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From the March 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 03)

SOUTH AFRICA

Mbeki vs. M&G

Barry Shelby, World Press Review contributing editor

The accusation that Thabo Mbeki governs with a “back-room presidency” in South Africa has led to a front-room brawl between Nelson Mandela’s successor and Johannesburg’s liberal Mail & Guardian.

With Mandela’s political sainthood seemingly confirmed by all, Mbeki has heard critical hoots nearly as loud as his predecessor’s roaring applause. In fairness, while he has his own political style, he has not altered the country’s direction. But in the views of some people, he can do nothing right.

In a Dec. 10 editorial, the Mail & Guardian lambasted Mbeki’s “centralization of power,” his “disdain for Parliament,” and more. “There was his refusal to meet the Dalai Lama, arguably the second-most important spiritual leader in the world after the Pope, saying that he was ‘too busy.’ ”

A week later (Dec. 17), the newspaper gave Mbeki, via spokesman Parks Manka-hlana, space to respond. While rebutting criticism of his boss, Mankahlana also accused the paper of institutional racism. “Is this [attitude] related to the fact that the newsroom of the M&G has grown whiter since 1994?” he asked. “A pattern of inconsistency, prejudice, and innuendo against the new democratic order has taken shape at the M&G. A random survey of the M&G editions will show that only one of all their stories [is] contributed by a black journalist.” The paper replied that it now has more black employees, at all levels, than in 1994.

On Jan. 7, Ebrahim Harvey argued that Mankahlana’s column showed “a dangerous display of defensive arrogance….That the presidency is not beyond reproach is too obvious a point to make, but the trenchantly defensive reply makes it necessary.”

“The irony,” he added, “is that the editorial does not at all deal with more serious problems which the presidency needs to address, such as the failure of current policies...to eradicate or even alleviate mass poverty and employment,...which is going to be...an infinitely bigger threat to this government than this paper could ever be.”

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