Mbeki's self-fulfilling paranoia

Howard Barrell writes that the former president raised the agent of his own destruction

There's nothing unusual about ending your political career in failure. Rousing the agent of your own destruction, though, has its oddities.

Yet some politicians have an uncanny tendency to do just that: to bring into existence the nightmares they most fear. Thabo Mbeki was, it seems, one such. He so feared being contradicted that, in making clear he would brook no challenge, he conjured up the very opposition that eventually overwhelmed him.

This may be a familiar South African pattern. Arguably, the late unlamented apartheid government did something similar. Its horror at the prospect of a black-led non-racial government in South Africa caused it to behave in ways that strengthened the prospect of precisely that outcome. Its horror at the ANC and those it called communists caused it to treat the ANC as a more significant threat than the liberation movement ever actually was. In the process, many of us were persuaded finally that the ANC might be worth joining.

This habit of mind - a kind of self-fulfilling paranoia - is the spirit that haunted the Mbeki presidency and made it a shadowed cripple of what it could have been. Mbeki could not recognise a simple paradox, to which there were two elements. One, his best friends were likely to be those willing to criticise him to his face. Two, he needed to be most wary of the sycophants and attack dogs who habitually attach themselves to power.

The personal insecurity that lay behind this failure of insight was unjustified. Few people have less reason than Thabo Mbeki to feel inadequate. Intellectually, he is -- truly -- gifted. The acuity of the political instincts he displayed during the ANC's diplomacy of the late 1980s verged on genius. His ability to identify the fulcrum on which an issue turned was extraordinary. And in those days he was, often, intellectually generous.

By 1999, however, a different Mbeki had evolved. By the time he rose to the greatest position to the land, he seemed to have shrunk. Here, now, was a man willing to demand others' fealty to absurd views on HIV/Aids. It seems he expected the rest of us to believe that science waited on his say-so.

He squandered the international moral capital South Africans had earned from the marvel of their negotiated settlement. He imposed a cruel inertia on attempts to find a settlement in Zimbabwe. His diplomats provided protection to the thugs in uniform who rule Myanmar/Burma and elsewhere. He fluffed plans he had co-authored to ensure good governance among African leaders. And domestically he indulged in a kind of pocket Leninism that asserted the party's control over the institutions of state and over the party's individual members - the latter ironically providing the mechanism by which he was finally undone by his own apparatchiks.

The surest sign for me that something was wrong came when he began to speak of an African renaissance as if he expected the rest of us to believe he could summon one up with a little polemic or poetry.

This behaviour prompted a senior former South African politician to worry once in my company if perhaps the only way to understand Mbeki might be to accept that he was daily grappling, none too successfully, with "primordial problems".

We all have such problems. And, to one degree or another, we struggle to remain centred despite them. But Mbeki seemed not to do this well during his presidency. And he could not have been well served in his attempts to do so by some of those with whom he chose to surround himself. A notably bad choice was the doltishly aggressive Essop Pahad, Minister in the Presidency, whose first, and often sole, response to even marginal criticism of his master was abuse.

It can be something of a dead end to seek the explanations for political choices in individuals' emotional states. Why? Because if we remove the general assumption - as I have done in the case of Mbeki - that individuals make their choices on rational grounds, we can end up having to treat the basis of each person's behaviour as unique. And, in doing so, we can deprive ourselves of any regularities on which to base an understanding of society.

But, in Mbeki's case, seeking explanation in individual psychology - unfair as this can seem when done in public - does appear to provide answers to the form his presidency took where none might otherwise be forthcoming.

There were, of course, facets of Mbeki's presidency that were reasoned and rational. The economic policy he and Trevor Manuel pursued is the pre-eminent instance.

The two acknowledged the international realities of the 1990s. One, they could not wish away the certainty that there would be massive capital flight from South Africa if an ANC government engaged in a dramatic redistribution of wealth. Two, they saw that, without sound money, no progress or development would be possible. And, three, they defied the Left's fantasy that a country such as South Africa that accounted for merely one half of one percent of world economic output could hold up two fingers to prevailing international economic orthodoxies and still expect to prosper.

The economic growth and the stability that resulted are Mbeki's great legacy - whatever the increasingly prevalent suggestions that he and Manuel were slow in recent years to exploit changing conditions to give millions of South Africa's poorest a bigger hand-up.

For that, we should thank Mbeki. Otherwise, he was his own worst enemy -- and not much use to the rest of us.

Dr Howard Barrell is a former editor of the Mail & Guardian. He served in ANC intelligence structures inside South Africa and in exile between 1982 and 1988. His politics doctorate at Oxford University examined ANC operational strategy between 1976 and 1986. He is now senior lecturer in journalism at Cardiff University in the UK

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