Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Understanding Mbeki
I've been thinking recently about the relationship between the, 'African Renaissance' and Mbeki's policies on HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. To begin, I think it's helpful to try and understand why the idea of the African Renaissance has come to play such an important role in contemporary South Africa politics. To do that though, we need to take a step back and try to understand what the forces are that legitimise the use of power and authority in South Africa. I think, without question, the major legitimising idea during the Mandela presidency was the notion of reconciliation and forgiveness. Mandela himself went to great efforts to allay the fears of whites, even requesting a meeting with Mrs Betsie Verwoed, wife of Hendrik Verwoed, architect of Grand Apartheid. More generally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) kept the idea of reconciliation in the forefront of the publics mind and, whether they care to admit it or not, ensured that whites remained important players in the unfolding national drama. The TRC and the rhetoric of reconciliation was a way of keeping all major political groups on board as the country took its first tentative steps as a genuine democracy. It helped forestall white fears that they might be the victims of some sort of revenge seeking pogrom and helped provide blacks with an important sense of moral authority which set the new government apart from its predecessor.

Nevertheless, it was always clear that the commitment to reconciliation could only provide an interim solution to the question of legitimisation. An ongoing commitment to reconciliation would have bespoken an inability or unwillingness to normalise South African politics. I think Mbeki was always aware of this and, although he probably believed that Mandela was right to make reconciliation the central plank of his presidency, there was never any doubt that Mbeki's presidency would be very different. On a practical level he was far more committed to transforming the economic and political spheres of South African society but he was sensible enough to realise that South Africans still required something, a big idea, to legitimise his presidency. Enter right, therefore, the Africa Renaissance'. The African Renaissance is, in a sense, the big news of the last five years. It is at once an attempt to recast the image of Africans generally and an effort to provide new purpose to South Africa itself. It seeks to modernise Africa and to legitimise South African power and the ANC's rule. In fact, as Wits University Political Scientist, Tom Lodge points out, it is possible to discern two distinctive strands of thought running through the rhetoric about the African Renaissance.

The first of these is premised upon the notion of modernity and it sees the African Renaissance as resulting from fibre-optic cables, telecoms, market economics and liberal democracy. It aims to sign Africa up to globalisation and make it an important player in that process. This strand has found its clearest expression in The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) which seeks to promote good governance in Africa in exchange for assistance from the West. The second, less clearly articulated but perhaps more pervasive vision, looks to heritage and legacy for its inspiration. It seeks to reconstruct African communities around tradition and the values and relationships that characterised pre-colonial institutions. This vision finds expression in the notion of Ubuntu (togetherness) and has led to the belief that Africa must stand together and that consensus politics (which is held up as the model for African politics) trumps the adversarial style of democracy which prevails in the West. Much of the rhetoric of the African Renaissance is concerned with promoting an investor friendly view of South Africa which sees it and the West as natural partners and as working together to overcome Africa's problems. Behind the rhetoric though, we find a far greater degree of ambivalence about the relationship with the West and a much stronger desire to use the notion of the African Renaissance to remake African identity and to seek home grown solutions to Africa's travails. This isn't really anything new and those of you who know something of South African history will see the echo of Steve Biko's Black Consciousness in this aspect of the African Renaissance.

The importance of dichotomising the African Renaissance lies in the light which it sheds on SA's approach to Zimbabwe. It explains why, despite the ANC's official commitment to the promotion of good governance and indeed Mbeki's own promulgation of a 'peer review' process, when faced with Zimbabwe, Mbeki has shied away from making tough decisions. The commitment to rejuvenating and regenerating African identity appears to require resisting efforts by the West and by white South Africans to perpetuate a vision of Africa that is negative and that plays on traditional notions of the inability of African's to govern themselves effectively. To this end, the ANC's diplomatic effort towards Zimbabwe has often seemed more concerned with defending Mugabe and in promoting the view that the West and especially the white Commonwealth is partly responsible for what is happening in that country. What Mbeki really wants to do is uphold the view that Mugabe is a respectable politician beset by troubles not of his making (although I suspect that even Mbeki is finding this to be an untenable position now). If the notion of regenerating African identity and promoting African self-respect is to mean anything then it is important that Mbeki not allow Mugabe to be cast as an incompetent or madman. This attitude is exemplified in one of Mbeki's weekly 'Letters to the People' published shortly after South Africa's failed attempt to get Zimbabwe readmitted to the Commonwealth at last year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting:

'Our poverty and underdevelopment will never serve as reason for us to abandon our dignity as human beings, turning ourselves into grateful and subservient recipients of alms, happy to submit to a dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude of some in our country and the rest of the world, towards what we believe and know is right, who are richer and more powerful than we are.'

It is with the issue of HIV/AIDS that this attitude has reached its most dramatic and counter-productive conclusion. Under Mbeki, the ANC's response to HIV/AIDS has been erratic, to say the least. The initial indications where that Mbeki appreciated the seriousness of the epidemic. Indeed, in 1999, when a team of pathologists in Gauteng claimed to have discovered a cure for AIDS, Mbeki took steps to override the objections of the Medicines Control Council (who pointed out that the active agent in the 'Virodene' drug was a toxic industrial solvent) and even went so far as to suggest that such objections where the result of racism. Nevertheless, by 2000, Mbeki had begun to voice scepticism about the conventional explanations of the aetiology of AIDS. In that year he and the ANC, presumably following his lead, launched rhetorical attacks on the major drug companies, simultaneously accusing them of profiting from AIDS whilst appearing to deny the link between HIV and AIDS, the acceptance of which underlay the epidemiology of the anti-retroviral drugs themselves. Since then, Mbeki has alternatively questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and denied such questioning. In a sense, the AIDS and Zimbabwe issues stem from the same concerns. In a speech delivered at Fort Hare University in 2001, Mbeki referred to medical schools where black people were 'reminded of their role as germ carriers', going on to say:

'Thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted diseases... convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.'

In short, Mbeki appeared to promote the view that those who believe Aids is a virologically caused, mostly sexually transmitted disease that can be medically contained, stigmatise and demean black people. And this brings us back to the African Renaissance. To the extent that the African Renaissance is important as a legitimising idea and to the extent that it is predicated upon the need to recast African identity, it makes sense that Mbeki should resist things which appear to denigrate Africans. It bears pointing out too that Mbeki received his political socialisation within the confinements of an exile movement, something which may have predisposed him towards challenging the authority of institutional establishments, scientific or otherwise and to romanticising his homeland in a way which makes accepting unpalatable facts about it difficult. Thus a complex intermeshing of concerns about legitimisation, authority and identity politics has resulted in policies which, when viewed from outside, are irrational and counter-productive.

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