In Mbeki's South Africa, Change Has Come, Slowly

Princess Rini credits South African President Thabo Mbeki with the improvements in her life.
Princess Rini credits South African President Thabo Mbeki with the improvements in her life. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 25, 2007

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa -- The road in front of Princess Rini's leaky, wooden shack has been paved. There is a primary school and a library down the street. And though three of the outdoor taps the government built nearby are broken, a twist on the fourth brings forth copious clean water.

"It's changing, a little bit, a little bit," said Rini, 38, a widow with short, braided hair who moved to Khayelitsha, among Cape Town's poorest and most dangerous townships, a decade before apartheid ended in 1994. "It's better than before."

The reason: "It's Thabo Mbeki," she said.

Inequality remains extreme in South Africa, with sharp divisions along lines of race and class. But Mbeki, who could become a lame-duck president as soon as December, when the ruling African National Congress has elections for party leader, has already crafted a legacy of fiscal stability and modest racial progress that, advisers say, he is working furiously to protect as rivals vie to replace him.

Mbeki is seeking to maintain control by competing for a third term as party leader, a move that would help him handpick the next president. But analysts say the outcome is far from certain in a year they call the most politically tumultuous since apartheid.

In these battles, the slow pace of change is perhaps Mbeki's most glaring weakness. Rush hour in Cape Town, southern Africa's original European colony and still a bastion of white privilege, is swollen with luxury cars speeding past dilapidated townships. Executive suites in downtown skyscrapers remain dominated by the small white minority.

"We have not succeeded at de-racializing the economy," said Willie Esterhuyse, a retired Afrikaner philosophy professor who became a friend and adviser to Mbeki. "After liberation, nothing changed. . . . The racism is embedded in the physical nature of the country."

Although the racial order has proved dauntingly resilient, a strong economy has provided benefits to all levels of society.

Rini said she could not imagine ever living in the lush white neighborhood where she works one day a week, earning $57 for the month, and she craves steadier employment and a concrete home with plumbing. But she said she is grateful for the improvements to her neighborhood and for the $27 monthly government grant she receives to help support her youngest child.

Of Mbeki's government, she said its programs were "better than nothing."

Mbeki's advisers acknowledge that his cerebral approach to the presidency will never generate the enthusiasm many South Africans felt for Nelson Mandela, the charismatic first president of the post-apartheid era. But Mbeki, who was deputy president during those years, was the intellectual force behind policies that have allowed the country to become fiscally sound while gradually providing homes, water, electrical connections and grants to millions of the poorest South Africans.

Esterhuyse, who was an emissary for the apartheid government when he first met Mbeki in the late 1980s, said that even then Mbeki was "the guy in the engine room" capable of bringing ANC ideals to reality.

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