Stop waf­fling, Mbeki

His curious, con­vo­luted weekly let­ters a poor sub­sti­tute for in­ter­ac­tion with the peo­ple

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY STEPHEN MUL­HOL­LAND stephenm@fin­week.co.za

WHAT’S WRONG WITH Thabo Mbeki? Why does he come across so neg­a­tively, seek­ing al­ways to high­light the less at­trac­tive as­pects of the na­tional psy­che rather than to cel­e­brate the fact that, by and large, our var­i­ous racial groups are man­ag­ing to co-ex­ist quite am­i­ca­bly?

Per­haps it’s be­cause he was brought up in ex­ile and didn’t share the South African ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing through apartheid. He thus has no bench­mark by which to mea­sure just how suc­cess­ful we’ve been at shed­ding off the past and em­brac­ing a non-racial fu­ture.

Surely it would be bet­ter for the na­tion were he to re­mark on how our black and white sports­men em­brace each other, shar­ing joy­ously in each other’s achieve­ments, rather than to griz­zle on about quo­tas and rep­re­sen­tiv­ity – an aw­ful word that my spell check doesn’t recog­nise.

Per­haps he’s the vic­tim of a se­ri­ous lack of self-es­teem, which he at­tempts to over­come by sur­round­ing him­self with yes-men who never chal­lenge him. He stu­diously avoids de­bate ex­cept for the odd, tame en­counter with the South African Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion.

It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine him func­tion­ing in the mother of par­lia­ments, ver­bally spar­ring with an ag­gres­sive op­po­si­tion, as have the likes of Win­ston Churchill, Cle­ment Atlee, Harold Wil­son, Mar­garet Thatcher and oth­ers over the gen­er­a­tions. He ap­pears to see him­self above it all. Not for him the hurly-burly, the give-and­take of heated de­bate. His curious, con­vo­luted weekly let­ters are a poor sub­sti­tute for in­ter­ac­tion with the peo­ple, ei­ther through Par­lia­men­tary de­bate or in­ter­ac­tion with the me­dia.

For ex­am­ple, Franklin Roo­sevelt held 337 press con­fer­ences in his first term of of­fice and 374 in his sec­ond. Th­ese, com­bined with his weekly “fire­side chats” on ra­dio to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, en­abled Roo­sevelt to unite a na­tion shat­tered by eco­nomic de­pres­sion, to re­store self-con­fi­dence, to lift spir­its and re­store es­teem.

Roo­sevelt was no great in­tel­lec­tual and he came from landed gen­try. But he had a ge­nius for the com­mon touch: an abil­ity to reach out, touch and re­as­sure his fel­low Amer­i­cans and make them be­lieve their cir­cum­stances would im­prove.

But what do we get from those pe­cu­liar Fri­day let­ters from Mbeki on the ANC web­site? He scolds us, he ram­bles on in­co­her­ently when he should be cel­e­brat­ing our na­tional vic­tory over the spec­tre of a vi­o­lent tran­si­tion of power to the ma­jor­ity.

In­stead of se­lect­ing anec­dotes that show that we’re reach­ing out to each other, he does the op­po­site. He doesn’t tell us of the cou­ple who res­cued and adopted a black child, born leg­less and aban­doned in the bush to die. That child is to­day a univer­sity stu­dent.

He doesn’t tell us of Ian Gillies, the mur­dered restau­ra­teur, who also adopted an aban­doned child and raised him as his own, cre­ated the Twi­light Chil­dren’s Home (largely for black kids) in Hill­brow and es­tab­lished a home for or­phans and abused chil­dren.

No, Mbeki prefers to waf­fle on about some Mr “A” who still, in private, uses the word “kaf­fir” and some other un­known (pre­sum­ably Jewish) who wor­ries if his new black neigh­bour – whom he then has to din­ner – is “kosher”.

Get a life, Thabo. If you wish to hear racial ep­i­thets thrown about try Har­lem, where folks in an ar­gu­ment re­peat­edly call each other “nig­gah”.

