Friday, August 17, 2007

Mbeki: Sad prisoner of Western culture and values

With a President like Thabo Mbeki there is bound never to be a dull moment in South African politics. (How boring it must be to live in the Netherlands or Sweden!). Our President's most recent ANC Today letter is particularly shocking and salacious because it attacks fired Deputy Minister Madladla-Routledge and those who support her in the most apocalyptic of terms.

Towards the end of the long and slightly rambling letter, President Mbeki gets to the heart of his complaint, revealing more of himself, perhaps, than he might have intended. To my mind the letter tragically demonstrates President Mbeki's great weakness which has clouded so much of the good work he has done.

He writes:

In the recent past the ANC, the government and our people as a whole have had to contend with elaborate and sophisticated disinformation campaigns intended to destabilise the ANC, the government, our democracy and country, not disconnected from similar anti-ANC campaigns during the apartheid years...

Whatever the endgame in this regard, we, and the overwhelming majority of our people, will have been painfully alerted to the fact that not everybody in our country and abroad, is happy that the ANC enjoys the confidence of the masses of our people. Equally, others are unhappy that, contrary to the predictions of the doomsayers about African countries, we have managed the transition from white minority rule to non-racial, democratic rule as well as we have, thus making the statement in practice that cannot be disproved with facts, that categorically, there exists no genetic fault that condemns Africa and Africans forever to be defined as a failed continent and civilisation.

Is it the case that to win the approval of the loudest voices in the world of the contemporary global communication system we must behave in a manner that is consistent with their stereotypes? Who will determine who our heroes and heroines will be?

In essence he is saying that there are many people and groups who wish to destroy the ANC because the ANC is disproving the racial stereotype that black people are not competent to govern. All those who criticize the government or point out its failures are therefore an enemy of the people because he or she is merely reinforcing racist stereotypes.

The tragedy of this line of reasoning is of course that President Mbeki seems to have been caught up in an endless and useless game in which all the power is handed back to the white, racists West. Because he is obsessed with the inherent racism of Western culture, he is for ever trying - sometimes it seems at any cost - to show those bastards that he and the ANC can govern just as well as any of those governments anywhere else in the world.

I agree with President Mbeki that there is an inherent racism in Western culture and politics (as well as an inherent homophobia and sexism), but I think it is useless, demeaning and counter-productive to base one's whole world view and one's actions as a leader on a crusade trying to show "them" that you are just as good as they are. This can never be successful because the Western cultural and political influence is all-pervasive and powerful.

In any case, why would we want to compare ourselves to Western governments when we have suffered 300 years of colonialism and apartheid and thus face numerous challenges - many of these not of the making of the ANC or President Mbeki?

Ironically, by hinting in a slightly paranoid and unhinged manner that the Dark Lord Sauron is out to get the ANC, the President seems to play into the hands of Western powers and the South African media whose stereotype of black leaders include the expectation that the leader would not face the often harsh political, economic and social realities in his or her country but would rather mutter on about Dark Forces and Shadows.

The fact that President Mbeki cannot see that Minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang has behaved exactly like the Western stereotype of an African leader - down to the garlic and olive oil, the "dizzy spells", the buffoonish tirades - seems to suggest that President Mbeki is so infested with anger, hatred and shame that he has lost all ability to see a reality shared not only by Western elites, but by most South Africans too.

Thus, he cannot admit that many babies of black mothers have died needlessly because of problems with the health system. He cannot get himself to accept that HIV is mostly a sexually transmitted disease affecting poor Africans in South Africa. He cannot admit that his Health minister has failed to do her job in a scandalous and criminal manner. To admit that one black person in his cabinet is an incompetent fool, would be for him like permitting that all black people are incompetent fools. Thus he is trapped in a never ending cycle of denial and response - instead of doing what needs to be done regardless of what people in the West might think.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the letter which makes me wonder whether President Mbeki is as clever as people say. Maybe he uses the discourse of race in a tactical and Machiavellian manner to gain sympathy and to outwit and obliterate opponents? In his letter, President Mbeki states that he knows of no Minister or Deputy Minister with which he interact virtually everyday, who is not an independent thinker and a hard worker, who behaves like a sheep and a mindless sycophant. (He also does not know anyone who has ever died of AIDS related illnesses, but that is another story.) President Mbeki then states that:

Given my constitutional and political responsibilities, defined by our Constitution and statutes, I am quite ready to listen to any contrary view in this regard, regardless of its origin.
Yet, if the rest of the letter is saying anything, it is saying that those who criticise the ANC are racists pigs, enemies of the movement and the people, that they are out to destroy the ANC and thus are not worth taking seriously - no matter to what extent their views might be reflecting what the President would call "objective reality". It seems then, that the President is not really prepared to listen unless what is said is acceptable to him - everything else is part of the Dark Lord Sauron's plot to entrench racism and oppression.

This is very handy, of course, because one never has to admit to any mistakes, never have to say you are sorry and never have to be wrong. On the other hand, if President Mbeki is cynically using race here, it is a brilliant and devious move. After all, if we agree with the President it would mean that we have to accept that opponents of the ANC and of the President (opponents of any race and any party) are evil enemies of the state who can never level valid criticism against the ANC government or the President.


Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, your short essay in response to the ANC TODAY piece by the President brilliantly captures the paradox that, if you view every criticism as a manifestaion of your mortal enemy’s machinations, you end up buying into his frame of reference. You hand him the victory before the battle is joined.

For Mbeki, Africans will always defined, existentially, and to their core, by the very racism to which they have historically been subjected. Mbeki is crippled by never having learned what Sobukwe and Biko could have taught him: That the first step in liberation is adamantly to reject the definitions imposed by your oppressor. Only then can you face the master on your own terms -- and understand that the white man’s racism is not the principle condition of your existence.

The ultimate irony is that Mbeki’s “non-racial” ANC tradition, in contradistinction to BC, dooms him to remain a cowering, embittered prisoner of a “European” discourse imposed upon him by colonialism. He hates being defined as the “other.” But, having never developed a vocabulary of his own, he also despises himself. In his own masochistic manner, Mbeki loves his enemy, even as he lashes him.

Pierre de Vos said...

Micheal, I have written previously that the tragedy of Mbeki is partly that he has not internalised the ideas of Steve Biko. If I want to be provocative, I would argue he would also do well to read some queer theory. Queer theorists would reject the notion that homosexuals should find freedom and emancipation in attempts to be just like heterosexuals. What is required is to challenge and even ridicule the assumptions underlying the heteronormative world view. If some people say you are a pervert and a sissy, you say yes, and I like wearing dresses and I am more free than you, so shame on you. True emancipation can never lie in wanting to show the master that you are good enough - you must challenge the master's basic assumptions about what is good and bad.

Michael Osborne said...

Well said, Pierre. It is a pity that Suresh Roberts did not, in his otherwise quite insightful work, do more to explore Mbeki's relationship with BC. (Suresh should have said a little less about Fanon, and a little more about Sobukwe and Biko.)

For my own part, I must acknowledge that the only irony more pungent than the “non-racial” Mbeki’s allowing himself to be defined by racism is the irony of a hyper-privileged white man presuming to lecture Mbeki on the lessons of Sobukwe and Biko. Self-reflexivity with a vengeance!

Dean said...

Competence? A good number of government departments are a wreck!

Arrogance. The ANC does not represent the entire African race and neither does Dr Demanto.

Richard Catto said...

Madladla-Routledge appeared to be doing a good job.

Manto is well known for her incompetence.

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, I could not agree more. As my teacher at school used to say in a different context: "Julle raak wit, ne."