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The shaping of South Africa following the 1999 power transfer between Mandela and Mbeki sits veiled in a cloud of uncertainty. The alliance of social forces driving the political landscapes of the country are heavily dependent on Mbekiís own enigmatic motivations - which appear to be wedged somewhere between leftist popularity and right-winged rationality. The question is whether Mbeki is truly a ruthless politician or an adept, visionary leader as some would assert. (dkc)

vol 13 no 1

The Mbeki enigma
Hein Marais

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 1, November 1997
Page 6
"South Africa Now"



Hein Marais is a Johannesburg-based journalist and researcher. His book "South Africa: Limits to change - The Political Economy of Transition" will be published by Zed Books in December.

What awaits South Africa with deputy president Thabo Mbeki at the helm when he officially takes over from Nelson Mandela in 1999? Assessments and forecasts that stray from sycophancy seem constantly to run up against some Law of Imponderability, prompting the liberal deployment of words like "enigma," "mystery" and "riddle".

Thus, to some, Thabo Mbeki is a shrewd, potentially ruthless politician, a master of intrigue who has grown adept at neutralizing opponents. To others he's a leader of vision, perhaps even a closet leftist, a person propelled by grand ideals of an African renaissance and of realizing the historical goals of the ANC as a liberation organization. Figuring out which image fits him most accurately is a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey.

Acting ANC secretary-general Cheryl Carolus (soon to take the post of high commissioner in Britain) describes him as "very intelligent, very committed" and declares that perceptions of him as a ruthless and opportunistic politician "are not true". IFP leader and Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi praises him as "one of the finest brains we have", someone who "listens very patiently and then deals with the issue with impressive precision". The intellectual point-man of "Africanism" in South Africa, academic William Makgoba, finds himself grasping at hyperboles when judging Mbeki. "I doubt that there's a politician as shrewd and experienced as Thabo Mbeki anywhere on the planet", he declares, before descending back to terra firma with what might be a back-handed compliment: "Even US president Bill Clinton and the British prime minister Tony Blair are nowhere near Thabo in the art of politics."

In the opposite corner, Bantu Holomisa (now heading the United Democratic Movement with fallen National Party golden boy Roelf Meyer) knows him as "a manipulator" who "uses the media and manipulates people to get to the top". Vengefully, he accuses Mbeki of "always crushing his opposition as he did with me". Mike Muendane, leader of the PAC, says he "tends to set up little cabals within the party". "He appears warm, a gentleman when talking to him, but behind the scenes he is said to be an arch-manipulator," he says.


My own enquiries among ANC officials have drawn unflattering pen-sketches that, without fail, are shared on a strictly off- the-record basis - a yardstick of the power already wielded by South Africa's next president.

Nelson Mandela's dark side is his autocratic bearing and occasional obstinacy. Yet, as an NEC member once put it to me, "in a debate he'd listen to the arguments, then announce his decision and that's that - you know where you stand." Mbeki, according to a top ANC member, operates quite differently: "His tactic is to sidestep debate and collective decision-making. His standard line is that the matter at hand is very complex and needs more thought - then, when the meeting's over he swings into action, him and the little bureaucratic clique he's surrounded himself with. They're not up-front, they won't debate you on an issue, but they'll move behind the scenes."

"Thabo not vindictive?" another ANC official asks back, "What about Terror (Lekota)?" The former Free State premier was, of course, removed last year by an ANC National Working Committee meeting chaired by Mbeki. In Carolus' version of events, nothing untoward occurred. "If we didn't intervene there would never have been a provincial conference - they had postponed it three times already. We did interfere and we had to. The infighting had been dragging on for two and a half years".

The run-up to Lekota's axing was messy. Slop buckets of allegations, scandals and worse were hurled about. But according to the ANC official, the debacle "could have been dealt with earlier but they (national leadership) allowed it to fester and then they moved in". The alleged reason? Lekota was seen as a potential challenger to Mbeki, someone who emerged from the 1980s with a robust if imperfect reputation, who'd pulled off a good job preparing the ANC for the elections, who understood mass movements and who stood beyond Mbeki's reach.