James David Bar­ber, one of the great his­to­ri­ans of the pres­i­dency of the United States, be­lieved “it would (and may) be pos­si­ble to show how early ex­pe­ri­ence shapes po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter”.

In the case of Mbeki, he prob­a­bly grew up – in ex­ile – lonely and iso­lated. His pres­sure to bring women into power per­haps re­flects the greater de­gree of com­fort he feels in their pres­ence – it’s less threat­en­ing to him than male com­pany.

Bar­ber is fa­mous for, among other mat­ters, his cat­e­gori­sa­tion in 1971 of US pres­i­dents into four broad groups. Here they are (in ab­bre­vi­ated form) and let’s de­cide for our­selves in which of them Mbeki be­longs. AC­TIVE-POS­I­TIVE: The com­bi­na­tion, says Bar­ber, rep­re­sents a con­gru­ence be­tween ac­tion and ef­fect, typ­i­cally based on rel­a­tively high self-es­teem and rel­a­tive suc­cess in re­lat­ing to the en­vi­ron­ment. There’s an ori­en­ta­tion to­wards pro­duc­tive­ness as a value and an abil­ity to move flex­i­bly among var­i­ous ori­en­ta­tions to­ward ac­tion as ra­tio­nal adap­ta­tion to op­por­tu­ni­ties and de­mands. Ex­am­ples: Harry Tru­man, John F Kennedy, Ron­ald Rea­gan. AC­TIVE-NEG­A­TIVE: The ba­sic con­tra­dic­tion is be­tween rel­a­tively in­tense ef­fort and rel­a­tively low per­sonal re­gard for that ef­fort. The ac­tiv­ity has a com­pul­sive qual­ity; pol­i­tics ap­pears as a means for com­pen­sat­ing for power de­pri­va­tions through am­bi­tious striv­ing… Life is a hard strug­gle to achieve and hold power, ham­pered by the con­dem­na­tions of a per­fec­tion­ist con­science. Ex­am­ples: Lyn­don B John­son, Richard M Nixon, Jimmy Carter. POS­I­TIVE-POS­I­TIVE: This is the re­cep­tive, com­pli­ant, other-di­rected char­ac­ter whose life is a search for af­fec­tion as a re­ward for be­ing agree­able and co-oper­a­tive rather than per­son­ally as­sertive… The de­pen­dence and fragility of this char­ac­ter ori­en­ta­tion make dis­ap­point­ment in pol­i­tics likely. Ex­am­ple: William Howard Taft, Bill Clin­ton. POS­I­TIVE-NEG­A­TIVE: The fac­tors are con­sis­tent but don’t ac­count for the pres­ence of the per­son in a po­lit­i­cal role. That’s ex­plained by a char­ac­ter-rooted ori­en­ta­tion to­wards do­ing du­ti­ful ser­vice; the com­pen­sa­tion is for low self-es­teem based on a sense of use­less­ness… the per­son… lacks the ex­pe­ri­ence and flex­i­bil­ity to per­form ef­fec­tively as a po­lit­i­cal leader. The ten­dency is to with­draw from the con­flict and un­cer­tainty of pol­i­tics to an em­pha­sis on vague prin­ci­ples (par­tic­u­larly pro­hi­bi­tions) and pro­ce­dural ar­range­ments. Ex­am­ple: Dwight D Eisen­hower.

For my part, I’d place Mbeki in the ac­tiveneg­a­tive cat­e­gory, though clearly there will al­ways be over­lap­ping as­pects in such ex­er­cises as th­ese.

In the pro­vi­sion of ex­am­ples from the US pres­i­dency, I’ve taken the lib­erty of adding some of my own to those of Pro­fes­sor Bar­ber. For what it’s worth I’d place FW de Klerk in the ac­tive-pos­i­tive group.

Bar­ber’s anal­y­sis is taken from his es­say in Aaron Wil­davsky’s Perspectives on the Pres­i­dency (Lit­tle­Brown; 1975).

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