Thabo Mbeki’s new age of denial?

A week before President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address, his ‘age of hope”, trumpeted in last year’s speech, is at risk.

Despite 96 straight months of economic growth his recent dismissal of concerns about of two of South Africa’s most pernicious social ills — crime and corruption — have undercut public confidence in his presidency.

An ‘age of denial”, HIV/Aids, unemployment, crime and corruption now threaten his legacy.

‘Where is the age of hope?” asked Florence Nkwashu, a resident from Shawelo, Soweto. ‘The only hope we have is if the people take things into their own hands. I don’t know where it’s going to end. We are so tired”.

In an interview flighted on South African Broadcasting Corporation television three weeks ago, Mbeki said it was just a perception that crime was out of control.

‘It’s not as if someone will walk here to the [television] studio in Auckland Park and get shot. That doesn’t happen and it won’t happen. Nobody can prove that the majority of the country’s 40-million to 50-million citizens think that crime is spinning out of control,” he said.

Asked about recent reports implicating a number of South Africans in a British police probe on corruption between British arms companies and foreign government officials, Mbeki said the bidding process for South Africa’s arms deal was ‘perfectly correct” and not affected by corruption.

Analysts are divided about whether Mbeki’s recent bout of denials can be equated to his HIV/Aids quackery at the turn of the century in which he fatally refuted the scientific link between HIV and Aids. They agree, however, that his rebuff of crime and corruption combined with South Africa’s recent delay in publishing the African Peer Review Mechanism report, have seriously weakened public trust in his leadership.

‘He hasn’t been any more of a denialist in this case than any other leader. All leaders defend their record,” said Richard Calland, executive director for the open democracy advice centre at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. ‘But any leader who lacks empathy with his or her people [demonstrates] bad politics.”

Xolela Mangcu, a visiting scholar at the Public Intellectual Life Project at the University of the Witwatersrand and a non-resident WEB DuBois Fellow at Harvard University, said Mbeki’s recent comments ‘add to a whole series of different kinds of denial that have characterised his leadership. They have fed into the belief that he is out of touch with South Africans.”

Presidential gainsay

The oddity of the president’s remark about crime is that it came a week after the ANC had issued its January 8 statement vowing to dedicate resources and energies to fight the scourge of crime.

‘Without decisive action to curb crime, it could undermine our efforts to ensure the country is able to realise its social and economic potential,” the statement said.

According to Mangcu: ‘When Mbeki is not reading from a script, he feels the need to defend the government and its policies. He needs to stick to the script to avoid these kinds of contradictions.”

The anomaly in the furore over Mbeki’s denialist comments is that crime statistics support him.

According to the South African Police Service’s crime figures for the financial year ending March 2006, crime levels have consistently decreased over the past three years. The total for the 21 most serious crimes (including murder, rape, house robbery and car hijackings) increased by 7% between 1994 and 2003. Since then, however, overall crime levels have dropped by an average of 6% a year.

It is believed that Mbeki circulated a document containing these statistics at the ANC Cabinet lekgotla last month, to demonstrate that, although crime was a problem, it was not out of hand.

Mbeki apparently told the lekgotla that the crime issue was being hijacked by reactionary forces to undermine the democratic movement. The president is said to have expressed his concern about how negative messages about crime were being communicated. It is believed he argued that part of the reason for the uproar about crime was that it was increasing in affluent areas, which had been regarded as safe for many years.

Why the uproar?

So why the public uproar over Mbeki’s comments?

Centre for Policy Studies analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said it appeared Mbeki wanted to enter into an academic debate about the realities of crime, based on statistics at his disposal, as against perceptions of crime.

‘What the president is unaware of is steady convergence of opinion on crime, particularly since the Jeppestown shootings last year. Crime is becoming increasingly deracialised as more people become angry over its effects,” said Matshiqi. ‘It seems to me the president feels that the perceptions of increasing crime are incorrect as viewed against the information he has. But that is significant only for debate.

‘The reality is that the levels of crime in this country are unacceptably high. That is what the president should be focusing on; giving leadership instead of winning narrow points.”

According to Antoinette Louw, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, ‘The response of police leadership has left the public with a sense that the government, and the police in particular, don’t care about the problem or its consequences.

