This is an open letter to Riaan Wolmarans, editor of the M&G Online.
A street war has been raging in the public domain for a while now.
The main protagonists have been the cream of intelligentsia in our land. On one side you have All the President’s Men, led by none other the president himself in his weekly blog on the ANC Today website. On the other side you have a variety of intellectuals from academia, NGOs and public enemy number one, the media.
I have been following the street battles for a while now and come to the conclusion that what everybody is fighting over is the ultimate prize. And that is to be considered the Brain of the Land. Ignore the details — they will distract you from the real issue.
Mondli Makhanya has been firing missiles towards the president from his desk at the Sunday Times on an almost weekly basis. The president has not been taking it lying down either. He has been busy at his desk firing his own salvoes back at Makhanya. At the same time there has been a side skirmish involving the two main protagonists’ right-hand men: Fred Khumalo and the charming Suresh Ronald Roberts.
The latter’s book making a case for the crowning of the president as the ultimate Brain has sparked off more public fisticuffs. Roberts, in particular, took off his gloves a long time ago and has been involved in bare-knuckle fisticuffs with members of the Fourth Estate and academia. Peter Bruce of Business Day, his “native assistant” Dr Xolela Mangcu, Anton Harber, Mervin Gumede, Karima Brown, Vukani Mde and others — all of them Roberts has painted with the “functional illiteracy” brush. Essentially, Roberts is saying, “you’re a bunch of dyslexic nitwits who hold books upside down”. Ouch, indeed.
You must admit, this is riveting stuff. But between you and I, Riaan, let’s agree; this is an archaic form of street bruising. It is the way of the caveman. The way this debate is being conducted is a throwback to a time when the tribes of Southern Africa used to stand 2km apart hurling spears and mooning each other. As long ago as the 19th century, emperor Shaka of the Zulus stopped this nonsense and insisted that fighting occur at close range.
The current way of fighting is downright guerrilla warfare. One side sends a suicide bomber into a Jerusalem market. The other side responds with a punitive air strike in Gaza. We all know how that goes. It’ll be a long, drawn-out affair at this rate. And that is because guerrilla tactics are so unsatisfying. I smack you and then you smack my little sister in retaliation? That’s right, leave Manto out of this.
Mangcu is doing his fighting from Business Day. Mbeki is typing furiously from Luthuli House; Makhanya from the Sunday Times. I’m getting dizzy trying to keep up. It is important to me that I know conclusively who the Thought Leader is and whose marble set is missing a few.
My proposal is that we invite all of these intellectual giants to stab at each other at close range here at the M&G Online. We would call the series “The Rumble in the Mail & Guardian“. We would set it up in the format of a knockout tournament, complete with a seeding system. Or we could start with a round-robin setup where everyone gets a bash at everyone else.
How this would happen is that we pit, say, Mondli Makhanya against the president. In round number one (week one), Makhanya publishes a piece detailing all the many ways in which the president has let all of us down. I would expect nothing less than a well-thought-out piece with lots and lots of internet links proving what an intellectual waste pipe the president is. I would want to see medical records and court records, for instance.
In round number two (week two), the president would respond directly to Makhanya. The president has always lamented the fact that debate in this country needs to be based on facts and not hearsay. I would want to see links with statistics, Cabinet minutes and other solid facts. No pornographic images of fleshy thighs and miniskirts, please. Naomi Campbell has nothing to do with this. I would expect nothing less than a piece so saturated with “intellectual traditions” that some of them would be dripping on to the floor. I want so many intellectual traditions that I’d have to wipe them off my PC screen.
I suppose that we’d have to extend an invite to Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi to participate as well. If anything, just to avoid having to listen to the Reverend Musa Zondi’s dreadful droning — “Once again, the Mail & Guardian is snubbing the honourable Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the IFP…” Now wouldn’t that be something? Inkosi Buthelezi has been itching to get his hands on Makhanya for a while now. Of course we’d have to be strict with him and give him a 5 000-word limit. Bring out your lexicons.
Can you visualise it? Can you see it? I’m getting excited just thinking about it. Let’s all agree; this would be the best way of sorting out the wheat from the chuff. It’s neat, it’s clean. It’s all on one page. You can go back and refer to what one guy wrote and scrutinise his sources.
At the end of the series we’d crown one winner. Not by means of a public poll — that would just be silly. You can’t let mere mortals choose the Ultimate Thought Leader. Letting the public vote is a disaster. PW Botha was once our president. Enough said.
The other participants would have to do the voting. Granted, Mangcu would never vote for Roberts, but that would be cancelled out by the converse. The vanquished would have to concede defeat publicly and refer to the victor as “Comrade Brother Thought Leader” whenever addressing him.
I must confess that I am secretly hoping that President Mbeki wins. It’s for the good of the country. You know, national pride and all that. Imagine if, say, Mangcu won. Mbeki would rock up at the next SADC summit putting on his usual pseudo-modest airs laced with just the right amount of intellectual traditions. And of course he’d start executing his usual quiet diplomacy on Mugabe.
Mbeki: “Er, indeed, comrade president for an eternity. Is it possible that you maybe, possibly let my people go? Er, indeed.”
Mugabe: “Listen, I’ll keep my Zimbabwe. You go back and get a rematch against Mangcu.”
This would not augur too well for peace in Southern Africa. Mbeki is an ordinarily level-headed individual. But this might push him over the edge. He’s been under a lot of strain lately over the bickering President’s Women. I can see how this might lead to Rooivalks circling over Harare. Undesirable.
As they say in boxing circles: “Let’s get ready to rumble! Keep your hands up, protect yourselves at all times, keep it clean and may the best fighter win.”
Riaan, make it happen. Thanks.
Ndumiso Ngcobo is the author of the recently released book Some of My Best Friends Are White. (Two Dogs, ISBN 978-1-92013-718-2)