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How we miss Mbeki and Manuel

Their economic record beats anything that came before or after.

If we are to measure our political leaders on economic performance alone, Thabo Mbeki was our best president in the last 30 years, and Trevor Manuel our best finance minister.

As the accompanying graph shows, President Jacob Zuma has been bad for growth, but arguably better than FW De Klerk, who had to contend with the tail end of apartheid and international sanctions – which deprived SA of the capital it needed for growth and investment.


President Nelson Mandela had a mixed performance, with economic growth veering between -2% and +2%, for many of the same reasons confronted by De Klerk. Foreign investors remained wary of SA’s democratic experiment, as shown by the sluggish growth in foreign direct investment (FDI), until Mandela ventured overseas and exercised his considerable charm in enticing investors to these shores. But it was Mbeki who reaped the benefit of Mandela’s international outreach. Under President Zuma, FDI growth has come to a virtual stall.

Mbeki delivered the most consistent economic growth – admittedly helped by a commodity boom which ended abruptly as his term of office came to a close in 2008 – and Trevor Manuel as finance minister for 13 years, until 2009 delivered the lowest budget deficits. Manuel’s steady hand on the fiscus was likewise aided by the aforementioned commodity boom, which fattened tax receipts and reduced the need for large budget deficits.

Unemployment and inequality

Of course, no president can be measured on economic growth alone, so perhaps we should throw a few other measures into the pot, such as the rate of unemployment and income inequality.

On unemployment, Mbeki again shines, presiding over a drop from more than 30% to 22% during his tenure. He didn’t do so well on income inequality, which increased during his presidency, but this is an inevitable consequence of the economic boom years when income disparities tend to increase.

Looked at as a whole, ANC politicians have outperformed their National Party (Nats) predecessors, unless you go back to the 1970s when economic growth exceeded 6% for several years, lofted by a surge in the gold price.

Of course none of these measures account for the positive and sweeping political changes ushered in by De Klerk and Mandela. They undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the strong economic performance that followed, and for which Mbeki could take the credit.

On paper, Derek Keys – a former chairman of Gencor before being co-opted by De Klerk to his cabinet – was a terrible finance minister for signing off on a budget deficit of around 7% in 1992. This, however, was the cost of a peaceful political transition as the Nats made sure civil servants were richly pensioned in the dying years of apartheid. Keys was the only finance minister to serve under both De Klerk and Mandela, albeit briefly. Chris Liebenberg was then seconded from Nedbank to serve under Mandela, who wanted to demonstrate to the world that for all his avowed communist sympathies, he was leaving the country’s purse strings in the hands of a trusted banker.

Trevor Manuel took over the finance ministry in April 1996 and proved himself up to the task, despite his lack of experience. He reduced the budget deficit from around 4% to zero over the next decade. He resigned in 2008 when Mbeki was dethroned as leader of the ANC, though he served briefly under interim President Kgalema Motlanthe in 2009. He was rewarded for his efforts with postings at the World Bank and, more recently, Old Mutual.

The performance of the rand under Zuma reflects the disquiet of business decision makers. After the sacking of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in late 2015, the currency sank briefly to R17 to the US dollar, before steadying again as Pravin Gordhan was announced as his replacement. Gordhan was handed a poisoned chalice in the form of a slowing economy (and hence tax receipts) from which he has to service a gargantuan public sector wage bill and welfare payments. He has managed to keep the deficit at around 4%, which is no small achievement for an economy growing at slightly above 1%.

In purely economic terms, Zuma is by no means the worst president we have had to endure. This, of course, is a limited view. If we take into account the fact that SA businesses continue to move capital abroad at record rates – about R70 billion on a rolling cumulative basis last year – this tells us something about the state of governance in the country. Another blot on the Zuma record is the lingering threat of a credit downgrade. None of this is reflected in the accompanying graphs. Nor the fact that he has stacked key ministries and State-owned enterprises with loyalists.

There are many in SA who look back with nostalgia on Mbeki’s presidency, including many in the ANC who helped engineer his regicide.

Based on the economic record, this nostalgia is entirely justified.



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“How we miss Mbeki and Manuel”…Really?!?

A step back, was there ever any day when there was no negative media story (including on this website) about the same people when they were in government?
Wasn’t Jacob Zuma the ‘consultative leader’, ‘more in touch with the electorate’, etc?

Let’s look across the pond. Already people who voted for Trump regret because they say he is threatening their access to AHC or ‘Obamacare’?

Do you see the trend here?


What the writer actually misses is the commodity boom and reducing interest rates.

South Africa is influenced by global environment by virtue of being connected with the rest of the world. This analysis assumes good fortunes of the past in this case economic growth and the likes were entirely caused by past leaders. At face value this means if there was another leader other than Mbeki, let assume Cyril or Zuma for that matter, the outcome could have been worse. The analysis seems to suggest that only former President and finance minister could make global economy boom. This is strange, as earl comment points out the media was very negative even during the time of these past leaders. In fact some South Africans even migrated to other countries at the time of these leaders.
The tradition of the ruling party is that majority rule. The president serves as a face of the country. The analysis failed to acknowledge that Mbeki presidency benefited from booming global economy linked to the industrialization in China. Commodity prices were booming. Further consideration is preparation for 2010 world cup awarded to South Africa in honour of the first democratic president Nelson Mandela.
South Africans especially the affluent are very pessimistic beings. Instead people who should be complaining are blue collar workers and the unemployed persons. These are people who face extreme competition with machines and extremely cheap labour far in the East. When they fight for better living wage they are always threatened at time replaced by cheap labour. Globalization has worsened their prospects while middle and high income households have reaped benefits.

What a vacuous article! Mbeki was responsible for the deaths of thousands due to his ridiculous AIDS denialism. There’s no ways he’s missed!

Compared to the circus we have now? I’d say he is missed.

1. Do not place too much correlation on leaders and economic performance.( their influence probably more linked to policies, like Mugabe).
2. To be technically correct, no other SA government could beat HF Verwoerds economic performance.How very un-PC of me, but then again refer to point 1.


Mbeki didn’t deserve the antagonistic press about his personality – that was clear from the book A Dream Deferred

Classic error in logic. Correlation does not equal causation.
Speaking of causation, Mr Mbeki has a few hundred thousand Aids deaths to account for.

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