Yes to the struggle against corporate capture, no to Mbeki nostalgia
There is a general sense things are unravelling and that, without urgent interventions, we’ll all soon be in deeper trouble. I agree. Where did it begin to go wrong? One emerging but largely misdirected narrative attributes our current turmoil to the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference and Thabo Mbeki’s subsequent recall as state president. As its title suggests (“Mbeki’s recall a virtual coup - Palace revolt that changed ANC’s course”), Professor Tinyiko Maluleke’s thoughtful intervention in the Sunday Independent of 25 September takes up this narrative.
Maluleke is a far too subtle and accomplished an analyst to buy whole-sale into an excessive Mbeki nostalgia found in some quarters. “In fairness”, he writes, “we must acknowledge the ANC loss of moral high ground began during the Mbeki era.” He lists the politicising of the National Prosecuting Authority, the Selebi affair and the Mbeki administration’s clumsy and ultimately back-firing attempts to deal with Jacob Zuma. Mbeki’s role in the arms deal is tentatively flagged. Maluleke might also have noted the Guptas were introduced into the bosom of the ANC government by some within Mbeki’s innermost circle, long before Zuma became president.
Nevertheless, Maluleke concludes by placing Mbeki’s erosion of the rule of law in forgiving inverted commas - “the ‘Mbeki scandals’ that seemed to loom large in 2006 and 2008, pale in comparison with the magnitude and daring nature of the scandals in which several current public officials are currently alleged to be involved in.” He is of course right, comparatively speaking, but missing in Maluleke’s account of the Mbeki presidency is the tragic, some say genocidal, AIDS denialism that President Zuma’s administration brought to an end with a dramatic impact on life expectancy.
Mbeki’s denialism had a direct link with his wider vision. Yet it’s precisely the absence of this wider vision that Maluleke now most laments. “We have good reason”, he writes, “to feel nostalgic about Mbeki’s relentless push for the renaissance of Africa.” In promoting the idea of a continental renaissance, Mbeki was knowingly drawing on a youthful Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s brilliant but flawed award-winning student oration of 1906 in which he envisioned the “regeneration of Africa”.
Studying in the US at the time, Seme felt the dawn of the 20th century heralded a new world in which Africa would once more claim its rightful place among civilised nations. Seme was buoyed by the technical advances of his time that we can now recognise as the previous great wave of globalisation - transcontinental railways, the telegraph, steamships circulating the globe. In poetic prose that Mbeki would often emulate Seme extolled: “the triumph of human genius today! Science has searched out the deep things of nature…taught the lightning to speak, spanned the sweeping rivers, tunnelled the longest mountain range – made the world a vast whispering gallery, and has brought foreign nations into one civilised family…A great century has come upon us.”
In the post-Cold War world of the early 1990s, on the back of the next wave of logistics and IT-driven globalisation, Mbeki too felt a new dawn had arrived. Mbeki was not alone. The idea of “one civilised human family” born out of the rubble of a demolished Berlin Wall and the ashes of apartheid was the flavour in triumphal neo-liberal circles. The End of History was proclaimed.
A bare eight years after Seme delivered his brilliant oration, the “great century” was plunged by competing imperial powers into the carnage of the First World War, followed by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the inexorable descent into the next and even more brutal World War. Here at home 1910 excluded the majority of South Africans from citizenship. So much for the birth of one civilised human family out of which the noble aspiration of an African renaissance would be born.
Nine decades later, Mbeki also badly misread the global and indeed domestic conjuncture of the post-Cold War decade. He promoted the on-ramp to a supposed global freeway that would grow our economy, resolve our social challenges, and lead to an African renaissance. Trade was liberalised post-haste and flirtatious eyes were cast towards global fixed investors who would surely reward us with a Marshall Aid-type, post-apartheid dividend.
The opposite happened. South African monopoly capital was the great beneficiary of the globalisation on-ramp. Domestic monopoly capital had been bottled up within the country in the previous decade by sanctions and strict apartheid-era exchange controls. It now disinvested, dual listed, and indulged in an orgy of legal and illegal capital flight. Marshall Aid didn’t arrive. Instead we have become over-reliant on flighty capital attracted by relatively high interest rates.
Like Seme nine decades earlier, Mbeki saw dramatic technological advances but was blind to their ugly, exploitative under-side. Breath-taking, capitalist-driven technical development over three centuries has always been accompanied by dispossession, unsustainable environmental plunder, and global under-development. Mbeki was in denial of this cruel dialectic. Emerging from a 2002 G8 Summit (of all things), he could pronounce its outcome “signifies the end of the epoch of colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
Mbeki’s strategic misreading of the global conjuncture, his belief in the imminence of an African renaissance, which is to say his denialism about the predatory behaviour in Africa and the rest of the global south by the developed north with its financial and military institutions, was not disconnected from his AIDS denialism.
The cruel blow that our society suffered with a surging HIV/AIDS pandemic at the very moment we were emerging from apartheid simply didn’t fit easily with the renaissance narrative. And so, by another cruel twist, what was denied (imperialism) made a perverse return in the Mbeki narrative – the virus didn’t exist, it was an anti-African imperialist myth.
There were many reasons to recall Mbeki in 2008. I agree with Maluleke the actual reason invoked (Judge Nicholson’s soon to be overturned judgement) was flimsy. But nostalgia for an Mbeki presidency? Surely not.
Jeremy Cronin is the First Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). This piece was supplied to the Sunday Independent last Wednesday. As advised, there were follow ups with Op-ed Editor at the Independent Media, but eventually there was no feedback despite the effort.
This article first appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the online journal of the SACP.