South Africa 2008: Quo vadis - whereto?

Anders Möllander. Photo by Susanne Linderos.
Since returning from South Africa, where I spent the last three years as Swedish Ambassador, I get many questions. Where is South Africa heading? Do we need to worry about a South Africa led by Jacob Zuma? Can the expected breakaway party under the former ANC national chairman Lekota change the political landscape? What did the former president Thabo Mbeki do wrong and what will be his legacy?

Diplomats, like academics, sometimes work with scenarios. There is one scenario implied in the questions referred to above. What if Jacob Zuma becomes president next year (highly likely) and gives in to what some consider populist and dangerous demands by the South African Communist Party, SACP, the Congress of Trade Unions, COSATU, and the ANC Youth League?

These alliance partners of the African National Congress, the ANC, are the ones who helped Zuma to become president of the ANC. They advocate i.a. increased state spending, questioning the inflation target of the government and the Reserve Bank. They are against privatization of state run enterprises. All in all, they seem to question the wisdom of continuing the highly successful market oriented economic policies brought in by Thabo Mbeki, which they label as “neo-colonialist”.

There are also the issues of corruption and morality. Jacob Zuma was fired as deputy president by Mbeki for accepting bribes. His economic advisor is serving a fifteen year sentence, essentially for channeling bribes to Zuma. Zuma’s moral compass has been questioned after his public defense of having unprotected sex with a known HIV/Aids-positive, young friend of the family. He was charged with rape, but acquitted in court.

So the question is asked if a Zuma-led government will lose the trust and support of local and international business and politicians, thereby bringing   economic hardship on the country, which has enjoyed sustained growth under Mbeki and his team. Will Zuma be able and willing to continue Mbeki’s fight against greed and corruption or does the dismantling of the Scorpions, a South African FBI of sorts, instituted under Mbeki, signal a beginning of a downward spiral marked by increased corruption and mismanagement?

If this is the worst-case scenario, is there a best-case one and what would that look like? Jacob Zuma keeps telling the outside world that he does not intend to change economic policy. Some analysts point to the fact that Zuma has never been known for leftist activism in the movement and that he could actually withstand the demands of his leftists backers, once in power. The Zuma-led ANC has kept Mbeki’s trusted finance minister of many years, Trevor   Manuel, an important signal at this stage. It is not known whether he will be prepared – or indeed asked – to stay on after next year’s election.

After forcing Mbeki to step down prematurely, the Zuma led ANC has lost some leaders, some of whom have formed a new party, the Congress of the people, COP, to contest next year’s election. It is too early to say if the new party will attract enough support to make a real difference, and few seem to believe it can unseat the ANC. Mbeki has in a very carefully crafted, leaked letter to Zuma, made clear that he is not involved with the new party, nor does he intend to campaign for Zuma. The official opposition in Parliament, the Democratic Alliance, DA, led by the mayor of Cape Town, Hellen Zille, is obviously hoping that the breakaway faction of the ANC can help dent the overwhelming majority that the ANC now has and thus give some more space for opposition parties in general.

Some reflections on the legacy of Thabo Mbeki: I was posted in South Africa when the ANC was legalised and before that in Lusaka where ANC was headquartered in exile. I am thus acutely aware of the central role played by Mbeki for many years before his return to South Africa. (A South African journalist, Marc Gevisser has recently published a comprehensive biography, ”The dream deferred”, for those interested in where Mbeki comes from and what role he has played).

Thabo Mbeki was a close aide of the ANC president in exile, Oliver Tambo, and as such travelled extensively with him. After returning to South Africa, Mbeki kept a hand on the steering wheel of foreign policy, first as deputy and then as president. It is no exaggeration to say that he has been the main architect, with Nelson Mandela as the initial front figure, behind South Africa’s emergence as an important player in the league of such third world leading powers as India, Brasil and China. It remains to be seen if a Zuma-led South Africa can keep that position.

When scenarios were written in the early nineties, the worst case ones were almost overwhelming. There was a low intensity civil war going on between the Inkhata Freedom Party, backed by the Nationalist Party led government structures, against the ANC. It was spreading from KwaZulu Natal to the Johannesburg area, as were seemingly random terror killings and targeted political assassinations. The white right wing made a failed attempt at a coup, starting in the formally independent so called homeland of Bophuthatswana. The economy was in crisis, partly because of sanctions, and it was clear to some, if not all, that the future Nobel Prize winner, de Klerk, did not have in mind to hand over power on the basis of an unfettered one-man-one-vote concept. Our worst case scenario at the time was of course that these trends would continue and lead to a breakdown in the constitutional talks, more violence, suffering and economic hardship.

During my last three years in South Africa, I have often reminded my South African friends, especially those in government positions, of the fact that South Africa is indeed living the best case scenario of the early nineties. There is no or very little political violence, in part I am sure, as a result of a ground breaking truth and reconciliation process. The political divide is not anymore between white and black. And through Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment policies, BBBEE, race is less and less the defining factor when it comes to income and wealth, indeed economic growth has in the past few years largely been driven by the consumption of a fast growing new non-white middleclass.

In summary, there are again worst-case scenarios and risks for South Africa, but not anywhere nearly as overwhelming as they were fourteen years ago. I said in a farewell speech in Pretoria that miracles can obviously happen rather quickly in South Africa, development will take longer. What South Africa needs now is levelheaded leadership, or failing that, a political, corrective element that will be able to build on the country’s strong constitution and its institutions to keep it on the right track. We may see examples of both in the run up to next year’s elections. When I say that we may see levelheaded leadership, I am referring to the new, interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe. He was elected ANC deputy president last year and is a well respected leader in broad circles. He will however most probably have to stand down for Zuma in the elections, leaving the opposition forces a more desirable opponent.

The South African political landscape had become more and more monolithic under Mbeki, who you might say became a victim of his own success. What we see now may be a “normalization” of democratic politics, although, as I have shown, not without its own risks.

Anders Möllander


Anders Möllander served with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs 1973-2008, most recently as Ambassador to South Africa. He is presently with   the Nordic Africa Institute where he will do research mainly on two issues related to his previous experiences: smart sanctions regimes with the UN Angola sanctions as an example, and the merits of truth and reconciliation commissions, with South Africa and Bosnia-Hercegovina as examples.

(The views expressed in this article art those of Anders Möllander and do not necessarily reflect views of either the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or the Nordic Africa Institute.)

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