"In many ways the same happened to Holomisa - maybe he was foolish to make those accusations about Stella (Sigcau) but again they let him dig a hole for himself and then threw him into it," says the official. (Holomisa was expelled from the ANC a year ago for bringing the ANC "into disrepute" by reviving allegations that Public Enterprises Minister Stella Sigcau had accepted a bribe from hotel and casino magnate Sol Kerzner during her stint as "president" of the Transkei homeland. Kerzner recently lent strong credence to Holomisa's accusations.) Mbeki, by the way, has reacted curtly to such claims by urging "people who want to be commentators ... to make an effort to increase their levels of understanding," as he told the Sowetan newspaper recently. "The ANC does not have a gauleiter ... Our decisions are arrived at through the processes of discussion and debate."


Understandably, the left observes him with shifty, troubled eyes. As the political midwife of the controversial Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic plan, Mbeki has not endeared himself to Cosatu or the SA Communist Party. Tellingly, he left Mandela with the unenviable task of facing Cosatu delegates at the federation's annual congress in September. Running a gauntlet of anti-GEAR songs from the floor, Mandela admitted that even top ANC leaders had not been privy to the plan before its release and told delegates that the strategy was no longer "non-negotiable". But he reaffirmed his support for the plan. Mbeki, meanwhile, has curiously refrained from public comment on GEAR - a savvy decision given the woeful economic indicators of the past year and the mounting opposition to the plan.

In October, however, he broke cover with a strident defense of GEAR. "Anyone who is rational can't come to any conclusion other than our (economic) policies," he told a prostrate interviewing team from the Financial Mail . "I don't believe, if you look at the totality of economic policy, that we will have anything to worry about," he said. "We are determined to stick to what we have said. It is painful."

Painful indeed. The economy lost 113,000 jobs since GEAR's introduction (the plan had promised 126,000 new jobs in 1996 and forecasts 252,000 this year) and the gross domestic product growth rate is expected to plunge well below the two per cent mark in 1997. Nevertheless, Mbeki's resolve to stay the course is highly suggestive of the style and trajectory of political management he will pursue once the Mandela completes his handover in 1999.

From statesman to politician

South Africa is passing from the era of the statesman (personified by Mandela) to the era of the politician, from the cultivation of a rickety bedrock of conciliation and stability to the arduous and turbulent business of governance, from a dependency on the personal charisma of a leader to a reliance on public institutions and democratized political culture. Mandela achieved his historic mission thanks to his ability to traverse many of the contradictions at play in South African society and the ANC - the "modern" and the "traditional", black and white, privilege and deprivation - a feat made possible by personal attributes and by the assiduously constructed mythos that surrounds him. He is a consummate anomaly - a politician who rose above politics, a kind of Charles de Gaulle. Mbeki will wield authority in more conventional ways, by building and fortifying a core base and a secure platform of authority, by constantly nourishing and buttressing support among divergent interest groups, and by accumulating the power and the consent necessary to stave of contrary demands. In short, his business is to govern.

How he goes about that task will be decided on three factors: his personal disposition, the strength and vitality of the ANC as a liberation organization, and the combative capacities of its key allies, Cosatu and the SACP. On all counts, the jury is still out. But some indicators are at hand.

Mbeki's commitment to consolidating the ANC as a broad and inclusive political organization is beyond dispute. Some ANC officials have, sotto voce , accused him of preferring an ANC that is organizationally too weak to act as an effective activist force but strong enough to harvest votes at elections. The reason, they alleged, was that this would enable government to get on with the business of governing, freed from the possibly disruptive demands and activities emanating from within the organization. The model being aped was essentially that of conventional western democracies.

