To my mind

Finweek English Edition - - Letters - BY RIKUS DEL­PORT rikusd@fin­

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.

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