According to Idasa and Afrobarometer public-opinion surveys conducted last year almost half (48%) of South Africans believe that all or most police officials are involved in corruption.

‘We feel so pathetic. Our kids come home with stolen goods and what can we say if Mbeki is denying crime?” asks Rebecca Mtimkulu, a resident from Meadowlands, Soweto. ‘I’ve been travelling with the ANC my whole life and they’ve done nothing [for me].”

Jenny Foden, who lives in Bryanston, Johannesburg, said: ‘The problem in South Africa at the moment is not so much the crime, it’s that we all feel so alone on the issue of crime. The perception, whether rightly or wrongly, that crime is out of control is fed almost entirely by the denial of the government.”

A besieged nation

Next week Mbeki faces a besieged nation. Only 40% of South Africans think the government is doing enough to reduce crime, according to a Markinor bi-annual government performance barometer survey conducted among 3 500 people in November last year. This has dropped from 51% a year ago.

Mbeki prefaced his State of the Nation address last year with a list of surveys that captured the ‘age of hope”. This year, the same surveys paint a much bleaker picture.

Last year, Mbeki quoted a Gallup International survey, which ranked South Africa eighth on a ‘top optimists” list of 12 countries. This year, South Africa hasn’t made the list.

Last year, the Grant Thornton International Business Owners Survey reported that 84% of South African business owners were optimistic about the following year. This year the figure has dropped to 71%.

Last year Mbeki quoted First National Bank and the Bureau for Economic Research, which reported that the consumer confidence index was at its highest in 25 years. The same survey released for the fourth quarter of last year showed that while consumer confidence remained at these levels, it was only so among those earning more than R4 000 a month. ‘Those earning less than R800 per month dropped sharply compared with the third quarter,” the survey noted.

The dampening of economic sentiment in the country in the short term has been caused by increased interest rates, the sharp depreciation of the rand since May and the country’s precarious balance of payments position, but chief economist at First National Bank, Cees Bruggemans, believes that crime could ultimately undermine the positive growth in the country.

He argued: ‘Economic performance ever so steadily becomes undermined, even as the bean counters keep on noticing more economic activity.”

Mbeki faces one of his toughest State of the Nation addresses next week — the price of his denial could cost him his legacy as a strong manager and a good governor.

How to squander a legacy in three steps

Step 1. Deny Aids. In 2001, President Thabo Mbeki began to question the links between HIV and Aids. He established a presidential advisory panel comprised of the world’s most notorious dissident scientists. The dissidents have found a willing supporter in vitamin salesman, Matthias Raath, who in turn has been fondly received in South Africa. Mbeki does not say anything substantive or persuasive about HIV and Aids.

Step 2. Gun for Blair. In Davos last weekend, Mbeki fired an unusual broadside at British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair, said Mbeki, was hypocritical for scotching an investigation into allegedly corrupt arms deals involving BAE in Saudi Arabia while allowing an investigation into the South African arms deal to continue. Mbeki has refused to consider new evidence that various South Africans received over R1-billion in commissions and fees from BAE in the course of the arms deal.

Step 3. Act like the Queen. Mbeki is doing a fine impersonation of Queen Elizabeth (as played by Helen Mirren in the movie, The Queen). He is sticking to the technical detail of the fight against crime and refusing to recognise the fear gripping his nation. This is similar to the way in which the queen completely misjudged the mood of her people after the death of Princess Diana.

In his own words


2003: Mbeki told the Washington Post: ‘Personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of Aids. I really, honestly don’t.”


2005: Questioning the figure of four million South Africans actively looking for work, Mbeki wrote on the ANC website, ‘This is such a large number of people that nobody could possibly have missed the millions that would be in the streets and in village paths actively looking for work in all places of employment.”


2007: In an interview with Tim Modise on SABC television Mbeki said: ‘It’s not as if someone will walk here to the [television] studio in Auckland Park and get shot. That doesn’t happen and it won’t happen. Nobody can prove that the majority of the country’s 40-million to 50-million citizens think that crime is spinning out of control.”


2007: In the same interview when asked about corruption in the arms deal, Mbeki said the arms deal bidding process was ‘perfectly correct” and not affected by any corruption.

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Vicki Robinson
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Rapule Tabane
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