In 1990, a few months after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela toured the United States. Travelling to eight cities in 11 days and addressing the US Congress — as the first African and only the third private citizen to do so — Mandela helped cement Americans’ popular associations with South Africa.
This was what Port Elizabeth-born academic Rob Nixon described at the time as South Africa’s ‘idiom and psychology of redemptive politics”: deliverance from bondage, divine election, promised lands and the destiny of humanity.
Since that first fateful trip to the US, Mandela has made a few more, including a visit in September 1998 to receive the Congressional Medal of Honour from former president Bill Clinton.
Whoever would be Mandela’s successor would of course struggle to hold up to Mandela’s legacy among Americans. And some would argue that Mandela set an impossible standard. For much of his tenure, Thabo Mbeki seemed to endear himself to American policy and media elites. He even became a key ally of George W Bush’s administration with President Bush going so far as to refer to Mbeki as his ‘point man in Africa”.
As the Bush administration increasingly became embroiled in the Middle East, it needed surrogates to do its heavy lifting elsewhere. In Africa South Africa appeared a stable ally and Mbeki, driven partly by his own ideas about African renaissance, was willing to spend South African taxes to solve the continent’s problems. His administration was heavily involved in a number of peace processes, including Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, at the same time Mbeki did much to reverse Mandela’s association with ‘redemptive politics”.
Though Mbeki can belatedly take credit for bringing Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime to the negotiation table with the political opposition in neighbouring Zimbabwe — albeit after eight violent years during which Mbeki practised his ‘quiet diplomacy”— he has been roundly pilloried for the ambiguous and often controversial role he played in that crisis. Similarly, his Aids policies have been disastrous (it was the Clinton administration, by the way, that first leaked word of Mbeki’s denialism in 2000). Yet most international observers seem to give him a pass as long as he kept the economy stable. He promoted privatisation and advocated free and open markets even though the latter made the economy vulnerable to external shocks and contagion.
So reading The New York Times and Washington Post (American TV, including the local edition of CNN, is sparse on ‘world news”), most American elites and part-time observers of South Africa developed a disappointing sense of Mbeki. In May last year The New York Times editorial board finally denounced Mbeki as ‘arrogant and aloof” adding: ‘South Africa can ill afford another five years of failed leadership and frustrated hopes. Whoever succeeds Mr. Mbeki must look long and hard at all that has gone wrong and vow to do better. South Africans and all of Africa need and deserve better.”
Though some here noted the opposition to Mbeki within his own party, they did not anticipate Jacob Zuma’s stunning victory at the ANC’s National Congress in December 2007, nor the sacking of Mbeki nine months later (The New York Times described the latter process as ‘regicide”). Not surprisingly, South Africa is in the news again with references to ‘gloom” and ‘anxiety about its future”.
Zuma was invited by the US government to visit the capital Washington DC. He was accompanied by a small delegation. New York City was his last stop on a trip ‘to clarify issues regarding happenings in South Africa” and a small, Africa-related centre at New York University had arranged a talk and small ‘wine and cheese reception”. Growing interest, however, led to the event being switched to a much larger venue. It became clear that South Africa still has people’s attention and not just the professoriat’s.
Zuma and his delegation will probably mark the visit as a success. His remarks put a rosy gloss on recent developments in South Africa. The talk was general enough for Zuma to come across as in charge. It contained the usual platitudes that go down well in certain quarters. Gail Gerhart, a noted South Africanist here, noted that Zuma used the World Bank-friendly word ‘robust” at least six times. And he was eager to emphasise continuity and stability.
An ANC government, he insisted, was concerned about the gap between rich and poor. Zuma wants ‘decent jobs”, not ‘casualisation” for the country’s workers, to tackle the skills mismatch, prioritise education, a better healthcare system, ‘overhaul” the criminal justice system, and install ‘checks and balances” in the economy. He was all for collective leadership and not for a ‘one-man show”.
As for the current crisis in the party, that was a fabrication of the media ‘to sell newspapers”.
He seemed to have mastered the art of appearing to answer questions while not doing so and his ‘charm” was on full display. The audience applauded at regular intervals.
But when stripped of the party jargon and the generalisations, his talk (which he read) did not reveal much as to how he’d govern any differently from his predecessor.
It was left for question time to bring some reality to proceedings. Right at the end — in the final round of questions — a young South African wanted to know why the ANC was so keen to remove Mbeki, when Mbeki still coordinates negotiations in Zimbabwe.
Zuma did not answer that question, although earlier he indicated he thought Zimbabwe’s ongoing political and economic crises are equally the fault of both that country’s main political parties. He insisted much of the rancour about South Africa’s handling of the crisis was the result of misinformation, since South Africa had been putting pressure on the Zimbabwean government all along. He added, for good measure, that the West could not lecture Zimbabwe since it coddled autocratic leaders elsewhere such as General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. This seems a discouraging foray into the two-wrongs-make-a-right school of international affairs.
Zuma insisted there wouldn’t be any break with Mbeki’s economic policies (approvingly quoting Mbeki’s now discredited idea of ‘two economies”) and told a questioner who wanted to know about growing trade unions and Communist Party influence on the ANC that ‘the ANC is too big an organisation to be hijacked by anyone”.
Hlonipha Mokoena, a South African academic based in New York City, suggested to me that Zuma was a bad mimic of Mbeki. ‘Whatever may be said about Mbeki’s intellectualism and aloofness, we can at least believe he wrote his own speeches and infused them with originality and sagacity.”
Mokoena suggested a new name for Zuma: ‘a bureauklept”, since he ‘cut-and-pasted from policy documents of the different government departments and gave it to us as original ‘ANC policy’ or as the voice of the collective”.
Right near the end, someone asked what Zuma would do about introducing an ‘ethical culture” into South African politics.
He did not get to answer that question as the organiser decided to call it a night.
Sean Jacobs, an academic and researcher, lives in New York City. He is an assistant professor of African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor