THAT things began to fall apart when President Jacob Zuma took office in 2009 is an increasingly popular narrative. Asserted mainly by those calling for leadership change in Mangaung, they suggest that had Zuma not risen to power, South Africa's paradise would have remained pristine. Some are using Zuma's dismal performance to validate former president Thabo Mbeki's supposed greatness. They are wrong.

When viewed through the prism of Zuma's hopeless leadership, Mbeki appears angelic. This ignores the fact that South Africa's leadership challenges were already evident under Mbeki. He was a leader with huge potential and held much promise to carry the hopes of the country. Given his intellectual talents and grasp of the core challenges facing South Africa's economy in a changing global environment, Mbeki could have achieved more. Yet he failed to drive change for the better.

It was his brutal removal from power that deprived us of a space to properly assess his legacy. Mbeki's unceremonious departure drew public sympathy, and his replacement by a leader so morally and intellectually compromised lent us a highly skewed and overgenerous view of him as a leader.

We are yet to reflect in more nuanced ways about the evolution of South Africa's leadership since apartheid, and Mbeki's role in particular. This is necessary if we are to evolve a broadly shared framework of the kind of leadership we desire in the future. A review of Mbeki's legacy is also important, as he is the only leader who dominated much of South Africa's post-apartheid political life.

There are two central aspects of Mbeki's leadership that are worth reviewing. The first is foreign policy. One of Mbeki's major contributions was to popularise the notion of the African renaissance and he marked out Africa as a centrepiece of South Africa's foreign policy. His ideas were packaged into the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development, which he used to stake South Africa's intellectual leadership on Africa's development and to forge a new developmental consensus with the Group of Eight industrialised countries.

Beyond the continent, Mbeki promoted South Africa as a purposeful global actor and an important player in multilateral institutions. South Africa was visible on the global stage and helped to launch the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations, which hinged on the theme of development. Mbeki's varied and ubiquitous global agenda led many to suggest that the country was punching above its weight. But to what end?

Much of South Africa's sweat was for international recognition rather than to generate meaningful benefits to enhance the country's prosperity. Global presence became an end in itself.

It is not enough for a country with South Africa's socioeconomic profile to simply bask in international glory. The country failed to connect its global agenda with the urgent need to address the domestic economic condition.

On the economy, Mbeki is rightly credited for maintaining macroeconomic stability. In fact, his major contribution was to secure the Treasury's relative autonomy, in effect giving it the role of a super-ministry. He recognised modern treasuries' unique role as a powerful interface between the global markets and the domestic economy. This is one of the few government departments that demonstrated institutional innovation with technically superior bureaucrats under then finance minister Trevor Manuel. Sadly, this excellence has never been successfully replicated anywhere else in government.

The conservative macroeconomic policy framework that South Africa adopted was a step in the right direction. It helped ensure constraint in public spending. Without it, South Africa would not have enjoyed the budget surpluses of the early 2000s. This provided the confidence to ramp up social spending.

There was, however, no well-articulated microeconomic strategy. Given his intellectual capacities and bureaucratic instincts, Mbeki could have achieved more. He was also fortunate in that he presided over a period in which the global economy was much more favourable than when Zuma took over.

The Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa did not amount to much. If it was not for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, South Africa would have lagged further behind in modernising its infrastructure. Despite the World Cup, the country's poor infrastructure remains a serious competitive disadvantage.

While other mining economies were basking in the glory of high international prices during the commodities boom between 2000 and 2007, South Africa's mining sector contracted by 1%. This was essentially due to poor leadership, including a lack of long-term planning on energy and transport capacity, and regulatory uncertainty.

A thorough and sober assessment of Mbeki's leadership is needed, instead of using Zuma's many weaknesses as a prism through which to cast Mbeki in a better light.

. Qobo is teaches politics at the University of Pretoria and is a member of the Midrand Group.