To my mind
BY NOW PRESIDENT Thabo Mbeki probably has a good idea of what the main theme of his address at the imminent opening of Parliament will be. Though his speeches over the past few years have increasingly focused on the needs of the nation, his statesmanship has so far largely been without the empathy that characterised the speeches of his predecessor.
Although the situation has improved, there remains concern, especially from the ranks of the Opposition and nonGovernment organisations, that he’s still struggling to give meaningful attention to HIV/Aids, a vital issue for many South Africans.
His pussyfooting around this topic has characterised his speeches, and there has been widespread speculation about the real reasons for this. One is that he’s embarrassed, because he handled the matter ineptly in the beginning and was later criticised for this – even from within his own ranks.
There are disturbing signs that he’s now going down the same road with the treatment of crime. However, this year’s state of the nation address gives him the ideal opportunity to show that he’s indeed serious about taking real, effective steps to deal with the worsening crime situation.
Unfortunately, as was the case with Aids, he will probably only mention it in passing – and in such a way that we won’t be sure that this dreadful pandemic will finally be given priority.
As his reaction to criticism about his treatment of Aids and the Zimbabwe problem shows, Mbeki doesn’t like to be dictated to. In this respect, he’s no different from anyone else. A person who notices a problem himself will naturally do everything in his power to resolve it, thereby ensuring that it doesn’t become an embarrassment. But if it has to be pointed out to him, and it appears that he’s failed in his duty, it’s often difficult to admit it, and it then becomes increasingly difficult for him to act as the pressure mounts.
It will therefore be interesting to see how Mbeki reacts when some of SA’s leading businessmen openly criticise him for failing to address the crime pandemic. If he states publicly that it will be one of Government’s priorities, he will by implication be admitting that he has until now failed to handle the matter properly. But he has never in the past admitted to making a mistake. Not even in the case of Zimbabwe, a country that’s simply slid into rack and ruin, while Mbeki failed to give even the slightest hint of disapproval of the preposterous behaviour of that country’s head. In the face of his servile silence, the appalling conditions faced by the Zimbabwean people are becoming a greater and greater embarrassment for Mbeki and the Government.
So don’t be surprised if he remains silent about crime, despite calls from business. A pity, because if business, which has so far chosen to co-operate with Government – and has in fact sometimes yielded to its demands – now decides to make a stand, it will be clear just how much things have worsened in SA. Last week, following the murder of David Rattray, some of SA’s most prominent business leaders expressed their frustration with the crime situation in no uncertain terms.
It would make a great difference if the President responded to their calls and outlined encouraging steps to show how Government intends bringing crime under control. Not because he is kowtowing to business, but because he realises he has a responsibility to all South Africans.
There are other priorities. Poverty, which affects a large proportion of the population, will probably – and quite rightly so – receive a great deal of attention in the President’s speech. However, were the President to really commit himself to declaring war on crime, he would do much to halt this cancer spreading through the heart and soul of the nation.
It’s often difficult to admit you’ve made a mistake – especially if you’re a politician. But by doing so, President Mbeki would not only earn respect, but would put himself in a position to do something about it. We can only hope.