Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

Malawigate, the president is human, all too human

“Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.” — William Safire

One Khoi-Khoi Ramailane publicly posted on Facebook (FB) on 24/10/2013 about the furore regarding the president’s unfortunate remarks earlier in the week. I am sure you know about these remarks and I needn’t quote them again. As part of his status, he said:

“It is the hate for Zuma that makes them comment less their love for being African. Whilst what Zuma had said remains wrong, I want to deal with these hypocrites who all of a sudden claim an African identity of universalism in which South Africans don’t think of their fellow Africans as Zuma expressed it.”

Obviously for Khoi-Khoi to argue in that fashion is a fallacy of the type “two wrongs do not make a right”. That said, his point can’t be ignored still, and we should use this opportunity for deeper reflection about what it truly means to be an African pursuant of the African agenda, rather than to use the opportunity to advance our political vendettas against the “dancing and unread” president, which is seemingly the case in some quarters.

These quarters include (1) the so-called “Mbekists” (whatever that means), (2) the recent ABZ group (whoever this group is), (3) the media, and (4) opposition politicians, all of whom, with each fumble by the presidency and its administration, and there have been one too many, apparently feel ever so vindicated that Polokwane was a deleterious development in the ANC, and by extension, in the country.

The trouble with the expedient mixing of politics and a dogged pursuit of principles is the double-standard Khoi-Khoi wishes to highlight. In most realpolitik, the doggedness is too often applied when the shoe fits, and this is perhaps even more morally reprehensible than Jacob Zuma’s linguistic personal shibobos.

One example is the controversial HIV/Aids public-relations super-blunder of former president Thabo Mbeki and his administration which fuelled a media-consolidated hullabaloo that ended up obscuring the real issues, and sowed division among the rank and file. Mbeki’s unwavering and continued philosophising on the matter, even as public opinion was not taking kindly to it, became a catalytic source of this juxtaposing of political agendas against the former president and his detractor’s supposed principles.

I appreciate that the debate on HIV/Aids vis-à-vis the Mbeki administration is a can of worms, but I source it here to illustrate that it is far from anomalous for us to present principles as a pretext to advance particular agendas. I must hasten to add that sometimes our agendas are not conscious in nature, but can be unconscious too. There is little doubt that such agendas, conscious or otherwise, are at play here, one of which is to exaggerate weaknesses in black capacity, not just in Zuma the man. Unfortunately the president is doing a helluva job ensuring this attack is not just sustained, but escalated too.

Now, at the risk of being on the wrong side of history, I wish to be the devil’s advocate on this matter because I feel various rampant issues are going unchecked. They are going unchecked because the discussion is fever-pitched, and because of this fever-pitch, a disclaimer is important, lest I’m accused of “defending the indefensible”.

The statement by the president, when taken at face value without regard for context, is totally and utterly indefensible and to defend it is also morally suspect. As state president, he has no business being careless with language and/or jokes. He should not speak in public as if he was bantering to his mates in private. Even if it were a private conversation, it would still be gravely disturbing to learn that the president suffers from such an atrocious sense of humour. As such, an apology was definitely in order to South Africans and those offended in Rustenburg or Malawi or Africa. After all, some of the fever-pitch is understandable, especially when one considers the damage to our reputation and standing in Africa and the world.

Now that this is out of the way, let us shift the discussion to the much spoken-about “context” of the comment.

I have throughout the week been unbalanced emotionally about this matter and therefore took to ask my colleagues and friends what they thought so I could get a lay perspective. One of them introduced into the discussion something interesting. The “Africans in Africa” part became a source of difference of interpretation. South Africans (especially blacks) are known to refer to other African countries as “Africa” (eg Orlando Pirates e dlala Champions League game ko Africa meaning ko Ghana for example). Perhaps due to my gradual learning on African matters I had even forgotten that such a term to refer to other African countries and its peoples was still in use — it’s an apartheid vestige. I have long ceased using it myself and can proudly announce that I too am an African. Another colleague interpreted this similarly to me, but others were differing with us. There is a difference of interpretation in this regard.

If the president used the word “Africa” to denote other African countries such as Malawi, then he was sure as hell wrong to do that and deserves the flack. I do not think this was the context though. I have my issues with the president as a leader and person, as we all do as lay citizens, but on whether he consciously used that word for that purpose, in a public gathering, is something I cannot bring myself to fathom easily — I feel as though I would be acting in bad faith — so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

I think the president’s message was lost on two fronts (1) lost in translation and (2) lost in his leadership shortcomings:

On (1), “generally”, a word he even used after the “Africans in Africa” phrase, he meant to use the commonly used phrase or meme among black people: “don’t be such a darkie about things”. He probably felt he was saying it in jest, it is a meme after all. The same logic can more or less be applied for his reference to Rustenburg or Malawi. As such, I do not buy Mac Maharaj’s reinterpretation of the comments. But we understand why Mac took the spokesperson’s position he did.

On (2), which is really the crux of this thing, that the president appealed to this meme in public is less a show of his “condescension” and “insensitivity” towards Malawi or Africans in general, but more a shortcoming of leadership capacity. He should have known better.

Now, when we frame the discussion this way, when we cast out our knee-jerk reactions that rush to demonise those who have wronged or are incompetent in our eyes, things make better sense and we are able to learn something from the experience. Currently, the debate is pitched so as to position the president as a completely unrepentant buffoon who is anti-African and is even willing to show his mendacious Afro-pessimism in public to some intellectuals at Wits University, who seemingly laughed along, which could imply they too are guilty of gross Afro-pessimism.

This castigation seems overly simplistic and suggests something is amiss — something like an agenda in the public discourse, or an emotive approach to a problem, or both. With this approach, we can only learn little from our experiences except to say ours is merely an IDIOTECRACY — a government of idiots, by idiots, for idiots and elected by idiots, with everyone who recognises it, being regarded as an idiot.

On the part about idiots, I go back to a FB post by Vusumzi Bhengu, the man who asked the question that led to the president’s calamitous answer. He said “the sensationalist reporting of the president’s comments has left many of us who were there dumbfounded because his comments were on a lighter note, and the entire audience agreed by responding with a round of laughter”.

So there we have it folks, does it mean we have an idiot president, who shared an idiotic joke, and the intellectual idiots at Wits followed along with idiotic chortles?

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