Can Thabo Mbeki save Africa? Surely not, since no single human being could have that much impact on such a huge, complicated, famously troubled continent. A more pertinent question might be: Can South Africa's President convince the rest of the world that Africa means business? The prospects are better for this task. Mbeki, along with a handful of other continental leaders, will be attempting just that when they push their New Plan for Africa's Development (NEPAD) at the World Economic Forum's Africa Economic Summit in Durban this week. That effort is a prelude to presenting the plan later this month to the toughest of customers, the Group of Eight industrialized countries, at their next meeting in Canada.
Born out of various plans discussed over the past three years by Mbeki, Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, NEPAD once known as the New Africa Initiative is an enticing offer to the international community. In return for increased aid, investment, debt relief and trade opportunities, African states would commit themselves to democracy, good governance and peace. Mbeki has emerged as the chief salesman for NEPAD, which has been described as a Marshall Plan for Africa, with annual investment of $64 billion. If he can market it as the development arm of the new African Union that will be inaugurated in South Africa next month to replace the old Organization of African Unity, with himself as first chairman, he might accomplish what decades of foreign handouts, hectoring and hand wringing have failed to do: boost growth rates and reverse Africa's economic decline.
Many Africans think he has no choice but to succeed: NEPAD, they say, could be the continent's last hope for joining the global economy. As Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a symposium in Addis Ababa last week: "In the present global environment, we all survive or sink together."
Mbeki's own senior economic adviser, Wiseman Nkuhlu, heads NEPAD's steering committee, which is drawing up in detail the required principles of good political and economic governance. Mbeki says these will not only be endorsed by the African Union but will also be guaranteed by an independent, nonpolitical, African peer-review system. "The element that has enabled the marketing of NEPAD is that it is an African initiative," he told journalists last month. "We are making our own commitments about democracy, about peace, about corruption and about our homegrown efforts to put our own resources into development." At an Africa Day briefing on NEPAD, hosted by South African diplomats in London, Nigeria's High Commissioner Christopher Kolade said the plan was the product of a new generation of African leaders who "no longer tolerate the perception of Africa as a continent of infinite woes."
NEPAD is laying down some tough rules for membership. Countries that want to join will have to sign up to a Democracy and Political Governance Initiative that demands specific obligations and required actions toward good governance conforming to international standards. They include parliamentary democracy, fixed terms of office for national leaders and an independent judiciary. Members will also have to agree to an independent peer review every three years on how they are living up to their NEPAD obligations.
Considering that probably a third of Africa's 53 states, including some of NEPAD's own founding committee, do not meet the plan's criteria for membership, the three-year peer review period might allow them enough time to get their acts together. As it is, NEPAD's members will be listed under four categories: those that comply with its obligations, those that need a little help to meet them, those that need some serious persuasion and those that require political and economic reconstruction from the ground up (the latter are mostly countries, such as Angola and Sierra Leone, that have endured long-running civil wars). Although countries like Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and tiny Swaziland, which is ruled by an absolute monarch, have pointedly been left out of NEPAD's formative negotiations, as members of the African Union they and others with dubious democratic credentials will presumably get a chance to sign up for NEPAD, which will be adopted as the A.U.'s development plan.
"NEPAD is a long-shot, but no one so far has come up with a better alternative," says John Stremlau, co-director of the Centre for Africa's International Relations at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. Skeptics say the international community should be cautious about rushing in to back yet another new initiative to help Africa and that NEPAD, for all its high-sounding ideals, may become just another exercise in neocolonialist aid. After almost a score of African development schemes that have been mooted and forgotten over the past 20 years, they ask, why should NEPAD be any different?
Mbeki and his fellow architects say NEPAD is more than an idea and already represents a solidarity of pan-African interests from Cape Town to Cairo. It has also earned enthusiastic endorsement from Britain's Tony Blair, the European Union, the U.S. and Canada. "This isn't charity," says Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. "Improving people's lives is an investment." Chretien, as current president of the G-8, will be unveiling the African action plan at the group's summit in the western Canadian mountain resort of Kananaskis. "What makes NEPAD different is its recognition of past failures, its ownership by Africans themselves and, critically, its timing in a post-Sept. 11 spotlight on global responsibilities and core values," says Greg Mills, national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Whatever course the initiative takes, it constitutes a personal challenge for the man who has played such a pivotal role in its creation Thabo Mbeki. So, will the South African President soar to fame on the successful launch of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, or will he watch his career crumble with its failure? But even as Nelson Mandela's successor gambles his international reputation on a world dispensation for Africa, he remains something of an enigma among his own countrymen.
