- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008


In a rare instance in African history, an elected leader has stepped aside at the behest of his party. The resignation last week of South African President Thabo Mbeki is testament to the nation’s democracy - and also to its persistent ills.

Mr. Mbeki’s resignation was due to a court decision which accused him of political interference in the fraud and corruption charges that were leveled against his chief rival, Jacob Zuma. In 2005, Mr. Mbeki fired Mr. Zuma as deputy president on suspicion of corruption in an arms deal. The court exonerated Mr. Zuma and cast doubt on Mr. Mbeki’s actions: his party, the African National Congress, insisted he must step aside. Mr. Mbeki thus terminated his nine-year presidency avowing to clear his name.

Mr. Mbeki will be replaced temporarily by Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC deputy president. Yet real power will reside with Mr. Zuma, the ANC’s current leader, who is the front-runner in the presidential race.

Mr. Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, has a mixed record. He is rightly credited as the architect of the country’s economic recovery, as a peacemaker and protector of democracy, and for business-friendly policies that encouraged foreign investment. While unemployment has been falling, it remains high - some estimates are 40 percent. South Africa also has one of the highest crime rates in the world, and Mr. Mbeki has not dealt effectively with the HIV/AIDS crisis: South Africa has the highest number of people infected with HIV in the world.

In foreign affairs, Mr. Mbeki’s legacy is also checkered. He encouraged an African renaissance based on the continent finding solutions to its problems rather than depending upon Western assistance. Most recently, he successfully cajoled Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe into accepting a power-sharing agreement. While he played peacemaker in Africa, Mr. Mbeki also used his influence to block action against human-rights violators Sudan and Zimbabwe.

It is nonetheless noteworthy that, amid the recent turmoil, Mr. Mbeki did not cling desperately to power. This is a testament to post-apartheid South African democracy.

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