South African President Mbeki is leaving office on a sour note

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2008 

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It seems that President Bush isn't the only world leader suffering from late-term blues. South African President Thabo Mbeki's final year in office has been marred by a series of embarrassments that have stained the legacy of the man who followed Nelson Mandela as leader of Africa's indispensable nation.

In the twilight of his two-term presidency, with the economy flagging and his foreign policy under fire, critics say his feeble response to domestic crises has put the "lame" in lame duck.

Since January, South Africa has seen a nationwide electricity crisis, deadly attacks on African immigrants, a widening rift between Mbeki and his probable successor, Jacob Zuma, and international criticism of Mbeki's handling of the disaster in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Add to that the failure to curb one of the world's highest urban crime rates and its largest population of HIV/AIDS cases, and it's not difficult to see why disillusionment is growing. A government-funded survey recently found that 29 percent of South Africans were considering moving to another country, according to the Mail and Guardian newspaper.

Though only 14 years removed from white-dominated apartheid rule — and still far better off than most of Africa — these are unsteady times for the leading economic, political and cultural force on the continent.

And no one bears greater responsibility for the state of this young democracy than Mbeki, 66, who steered the country for five years as Mandela's deputy before winning the presidency in 1999.

He's reformed the economy and helped to resolve thorny conflicts in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But unlike the iconic, perpetually sunny Mandela, who rarely dirtied his hands with policy matters, Mbeki is cold and cerebral, a brilliant political mind that often seems disinterested in actually governing.

Marking Mandela's 90th birthday this month, columnist Barney Mthombothi recalled in the Financial Mail newspaper that many South Africans a decade ago "couldn't wait for the great man to make way for (Mbeki).

"Needless to say, their prince has turned out to be a frog."

Blinkered by what critics call his I-know-best leadership style, Mbeki was skeptical of scientists' dire projections of the spread of HIV, which infects an estimated one in five South African adults. As the main mediator in the Zimbabwean political crisis, Mbeki is accused of coddling the dictatorial president, Robert Mugabe, whom some say he regards as a father figure.

Zimbabwe's main opposition party agreed to start talks with Mugabe this week only after Mbeki added two senior African diplomats to the mediation team.

"He has been tarnished by Zimbabwe, by AIDS, by a sense that he understood how to govern this place in theory but not in practice," said Steven Friedman, a veteran analyst and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

Barred from seeking a third term next year, Mbeki wanted to stay on as head of the ruling African National Congress party. But delegates to a party conference in December overwhelmingly backed Zuma, Mbeki's charismatic former deputy, now the presumptive front-runner for the presidency.

"I'm not (Mbeki's) psychologist, but he's certainly behaved for much of this year like he's deeply hurt and wounded by the fact that he was rejected by his party," Friedman said.

Soon after that came an unprecedented electricity shortfall that caused widespread blackouts, forcing the critical mining industry to suspend operations for several days and badly rattling investors. The government had failed to build enough power stations, but Mbeki struck a discordant note when he said that South Africans needed to become more energy efficient.

Then, in May, frustration with stubbornly high unemployment boiled over in the country's poor townships. Black South Africans went on a rampage against immigrants from other African countries, killing more than 60 people and forcing some 17,000 from their homes.

At its worst, the violence, which included images of one man being burned alive, was reminiscent of the darkest days of apartheid. Yet for two weeks Mbeki was silent. When he finally addressed the nation, speaking mechanically from an overstuffed chair, he blamed the attacks on "criminality."

The episode "did enormous damage to South Africa's profile on the continent," said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, national director of the South African Institute for International Affairs, an independent think tank.

"It was a similar sense after the electricity crisis: Where was the political leadership?"

More uncertainty lies ahead. Zuma's quest for the presidency — though threatened by corruption charges — has created a powerful rival camp within the ruling party. This month the head of the party's youth league said that Zuma's opponents were part of a "counter-revolution" and should be eliminated.

Analysts say Mbeki's final months in office will be a test of what he's built.

"We're still a fragile democracy," Sidiropoulos said. "These are the teenage years. If we weather this, it's great."

More from McClatchy:

Refugees suffer poverty, alienation in South Africa

Under pressure, South Africa expropriating white-owned farm

In South Africa, activists fear trial will perpetuate AIDS myths

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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