Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Failures of Thabo Mbeki

Crackpot and dangerous theories on AIDS. Extreme and widening levels of income inequality. Enabling Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and only belatedly trying to halt mob atrocities against desperate Zimbabwean and other African immigrants.

This is the legacy of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, who has one more year in his second term.

It would be hard to imagine a more depressing contrast with the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Mr. Mbeki’s predecessor and one of the 20th century’s great heroes.

History will laud Mr. Mandela for leading his country, peacefully, from hateful apartheid to democratic majority rule, marvel at his commitment to honesty and healing and celebrate his promotion of South Africa as a diverse and tolerant “rainbow nation.”

If it remembers Mr. Mbeki at all, it will be for appointing a health minister who favoured garlic and beet root as treatment for South Africa’s more than five million citizens infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and for his stubborn refusal to use South Africa’s economic and political clout to stop Zimbabwe’s horrors.

Instead, Mr. Mbeki declared that there was “no crisis,” even as Zimbabwe’s electoral count was being hijacked, opposition supporters terrorized and thousands of its citizens fleeing over the border to South Africa where they still have not found safety. The only explanation is his misplaced loyalty to Mr. Mugabe, who was once a hero for leading Zimbabwe to majority rule.

South Africa is the richest, most developed country south of the Sahara and the continent’s largest, most exemplary democracy. Africa badly needs its enlightened leadership. A decade ago, under Mr. Mandela, South Africa was swiftly emerging as the respected leader of a proud, postcolonial Africa.

Under Mr. Mbeki’s leadership, the fruits of the nation’s hard-fought victory over apartheid have gone mainly to officials and former officials of the ruling African National Congress, not to the millions of poor people in the townships who faced down the dogs, the bullets and the pass laws and still must live without adequate jobs, education, housing or health services.

The resulting frustration and anger helps explain, though it cannot justify, this week’s outbreak of xenophobic violence in the shantytowns. At least 42 victims have been killed — many beaten, stabbed, hacked or burned to death — and some 25,000 have been chased from their homes.

Mr. Mbeki’s most likely successor, Jacob Zuma, the current leader of the A.N.C., is no Nelson Mandela either. While more popular among the poor than the arrogant and aloof Mr. Mbeki, he has offered few coherent ideas for addressing their economic plight. He has been more willing to criticize Mr. Mugabe’s electoral manipulations, but overly cautious in proposing solutions (though that is Mr. Mbeki’s job, not his). His ignorance on AIDS and appalling attitudes toward women — revealed in a 2006 rape trial that ended in his acquittal — stained his personal reputation. Serious corruption charges against him are still pending.

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.

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