South Africa - Leadership

Mbeki brings important leadership skills and experiences to the office of the presidency. His negotiating experiences involving many diverse ethnic and economic interests over the years positioned him well to lead South Africa during the second stage of post-apartheid governance. Mbeki is a pragmatist, one who studies the issues and positions meticulously and seeks to resolve conflict through compromise. His public stance minimizing the gravity of the AIDS epidemic in his country began to undermine his stature both at home and internationally in the early twenty-first century.

Despite his considerable strengths, Mbeki remained somewhat of an enigma to many. His support within some quarters of the ANC, especially among the poor and militants, remained weak and culminated in Mbeki's unsubstantiated claim in 2001 that three ANC veterans had plotted to kill him. Partly because of his concern that the coup plot rumors were true, in March 2002 Mbeki ordered a US $3 million surveillance system to be installed in Parliament. This sparked some to observe that the president's paranoia was likely to intensify rifts in his party.

He enjoyed the full support of the ever-popular Nelson Mandela until the two clashed over the AIDS issue. Mbeki does not have his predecessor's charisma and he was the target of harsh criticism for his attitudes about the HIV virus and AIDS; in 2002, five million South Africans were known to be infected with the virus. Mbeki publicly questioned the connection between HIV and AIDS, drawing criticism from Mandela, civil society, human rights groups, and Western governments. At the opening of Parliament in 2002, Mandela openly criticized Mbeki, who continues to minimize the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic and does not support widespread treatment or testing for AIDS.

His ambiguous stance toward Robert Mugabe's expropriation of white-owned farmland in Zimbabwe also brought disapproval. He is sometimes viewed as detached and too cerebral by radicals because he did not participate in the armed struggle from within South Africa. Despite his sound macroeconomic management, growth and job creation have been elusive in South Africa, foreign investment has dropped dramatically, and the rand lost 25% of its value in 2000. Also, it showed no signs of recovery in the years that followed.

Mbeki's cabinet, which was announced on 17 June 1999, consisted mostly of ANC members who, like him, had spent the apartheid years in exile. During his administration, Mbeki needs to convince the skeptics in his party and the rank-and-file ANC members that he can move the transition several steps forward by transforming the condition of most blacks. To do this, he must acknowledge that AIDS is a social problem that will certainly have economic effects if not confronted soon.

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