Why Thabo Mbeki was ousted

September 25, 2008

South African President Thabo Mbeki's resignation follows months of political turmoil in which Mbeki unsuccessfully sought to keep his main rival, Jacob Zuma, from taking over as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Mbeki was forced to resign as president by the ANC's National Executive Committee after a court found that government prosecutors mishandled their case against the ANC leader Zuma, who is accused of corruption in a $3.7 billion weapons contract involving South African and several European companies. (Zuma has also been tried for rape; he was acquitted in 2006.)

Despite his legal problems, Zuma has capitalized in growing discontent with Mbeki among the rank and file of the ANC and its allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The opposition has grown over Mbeki's handling of the economy. The government's Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) program, a home-grown version of an International Monetary Fund-type pro-business program, the benefits of growth have gone almost exclusively to a new Black elite, as well as the old white ruling class of the apartheid era.

Zuma, who was South Africa's deputy president until 2005, mounted a successful campaign to defeat Mbeki in last December's contest to become ANC leader. Since then, Zuma installed his allies in key political positions in the ANC and isolated Mbeki. Thus, when Mbeki's government prosecutors announced their intention to retry the case against Zuma, the ANC leadership moved quickly to oust Mbeki to pre-empt such a move.

This transition comes at a key moment in post-apartheid South African history. The enormous class polarization set the stage for violent xenophobic attacks last May, in which dozens of immigrants from other African nations were killed in mass violence as scapegoats for high unemployment and other economic problems. At the same time, however, the labor movement has responded to popular pressure for change with greater action.

Mbeki's ouster will intensify the growing debate over South Africa's political future. The following editorial from Amandla, a new South African socialist magazine, discusses the prospects for South African politics after Mbeki. It is published here with permission.

THE RECALL of Thabo Mbeki by the National Executive Committee of the ANC has less to do with his performance and the policies he put in place as president, and more to do with the internal conflicts in the ANC.

These conflicts have to do with the allegations of corruption linked to the arms deal and in the struggle for leadership inside the ANC in a context where leadership and position are important in securing economic empowerment.

Amandla adds its voice to the many calling for a full investigation into the arms deal so that those guilty of corruption can be prosecuted and those falsely accused can be cleared. Without a full and transparent investigation, the stench of corruption will follow those fingered to high office and will affect everything they do.

It's ironic that the very pro-market policies driven by Thabo Mbeki at the expense of alternative possibilities for social redistribution of wealth created the environment in which a Black elite could grow, and whose struggle over the empowerment deals often exacerbates existing tensions and conflicts, and gives rise to competing camps.

South African President Thabo Mbeki
South African President Thabo Mbeki

The Zuma camp, which challenged and defeated Mbeki's attempt to retain power in the ANC, is the emergence of this process aligning with a number of disgruntled individuals and forces that have suffered at the hands of Mbeki's authoritarianism and tendency to marginalize all those that disagreed with him.

COSATU and the SACP constitute a left wing of this camp, which can be characterized as populist with strong tendencies towards intolerance of those that do not share its point of view. Their pragmatic statements denying that they will change economic policies suggests they do not pose a real alternative to the anti-working class policies of the Mbeki government.

Zuma himself has no record in government, both as deputy president and as MEC (member of the executive council) for finance in the KwaZulu Natal provincial government of opposing neoliberal policies.

If Mbeki's recall had anything to do with his policies and style of leadership, he should have been recalled a long time ago. He should have been fired for economic policies that left the structure and ownership of the economy largely unchanged.

The set of policies like GEAR and others that liberalized the economy have been responsible for unemployment doubling, poverty increasing and inequality worsening since the end of apartheid. His AIDS policies resulted in the avoidable death of hundreds of thousands of AIDS sufferers that were denied proper medication, nutrition and access to basic services.

Progressive movements and forces must use the space that has been created by the removal of Mbeki and the formation of a new government under Kgalema Motlanthe to debate what policies are needed to address the problems of mass poverty, unemployment and overcome a situation where South Africa has become the most unequal country in the world. Failure to shift policy from those of Mbeki will simply create a new round of division, conflict and social upheaval.

We cannot forget that our country has just experienced a wave of xenophobic attacks against sections of the population that live under conditions of extreme vulnerability. Every day, more and more people are becoming more insecure and marginalized.

Conditions are ripe for the rise of demagogic, populist and reactionary tendencies, of which xenophobia is just one expression. Racism, communalism and ethnic violence can easily burst forth unless we change direction fundamentally. The struggle for social justice is as relevant as ever.

First published by Amandla Publishers.

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