Into the future: Thabo Mbeki’s

Much like a father at the birth of his first child, most politicians who reach the top flirt, at least briefly, with an image of their own immortality. And it is one of those irritating paradoxes of which religious people are so fond, that to live on beyond our own deaths a little, a large part of ourselves has to die in life.

For Thabo Mbeki, that flirtation came a lot earlier than for most. And, to the surprise of his critics, he easily proved capable of the necessary sacrifice.

The moment came, in fact, when Mbeki awoke not 24 hours after the polls closed in the 1999 election – with his sweetest ever hangover.

His head throbbed. But his sense of affirmation and relief was profound. He felt almost post-coital. He quickly checked. No, he was alone; no one had slipped from his memory or bed before sunrise.

He had won the election – it seemed clear, with a mandate at least as big as Nelson Mandela’s in 1994. That alone, however, could not explain the feeling. There was something more – beyond the figures and far past pride.

He lay back, and his mind wandered down strange avenues. He fell asleep again.

When he awoke, Mbeki leaned across to his music cabinet, unsheathed Simon Boccanegra from its case, inserted the first CD, threw back the blankets, pumped up his pillows and the volume on the remote, punched in track nine, lay back, breathed deeply, and pressed start. Verdi’s orchestration swirled and churned.

Like a number of Verdi’s operas, Boccanegra, too, seemed to deal with the composer’s longing for reunion: with the wife and children he had lost in an epidemic in 19th-century Italy; with tenderness and vulnerability, his own as much as others’.

Simon of the title, elevated to be doge (that is top dog) of Venice, wearied by the solitude of political power, meets a beautiful, remote young woman.

She tells him she has for years concealed her true identity. She is not Emelia of the powerful Grimaldi clan, who are his enemies. No, she is Maria, orphaned daughter of a mother who died when she was still young and a father, a sailor, who had occasionally visited before disappearing.

For the umpteenth time since Mbeki had discovered opera at Sussex University in the 1960s, he marvelled at how Verdi built the tension. Yet again, it made the hair on his neck riot and storm his pyjama collar.

Mirella Freni, soprano, was singing of that daughter’s wait, long after her mother’s death, for her father’s return, and of her need of his dominion. Oh sweet, sweet sadness.

Piero Cappuccilli’s baritones led Mbeki again through the doge’s loneliness and then his growing anticipation about who the young woman might be.

And then, as Mbeki lay prone, moving not a muscle, came the awesome, climactic moment when Cappuccilli and Freni – Simon and Maria – realise they are father and daughter.

Oh, sweet, sweet union … end to severance and exile … homecoming … family … tenderness and vulnerability … completion.

”That’s it,” Mbeki whispered. ”I’m home. I’m here. I have arrived. May-i- bu-ye [Return]!”

The change in Mbeki first became apparent in the changes he made in his office. Among his staff were a few apes who had helped him clamber up the greasy pole of government. Now that he was at the top, however, he could afford – and, he realised, the country needed him – to let them go.

There was a second category in both his office and the Cabinet: supine, compliant characters, whom his least favourite journalist had once infamously called his ”suppositories”. With a little arm-twisting he got them a few non-executive directorships at parastatals undergoing privatisation.

And there was a third: old African National Congress dinosaurs under whose near insentience his superior intelligence had chafed for decades. He ushered them off to dignified pastures.

This left a few holes. Some he just closed over. For example, he cut the size of the Cabinet by a quarter. Other holes he filled. But now the criterion for doing so was, give or take the odd bow to representivity and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s vanity, a candidate’s ability to deliver.

In came Eric Molobi, Saki Macozoma, Ketso Gordhan and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. And he sent the brilliant young Joel Netshitenzhe, head of government communications, to Harvard Business School in the United States, with instructions not to return until his intelligence had triumphed over residual Marxist sentiment.

Mbeki also quietly set up a consultative group. He peopled it with seven of the brightest people in the land, and gave it a modest budget for administration and research co- ordination. He called it his ”Crap- Catcher Committee”, or Triple C.

Its members’ brief was to think the unthinkable, tell him the unspeakable, come forward with what was innovative, and to produce arguments and recommendations of never more than a single page on any subject or issue he wanted them to address or which they considered important to good government.

