Who takes Moeletsi Mbeki seriously?

Setumo Stone says the political analyst's comments are little more than 'taxi talk'

Three weeks back I learnt a lesson which was as enriching as it was disappointing.

It was with enthusiasm that I picked up the phone to call my most revered columnist, Aubrey Matshiqi, for a comment on an ANC ‘integrity body' story I was preparing for Business Day. Disappointingly, I got a "no comment."

But it was a lesson I will cherish for the rest of my scribbling days. For Mr Matshiqi taught me that commentary on matters of public interest is a craft one should approach with dignity, integrity and honour.

"I have not applied my mind to the matter you are referring to," he said. "If I give you a comment it would be no different from a bus or taxi talk."

Why am I sharing this little pearl of wisdom with you?

Moeletsi Mbeki is reported to have given a fierce speech addressing the Cape Town Press Club where he said: "The ANC is not the future of the country. We should stop obsessing about the ANC. The ANC has ceased to be the future of South Africa if it continues (as it has been). We have to ask ourselves: who is the future of the country?"

This report echoed what Mr Matshiqi had labelled bus or taxi talk. It neither displays the intellectual rigour nor the visionary talk which Mr Mbeki himself claims to espouse. It is not clear what Mr. Mbeki knows about the future today or about the ANC in the future. Nor is it clear what he understands about the concept of a "future", what defines it today, or how future generations might interpret their present.

After reading various reports on his speech, I still know nothing about his understanding on the South African public's common grasp of the future and why the ANC cannot be a part of it. If the future is to be pegged upon the subjectivity of morality and values, then Mr Mbeki has a jaundiced understanding of the concept.

Attempts to reduce South African politics to issues of morality are as old as Nelson Mandela's presidential tenure. Academics like Stefan Sonderling have written extensively about this subject, rejecting what seems to be an attempt to concoct an apolitical society that is devoid of its historical sociopolitical obligations.

Furthermore, South Africa is a hugely unequal society whereby the future interests of the rich are not necessarily shared by the poor and vice versa. So, whose future exactly does Mr Mbeki have in mind, and may I add, which class is he speaking for?

What I suspect Mr Mbeki is uncomfortable with, is what seems to be the gradual shift of power from the hands of the few elite to the majority poor. This has brought with it the rise of the educated organic intellectuals and led to the fall of the aloof Sussex-educated technocrats.

The latter day elites have since found little room for expression, and they continue to reconfigure their voice under a variety of political banners and alliances, with ‘civil society' being the latest refuge for elite chauvinism.

But I could not say with any degree of certainty that Mr Mbeki is wrong, and in fact that is entirely irrelevant against the purpose of this piece, save to say that there is a technique to reasoning that cannot be violated. It was Richard Feynman who noted that if you are going to make an argument, it is only reasonable to provide your audience with the tools to prove you wrong, and if they can't, then they have an obligation, in good faith, to be persuaded by your propositions.

I must also say that I find it rather less enticing to read Mr Mbeki's "Advocates for Change" if his idea of public commentary is hollow sloganeering masqueraded as intellectual wizardry.

May I pause here to point out that an old friend and columnist, Tshepo Mamatu, read this piece and suggested that Mr Mbeki's comments should be understood as a call for the ANC to "up its game." He promised to write a proper reply next week which I would gladly publish on this blog.

This begs the question: "Does Mr Mbeki have any power to change what he does not like?" I don't think so! To the best of my knowledge, he does not have a powerful constituency that he leads nor is he in a position of authority to directly determine South Africa's present or future policies. And Julius Malema has all that. So, if there is anyone who shouldn't be taken seriously, surely Mr Mbeki makes an obvious candidate.

What irks me most is that there are sections of the society who are too cowardly to subject themselves to the brutality of the electoral vote, and yet parade themselves as the key-holders to our collective destiny.

Setumo Stone is on Twitter: This article first appeared on the TimesLive blog.

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