Sunday, August 31, 2008



Sunday Standard
August 31, 2008
John N Kariuki

It was a once a joke in South Africa that President Thabo Mbeki was visiting the country. The ‘joke’ was a veiled criticism of Mbeki’s leadership style. Seemingly, he found comfort in international affairs that he neglected domestic matters.

Success has indeed been elusive for Mbeki domestically for a number of reasons. SA is a difficult country to govern in part because of its racially inspired and divergent interests. These are further compounded by aggressive news media that is also racially driven. The news media echo the views and interests of their racial constituencies. Such a clear absence of a national consensus makes SA tough to steer, especially so for Mbeki’s ‘reticent’ leadership-style.

His presidential decisions have been repeatedly challenged. But, strangely, Mbeki’s worst political problems have emanated from his own government and political party. Most deadly of these was the dismissal of Jacob Zuma as the country’s deputy president in 2005.

genesis of woes

Although Zuma was legally and clearly implicated in a corruption scandal, Mbeki’s decision to fire him triggered a storm within the ruling ANC and the country. Indeed, SA has yet to outlive the political fallout.

Another difficulty for Mbeki stemmed from his firing of the deputy minister of Health, Nozizwa Madlala-Routledge last year. Overall, the health department has been difficult to manage. It was once headed by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma whose stint was difficult.

Officially, Nozizwa Madlala-Routledge was relieved of her duties on the grounds of being a non-team player in her job and for travelling to Spain to an Aids conference without presidential approval. Termination came after the deputy minister declined the president’s invitation to resign. An outcry of public protest erupted because the prevailing public view was that it is the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who should have been dismissed. She is unpopular particularly because of her unorthodox nutritional approach to treating Aids instead of relying on the conventional clinically accepted antiretroviral drugs.

This position is consistent with Mbeki’s view that a virus does not cause HIV/Aids, rather, poverty does.

The president’s view was considered unusual in a country awash with HIV/Aids. From that point on, Mbeki’s commitment to fighting Aids became suspect. Indeed, he has been unable to shake the impression that he and his health minister do not care about people living with Aids.