Mbeki, currently Africa's most eloquent voice , is still dogged by the controversy that surrounds his eccentric views on Africa's greatest pestilence, aids. His questioning of the conventional medical conclusions on hiv, including the link between hiv and aids and the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs, as well as his government's unseemly battle with aids activists, became issues that went beyond medical and scientific debate and threatened to undermine investor confidence in South Africa. "What the world wanted was to hear three words [hiv causes aids], and he is not a man of three words," said Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. "He likes to explain things.'' But according to a source close to the A.N.C. leadership, Mbeki, who revels in Socratic, philosophical debate, became so immersed in the nonconformist, dissident arguments about aids that "he forgot he was President. He should have stepped back and left others to argue the case.'' Mbeki's intellectual approach also neglected the need for action, said the A.N.C. source. "When a house is on fire you don't stop to argue the scientific causes of combustion, you get in there, get the people out and extinguish the blaze."
If Mbeki is not a man of three words, his government information service is: "Our starting point is the premise that hiv causes aids," says an official handout, noting that the country's total health budget for HIV/AIDS has trebled since last year and by 2004 will be almost $2 billion. The government claims that its comprehensive HIV/AIDS policy is one of the best in the world. But skeptics in South Africa still wonder if the apparent turnabout on aids is genuine. "Has Mr. Mbeki had a sudden change of heart?" asks John Kane-Berman, director of South Africa's Institute of Race Relations. "Or are we witnessing an exercise in damage control in the face of overwhelming local and foreign pressure?"
Almost half-way through his first term as President, Mbeki is having some measure of success on the economic front. Although there is still a long way to go to alleviate poverty, the percentage of people who are regarded as the poorest of the poor has dropped from about 20% in 1994 to roughly 5% last year. The number of workers earning more than $600 a month has increased from 10% to 18%. Water delivery has improved by 85%, half of rural homes now have access to electricity and the literacy rate has gone up at least 10%. Most South Africans now have access to a telephone link, and some 7 million actively use mobile phones. The Internet, e-mail and e-business are widespread.
Unemployment, officially around 30%, unofficially 41.5%, continues to cloud the horizon. A plan to address that problem by limiting immigration will probably just worsen another one: a shortage of skilled labor. Still, development projects in many major cities are beginning to absorb some of the urban jobless. A huge convention center being built in Cape Town is already booked until 2010. And a planned deepwater port and duty-free industrial development zone at Coega, near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape probably the single largest long-term investment in the country's history is expected to provide thousands of jobs.
South Africa, meanwhile, is enjoying a tourist boom, with an increase in airline passengers and travelers on cruise ships taking the safe route around the Cape rather than risk the unrest surrounding the Suez Canal. Next year, for the first time, South Africa will host the international cricket World Cup. Two years ago, the South Africans lost by one vote to Germany in the bid for the 2006 soccer World Cup.
Although Europe remains South Africa's biggest trading partner, commerce with Africa has been expanding. South Africa is Mozambique's largest investor with more than 250 companies operating there. Since 1994, trade with Nigeria has rocketed. South Africa's satellite communications company MTN has invested more than $425 million in the Nigerian cell-phone network. National power company Eskom has secured contracts in several African countries, and South African mining companies are operating all over the continent, as is South African Breweries (SAB).
Last week, SAB bought Miller Brewing Co. for $5.6 billion, making it the world's second-largest brewer. Last week the partially privatized national landline operator, Telkom, announced a partnership in a fiber-optic cable that will link Africa not just with Asia, Europe, Australia and the U.S. but also with itself. The link Telkom has an $85 million stake in the $650 million deal involves an undersea cable from Portugal to West Africa and Cape Town, and another from Cape Town to India and Malaysia. "This is tangible proof of the continent's determination to take its rightful place in the global economy," says Telkom's chief executive, Sizwe Nxasana. After a brief and sudden plunge of the South African rand at the end of last year a phenomenon that resulted in a government inquiry into foreign exchange and bank transactions the currency has recovered the almost 40% it lost to the U.S. dollar. South Africa is still one of the world's biggest exporters of gold and other precious and base metals. Both platinum and gold prices have soared in recent months, boosting profits for local companies and tax revenues for the state. "We have a much stronger economic climate in South Africa than in many other developing countries,'' says Revenue Services Commissioner Pravin Gordhan. A special fraud unit improved tax collection by $430 million last year, enabling the government to cut corporate income-tax rates from 48% to 30%.
As South Africa last week geared up for the wef meeting, which will be heavily devoted to NEPAD, Mbeki, speaking in Parliament in Cape Town, proudly outlined South Africa's leadership role in the initiative. What remains now, he said, is for the principles of NEPAD to be converted into action. Mbeki's job as a salesman is nearly over. His dream of an African renaissance now rests in the delivery.