/ 28 January 2011

Beyond the Mbeki doctrine

Two years since he was booted out of the Union Buildings, Thabo Mbeki still seems to be setting the agenda on some crucial foreign policy questions.

It is more than two years since he was booted out of the Union Buildings, but Thabo Mbeki still seems to be setting the agenda on some crucial foreign policy questions.

How else are we to understand South Africa’s position on the post-election stalemate in Côte d’Ivoire?

The African Union, the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States and the European Union all say Alassane Ouattara won the December presidential election.

His predecessor and rival, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to stand down, and appears to have launched a campaign of violence and intimidation against Ouattara’s supporters.

Mbeki says voting irregularities in the Ouattara-supporting north put the result in question, and suggests that because, in his view, neither man is the winner, a negotiated settlement must follow. The South African government continues in the same vein, and officials in Pretoria are clear that their approach is directly informed by Mbeki’s briefings.

If this sounds even-handed, it is not. It toes the Gbagbo line, designed to legitimise his attempted theft of the elections. There may have been some irregularities that favoured Ouattara, but there were at least as many that helped Gbagbo’s cause, and none of them, according to the most credible observer groups, was serious enough to alter the official result.

A power-sharing deal is appealing to South African ears — we are a nation born of negotiation. It probably also appeals to President Jacob Zuma; he is rightly proud of his peacemaking efforts in KwaZulu-Natal, in Burundi, and even in the fractured ANC. Conciliation for Zuma, and for many of us, is an ideal in itself.

But it would not be a just outcome for the people of Côte d’Ivoire. It would enable Gbagbo to keep his hands on the levers of state power, cash and patronage.

Crucially, it would solidify the trend begun in Kenya and Zimbabwe of rewarding those who refuse to accept electoral outcomes and who use violence to maintain their grip on power.

Gbagbo and his supporters are trying to spin the dispute as a battle of Africans against the neocolonial Western powers. We should not swallow that line, as Mbeki appears to have. Until now, most African countries have not. With Nigeria in the vanguard, many have called for strong action against Gbagbo, and the AU has taken a clear, principled line.

That unity is now under threat, and South Africa seems likely to drive the wedge deeper in Addis Ababa this weekend. With South Africa, Angola and Uganda backing Gbagbo it is likely that the AU position will crumble. The result may be an anti-democratic and unsustainable muddle, accompanied by worsening violence.

It is not too late for Zuma to stand up for democratic principle by recognising Ouattara, or to support calls for targeted financial sanctions against Gbagbo and his clique, backed by the promise of intervention by Ecowas and UN peacekeeping troops — not to topple him, but to prevent further bloodshed.

It is a braver approach, but it is the only one that does justice to the aspirations of Ivorians, and indeed of all Africans, from Tunis to Harare.

Not up to the mark
Public confidence in education is arguably at its lowest point since the heady years immediately before and after 1994 when we dreamed of and then set about ensuring that, in the Freedom Charter’s inspiring words, the doors of learning and culture would open to all.

The 2010 matric results, announced only three weeks ago, ignited a firestorm of incredulity rivalled only by the public scepticism that the implausibly high pass rates in 2002 and 2003 elicited. Now the state’s quality watchdog, Umalusi, faces a court challenge to reveal marks it would prefer we never see.

These events are now unfolding after several years in which internationally benchmarked numeracy and literacy tests of various school grades have consistently placed South African schoolchildren among the worst-performing in the world.

It is therefore a double twist of the knife into whatever public confidence in state education remains that it should be English and maths workbooks that are at the heart of the tender sleaze in the department of basic education we expose this week.

Few who are sensate in that well-funded corner of government can seriously claim the news we break this week is news to them: the network of patronage and favour our story traces shows that several of the key relationships were forged during years that span the tenures of at least three of the four post-1994 basic education ministers.

It is not only journalists who have for years heard exactly the same names in connection with precisely the questions raised in our story this week. So why are they still holding high (or any) office in the department? And how can it be “irrelevant” — as the department told us this week — what the circumstances were in which a senior player in the company central to the tender scandal left the education department some years ago?

When Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced the “death of OBE” last year, she touted workbooks for every pupil as the miracle medicine to restore an ailing education system. Does she still expect they will also restore public confidence?