Mbeki’s blunders dwarfed his many successes
President Thabo Mbeki left the stage a beaten man on Tuesday night. He was defeated by one of the canniest political campaigns ever waged in South Africa by a Jacob Zuma who transformed himself from a being a fired, corrupt, misogynist rape-accused into a people’s champion - all in two short years.
The story of how Mbeki lost his political mojo has the makings of an epic screenplay, perhaps along the lines of Luchino Visconti’s classic, The Leopard, in which Burt Lancaster portrayed the decline of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina as power shifted from the aristocracy to the populists. But this comparison is a sentimental exaggeration. The truth is much simpler: Mbeki is the victim of a massive failure of spin-doctoring. Consider this: here was a man who, in 1999, led the ANC to a greater margin of victory than that achieved by Nelson Mandela in 1994; who presided over the most sustained period of economic growth in the country’s recent history and who presided over South Africa winning the right to stage the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
Macroeconomic successes and political failings
These achievements, large though they were, were dwarfed by Mbeki's macroeconomic successes. Under his and finance minister Trevor Manuel's watch, South Africa's economy stabilised, the deficit was reduced, inflation was reined in, the currency was brought on to an even keel and conditions were created for a stock market rally that has swelled the pensionable income of workers as much as it has made share-optioned executives wealthy.
Mbeki had his political failings. He presided over an arms deal that has spawned a thousand corruption stories. He failed to deal with the haemorrhaging of Zimbabwe and, perhaps most tellingly, he failed to respond to the Aids pandemic with conviction. All leaders have their failings. The difference with Mbeki is that these failings were allowed to fester, multiply and, ultimately, overwhelm his successes. The blame for this resides first and foremost with Mbeki himself. While in exile, he was the supreme spin-doctor, convincing white South Africans who visited the ANC in Lusaka that his party had good intentions for South Africa. This was no mean feat, given that the ANC was a banned organisation at the time. But, somewhere between exile and the long, lonely night of December 18 2007, Mbeki lost his patience with spin-doctoring.
Mandela and Mbeki with the media
On the eve of his presidency, in 1999, he made an effort to build a relationship with political journalists. He hosted a warm, informal discussion with them on matters of state in a disarmingly honest way. But the very next day a daily newspaper betrayed his confidence and the die was cast. Mbeki retreated. Nelson Mandela’s brilliant spin-doctor, the late Parks Mankahlana, was unable to stem the ooze of negativity. Mandela had allowed him to work the press with a free hand. Under Mbeki, his style was cramped. He was constantly having to defer to higher authorities. It did not help that Mankahlana was sent to the front to fight for Mbeki's questionable stance on Aids, even as the disease was ravaging him. After Mankahlana came a succession of dour yes-men, terrified to pass on information and unable to find a way of casting Mbeki’s odd utterances on Aids and Zimbabwe in a positive light.
South Africa's Lord Haw Haw
Mbeki’s new front line became the minister in his office, Essop Pahad, laughingly referred to as South Africa’s Lord Haw Haw. If it was Mbeki who wrestled his own public image to the ground, it was Pahad who put in the steel-toed boot. Angry, finger-pointing and prone to temper tantrums, Pahad cut a swathe of alienation through the press corps. In April 2001, Mbeki's minister of safety and security, the late Steve Tshwete, stunned the nation by announcing that Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa were plotting to overthrow Mbeki. Mbeki's response to the claims suggested that he was behind the bizarre move, instantly turning three powerful figures into life-long enemies. He told e.tv: 'It’s a conspiratorial thing. I know you have business people who say, 'We will set up a fund to promote our particular candidate and we will then try to influence particular journalists’.
The seeds of paranoia
The seeds of paranoia had been sown and, though the public at large was bemused, there was a negative shift in perceptions of Mbeki within the ANC. Respect turned to dread. The rest, as they say, is history. Despite rolling out a massive Aids campaign, Mbeki failed to distance himself from Aids denialism. In the months leading up to the conference, Pahad launched an all-out assault on South Africa's most influential newspaper, the Sunday Times, calling for a government advertising boycott. Whatever hope Mbeki had of turning around public opinion vaporised on Pahad's hot breath. On Tuesday night it all boiled down to 412 delegates at the ANC conference. It would have taken only 412 delegates to switch their support from Zuma to Mbeki for Mbeki to survive the Zuma's onslaught. But when Mbeki rose to claim credit for his successes no one was listening. Success had long been overwhelmed by the untamed tentacles of failure.