And yet Mbeki has backed restructuring efforts aimed at putting the ANC on a surer organizational footing. These include the creation of a series of teams such as one headed by Labour Minister Tito Mboweni which is trying to boost the organization's policy and research capacities. It is unclear whether Mbeki's stance here is principled or conjunctural. As a politician who runs a tight ship, he is unlikely to harbour a principled desire to bolster the ANC's ability to "complicate" the tasks of governance. At the same time, unhappiness at rank-and-file level about the organizational decay that has set in since 1994 (candidly captured in critiques by the ANC Youth League and in provincial conference reports of the past two years) and the approach of the 1999 elections has emphasized the need to repair the damage.

Domesticating the left

Yet, the goal of putting the ANC on a "fighting footing" may not fit easily with an agenda of governance that, otherwise, pivots on a remarkably uncritical acquiescence to the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus - as exemplified by the GEAR strategy and seemingly endorsed by Mbeki's claim about the "rationality" of current economic policies. But the conundrum runs deeper than that. Thus, the left within the ANC remains wedded to the idea that the organization's latent "working-class bias" can be revived to serve as the central compass for government policies. The framework for hoisting the ANC government back onto its historical track, these forces argue, already exists - in the form of the so-called "base document" of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Though roughly sketched, that document bristles with leftist injunctions (many of them perfectly practicable) and represents an elaboration and radicalization of the post-apartheid visions contained in the Freedom Charter. The left, in other words, hopes to regain lost ground by locating its project squarely within the organizational form and the historical discourse of the ANC. At the same time, the rapid distillation of class and other interests occurring within that organization is complicating its inclusive, "broad church" character. Bluntly put, the ANC is no longer (indeed, has for a long time not been) one happy family, a kind of political Brady Bunch. The growing internal turbulence framed by this reality represents a contest over which alliance of interests shall predominate inside the organization.

Such a development poses two sets of challenges for Mbeki. His determination to get on with the business of effective governance, reconstruction and development cannot be questioned. What can be questioned, however, is whether the transformation he pursues will conform to or breach the boundaries of permissible change patrolled by domestic and international capital. With a few exceptions (notably in the health sector, where the pharmaceutical industry has been challenged, and the labour sector, where the deregulatory trend is being bucked, for now) the tendency has been not to rock the boat. But against a background of halting progress in social delivery, this has generated restiveness in and around the ANC. The first challenge, then, is to stay the hand of a left which, in the past year, has woken from its post1994 slumber.

It's against this background, for example, that deputy minister of environmental affairs Peter Mokaba has circulated a discussion document proudly proclaiming the ANC to be a capitalist organization and urging SACP members to face this reality and leave the ANC. The potency of Mokaba's foray lies not in its intellectual weight (which is wistful and feathery, as befits a join-the-dots populist of Mokaba's ilk) but in the political intrigue that surrounds it. It is highly unlikely that Mokaba, a person fuelled by immoderate political ambition, would have embarked on his anti-left crusade without a formidable promise of backing inside the organization - though from whom and from where remains unknown. What is clear is that the kite he has launched is intended to render more visible the relative strengths of the various currents surging through the ANC. Keenly observing its passage are Mbeki and his circle of advisers - for one of their prime challenges is to domesticate the left, hopefully without rupturing the unity of the ANC.

Discursive innovation

The second challenge lies in the ideological or, more accurately, discursive realm. The disaggregation of interests inside the ANC (and their diverse expression in material, life style and political terms) threatens the inclusive unity of the organization. Three heterodox reactions are already evident. There's the gravitational pull exerted by populist politicians - inside the ANC, for instance, by Mathole Motshekga who will succeed Tokyo Sexwale as premier of Gauteng province; outside it, the footstomping appeal of Bantu Holomisa. There's the onset of political apathy, apparently confirmed by recent opinion polls. And there's the increasing attraction (particularly at provincial and local levels) of leftish positions which, it must be said, are not always clearly discernible from populist ones.

