Stop waffling, Mbeki
His curious, convoluted weekly letters a poor substitute for interaction with the people
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).