He got Mac Maharaj, recently retired as minister of transport, to convene it. And, after a lot of persuasion, Cyril Ramaphosa also came on board. He met Triple C for two-hours at 11am on the first Monday of each month.

Here was a confident Mbeki none could remember. He seemed content with the assumption that the best decisions were likely to result from open debate among serious and talented people. It was an assembly in which he quickly established himself as first among equals.

He appeared to have found a way between, on one hand, the celebration of the new, the future and the individual upon which this openness to criticism depended and, on the other, the African tendency to give greater respect to age, past experience and the unity of the whole.

But South Africa’s journey into the new millennium – and Mbeki’s first three years as president – were fraught. There was a failure of political leadership in the world’s major economies as the international community moved into general financial crisis and deflation in early 1999.

Americans hobbled their president with impeachment proceedings just as decisive government in the world’s largest economy became most necessary. And Western Europe’s effete technocrats went into a blind funk immediately their assumptions no longer applied.

Other people thought their assumptions were being vindicated. Old South African Communist Party ( SACP) hacks became febrile. They behaved as if the old iron law of history was cranking up for a second coming. Jeremy Cronin grew a beard. And, after an accident in which he broke an ankle falling over a pile of unsold copies of African Communist, he took to using a staff to help him walk.

Cronin disappeared for about 40 days and nights. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) thought he might have gone to Cuba or North Korea to solicit help.

But, in November 1999, he emerged on the banks of the Vaal River, south of Johannesburg. There, from the shallows, he began addressing a string of large rallies. If the world wasn’t coming to the end in 2000, he declared, capitalism was.

Cronin so excited the growing ranks of the unwashed and the unfed that, for a period, Mbeki was worried. So, too, was Sizakele Sigxashe, head of the NIA – so concerned that he felt obliged to be seen to spend eight hours a day at his desk in Pretoria.

The government relaxed a bit only when Wally Mbhele of the Mail & Guardian established that, during his disappearance, Cronin had merely been wandering around the Karoo with little more than his staff, beard, sandals, a few sheepskins and a dog-eared copy of Lenin for Beginners.

But Mbeki was taking no chances. He quickly shored up his position. He ushered the ANC into full unity with the Inkatha Freedom Party, pushed through a constitutional amendment creating two deputy presidents, and gave Buthelezi the more junior of these two posts. The other was Jacob Zuma’s.

Mbeki also pulled the plug on the SACP. He withdrew his moles – Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Sydney Mufamadi, Mbhazima Shilowa and others. The rest of the party had to choose.

Most on the politburo and central committee chose the ANC. Meanwhile, on the banks of the Vaal, the hungry masses realised Cronin and his creed could not manage the loaves and fishes trick. Party numbers fell off badly.

The best news Mbeki got in the first six months of his presidency was an e- mail from Netshitenzhe in the US.

”All my -isms,” declared Netshitenzhe, ”have become -wasms. I want to stay to do an MBA. It’ll take me two years, then I’ll come back. Is that a deal?”

Mbeki fired back: ”What are the prospects for Coca-Cola stock?”

”Forget Coke. Buy iridium,” Netshitenzhe replied.

”It’s a deal,” Mbeki said.

In early 2000, Mbeki and his streamlined Cabinet started implementing an emergency regeneration programme to deal with the economic crisis.

As the leading economies ran large budget deficits to take care of impoverished populations, South Africa could do the same without being punished for imprudence.

What distinguished the South African programme was the quality of its design and implementation. This owed a lot to Triple C and Mbeki.

Protective labour legislation was repealed. Mbeki placed a lean team of top businesspeople, government managers and former trade unionists in charge of the programme.

The guiding principle was that every aspect had to help position South Africa as one of the most competitive manufacturing-based economies in the world within a decade.

The programme’s educational thrust stressed the transfer of those skills deemed most vital to improving the country’s competitiveness: in information technology, computing, commerce, science and agriculture.

Thousands of out-of-work managers and businesspeople were given temporary jobs in teaching programmes across the country. A temporary structure of financial incentives was set in place for good students.

A number of projects to develop infrastructure were also generated. The focus fell on communications and telecommunications. The aim was to rebuild a system of ports, airports and arterial transport routes second to none, and to develop a state-of-the-art telecommunications system across the country.

