President Thabo Mbeki’s political twilight

Feb 7, 2007 | Newsletters



Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation

My dear friends and fellow South Africans,

The final two years of his presidency are destined to be President Thabo Mbeki’s political twilight according to most commentators. 2007 will see Mr Mbeki primarily as a second-term president, fast approaching his political retirement. Throughout history, second-term presidents in America and elsewhere have too often been cursed with political angst and turmoil, large parts of which originated in their first term of office.

Most American presidents, for instance, have had an awful time with their second terms – presidents from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton have had their share of what the American media once coined as "second-term woes".

As the succession debate here gathers momentum and cabinet ministers ingratiate themselves with the emerging contenders in their unseemly scramble to claim the crown, the lame duck Mr Mbeki, conventional wisdom dictates, is left to bide his time with a few valedictory speeches.

This would, I contend, be disastrous for Mr Mbeki personally and the country he leads. 2007-2009 should be not a vapid void: a lull between two leaderships. The next two years should rather be remembered as the crowning years; the apogee of a remarkable career.

For President Mbeki, after all, does not face the gridlock fate of George Bush in America where the Democrats have triumphed in mid-term elections or Tony Blair’s anguished remaining months in office defined by a catastrophic foreign adventure and the cash for peerages affair.

President Mbeki enjoys, on the contrary, an impregnable parliamentary majority and little threat, in all candour, to the ideological bent of his administration.

Readers who know me will realise that I do not pen these words as a misty-eyed admirer. Mr Mbeki and I often sparred when I served in both his and Mr Mandela’s cabinets. On one occasion, I said the President should recuse himself over his handling of HIV/Aids and my tenure as Minister of Home Affairs ended with the President taking me to court over immigration legislation. My willingness to disagree and challenge him sometimes left me feeling that I would have got a warmer welcome if I was the bailiff coming to take the furniture!

But none of this prevents me from acknowledging that we are led by a talented patriot with a clear grasp of policy detail. He is a man who amounts to more than the, admittedly tempting and easy, technocratic caricature.

He possesses a sense of certitude and a shrewd intellect. He has no equal in terms of government experience. After all, as Mr Mandela generously acknowledged, Mr Mbeki was the de facto President since 1994, charged with running the ship of state, as Mr Mandela set about the business of nation-building and reconciliation. I have seen how he can master an arcane brief quickly and, thanks to his many years of shuttle diplomacy, can place domestic questions within a global framework (no easy task these days).

So as Mr Mbeki prepares for his State of the Nation address on Friday, I would urge him to forget the background noise of the succession debate within his own party – he does not have to concern himself with re-election -and focus outwards as President of the Republic.

One reason that he should do this is that on the rare occasion when incumbents can actually influence the outcome of their succession, they are invariably disappointed. Crown princes rarely turn out to be minted images of their benefactors. Mr Mbeki should expend his energy in consolidating and building upon his governance legacy for the benefit of South Africa.

South Africa spent virtually the entire Mbeki first term unproductively deciding whether HIV was the cause of Aids, something the medical science had long taken for granted, to the detriment of millions infected or affected by the deadly virus. This week’s Economist laments the "dire medial consequences that flow from his refusal to take the right actions".

Yet, it has been encouraging to see President Mbeki slowly yielding at least on the HIV/Aids issue. If our president is on the lookout for ways to salvage his second term – and his legacy, he needs a radical overhaul of his views on HIV/Aids, foreign policy, crime, and more. He can do it.

If, as the saying goes, one week is a long time in politics, two years (before the next election) is an eternity. Recent history shows that a skilful turnabout in presidential fortunes is not altogether impossible.

In Ronald Reagan’s second term, the Iran-contra scandal dominated headlines, but the president still managed to enact far-reaching tax reform and took major steps toward rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

Similarly, Bill Clinton’s major second-term achievement was, perhaps, surviving impeachment. But he also honed his skills as a peacemaker in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, and presided over unprecedented economic growth.

The primary lesson from both, and my advice to President Mbeki, is simply to soldier on in the face of adversity. His government needs to accept the HIV/Aids pandemic for what it is: a national and even regional emergency and do everything in its power to curb it.

The government’s fumbling performance on crime needs clarity and a new direction. The furious reaction to David Rattray’s ghastly death has crystallised public anger. We need an unambiguous admission from the President on Friday that crime is out of control and we need the police to act accordingly.

We also need the President to live up to the unique anti-apartheid heritage that brought him to power and to mirror its inherent morality in South Africa’s current foreign policy. In practice, our government must use its non-permanent vote on the UN Security Council to stand for human rights everywhere and every time: an ethical foreign policy.

Mr Mbeki’s diplomatic engagement, which I mentioned earlier, has given South Africa political clout exceeding our lower middle ranking status in the international community. South Africa has already helped to shape aid for Africa, conflict resolution in the Great Lakes region and the North South debate.

And finally, we need a strong sense of leadership from the President in seemingly trivial everyday matters. We need direction in protecting our fragile environment. We need to be told authoritatively how important it is to save electricity and to begin car sharing to reduce carbon emissions. It is the little pieces of the puzzle that will eventually put together a holistically successful presidency. I am sure Mr Mbeki is well aware of this.

President Mbeki can still be remembered as someone who cared deeply and passionately about the new South Africa, its people and its place in the world. On balance, I believe he will be.

Yours sincerely

Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Recent Headlines

IFP Press Conference to Provide an Update on the Government of National Unity

IFP President and NEC to Brief Media on GNU

The IFP NEC will meet today in light of the widespread uncertainty prevailing as it pertains to the Government of National Unity (GNU). The IFP President Hon. Velenkosini Hlabisa, MP, will thereafter at a press conference provide an update on these matters today. The...

GNU: IFP’s Position on Interpretation of Clause 24

GNU: IFP’s Position on Interpretation of Clause 24

The IFP has taken note of the on-going public disagreements between the ANC’s Mr Fikile Mbalula and the DA’s Mrs Helen Zille, as it pertains to clause 24 of the Government of National Unity (GNU) statement of intent. To that end, the IFP President Hon. Velenkosini...

IFP Secures 7 Wards in KZN By-Elections

IFP Secures 7 Wards in KZN By-Elections

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in KwaZulu-Natal is overwhelmed with gratitude to the people of the province, following its resounding victory in yesterday’s by-elections, where the Party secured 7 out of 12 contested wards. The IFP has gained a majority in several...