle along with the consequences of arrogance from Mbeki’s camp. The coup de grace reportedly was the conclusion arrived at by many ANC leaders that there may have been an attempt by President Mbeki (or those around him) to influence a case against his former ally, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, accused, though acquitted, of corruption charges. It became a lightening rod for many opponents of policies of President Mbeki after he was unceremoniously fired from government by Mbeki. Though there is little evidence that Zuma represents much different from Mbeki (at the level of policy), he came to symbolize the demands and concerns of a section of the ANC that was dissatisfied with the lack of attention that the Mbeki administration was giving towards issues affecting the mass of poor South Africans. President Mbeki adamantly denies that he or anyone in his administration did anything improper in this case.


Thus, the resignation of Mbeki is a reflection of the power struggle within the ANC, a struggle that is probably far from over and could quite conceivably result in a split within the party. That the struggle was not over the substance of President Mbeki’s rule rather than the particular actions that he allegedly took makes this struggle both cloudy and very dangerous. As is the case when the issues of principle are not at the fore, a struggle can devolve into a factional exchange that is inflammatory beyond the issues that are at stake.


Jacob Zuma – the person – may be a stand-in for issues that many South Africans believe were ignored in much of the post-1994 era. Yet, the haze that surrounds him, in part due to the seriousness of the corruption charges as well as the rape trial for which he was acquitted (but during which time he was not at the vanguard in the struggle against male supremacy to say the least) raises serious questions as to what direction he, as the presumed next South African President, will pursue. That he is NOT Mbeki does not, itself, represent a political program, but rather represents only symbolism.


Tensions have been brewing for years within the tripartite alliance of the ANC, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle. The differences, which also exist outside the alliance and include independent social movements, have reflected contrasting views of what it means to complete the anti- apartheid struggle and the period that is referred to in South Africa as the "national democratic revolution." It may be the case that President Mbeki’s success at achieving leadership of the ANC and later South Africa overreached itself, and came at the price of not only his own administration, but the unity of the ANC.


Our hope should be that there emerges clarity on different directions for the future of South Africa and their respective implications. That is a debate that has been taking place in South Africa, but often behind the curtain. Rather than a focus on the merits or demerits of respective personalities, the issues at stake for South Africa have implications for much of the global South which is facing the question as to whether there are alternatives to neo-liberal economic policies, alternatives that favor the dispossessed and impoverished.


Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of the book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA.

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