In some ways the Mbeki presidency had started in 1994 already, with Mbeki assuming more than the powers normally associated with a prime minister. It was in this capacity that Mbeki spearheaded the drive to centralise power, forced through a marketbased economic policy, and oversaw the restructuring of the educational system. His term as president also marked a much more determined attempt to Africanise the civil service and the managerial ranks of the parastatal corporations.
Thabo Mbeki became president after the 1999 election in which the ANC won 66.4% of the votes against the 9.6% of the Democratic Party, 6.9% of the New National Party (NNP) and 8.6% of the IFP. By 2001 Mbeki’s popularity regularly trailed more than 20% behind the ANC’s in polls, but he recovered after a strong expansion of social welfare to the poor. The opposition was weakened when changes in the defection clause made it possible for a large part of the NNP to join the ANC and retain their seats after an unhappy liaison with the DP, called the Democratic Alliance (DA), had foundered. In the 2005 election the ANC won 69.7% of the vote, the DA 12.3% and the IFP 7%.
The world was dominated at this time by the Washington consensus, which stressed growth driven by the private sector and the maintenance of monetary and fiscal discip line. Mbeki’s most highly rated achievement was the introduction of an economic pol icy that curbed inflation, kept a firm control over state expenditure and promoted trade liberalisation. As a result the economy surged ahead at a rate last seen more than 30 years earlier. He introduced two major African initiatives, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the replacement of the Organisation for African Unity by the African Union (AU).
Both were vastly overambitious. The AU set itself the impossible long-term goals of a single continental currency and army. Over the shorter term, Nepad rested on the prospect of large-scale capital inflows from the First World into Africa should African states rid their administrations of corruption and other ills. It foundered because of a lack of commitment by many African states. The most serious blow was Mbeki’s failure to speak out on President Robert Mugabe’s human rights transgressions in Zimbabwe. Following a defeat in 2000 in a constitutional referendum, Mugabe proceeded to rig the next elections and unleash his thugs on the opposition. He seized most of the white farms, causing a precipitous economic decline. Mbeki remained silent.
Mbeki also failed to give leadership in the HIV-Aids pandemic (See, The HIV-AIDS crisis). This provided the spur for a vigorous challenge by the Treatment Action Campaign, ultimately forcing the state to provide treatment. Its leader Zackie Achmat became one of the heroes of the first decade of democracy, (See, Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action campaign). In addition, under Mbeki the perception de veloped that crime, particularly violent crime, had escalated out of control, and that he was unable to face up to the magnitude of the crisis.