10/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Exit of George Bush's "Point Man" in Africa

Thabo Mbeki -- unceremoniously dumped by his party as South Africa's President last weekend -- was routinely referred to by George W. Bush as his "point man" in Africa. For the leading member of a movement with historical ties to the Soviet Union that until recently was on the State Department's terrorist watch list, Mbeki enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the Bush Administration. It probably had less to do with any ideological convergence than the fact the US needed someone to work as well as with the African National Congress's own transformation from a liberation movement to a conventional political party.

As the United States government is increasingly embroiled in the Middle East, it needs surrogates to do its heavy lifting elsewhere. In Africa, South Africa appeared a stable ally and Mbeki -- driven partly by his own ideas about African Renaissance and self-respect -- was willing to spend South African taxes to solve the continent's problems. His administration was heavily involved in a number of peace processes, including Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most notably, Mbeki -- though he played an ambiguous and often controversial role -- can take credit for bringing Robert Mugabe's violent regime to the negotiation table with the political opposition in neighboring Zimbabwe.

Mbeki was roundly ridiculed for his disastrous AIDS policies (it was the Clinton administration who first leaked word of his denialism in 2000), yet most international observers seem to give him a pass as long he kept the economy stable. (Despite no scientific competence, Mbeki claimed HIV did not cause AIDS and deemed drug treatment toxic and a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies.) He promoted privatization of key services such as water and electricity, and advocated free and open markets even though the latter made the economy very vulnerable to external shocks and contagion.

However, for everything for which he was admired or tolerated outside South Africa, he had become a hated figure among his own people. His coddling of Mugabe's regime made critics question his commitment to popular rule. Mbeki's personal style -- detached, secretive and paranoid (he had the Police investigate three political rivals whose only crime was to openly canvass to succeed him democratically) -- did not help either.

His AIDS policies led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people, while his economic policies exacerbated inequalities inherited from Apartheid. While Mbeki's policies have grown the black middle class (numerically now the size of the white minority), South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world (it vies for that honor with Brazil). Unofficial unemployment, largely restricted to the black majority, stands between 30 and 40 percent.
Researchers have documented five major currency crashes since 1996.

Mbeki's commendation of his government's "sterling work," during his televised resignation speech must have sounded to his people like a description of another country.

The first real sign of the depth of anti-Mbeki sentiment came when in 2005 he fired his deputy Jacob Zuma over corruption charges. Party members did not see it as a sign of anti-corruption, but as a political ploy to get rid of a political rival. At the ANC's December 2007 conference, Zuma defeated Mbeki as ANC President. When a judge in Zuma's corruption trial last week effectively implied that Zuma had been the victim of a political plot to by the President, Mbeki's tenuous hold over his own party had to give.

Things have moved fast since this weekend. A caretaker President, Kgalema Motlanthe (the ruling party's deputy president who was recently appointed to Mbeki's Cabinet) was sworn in on Thursday. Half the cabinet resigned, although since then a number of them have indicated they'll save in Motlanthe's Cabinet, including Trevor Manuel, the finance minister.

One thing is clear though: Sadly for South Africa's poor, who make up the majority, a Zuma administration -- if, and when it gets elected next April -- won't do much to change their economic and material conditions. This is not a leftist project as some observers are suggesting. Zuma's alliance with the trade unions and communists is tenuous. The ANC president is defined more by his "anti-Mbeki" persona to these activists and his personal style, rather than for his own politics, which are hardly left wing on a range of issues, including sexual politics, and though he has not been convicted of any specific corruption charges, he is still associated with graft. Since Mbeki's resignation, Zuma -- playing to the markets -- has predictably promised that the government's economic policies would remain unchanged.

Though Zuma's reassurances are predictable, it's not the kind of blank check on policy that his allies want to hear as their support for Zuma is largely premised, in their public rhetoric at least, on a critique of Mbeki's economic policies. Once the raison d'etre for the Zuma camp -- their antipathy for Mbeki -- runs its course, it is unclear what this future is.