Thabo Mbeki's problem is not so much that he's President of still-in-transition, post-apartheid South Africa, but that he's successor to the incomparable Nelson Mandela. In April last year, just before his retirement, Mandela was rated a success by 85% of South Africans. In similar surveys, Mbeki's approval rating has slipped from 71% after his first year in office to a recent 50%. As he gears up his African National Congress party for local elections early next month, the President is clearly concerned with damage control.
He has some repairs to do. In recent months Mbeki has become embroiled in a number of issues that have had discordant echoes both at home and abroad. His view that the link between HIV and AIDS is not as direct as many scientists believe, outlined in an exclusive interview with Time in September, fueled a massive national debate that called into question the government's credibility and efficiency in the anti-AIDS campaign. His preoccupation with regional and pan-African affairs — even as he declines to criticize the regime of President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe — was also a cause of complaint and division even among his own supporters.
The Mbeki presidency has also been marred by continuing economic problems: lack of investor confidence, little success in job creation against a rising tide of unemployment and revelations, almost on a daily basis, of corruption — not only among local government figures, but also in the corridors of Parliament. The government's woes are beginning to reflect on Mbeki's personal image: in the latest survey by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (idasa), an analyst describes Mandela as the "Teflon President," tough enough to survive his mistakes, and Mbeki as the "Velcro President," to whom all mistakes stick.
Government officials have admitted to "problems in communications" in the presidency. Mbeki himself conceded, in a session with foreign correspondents at the end of last month, that "perhaps we need to do more to explain ourselves." One move in that direction is his recent statement that he would no longer get involved in the argument over HIV and that the government had embarked on a full-scale anti-AIDS program based on "the thesis that HIV leads to the AIDS syndrome." In an off-the-cuff speech to the South African Chamber of Business last month, Mbeki also went out of his way to assure potential investors that land grabs, like those taking place in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, would never happen in South Africa.
In Parliament, meanwhile, there are signs the government is beginning to act with more muscle on issues of corruption and accountability. The speaker of the National Assembly, Frene Ginwala, publicly slammed as "reprehensible" two M.P.s and two parliamentary officials from the A.N.C. for travel-expense fiddling. The officials have been fired, she said, and could face criminal prosecution. On a higher level, the Assembly approved an investigation into a controversial national arms procurement deal involving suppliers from Britain, Germany, Italy and Sweden that is worth more than $6 billion. The Parliament's watchdog public accounts committee will look at possible "undue influence" in the awarding of the contracts.
A second major corruption scandal is also looming for the Mbeki government. Mineral and Energy Affairs Minister Phumzile Mhlambo-Ngcuka has revealed an investigation into a seemingly secret deal made with two private oil trading companies and the Strategic Fuel Fund (S.F.F.), the state oil company. The deal, which effectively privatized the country's oil trading operations without the knowledge of the government, is said to be worth almost $200 million. Several senior officials of the S.F.F. are involved.
That allegations of corruption in high places are being publicly acknowledged and investigated is a plus on the President's scorecard. After a recentmeeting with Mbeki and his cabinet, World Bank president James Wolfensohn, imf deputy managing director Eduardo Aninat and other international economic heavyweights added to his credit rating by endorsing South Africa's financial discipline and economic targeting in the face of its myriad difficulties.
But independent surveys on the local elections report that only one person in three identifies with the A.N.C. Another recent survey reports "a growing feeling of discomfort" among black voters on issues such as education, municipal services, unemployment, corruption and the government's handling of the HIV/AIDS debate. Although there is no doubt the A.N.C. will win handsomely in the local elections, the opposition Democratic Alliance — an unlikely merger between the liberal Democratic Party and the New National Party, once a bastion of apartheid — is expected to make significant gains. Mbeki's spin doctors still have some work ahead of them.