Southern Africa: The rumbling of political discontent

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FRFI 205 October / November 2008

On 20 September the African National Congress (ANC) Executive Committee forced the resignation of Thabo Mbeki as President of South Africa. Mbeki’s fall marked the end of a long-running and labyrinthine dispute with Jacob Zuma, ANC President, and came soon after Mbeki’s ‘starring’ role as chief negotiator of a power-sharing deal in crisis-ridden neighbouring Zimbabwe between President Robert Mugabe and opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. By 25 September ANC Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, had been sworn in as a caretaker South African President until elections in 2009, when Zuma is expected to become President of South Africa as well as of the ANC. The rise and fall of national leaders in these southern African states reflects the political pressures building in the region.

South Africa is the largest and most powerful economy in Africa. Yet despite the radical pretensions of the ANC in the post-apartheid era, the majority of its black population is still impoverished. In 1996 the ANC government imposed a neo-liberal economic strategy, led by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, called Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) which espoused the free market and privatisation. Since then, despite annual economic growth, millions still live in dire poverty, unemployment, inflation and inequality have grown dramatically and most of the land is still owned by the white minority. These are the fundamental economic facts that underscore the unpopularity of President Mbeki’s administration and the decision of the ANC Executive that he must go.

Mbeki’s reputation was further undermined by his criminally absurd stance on HIV/AIDS. Arguing that the pandemic could be cured by alternative herbal therapies, millions of South Africans were denied anti-retroviral drugs and treatment which would prevent mother-to-infant transmission. South Africa now has the second highest rate of HIV infection in the world with 5.5 million people infected. Mbeki’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala Msimang, was nicknamed ‘Dr Beetroot’ by militant opponents (she has been sacked by the new President).

In December 2007 Mbeki was defeated in elections for the ANC presidency by Jacob Zuma, regarded as more left-wing than Mbeki and backed by the trade union federation COSATU and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – the ANC’s long-standing allies. Both COSATU and the SACP have long been critical of the ANC’s economic strategy for its failure to promote the interests of the black working class and have campaigned to see the back of Mbeki as President. In the report to the Communist Party Congress in July 1998 the Central Committee spelled out its objections to GEAR: ‘We remain convinced that Gear is the wrong policy. It was wrong in the process that developed it, it is wrong in its overall strategic conception, and it is wrong in much of its detail.’

Mbeki was the architect of his own destruction. The dispute with Zuma began in 2005, following allegations of corruption and fraud arising from a government $5bn arms deal in 1999. This deal, highly dubious in itself when the country had no immediate need to arm itself to the teeth at great expense, has been at the centre of a range of allegations of corruption against leading ANC figures, including Zuma’s financial advisor and Mbeki himself who signed the deal. Initial criminal charges against Zuma filed in 2005 were thrown out a year later when the prosecution failed to present evidence. It was only after Zuma beat Mbeki in the ANC presidential elections at the end of 2005 that the National Prosecuting Authority reopened the case with 16 charges of money laundering, fraud and racketeering. On 13 September the case against Zuma was dismissed in court on a technicality, but, disastrously for Mbeki, with a comment from the judge that the case had been politically inspired. Mbeki denied it but his days were numbered.

Mbeki had managed to make other important enemies in the ANC. In 2001 he publicly accused three highly respected leading members of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, of plotting against him. After Mandela had made a statement in support of all three, the charges were not renewed and no evidence ever produced. The Mail & Guardian newspaper commented at the time: ‘Many observers have dismissed the plot theories as a strategy to warn off potential competitors with ambitions to challenge Mbeki’s leadership’. All three accused are now members of the ANC Executive that forced Mbeki’s resignation.

The new President Motlanthe has made public promises not to rock South Africa’s economic boat. Even if the black majority, COSATU and the SACP are dissatisfied, the multinationals and imperialists are happy about the way their interests have been taken care of. Following Motlanthe’s reappointment of Manuel as Finance Minister and promises to carry on as before, the Chamber of Mines praised ‘the swift and decisive manner in which President Motlanthe and his fellow leaders in the ruling party brought calm to the markets after the uncertainty of the past week’. Whether Motlanthe and the ANC will be able to keep the lid on the open discontent of the majority in the longer term is open to question.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe the power-sharing deal which was Mbeki’s last political ‘triumph’ has stalled. Having divided the cabinet between them, Mugabe and Tsvangirai have failed to reach any agreement about which ministerial posts they will each control. This stalemate represents the real state of affairs. The Zimbabwean majority are still caught between a rock and a hard place; neither represents their independent interests.

Carol Brickley