Alert to this, Mbeki has been revising the discursive canopy that has heretofore been used to envelop the divergent interests and currents contained within the ANC - mainly by spicing the conciliatory discourse of Mandela with more forthright pronouncements on the need to overcome racial inequalities. In Mbeki's words: "So long as the issue of race - racial disparities - remains an outstanding feature of South African society, so long will the ANC remain what it is today." According to him, the principal fault lines that course through the society remain those of "race and colour", a point expounded in an important speech to parliament in June. Within this discourse, class tensions, for example, become disguised in lofty statements about the need for and the duties of a "patriotic bourgeoisie" and the like. In this way. Mbeki's formulations come to resemble a kind of update of the African-nationalism that presaged the ANC's radicalization in the early 1950s (and therefore reflecting a position not really deserving of the "Africanist" label too quickly affixed to Mbeki by the white media in the course of their misreading of his chosen discourse [see accompanying box for an elaboration of this point]).

This discourse is, in any case, primarily aimed at shoring up unity and steeling the organization against centrifugal forces, as divergent interests become more robustly expressed within it. In this respect it has proven to a shrewd shift, one that has the left looking a little bewildered. For Mbeki is employing an understanding of the relationship between reconciliation and transformation that is much more dialectical than Mandela's. "You can't say there must be reconciliation on the basis of the maintenance of the status quo," he told the Financial Mail . "You'll never have reconciliation [on that basis]. The need is for every sector of South African society to buy into that transformation process. If you predicate transformation on not destabilizing the status quo, you have not addressed the question of reconciliation. You have created the conditions for conflict." So, this discursive shift is aimed at defusing left opposition (corralling it back into the central paradigm of race) but also, ostensibly, at piercing the ramparts of white recalcitrance.

In from the cold?

Beyond all this, Mbeki is also supporting procedural and structural changes in the ANC (and tripartite alliance) that could allow the left back in from the cold. These include regular alliance meetings (especially before key policy decisions), a revision of the make-up of the ANC's national executive committee (possibly to include ex-officio status for Cosatu representatives), the boosting of the status of the ANC's parliamentary caucus (for long a cowed confab), and more.

For a variety of reasons, Mbeki prefers an SACP that is strapped into the ANC - held in a kind of hostage situation that severely limits the communist party's combative options. To be sure, an absconding SACP would, in its own right, not pose a dramatic threat. But the reinvigorated courtship currently underway between the party and a host of Cosatu affiliates does raise the possibility of a more robust popular-left challenge emerging from an SACP/Cosatu nexus - a threat that gives all Mbeki all the more reason to want to encourage party members to stay put in the ANC, at least for now.

Not surprisingly, these developments have emboldened those on the left who believe the "heart and soul" of the ANC is still up for grabs. To them, the window of opportunity has being levered open again and Mbeki might even be considered an ally in holding it ajar. More grizzled and pessimistic intellects disagree. To them, the ANC's conversion into (or maturation as) a vehicle for the modernization of South African capitalism - however much leavened by a makeshift welfarism targeting the "poorest of the poor" a la World Bank social policy pronouncements - is well-advanced and is likely to be concluded under Mbeki's tutelage. Any window of opportunity, they fear, will be edged shut from 1999 onwards. Still, it's not an easy one to answer: just what kinds of relationships should the left be trying to fashion with(in) the ANC. Ultra-leftists predictably counsel a complete break - a course that mirrors Mokaba's challenge to them. Those attuned to Gramscian thinking argue for a more concerted and cogently strategized war of position within and around the ANC, a project that would seek to rebuild links with other progressive forces in civil society (development NGOs, churches, interest-based grassroots organisations, etc.). These are important debates to have, needless to say, but the fact is that they are still mainly incipient.

