For all those political junkies out there, I tried something new (for me, at least) on Wednesday night and blogged about President Thabo Mbeki’s interview with the SABC.

After 10 minutes, the political editor of the SABC has only asked boring, sweetheart questions. The SABC would find it difficult to defend itself against claims that it is a cheerleader for the president and part of his re-election campaign unless the questions get a bit more probing.

There is now a long question quoting Statistics South Africa on how much people’s lives are improving — which is, of course, true — but it is for the president to make these points if he can slip them in, not the SABC’s political editor.

Finally a question asking the president why he only got nominations from four provinces. Mbeki says people may not look at the issues raised by the SABC about how their lives have improved and may therefore not have voted for him. He adds that there is a democratic process that must be respected and so be it. It’s a bland answer, but at least it is correct and sounds generous. One point for the president.

After 20 minutes, Mbeki is still droning on about the tripartite alliance and I am once again reminded of just how uncharismatic he can be when he gets stuck in bureaucracy-speak. He says the “objective facts” (a favourite phrase) that required the alliance to be formed still remain in place today, so the alliance will continue regardless who wins at Polokwane. He does not talk at all about the fights, the vicious attacks on him and the ANC by Zwelinzima Vavi and members of the so-called “ultra-left”. This means he really failed to answer the question.

Maybe Mbeki is not wanting to pick a fight with Vavi at this stage for clever, strategic reasons (attacks may energise Vavi and his supporters), but I fear it sounds as if the president thinks if he ignores the crazy attacks on him by the alliance partners, and merely states that the “objective” facts still require the alliance to continue, it will be so and will be accepted as so — regardless of what people might think they have seen happening in front of their very eyes.

After the first section of the interview I find Mbeki’s performance bland and seemingly out of touch with what is happening in South Africa. Maybe I’m just jaundiced, but there is no engagement with the real issues raised by people inside and outside the ANC.

Back after the break, and here we go again with softball questions.

A questioner asks about the two centres of power and the decision at the ANC policy conference in June this year where delegates said it would be preferable if the president of the ANC was the same person as the president of the country. Mbeki ignores this part of the question and explains that the ANC is bigger than one person and that there could therefore be no such thing as “two centres of power”.

The government merely does what the ANC has decided and this means it is one big happy family. Once again this sounds out of touch, as if the president is in denial about the tension between the ANC rank-and-file and tripartite-alliance partners on the one hand and the government on the other, about specific issues and about the possible tension that might arise when the president of the ANC is different from the president of the country. To be crude, this sounds as if human beings in the ANC have no agency and are part of a Borg-like entity (like in Star Trek) that assimilates everyone and allows the Borg to operate as a single collective without any individuality. Surely this is far-fetched? Can he really believe this or is it politics?

Mbeki says the leadership contest is not a bad thing, but if a person wins he must not think that he should “fix” his “enemies”, because the ANC is bigger than all the short-term differences the camps may have. What is required is for the battle to be fought in a way that would ensure factions are not created.

The brave political editor of the SABC, of course, fails to ask him what he thinks of the attack by one of his lieutenants, Terror Lekota, on Jacob Zuma. This response might seem a bit rich even without Lekota’s attack, as Mbeki is seen as a man who always “fixes” his enemies in the long term. Ask Tokyo Sexwale, Matthews Phosa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and, of course, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. Many people would say this is exactly why Zuma is so popular — because so many people have been fixed or are at least perceived to have been fixed. Is this a wrong perception and if not, does Mbeki not see the irony of his answer?

The SABC interviewer is getting bold (laughing nervously while asking the question) by tentatively asking about the “perception” out there that the president had centralised power in his own hands. Mbeki replies that no one has ever been able to say — when he challenged them — where this perception comes from. In any case, he consults people in the ANC, including chairs in the provinces, even when appointing premiers. Mbeki may not have thought of the possibility, of course, that people are too scared to challenge him and may not have been brave enough to say why they have this perception exactly because of the real or perceived view that he “fixes” those who disagree with him. Irony abounds.

Mbeki is then asked about floor-crossing and he rambles on explaining in very long and complicated terms how the legislation came about, but he first hints that maybe floor-crossing should be scrapped and then he hints that maybe it should not be scrapped. “Let’s put all the arguments in one pot and see what comes out of it.” This is fence-sitting of the highest order, but that makes Mbeki an ordinary politician, like Zuma or anyone else, I suppose.

No questions from the SABC about any of the hot-button issues: HIV/Aids, Zimbabwe, Zuma’s view on women, the fact that Mbeki is seen as aloof and cold, the “conspiracy” against Zuma, the suspension of National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, Mbeki’s support for police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Oh well, the political editor must be mindful of what happened to Jimi Matthews and John Perlman and must need his salary more than he needs his self-respect as a journalist.

Now it’s time for listeners to ask questions, so maybe we’ll get some serious questions.

Petrus phones and says: “We were happy with the president,” but why can’t he give somebody else a chance. The president gives a ridiculous answer: the members will decide, this is how they elected Mandela, for example, and this is democracy; it is not for Thabo Mbeki to decide whether to stand again. But Mbeki may have a choice, of course, and could have decided — like Mandela — not to encourage the members to elect him again, in which case they would not have nominated him. He failed to do that, so his answer doesn’t hold water.

Dealing with questioners seems to be beyond the SABC’s technical abilities, so many callers don’t seem to make it on to the air. Many callers who phone in wish the president luck in the election and complain about the “others” who are sending out negative messages. Mbeki says we should always respect the truth (but not on the arms deal, of course) and “while there are some among us who are campaign on the basis of lies, it is a mistake to think that people are fools because in the end the truth will come out” and they will vote for the right person.

A questioner says we should bring back the death penalty because that will stop crime. Mbeki agrees that crime is a big problem and, yes, let us discuss all issues relevant to this but the Constitutional Court has said we cannot have the death penalty and this is the ANC position as well. I quietly cheer the president for his principled stance. It is much better than the answer given by Zuma last week when he said people’s views on the death penalty could be tested, which seemed to suggest that if the people demand the return of the death penalty, he’ll oblige.

Suddenly it is all over and I am not sure I am much the wiser. Mbeki clearly aimed to sound presidential, but may have inadvertently come off as boring and distant. He is obviously a policy wonk, and I am not sure that plays well with ANC delegates because it could easily sound as if he doesn’t really care about peoples’ problems when he gives a technical answer to a problem raised by a caller.


  • Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, the right to equality, social and economic rights, and affirmative action. Since October 2006 he also publishes a blog, Constitutionally Speaking.


Pierre de Vos

Professor Pierre de Vos teaches constitutional law at the University of Western Cape. His writing has been published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press on a wide range of topics,...

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