'Thabo's Republic': Robert Schrire's 1998 article on Mbeki

The prescient analysis of the then future president Leadership Magazine November 1998




He is small of stature with a pleasant and good natured demeanour. His admirers describe him as suave and diplomatic; his detractors - and he has many - see him as ruthless and manipulative. All agree, however, that Thabo Mbeki will be a decisive factor in shaping the future of South Africa. If a characteristic of a mature democracy is that political leadership I not absolutely critical, then South Africa still has a long way to go. We stand or fall with the Mbeki presidency.

Despite the consequent scrutiny of the man and his ideas, most observers have described him as an enigma and have professed themselves uncertain about what kind of president he will be. There are many clues, however, which provide strong indicators of how his administration will unfold. He is, after all, a man who has been active in politics for 40 years - he joined the youth league of the ANC when he was only fourteen and has been a member of the party's inner circle for two decades.

He was a highly visible representative of the liberation movement in exile and has been the Deputy President since 1994. He is certainly no political newcomer.

An examination of his personality and style provides interesting insights into his likely presidency. Perhaps his most significant characteristic is his inability to handle face-to-face conflict and the lengths to which he will go to avoid conflict situations. Like many other important leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, his often powerful, even strident, public rhetoric is not matched by forcefulness in interpersonal relationships or in small groups. He has deliberately cultivated a diplomatic mien to escape the cut and thrust of conflict situations. Thabo Mbeki is a man who hates a scene!

He finds it difficult to confront an opponent directly or openly express anger. This temperament can be problematic in contexts which demand strong action. As one of his cabinet colleagues remarked ‘diplomacy is as diplomacy does - and in Mbeki's case it doesn't do very much'.

Mbeki's personality thus creates a style of action which protects him from conflict situations. He clearly prefers to operate behind the scenes where he is an acknowledged master of the tactical thrust. He has created a network of loyalists who have penetrated all levels of the ANC and the government and who protect him from outside pressures. Because they are Mbeki's creation with no independent power bases, they closely identify their own interests and future with Mbeki's.

This political style has several consequences. Political loyalty becomes the most important factor in determining recruitment to the Mbeki team. This in turn requires personalities and intellects who constitute no threat to the leader personally. Not for Mbeki the Kennedy and Roosevelt style of leadership where strong and independent personalities are brought into the presidential team and the president, through strength of personality, resolves the inevitable conflicts.

A second consequence is that both leader and staff become mutually dependent upon each other. While the aides clearly are dependent upon Mbeki's continued favour for their positions, the leader too becomes increasingly dependent upon his staff to make the system work. An inevitable consequence of ‘invisible leadership' is that the role of the courtiers who are out in front becomes critical.

What beliefs and values underpin the Mbeki team? Perhaps the most consistent them in Mbeki's long political career has been the pursuit of political power - a trait in which he resembles more closely Both and De Klerk than Verwoerd and Mandela. Whereas most political leaders come to be identified with a faction or a ideology, Mbeki's allies range from liberals to Africanists, and from active Marxists to anti-communist members of the newly affluent black elite.

He is almost impossible to categorise either politically or ideologically. What is clear however, is that in the complex mix which makes up his intellectual and emotional world, a deep well of bitterness exists.

In Mandela one senses, in spite of a life largely ruined by incarceration and struggle, a deep reservoir of the ‘politics of joy and hope'. This is notably absent from Mbeki. This may stem in part from the thankless and frustrating role he has been forced to play since 1994.

Playing valet to an official saint would be an exercise in frustration for even the most humble and unambitious of men - and Mbeki is neither!

His achievements, which are substantial, have underpinned the mystique of the Mandel presidency while many of the administration's failures have been laid at his door. The emotional cost to this proud and able man must have been considerable. Yet one sense a deeper well of frustration and bitterness.

Perhaps more than Mandela and the older generation of black leaders, Mbeki has been scarred by the struggle against white domination.

Emotion and intellect are at war with each other. He may find it difficult to accept emotionally the reality that South Africa needs the services of the former beneficiaries of apartheid - the white farmers who control most of the available land and produce most of the agricultural exports, the white professionals whose expertise keeps the health, educational and legal systems functioning, and the wealthy whose capital keeps the mines, factories and service sector globally competitive.

Yet the former apartheid beneficiaries are the first to attack the ANC for corruption and inefficiency. Their smugness and self-righteousness, their sensitivity to threats to their interests, real and imaginary, and their frequent racism and thinly disguised belief in the inferiority of anything black, must be very difficult for black intellectuals to accept.

Emotionally Mbeki is torn between his visceral dislike and contempt for these groups and his recognition that they hold the key to the success or failure of his administration.

