Skip to main content

Book review: The Mbeki Legacy

Up today: The Mbeki Legacy, by Brian Pottinger. This book takes a hard look at Thabo (coincidentally my Setswana name) Mbeki, the president of South Africa from 1999-2008. The book, while noting Mbeki's relative success in providing macroeconomic stability and reasonable growth, is mostly savagely critical of the Mbeki and the ANC. The main fault, according to Pottinger, was "ideological overreach" in that policies were often either flat-out ridiculous, or appropriate only for a much more advanced country with a very competent bureaucracy (like Germany or Sweden, for example). Affirmative action (which Pottinger acknowledges as vital) was undertaken so quickly and haphazardly as to cripple public services; he gives the example of the electricity shortages and blackouts in 2008--when in 1998 Eskom (the public utility) had large excess capacity and extremely cheap power. In a panic, Eskom ended up hiring many white engineers, some over seventy, who had been dismissed years ago.

Another overreach is the explosive growth of the welfare state--more than quadrupled under Mbeki--to a size simply unsustainable by a middle-income country. About a third of South Africans say they are dependent on the government for survival. This leads to a society of dependency, entitlement, and grievance.

Pottinger also identifies a great deal of corruption and cronyism throughout the government, which is the main culprit behind the chronic lack of service delivery, and partially responsible for the massive crime problem here. He cites the dissolution of the Scorpions, South Africa's elite police unit with an 85% conviction rate, known for raiding homes of the ANC elite, for what seem political reasons. Six percent of reported crimes result in a conviction here.

The education system comes in as the worst problem in the country, contributing to every other problem. Right now in South Africa there is an immense skills shortage--twenty percent or greater vacancies in every public service department, for example. (This is compounded my emigration, mostly rich and white, from crime.) The tiny minority of private schools, plus those once called "Model C," produce most of the high-scoring graduates. Pottinger lays this failure on the national curriculum, which he says is totally inappropriate for South Africa, and excessive union power making it nearly impossible to discipline teachers. He also faults replacement of the traditional industry apprentice system with a dysfunctional bureaucratic boondoggle.

A quick side note--Pottinger says the educational fiasco is worse even that Mbeki's AIDS denialism, because the AIDS epidemic is only partly due to Mbeki's inexcusable foot-dragging. He says the AIDS crisis is mostly the fault of "an embedded culture of public irresponsibility, which virtually nullified AIDS educational campaigns; a systemic failure by a number of AIDS and TB sufferers to take medication, so as to prolong state welfare grants; and the incapacity of an uncaring bureaucracy to implement the [anti-HIV/AIDS] programme." (p. 160) I can't speak to that point, but it's ancillary in any case.

It's hard for me to judge the accuracy of most of these complaints, but his diagnosis of the education system matches completely with my own observations. It's not hard to take the government failure in that area and imagine them doing basically the same thing everywhere else. I too have wondered (as Pottinger describes) why South Africa seems to be treading water or falling behind where other African countries--like Rwanda and even Nigeria--are making consistent progress.

Possibly the weakest part of the book is the solutions at the end--not because they seem poorly thought out, rather that it's impossible to imagine them being implemented. The systematic problems are so deep, the one-party state so entrenched, that nothing seems likely to change. Here's hoping, anyway.

Overall, a truly excellent book and a razor-sharp look at the problems ailing South Africa today, though a bit disorganized in spots. Highly recommended.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over.

I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up. They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins the nomi…

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept, which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects.
Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017, where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually being be…

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard, a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment.

When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that e…