South Africa would henceforth be an outward-looking country, establishing an identity as much via contact with foreigners as in navel-gazing at home.

While most of the rest of the world reimposed exchange controls, South Africa liberalised. The old paradox soon applied: people tend to place their money in places from which they can easily extract it; by late 2001, capital inflows were gratifying.

It was the beginning of a virtuous circle. The rand, which had plunged to R12 to the US dollar by mid-1999, began to climb. As this trend became established, more investment entered, much of it fixed investment, attracted by the country’s external orientation.

The balance of payments improved. And the foreign cost of South Africa’s infrastructural regeneration proved a great deal cheaper than had at first seemed likely. And so on.

An unexpected bonus at this point was the discovery of anti-HIV/Aids vaccines for both major strains of the disease by a government-sponsored South African research team under Dr Wally Prozesky, former head of the Medical Research Council.

Not only did it allow South Africa to begin to arrest the pandemic, but most of the income from the sale of the vaccine abroad would, in future years, be ploughed into care for Aids patients, substantially relieving the fiscus and insurance industry of this burden.

But it was still a very difficult two years to the end of 2002, though an extraordinarily nation-building experience. Many of those whites previously given to whingeing became aware life was not better abroad, and a large number threw themselves into the regeneration programme. From PAGE 33

For millions of black South Africans, the programme was an immensely empowering experience.

At grassroots level, a Social Movement against Crime and Killings (Smack) developed and seriously curbed criminal activity. And for the first time, you could hear people, quite unself- consciously, using the phrase ”the South African nation”.

South Africa pursued a largely isolationist foreign policy. Its only military intervention was a limited Commonwealth mission to Zimbabwe – alongside Commonwealth partners – to prevent a breakdown of order there after the flight of President Robert Mugabe in late 1999.

Mbeki also helped recast regional relations. The over-ambitious Southern African Development Community was disbanded.

A more modest, manageable, essentially Anglophone group comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe was formed around objectives limited to furthering regional trade and economic development.

Mbeki came out of the two difficult years to the end of 2002 greatly strengthened. He was seen to be a man not only of vision, but of attention to detail.

In 2003, South Africa returned to positive economic growth, at 3%. And, by mid-2004, the end of Mbeki’s first term as president, the economy was growing at an annualised 8%.

Ramaphosa’s return to electoral politics in the 2004 election campaign caused great interest. Mbeki made it clear he viewed South Africa’s leading businessman as his probable successor. Voters, like investors, felt more secure. The Constitution dictated Mbeki could be president for only two terms. Netshitenzhe’s simultaneous return from the US prompted talk of a secure succession after Ramaphosa.

The ANC thumped home again in 2004. But the National Democratic Party – a new amalgam of the Democratic Party, National Party and United Democratic Movement under Tony Leon – won 39% of the vote. South Africa was becoming a two-party democracy. The SACP rump got 3%, with other parties barely registering on the electoral radar.

Mbeki gave Ramaphosa the Ministry of Finance. Trevor Manuel retired amid high praise for the skill and political courage he had shown through an exceptionally difficult period.

South Africa took off economically. Growth accelerated further to 9% over each of the next two years, and unemployment began to fall at last. Time magazine carried a cover story asking ”A Southern African miracle?”

In late 2006, Zuma and Buthelezi retired as deputy presidents. Ramaphosa replaced Zuma. Ben Ngubane, once the Inkatha premier of KwaZulu-Natal, became second deputy president. Netshitenzhe left the Ministry of Welfare and Population Development, which he had revolutionised in just two years, for finance.

On that December evening in 2006 that Mbeki announced the Cabinet changes, he, Ramaphosa and Netshitenzhe attended the premier of a new musical drama. It was written by a member of the Soweto String Quartet and a Congolese poet who, until recently, had lived as an illegal alien in South Africa. It was about political fidelity and sexual infidelity, terror, incredible bravery, unrequited pain, triumph and confusion. It was called Nelson and Winnie.

None of its heroes had been painted by numbers. As the lights came up at the end of the third act and the audience sat in the moment of stunned silence that can sometimes precede wild applause, Ramaphosa leaned across to Mbeki and whispered: ”Thabo, I think the African renaissance is upon us.”

Mbeki smiled. ”May-i-bu-ye!” he thought to himself. He started clapping.

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