NEWS & ANALYSIS

The undiplomacy of Jessie Duarte

Andrew Donaldson writes on the ANC DSG, Tito, and the 'off the record' side of Pik

A FAMOUS GROUSE

HAS anyone ever noticed that you never see former foreign affairs deputy minister Aziz Pahad and ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte together? Could they be the same person?

I once pointed this out to an unusually earnest Business Day reporter during an opening of parliament ceremony some years back, and was swiftly rebuked. “Oh, that’s rubbish,” she said. “They’re not at all alike.”

Which is true. Pahad is a fairly doctrinaire ANC politician who, among other things, played an active role in settling internal conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Angola. He at least understands diplomacy. 

Duarte, on the other hand, does not. That’s to put it mildly.

She has on several occasions short-circuited in interviews with journalists to reveal her true nature, that of an intemperate bully with the manners of a neighbour’s lawnmower on a hangover morning.

In 2009, for example, she famously told the veteran BBC journalist and presenter John Humphrys on air that he had “a colonial mind”. 

This was shortly after a spectacular blow-out with Sunday Times reporter Philani Nombembe during an interview for an article about political leaders interacting with voters on online platforms.

Nombembe had asked whether Jacob Zuma answered blog posts.

It’s worth reading the transcript of the tirade that followed but, in short, Duarte told him to get a life, that he was peddling a bad attitude and that he was racist for having had the temerity to question whether the then president was able to read. (Nombembe had, of course, asked her no such thing.)

“In fact,” Duarte continued, “how do I know you can read? You’re probably one of those people who might be able to be a whizz-kid on the internet, but maybe you can’t read at all. So I don’t ask you questions like that. I mean the fact that you’re a journalist doesn’t make you a genius. [Sniggers] You’re just a journalist.”

At the time, you may recall, Duarte, along with Carl Niehaus, the revolutionary Furby, were in charge of communications for the ANC’s election campaign.

I mention this only because Duarte, with all her insight into the workings of the fourth estate, this week indicated she was “very keen” to appear before the Zondo inquiry into state capture to talk about her dealings with the Guptas and their media operations, ANN7 and The New Age.

One should not, however, hold out much hope of her saying too much of interest. 

As she told a media briefing, “I’m happy to discuss meetings I had with Moegsien Williams [The New Age editor]. I am not afraid to say that we did discuss a media that would give the ANC unmitigated space for its views … Whatever happened after that was something else.”

Which means she presumably knows absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Gupta media’s factional role in the ANC’s internal leadership battles ahead of the party’s 2017 elective conference, and their campaign of labelling Zuma’s rivals as stooges of “white monopoly capital”.

But what then does Duarte know?

Interestingly, she’s spoken of the party’s concerns that there are perceptions that the ANC is on trial at the Zondo commission. 

It’s just a hunch, but she could very well be on to something here.

***

Onto other matters. The appointment of Tito Mboweni as finance minister following Nhlanhla Nene’s resignation was generally seen as a good thing and the rand’s fortunes, we noticed, improved ever so slightly as a result.

But there is some cause for concern. Firstly, Mboweni has spent a lot of time on social media. There is perhaps no harm in this, and while they do come across as only slightly bonkers, his postings have tended to be more ruminative than, let’s say, Fikile Mbalula’s activities on Twitter.

In July, he shared the following with his followers: “There were times when I tried to make a point about the seriousness of INFLATION!! It eats into the pockets of the poor!!”

This of course indicates that he may even know a thing or two about money. But the giddiness with the exclamation marks does suggest, it can be argued, a certain emotional incontinence.

Last month, he flooded his Facebook page with posts about Limpopo, apparently in a bid to get people to visit the place. 

A photograph, for example, of some Laeveld scrub was captioned: “An amazing hidden treasure! Near Leyden Village, Mokopane, Limpopo. Look at that. And someone wants to go to Paris for a holiday when we have this! #TourismSA. #TBCSA. #LimpopoTourism!”

Mboweni should be careful, though. Following the SA Reserve Bank’s report into the VBS Mutual Bank R2-billion clean-out, the province is fast cementing its reputation as the country’s corruption stronghold.

There seems to be something foul and malevolent in the air up there.

***

AMONG those who paid tribute to Pik Botha, who died on Friday morning, was the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa. 

Speaking to SAfm’s Stephen Grootes, Holomisa passed on his condolences to Botha’s wife, his family and “his political party, the African National Congress”.

This is not exactly how we remember Botha here at the Mahogany Ridge.

True, it was reported in 2000 that the National Party stalwart had joined the ruling party but in 2013 Botha denied this in an interview in which he criticised the government’s affirmative action policies.

As far as the Ridge regulars were concerned, he was the other, more traditional sort of party animal. 

In fact, the political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki told Grootes that when he visited him on Tuesday, he was alarmed that the 86-year-old Botha, surrounded by respiratory equipment, was sitting up in bed and smoking cigarettes.

I first became aware of his fondness for living it up shortly after then-prime minister PW Botha’s European tour in May and June 1984. Awed colleagues on that trip spoke of the foreign minister’s antics during the tour’s “off duty” moments.

In a restaurant in Rome, for example, he filled a ceremonial marble skull with grappa and had journalists drink from it. They later joked that it was the first time they’d been drunk “out of someone’s else’s head”.

On the long flight back to South Africa, he filled an ice bucket with the contents of miniature bottles of spirits to produce a lethal concoction which he passed around like a large African calabash. When that was finished he began “throwing” the empty bottles — as a sangoma with bones — to jokingly predict reporters’ futures.

I once witnessed an American journalist buttonhole Botha at a reception for foreign correspondents at his official Newlands, Cape Town, with questions about the battle for the strategic Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. 

Botha, deep in his cups and casually flicking cigarette ash on the carpet, steadied himself and replied, “My friend, my friend, have you been to Cuito Cuanavale? Hey, you ever been there? Well, I have and, lemme tell you one thing, there’s nothing there, just a long strip of f***all and an orange tree. Strategic town se moer.”

After a moment’s silence, Botha added, “That’s off the record, by the way.”

The fact that these tales never made it into to print was an indication of the respect journalists had for that rule. And Botha.