Peter Bruce misremembers Mbeki

Eusebius Mckaiser replies to the Business Day editor

One of the first things I do every Monday morning is to read Business Day editor Peter Bruce. I am one of his biggest fans, because his "I'm-stumbling-to-the-bathroom-but-thinking-aloud" style of writing is genuinely entertaining, and unique. And often, even when I disagree, I find his interventions worth engaging.

This morning, however, I was shocked by the absolutely bizarre, retrospective and sycophantic praise of Thabo Mbeki, and his un-argued for assault on Zuma (see here).

The column is worth unpacking because it is an example of the dangers of amnesia, wilful blindness and revisionism, and of the importance of reminding ourselves of the intellectual poverty of making assertions without substantiation.

The party list system

It is odd to argue that the ANC's removal of Thabo Mbeki was headed towards a constitutional crisis and this was only averted, most fortuitously, by the amazingly clever and self-sacrificing Mbeki who provided selfless guidance on how he should be constitutionally rather than illegally removed.

First, this is all false as a matter of electoral fact. We have, for better or worse, a party list system in South Africa. Many of us rightly hate the system, but that does not mean we can reinvent the legal facts about the system. Political parties draw up, at their behest, lists of who should go to Parliament or not and then the president is chosen from there. This means that a party can remove someone from their list and the result would be that they would be immediately recalled from government.

This is all the ANC was doing: nothing more, nothing less. It was a pedestrian constitutional process being followed, so the constitutional crisis that was being imagined, is a lie, or in the best case scenario the result of Frank Chikane/Peter Bruce not getting the elementary facts of our electoral system.

Second, Bruce never explains the "illegal" process that Mbeki saved the ANC from embarking on? It is quite a massive claim to suggest the governing party was designing an illegal mechanism or process to unseat one if its own. Surely this claim demands clearer and legally fact based elaboration? I for one would love to hear more on this fascinatingly contentious point.  (Well, I lie: given that the process that was followed was actually constitutionally permissible there is no case for illegality that can be formulated.)

The idea that Mbeki was a champion of constitutionalism is also, of course, an exercise in forgetting. It is under the Mbeki administration that the increased use of state machinery for extra-political purposes became intense. Mbeki of course was not found guilty of any such abuse himself, but more subtle examples, like his usurping of the JIT probe into the arms deal, and his poorly spirited attempt at another ANC presidency (no doubt with the desire to be president of the country remotely) are hardly the hallmarks of constitutional excellence and role modelling.  (Other examples abound: The ANC's so called attack on constitutionalism - if one buys this claim which I do not wholly do - all pre-dates Zuma, such as the 2005 headlines about the imminent clipping of judges' wings off the back of Mbeki's January 8th speech in Mthatha. And, of course, in the run up to Polokwane itself several Mbeki mandarins argued that a constitutional change for a third term would be acceptable, a claim that Mbeki ignored - and I happily speak under correction - rather than publicly denounced outright. The overall point, at any rate, remains: Mbeki at best has a chequered relationship with constitutionalism.)   

So, not only was the ANC behaving constitutionally but, in addition, to set Mbeki's leadership up as the gold standard of good leadership on constitutionalism, is absurd.

On Ramaphosa, Sexwale

Bruce seems unaware of the fact that both Ramaphosa and Sexwale played critical roles in getting Mbeki unseated. The assumption is that they have selfless goals and flawless skill-sets that could be used in the service of the country. This is lazy. First, both characters were part of the leadership structures that debated Mbeki's removal and reportedly were some of the more vociferous voices in favour of his removal.

Sexwale's presidential ambitions are as clear as Julius Malema's insincere commitment to economic freedom! They can hardly accurately be imagined to be ‘Mbeki-ites' or ‘Anti-Zuma-ites': they are career politician-businessmen, and should be as carefully and skeptically engaged as political figures as anyone else.

It is odd that once politicians get anointed by the press, critical faculties relax in their presence. Second, the strengths and weaknesses of these leaders, as potential presidential candidates, are not discussed - it is simply asserted that they would do a wonderful job. Yet, if we take someone like Zweli Mkhize, for example, his record in the province of KwaZulu-Natal would come out a mixed bag at the most. (There is a sad possible reason for this: an "anything-but-Zuma-please!" attitude which results in a less than full assessment of each of the alternative candidates. This is most unfortunate.) 

Willful Journalistic blindness

Bruce casually says that we were "all cross with Mbeki, for AIDS, for aloofness..." This is a weak acknowledgment of Mbeki's weaknesses. In the context of the column it almost amounts to exculpating Mbeki, diminishing the extent of his personal and political shortcomings. More than 300 000 South Africans died from AIDS related illnesses as a result of Mbeki-led denialism. That cannot be waspishly noted in passing as if you are excusing a kid for spilling coffee on the couch.

There is a toxic combination of journalistic wilful blindness, callousness and hasty writing going on here. It is irresponsible to make light of Mbeki's governance shortcomings in this manner. This is both from the point of view of a fearless commitment to truth - as one expects of ideal standards of journalism - and also in fairness to other characters whose strengths and weaknesses you are more comfortable giving a thorough exposition of.

Mbeki's Aids policies are a textbook example of a political leader having a personal existential crisis - "The West thinks we can't control our penises, and stuff!" - at the expense of his country. His paranoia about such negative outsider sentiment extended to an on-and-off attitude towards crime - acknowledging it the one day, only to use it the next day as a blunt instrument to berate whites.

His finest moment was helping to craft decent centrist macroeconomic policies in the mid-1990s. But once he became President, it was steadily downhill from there, and any balanced assessment of his place in political history must be harsh. He is now doing a decent job, again, on the continent, but this is a red herring in the context of an audit of how he did as president of the country.

Final thought

Two closing thoughts:

a) It is tiring to read lazy assertions about Zuma as dumb, disinterested, not reading anything other than about himself etc. Not one shred of evidence is given for this characterisation by Bruce. All we have is some single anecdote from a "colleague". Since when can a serious political sketch be based on a corridor related anecdote between colleagues? This is not just lazy - up there with some columnists who review books they have not read - but, frankly, unfair on Zuma. Zuma is not ideal as our president in my viewpoint. I would not defend him at all as a good president. (That's a discussion for another day.) But I do defend his entitlement to be assessed based on the things he says and does rather than being reduced to vacuity.

Now we have more to engage: a Zuma-led massive expansionary fiscus aimed at embedding a Big Idea - manufacturing as a catalyst for development - and there is much to chew on here, and elsewhere. Here is the point: there are so many good arguments against Zuma, and against Zuma's governance record, and political skill and character, why settle for lazy assertion?

b.) Finally, a warning: we should be wary of reinforcing the pre-2009 view of Zuma, so nicely articulated by Xolela Mangcu, of a kind of cultural and aesthetic disapproval of someone who looks and sound differently to ourselves. Of course the media never did so with Mbeki - the ‘philosopher King'-identity could not be lampooned for fear of being accused of being racist or Afro-pessimistic.

Ironically, there is more space during the Zuma presidency for Bruce to write this column - its analogous version, circa 2003, say, would probably not have been written. This kind of column should be replaced by evidence based, and sincere, engagement. If anything, folks, you make it too easy for the Presidency! By using prejudice as a substitute for hard-hitting factual analysis, excellent criticism can be conveniently set aside by the President because he can point to the more ad hominem rants in pieces of journalism. As my mom would have said, "Don't put jam in their mouths, Peter!"

But there is never a dull moment in Mzansi, is there? I wonder what Mbeki thinks of being called a "civilized patriot" - the drama will continue long after Mangaung. Fun times ahead, nervous journalism ahead too....

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter here.

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