Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

South Africa's FDR? Mbeki May Try His Own 'New Deal'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

South Africa's FDR? Mbeki May Try His Own 'New Deal'

Article excerpt

In one sense there's blessedly little suspense or drama surrounding Wednesday's election in South Africa. As the nation celebrates a decade of democracy, election violence is down dramatically from 1994. Fraud isn't likely this time, so there will be no Western election monitors. And the outcome is virtually guaranteed: a second term for President Thabo Mbeki, the man who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999.

But the big surprise of this election may be Mr. Mbeki himself. For five years, he's been an ardent disciple of globalization. He's tightened budgets and slashed foreign debt. He's seen South Africa's currency strengthen and inflation fall. But now the man who was trained as a classical economist in Britain is hinting at a significant shift - toward socialism. The reason: persistent poverty and joblessness. About 40 percent of South Africans are unemployed. In some townships, 8 of 10 blacks wanting jobs can't find them.

So Mbeki may start drawing on another part of his past - one that includes meetings at a Soviet dacha once used by Joseph Stalin and a charter membership in the politburo of the South African Communist Party.

He's campaigning on a "people's contract" that would make Franklin Roosevelt proud. If he continues on this path, it will put him in league with leaders like Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. They're skeptical that globalization's will help the poor, yet they're pragmatic enough not to opt out of the global trade system a la Cuba or North Korea.

"He's trying to stabilize the middle class, and he knows the economy needs some socialist handling to do that," says Allister Sparks, author of several books on South Africa. "He knows you really need a New Deal" like Roosevelt's, but he has to do it within the "realities of a globalized world" that frowns on big government programs, Mr. Sparks says.

In his first term, Mbeki has been a tight-lipped technocrat often seen as aloof from the people - a man who likes playing chess with a computer more than mixing with the masses. His first priority was economic stability - and proving to the world, observers say, that black leadership in Africa doesn't mean corruption and economic decay.

In some ways, his approach extended the "miracle" of South Africa's peaceful political transition to the economic realm. Interest rates are at a 23-year low. One block of apartheid-era debt, totaling $25 billion, has been erased. And the government's Black Economic Empowerment program - voluntary affirmative action for the private sector - is creating legions of BMW-driving black millionaires. …

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