Thabo Mbeki - an Enigma Waiting to Unfold

Article excerpt

When the results of South Africa's second fully democratic elections are announced in May, the man most likely to step into the breach left by Nelson Mandela will be Thabo Mbeki. Despite his high-profile, Mbeki remains an enigma. How will he deal with the country's growing list of problems?

When president Nelson Mandela addressed his final opening of Parliament in Cape Town in mid-February, he spoke of the successes the ANC-led government had achieved since taking over in 1994. He also used much of the time to describe the road that lies ahead for his successor, Thabo Mbeki, after South Africa's second fully democratic elections in late May.

In a nutshell, Mandela said it would be business as usual, but with a greater degree of urgency to implement policy. "The policies we have accord with the needs of the moment," said Mandela. "There is no need to change them. Yet the speed and style of implementing them can be improved." That job has been handed to Mbeki.

No easy walk for Mbeki

The road that stretches ahead of Mbeki is so pot-holed that it will provide no easy walk for the new president, let alone a comfortable ride. He must put a lid on a crime epidemic spinning crazily out of control. He must root out corruption. He must deliver a health programme that works and an education system that gets kids through their exams. He must make good on the government's pledge to put roofs over the heads of the poor. He must convince the international financial community to invest in South Africa. He must get South Africans working. He must at least make a start in the reconstruction and recovery of the country's economy.

South Africa's most pressing problem is crime, more specifically violent crime that claims thousands of lives every year. For the past five years, the government has been careful not to headline crime on its list of priorities - in spite of the fact that it is the single most cancerous of all South Africa's ills. It keeps out foreign investment, drives professionals and technicians from of the country in their thousands seeking safer pastures, stagnates tourism and is desperately morale-draining.

If there is a prophecy the government wants fulfilled it is that crime will go away if they ignore it. A few hours before president Mandela told parliament that "there is hope" in the fight against crime, the head of Korea's Daewoo Motors in South Africa was shot to death in an apparently botched car hi-jacking in Johannesburg, and a few hours afterwards, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was apologising to the diplomatic community for an armed robbery on the Canadian High Commissioner in Cape Town. Nor only must Thabo Mbeki rearrange his government's priorities and tackle crime as the most important task, he must also be seen to mean business.

He is not expected to reintroduce the death penalty, something that has firmly been ruled out by Mandela, but must seek harsher mandatory penalties for serious crime, must tighten bail conditions and must come down heavily on crooked police and prison authorities where many criminals slip through South Africa's justice system.

When he opened parliament, Mandela conceded that the ANC is adopting the criminal habits of the old National Party. He noted that some ANC members were as corrupt, if not more so, than members of the old regime. This is something Mbeki has already publicly acknowledged, and declared himself ready and more than able to tackle.

South Africa, like the rest of the continent, is no stranger to 'isms'. There's nepotism, cronyism, tribalism and a host of others. What Thabo Mbeki will have to deal with is the rampant 'now-it's-my-turnism'.

The British colonists who ruled a subjugated South Africa at the turn of the last century answered to no other authority than a distant crown. The civil service was staffed with settlers and expatriates of British stock and little heed was paid to the indigenous or Afrikaner population. …