Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, September 10, 2004

Thabo has a crack at Anglo American
Thabo Mbeki never ceases to amaze me with his penchant for personal attacks. In his latest letter from the president, ANC Today, Mbeki starts of with a favourite subject of mine, those who continue to bad-mouth SA 10 years after democracy, bleating that it will follow Zimbabwe into the African abyss etc, and rightly assails their reasoning for doing so.

However, Mbeki also speaks about an article from London's Financial Times in which Mr Tony Trahar, CEO of Anglo American plc which is listed on the FTSE, is quoted as saying: "I think the South African political-risk issue is starting to diminish - although I am not saying it has gone."

Now this is a fairly innocuous comment. It was in response to a question about whether Anglo would be moving its HQ back to South Africa, and is a non-descript answer. The political risk in South Africa is always evident, as it is throughout all of Africa and many other continents. Whilst political risk has been markedly reduced, Mbeki cannot possibly conclude that there is no semblance of risk.

But Thabo launches into a tirade about the unpatriotism of Trahar and Anglo, questioning his motives, his leadership and his business decision-making, even insinuating racism on his part.

Mbeki continues:

"Both the ANC and the government would not know what political risk Mr Trahar is talking about. When foreign business people have told us about South African business people 'bad mouthing' our country, is this what they were talking about? Have our business people been going around the world talking about a persisting political risk in our country? And what have they said is the cause and nature of this risk?

The poor and the despised who worked for Anglo American and other companies that made it during the years of white minority rule, paid a pittance for their labour, are today's voters. For ten years they have made the point clearly and firmly that they care too deeply about the future of their children to allow their own painful past and the instincts it invokes, to determine that future.

Is it moral and fair that these [Anglo American workers], who daily bear the scars of poverty, should suffer from the guilt of their masters, who are fixated by the nightmare of a risky future for our country, which derives not from what the poor have done and will do, but from what the rich fear those they impoverished will do, imagining what they themselves would have done, if they had been the impoverished?"

I'm not even sure I understand what he means. You can almost see him sitting with his laptop, enraging himself in his words, wiping sweat from his brow and spit from his screen.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. These personal attacks are unfitting for a president, and unacceptable for a world leader. Attacks on a CEO of one of South Africa's largest businesses is hardly comforting to the larger business community. Mbeki admonishes local business for holding too much in cash reserves and not investing it in the local economy, but it is exactly these kind of public attacks that makes the business sector jumpy. The fact that the president of Africa's regional power writes an entire article attacking a business leader partly vindicates Trahar's concerns anyway.

There are other channels to address these issues through, not least of which would be addressing the entire business sector rather than attacking an individual. These diatribes paint Mbeki into a corner of paranoia. First the media, and now it seems, South African business...