IN SOUTH Africa, the latest political fad is being down on President Jacob Zuma and high on his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.
Nostalgia for former President Mbeki is washing over South Africa these days. A book about his presidency by the civil servant who ran his office sold out before it even hit the shelves last week. Weeks earlier, a prominent Sunday newspaper had boldly asserted on its front page, “Mbeki Is Back.”
But all this interest in Mbeki, who was in power from 1999 to 2008, is really about disinterest in the current president, Jacob Zuma. It’s about concerns that Zuma might be reelected as president of the African National Congress later this year, which would pave his way to a second term as South Africa’s president in 2014.
Zuma’s critics — like the leadership of the A.N.C. youth wing led by Julius Malema and trade unionists who think the A.N.C. is not being sufficiently pro-worker — aren’t even hoping for Mbeki’s return: the Constitution prohibits him from serving another presidential term, and he doesn’t seem very interested in heading the A.N.C. again. They are probably trying to make room for another candidate, like the current deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe.
This may seem like garden-variety politicking and positioning, and it is. But it’s also a kind of mythmaking that dangerously distorts historical truths and undermines any honest evaluation of who best can lead the ruling party and the country.
Mbeki’s fans are right: he did have some leadership strengths. He was in firm intellectual control of his presidency. His centrist macroeconomic policies mixed pragmatism and a concern for welfare, to good effect. To attract foreign direct investment, he relaxed exchange controls and made the labor market more flexible, all the while maintaining high spending on social security.
Internationally, Mbeki also championed the view that Africa should be treated as an equal player on the world stage. To show that the continent was capable of managing its own democratization, for example, he supported the African Peer Review Mechanism, an institution run by Africans to evaluate each member country’s overall development.
Zuma, by contrast, appears intellectually limp and indecisive. In particular he has not done enough to help professionalize the civil service or root out corruption. During recent debates, he offered no view about whether to nationalize mines. He has also been vague about whether the powers of the constitutional court should be revised. According to the prominent political analyst Prince Mashele, Zuma offers “giggling affability,” but “little in the form of intellectual distinction places Zuma above the level of an average member of the A.N.C.”
The A.N.C. has not taken kindly to such portrayals and counters they are elitists’ reaction to Zuma’s rural background rather than a fair assessment of his record or skills.
It, too, has a point. All those warm and fuzzy memories of Mbeki are part revisionism. His policies on AIDS, for instance, were a disaster. Mbeki distrusted the science that held H.I.V. causes AIDS, and he questioned the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs. As a result, AIDS drugs were rolled out not in 2000, when they could have been, but only in 2004, and some 330,000 preventable AIDS-related deaths occurred in the intervening years.
But Mbeki’s fans are overlooking these important facts in their effort to undermine the case for Zuma’s reelection. This is not only to mistreat history; it is also to distort an important reality: that no leader has yet cracked South Africa’s post-democratic development challenges. There has yet to be a post-apartheid president who combines intellectual heft with technocratic talent and can also move South Africans of all backgrounds to overcome historic wrongs together.
Nelson Mandela was inspirational, of course, but he was no technocrat. Mbeki was intellectually gifted but a divisive character. Zuma has a charming, inclusive style, but he has failed to develop a bureaucracy that can deliver on the A.N.C’s electoral promise, “A better life for all.” Despite the mythmaking about some of these big men, for the majority of South Africans, the gap between policy and progress remains gigantic.
Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. This article was originally published in the International Herald Tribune