We deserve better than Mbeki and the ANC


A recent poll by the political think tank, Social Research Foundation (SRF), shows that ex-pres. Thabo Mbeki is the most popular political figure among the public and ANC supporters.

His score of 57.5% is much better than pres. Cyril Ramaphosa’s modest 44.4% and Jacob Zuma’s 28.3%. He is also relatively popular among all racial groups and this support has already increased by several percentage points since the March poll.

Mbeki is probably much more popular than the rest thanks to his relatively successful tenure and his cutting comments about the state of the ANC.

Personally, I have always had a rather positive view of Mbeki and he is indeed an interesting figure. He is technocratic, well-read, voluptuous and admittedly seized the opportunities (such as China’s stunning growth at the time and the commodity boom in the 2000s) to fuel and prop up economic growth. He renounced his Marxist leanings (and friends) during policy-making and embraced a moderate form of capitalism. He got rid of Zuma to prove his bona fides in the fight against corruption.

However, he also had many serious shortcomings. His supposed aloofness made him unpopular and this obviously played a role in his 2008 recall. Despite the fact that he is now so popular in the ANC, this was certainly not the case in December 2007 when he was deposed as ANC leader. His thin skin when it came to (even minor) criticism against him, as well as his racialized worldview alienated many white people and the business sector.

Above all, his drive to transform the state at the expense of merit set the table for state creation and gave rise to today’s dismal service delivery. Eskom’s problems started when he was president. Black economic empowerment (SEB) certainly did not have a broad nature when he was still playing the guitar. Ramaphosa and Patrice Motsepe took advantage of their political connections to conclude empowerment deals. It eventually created a black capitalist class through state intervention, but meanwhile let the masses down and failed to create a competent state – something that still haunts South Africa today.

The dogma of redistribution, which is strongly practiced among the ANC today, can be traced back to Mbeki’s era. In addition, his denial regarding HIV/Aids, together with the retention of weak and mediocre cabinet members, is a lasting stain on his legacy. Perhaps it is his jabs at the ANC that he helped create, which exonerates him in the eyes of many older respondents. But his legacy is a complex and mixed one and romanticizing it is of no use.

The SRF poll is interesting and useful, but also flawed. It compares apples to apples, focuses too much on the present and is largely limited to ANC hegemony. Moreover, popularity does not ensure governing success. In this, Mbeki is compared to an unpopular and disappointing set of candidates, and this obscures many of his damaging failures. Even with slightly suitable policies, South Africa as a notable commodity producer would still record decent growth during Mbeki’s term.

Just as we must rethink the future, we must also watch the past with greater caution. It is sometimes appropriate to compare hypothetical apples and pears. What if the ANC and Mbeki never gained power? Or if they could hold even slightly different ideological views? What if South Africa was soon governed by someone (admittedly undemocratic, but efficient) like Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore, or even just a better party and presidents who put merit over mediocrity, and education over redistribution? The ANC’s modest and expected early achievements in improving service delivery could be exponentially better.

But Mbeki chose to follow the less successful Malaysian example of rearranging racial decks. He was so focused on creating a wealthy black elite that the investment in skills to improve the business of government was reduced to a dismal footnote. He did it when it was politically possible to do so, but its impact (especially in the state) would only really be felt later when he had already laid down the rig – especially by the black poor who make up the ANC’s main support base.

While Mbeki is admittedly the most popular political figure in the SRF survey, he is simply the best living face of ANC misrule. His popularity with other contemporary opposition leaders can be attributed to several reasons, such as the fact that he was indeed a president and therefore has a national governing record. Opposition parties have never had that privilege since 1994. However, the opposition will also have to pull up their socks and market themselves better to the respective voter groups in order to raise their support – rather than just waiting for the ANC to bleed support which, besides, does not vote for other parties.

However, Mbeki should not be the benchmark and at 81 he is probably not going to return to the political arena. It’s doubtful he even wants to. It’s easier to criticize the mess you helped create from the sidelines. The political scientist Jeffrey Herbst wrote the following about this in 2005 in the journal Foreign Affairs writing:

As for Mbeki himself, it seems very unlikely that he will change his ways before he leaves power in 2009; the man is too much a product of his own and his party’s history. It will therefore be up to his successor to build on the many positive developments that have occurred in South Africa since 1994, while developing a political approach that goes beyond racial solidarity.”

The lesson here is not so much about hoping for a better past, because it won’t change anything. Rather, it is to be balanced and sincere about it so that the future can be reimagined and changed. Because governance does matter, and so do we. We deserve better than what the ANC has to offer.