South Africa: Mbeki's final failure

April 5, 2008

The one thing that President Thabo Mbeki has to be given credit for is his consistency. Ever since he ascended to South Africa's political throne, the would-be king has stuck doggedly to the fundamentals of a macro-neoliberalism that has underpinned this country's developmental path for the last decade and more. It is a consistency that has, not surprisingly, greatly benefited the elite few and cost the majority dearly.

In the face of years of sustained opposition and resistance to the effects of that neoliberalism from poor communities and organised workers — and Mbeki's defeat in the ruling African National Congress's leadership elections at last December's Polokwane conference — one might have expected him to use his February 11 State of the Nation address as an opportunity to abandon his failed policies.

South Africa today has a sustained level of 40% unemployment (which, by any definition, constitutes a "national crisis" of major proportions). It has failed to achieve crucial delivery targets for housing, land redistribution and accessible/adequate/affordable provision of basic services. Basic needs, such as transport, fuel, health care and food are becoming unaffordable for most.

There is a generalised crisis of education; rampant crime and corporate/public sector corruption and a predominately self-generated energy crisis. Such realities confirm that Mbeki and his government have dismally failed the vast majority of the people — that is, the poor.

Try as he might to convince the citizenry that his government's approach to see out the last full year of his presidential term will not be "business unusual", there was nothing in Mbeki's address, and there has been nothing since, to indicate anything other than the opposite. What Mbeki "delivered" was a bad attempt to use fancy words (such as "comprehensive poverty strategy"), new catch-phrases (such as "a suite of apex priorities") and impressive-sounding cash commitments to various programs to cover up the fact that his government has no intention of changing anything of substance.

So what should Mbeki have done? First and foremost, an apology to the nation for the present state of national affairs (not just the energy crisis). That would, at least, have shown some degree of humility and honesty that is the hallmark of genuine leadership.

Secondly, the implementation of a program for the fundamental re-structuring and re-configuring of "governance" — from the present top-down, bureaucratised and alienating path to one that is fully participatory and actively involves ordinary people at all levels of government, and through which politicians and public officials are held to account outside of elections every five years.

Examples would include an inclusive people's budget process at all levels of government, and regular people's assemblies at local level to review government policy and implementation, with the right of recall of public representatives.

Thirdly, an immediate halt to all privatisation and/or corporatisation initiatives involving public entities, and the transformation of all existing major parastatals and entities at every level of government — especially in the sphere of health, education, energy and basic service provision — into fully publicly-owned and administered entities.

Fourthly, establishment of new public enterprises to take over, on a gradual but systematic basis, construction of public housing as well as nation-wide, affordable, public transport systems.

Additionally, immediately implement free basic, good quality public education up until tertiary level, as well as free public, good-quality health care, with the universal provision of anti-retroviral drugs; the public delivery of free basic services for the poor that would allow for the provision of adequate amounts of water and electricity necessary for human dignity; a massive public sector-led job-creation/works program in conjunction with communities and popular organisations that can catalyse the building and maintenance of public infrastructure and lead to the expansion of the productive base of the economy.

It would also require removal of the value-added tax, combined with new tax regimes for luxury goods/consumption; effective exchange controls and prescribed re-investments.

None of this is revolutionary in the sense that it requires the overthrow of the capitalist system — that is something whose possibility remains linked to a mass change of consciousness and behaviour. What has been, and continues to be required for such changes to become reality though, is a revolution of political will and courage, a reclaiming of both individual and collective moral integrity and human solidarity in the face of an inhumane and unsustainable macro-neoliberalism.

Clearly, this was way too much to ask of Mbeki and his political mandarins. From those who will soon take the reins of political power, we must demand it of them, and of ourselves. Otherwise, we will have failed.

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