Meanwhile, Mbeki and those currents orbiting around him hold the upper hand. Mbeki's key advantage is that the left cannot yet decide whether and to what extent he is an ally of a popular agenda. He is also alert to a central weakness of Cosatu and the SACP - their failure to devise cogent policy alternatives. He is unlikely to pass up on the opportunities this presents him, and will probably "call their bluff" by encouraging or challenging these forces to propose alternatives, confident that they will not be able to oblige speedily or coherently. His major disadvantage is a lack of experience of the internal dynamics of mass movements like trade unions - which might generate troubling stand-offs and upset the desired social compact with the labour movement. Arrayed around him, however, are a sufficient number of adroit politicians with a firmer grasp of the arcanities of the mass organizations that emerged inside South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.

The upshot is a complex transition that is poised to slip back into gear after the short, apparently benign, interval of reconciliation and precarious stability that Mandela and co. helped hold in place. It now befalls Mbeki to raise the curtain for the next act of what must remain a sharp struggle to determine which alliance of social forces will shape the new South Africa. As the slogan says: "a luta continua", the struggle continues. Only, this time around, the battle lines are blurred, the troops are not too certain which side they're on, and everyone seems to be talking out of both sides of their mouths.



The African Renaissance

Inside South Africa, journalists have laboured hard to pin an "Africanist" label on Mbeki, suggesting a tilt away from the rather threadbare tradition of nonracialism and towards more racialist perspectives. The attempt is inaccurate and unfair, and betrays the local media's well-established inability to grasp political nuances.

Continentally, though, Mbeki clearly is an "Africanist" - in the Nkrumah-esque sense of the word. "He takes Africa seriously and is he is emotionally, politically and intellectually committed to prove Afro-pessimism wrong," says analyst Vincent Maphai. "He is NOT an `Africanist' in an ethnic or racialist sense." SACP deputy general-secretary Jeremy Cronin agrees, and described Mbeki as an "Africanist" in the sense of "being committed to a continental revival, an African renaissance". That endeavour has become something of a leitmotif of Mbeki's and links him philosophically to the first post-liberation generation of African leaders.

In Mbeki's own words: "Greater trade among African countries is very important, as is economic cooperation and the movement of capital within the regions. But that presumes stability, openness. It would be difficult to have economic cooperation of a long-term nature where you had in one country political dictatorship and in another country democracy."

"We have to address the abuse of the notion of national sovereignty, where terrible things would be going on within the borders of a particular country while the rest of the continent stands paralyzed because taking action would be seen as interference," he told the Sowetan newspaper recently.

Last April, he brought a meeting of the US Corporate Council on Africa to its feet when he expounded on that vision, linking it to the imminent fall of Mobutu Sese Seko's regime and to the South African-led mediation efforts in the former Zaire.

His perspective points towards a more interventionist role regionally, for which the mediation efforts in the former Zaire earlier this year served as precedent. Ostensibly, the guiding imperative would be to enable Africans to "solve their own problems."

Few would disagree that it's a laudable and necessary vision. Yet, once scrutinized, his Renaissance speeches do appear shallow. They seem to lack analytical depth, and to fail to identify the material and political wellsprings of a revival or to more precisely sketch its character. Questions remain around how such initiatives might become articulated to the forays of other international actors - principally the USA and France. The apparent overlap between US policy objectives and the failed SA-administered mediation bid in Zaire has been detected by analysts abroad (but, strangely, not inside South Africa), while his hosting of a high-powered French government delegation to South Africa in October suggested Mbeki might not be averse to exploiting converging interests between South Africa and western powers in advancing the renaissance dream. Indeed, the central, apparent flaw in the vision relates to Mbeki's failure (or reluctance) to locate this renaissance within the geopolitics of globalization. But is this omission actually a flaw? Perhaps not. For, whether cast onto the national or the continental stage, his thinking appears consistently to be equipped with ambiguities that leave a variety of tactical options at his disposal. Whether inclined towards dread or adulation, one is tempted to agree, for once, with Buthelezi: in Mbeki, South Africa has a very, very shrewd politician.

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