What Jacob Zuma must learn from Mbeki

ThaboMbeki JacobZuma
ThaboMbeki JacobZuma

There was a time in our great Republic when HIV-Aids was a political football.

On the pitch the dissident and orthodox camps engaged in a bruising battle.

President Thabo Mbeki was a leading striker in the dissident camp. He fought civil society groups and drug manufacturers who wanted his government to provide drugs to those in need.

Mbeki expressed scepticism about whether Aids was the biggest threat facing Africa, as opposed to poverty, and whether a virus could cause a syndrome.

He believed there was a racist agenda to caricature Africans as "promiscuous carriers of germs", who suffered from "unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust ...".

Mbeki took to lecture halls, parliament and the internet to express his views.

While the debate was ongoing, people were dying of Aids.

For a while leaders of the ANC cheered him on, defended him or remained silent. A few dared to raise a finger.

While Mbeki was absorbed in this controversy his administration had no clear policy to respond to the scourge.

But after some time those close to him told him he needed to stop. They had had enough of the public backlash. He withdrew.

But he told his biographer Mark Gevisser that it was "very, very regrettable" that he had been compelled by his colleagues and comrades to withdraw.

The government went on to implement an unambiguous Aids policy. Millions of lives were saved. There was policy certainty.

Mbeki's dissident views were arguably the biggest blot of an otherwise decent presidential career characterised by well-managed public finances, a two-thirds majority at the polls and a continental renewal project.

Now that Mbeki has launched a series of articles to set the record straight, one hopes that he will also reflect on this issue. Whatever his final explanation, Mbeki's decision to withdraw from the Aids debate deserves emulation by President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma should consider withdrawing from publicly commenting on the economy.

Like Mbeki's views on Aids, which sent mixed signals about government's commitment to fighting the scourge, Zuma's utterances and decisions have a negative effect on the country's economic direction.

The difference, though, is that Mbeki's views on Aids were based on his addiction to discredited literature and hobnobbing with dissident scientists from around the world.

It's not clear what inspires Zuma to say the kinds of things he says on matters economic.

Some of his remarks and decisions have caused irreparable damage. Now investors don't talk about South Africa without referring to "political risk", a synonym for "Zuma risk".

This means the prospect of creating jobs, reducing poverty and nailing inequality are slim.

Bar the external factors over which South African policymakers have no control, there is no indication that Zuma knows how to instil confidence in the economy.

His economic gaffes are too many to enumerate. The latest are his remarks that the effects of his sacking of Nhlanhla Nene from the finance portfolio and replacing him with a man of no standing in the world of finance were "exaggerated".

How could he possibly say this when investors lost billions of rands, confidence in the economy as an investment destination took a hammering and the rand got battered?

On economic matters the president either has a rudimentary understanding or no grasp at all.

To members of the governing party and ordinary South Africans - the real victims of the president's economic utterances - he means well and should be forgiven for his lack of economic sophistication. But the globalised nature of stock markets and currency markets is such that there's hardly time for sympathy.

Global markets don't operate on a philanthropic basis.

If they have to dump the rand for the dollar because Zuma has pressed the wrong buttons, they will do so. If they have to quit our stock exchange, sending shares tumbling, because they think Zuma is gambling with the economy, they will do so.

Of course, global markets operate like a casino, as the political economist Susan Strange once observed.

But if the madness of global markets combines with madness in the domestic terrain we can be sure of a catastrophic outcome.

South Africa escaped the Great Recession only slightly bruised compared to other countries because of the decision of the previous administrations, especially the much-maligned prudent economic policies.

Key indicators like the budget balance looked good. When the global recession hit, Zuma's new administration had inherited room to mount a counter-cyclical spend.

But now Zuma gives investors a reason to doubt whether he is committed to continued prudent fiscal management.

It matters a lot to investors what he, as the president of the most advanced and diversified economy in Africa, says - and does.

Investors are not interested in whether the occasion of what he says is a chess festival in Nkandla or the state of the nation address in Cape Town. They are always looking for signals.

It's about time he stopped making harmful utterances.

His comrades must compel him to withdraw from such matters and give ministers in the economic cluster space to instil investor confidence in the country.

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