Mbeki's administration will be the first genuine ANC government. Since 1994, a statutorily determined government of national unity has been in place. Thus despite its electoral dominance, the ANC did not enjoy a totally free hand. It was also inhibited by the various agreements which secured the interests and employment rights of the pre-existing public sector and judiciary. These limitations on the exercise of power were reinforced by the novelty of holding government office, and Mandela's decision, forced upon him by advancing age, to be a relatively disengaged chief executive.

Mbeki's perspective and position are very different. As a relatively youthful leader he will undoubtedly have an expectation of serving two terms in office. He will be head of a government with a large parliamentary majority and no opposition which can claim to be a credible government-in-waiting.

The first presidential challenge for Mbeki will be to create his own team. This will entail filling positions in the office of the president, appointing a cabinet, and most importantly, filling the post of deputy president. These appointments, especially that of his deputy, will be the litmus test of his presidency. If my reading of Mbeki is accurate, we are going to be disappointed.

Most of the rather limited officials in his present office will move with him. The cabinet will be chose on loyalty rather than competency. It is possible that the deputy president will by Jacob Zuma or even a non-African.

Some even believe a political deal with the IFP's Buthelez could make him eligible. None of these could be viewed as a credible future president, but they constitute no threat to Mbeki.

Such an appointment might shatter the already fragile confidence of South Africa's future. Ironically a major part of the success of the Mandela government was the result of the choice of Mbeki, who inspired confidence in the country and abroad. It seems that no room in the Mbeki team will be found for our ablest leaders, Mathews Phosa and Cyril Ramaphosa.

If the Mbeki team is unlikely to contain many giants, the instruments of government will undoubtedly expand. The recent report of the Presidential Review Commission clearly foreshadows the re-emergence of the imperial presidency.

The office of the president will grow considerably to include many key aspects of policy making and implementation in fiels such as economics, security and foreign policy.

The presidential staff will recapture powers they last enjoyed under Botha - and lost under De Klerk and Mandela. They will control the presidential machine and determine access to the president, the flow of information and the choice of priorities. Unlike Mandela's staff, the officials who oil the imperial presidency will exercise more power, if not authority, than most members of the cabinet.

Thabo Mbeki, like all other leaders, reflects the complex mix of elements in his make-up. We have focused on some of his personality characteristics and style, and at first sight we are reminded of Nixon's failed presidency.

We could thus script the following scenario: a powerful but unloved leader, surrounded by loyal but mediocre staff, seeks to control the vast apparatus of government. His manipulative style leads to his gradual isolation from both the public and the political elite.

Motivated by a mix of policy goals and a vengeful private agenda, he rewards loyalists and seeks vindictively to punish those who oppose him.

He views politics as a struggle between enemies rather than a competition between opponents. Policy failures are attributed to conspiracies and hidden dark forces. Ultimately, the combination of character flaws and the excesses of the imperial presidency bring about the inevitable tragedy.

There is however, another possibility - Mbeki the juggernaut. He is clearly an intelligent and sophisticated leader who recognises that if the present drift continues, South Africa's democratic experience will fail.

In a world of globalisation where competition is brutal, no country can afford the luxury of excessive compromise and delay. Successful transformation will entail a viable balance between what is necessary and what is politically possible.

Mbeki may be able to confront full on with the full resources of the imperial presidency the related problems of crime and unemployment. These are his pre-eminent challenges.

Soon he will be unchallengeable control of the state. The ANC leadership, riding on the wave of the expected landslide election victory, will be in a powerful position. The anti-defection clause will control the restive ANC legislators, while the power to appoint all the regional ANC premiers will ensure centralised control.

With unchallengable control over party and state, Mbeki may launch a dramatic campaign against complacency and status quo politics. In many of his public utterances he has already shown an awareness of the urgency of tackling key problems with determination: he has attacked elements of the black elite for seeking wealth with no sense of social obligation, he has lectured educators on the dangers of laziness, drunkenness and called many teachers ‘competent practitioners of the toyi-toyi' and ‘militant fighters for a better pay cheque.' In the key areas of law and order and economic policy, he has attacked police corruption, criticised COSATU and accused the SACP of empty posturing.

The future Mbeki presidency thus offers the prospects of both dangers and opportunities. Political power is always a potential danger to a free society, but powerlessness is frequently more of a threat. If Mbeki uses his vast powers boldly to follow appropriate policies and neutralise opposition, he may go down in history as a great president.

If he becomes a captive of his own system, or allows his darker instincts to become dominant, his presidency will be doomed - and South Africa with it.

In terms of predicting the future, we have learned at least one lesson from the past - all presidents surprise us! Who expected PW Botha to open, and then close, the door to political reform, or FW de Klerk, the NP conservative, to negotiate the final surrender of white rule? Who can doubt that Mbeki has some significant surprises in store for us?

This article first appeared in Leadership magazine November 1998