The (probably apocryphal) story is told that when Field Marshal Tito, president of the former Yugoslavia, was on his death bed, he heard the noise of thousands of voices outside his window and asked what was going on. “The people have come to say goodbye,” his aid is said to have replied. To which Tito supposedly said: “Goodbye? Where are they going?”
Reading the interview with President Thabo Mbeki in the Mail & Guardian on the eve of the ANC national conference where he may well be unceremoniously booted from office, I could not help thinking of this story. Mbeki appears completely baffled and out of touch with the reality that is ANC politics — no, that is life. As the chosen one who had never, ever had to compete in a competitive election for any post in the ANC before (and having tried to stop a contest this time around by inventing the ANC tradition of “non-campaigning”), the president seems completely unprepared for the harsh realities of electoral politics and truth-telling.
The most poignant (but also damning) moments in the interview come when the President expresses surprise and disbelief about the criticism levelled at him for centralising and abusing power. He also cannot, yes, cannot (!) understand how anybody can fear him. He says he is perplexed by such criticism because inside the ANC people have never told him this and they have always agreed with him! Take the appointment of premiers by the president:
“After the 2004 election I called all the provincial premiers and said: this is my view of who should be premier. They all agreed. Then I convened a meeting of national ANC officials; they all agreed. Then I took it to the national working committee; they actually applauded.”
Even in the NEC he had never stopped debate and never wagged his finger. Because he knew more about the ANC than many others, he often won the argument — but people never complained and never spoke up, which means they could not have been scared or upset.
Of course, what our president never stopped to ask himself was whether it was natural that all these people always just happened to agree with him — even on such an important issue as the appointment of premiers. Is it really normal for the NEC to applaud one man’s choices for premiers of the nine provinces when those choices were obviously highly controversial within and without the ANC?
If I had the power to appoint all the premiers of the country and then ran these decisions past the premiers who had just lost their jobs and the NEC and they all cheered me on, I would be disgusted and incensed by the sycophancy and hypocrisy of my colleagues. But not our president — he actually uses this as exhibit A to exculpate himself, showing in the process how disconnected he is from any kind of reality populated by real people with real feelings and not by the robot ANC cadres of his imagination.
How could our president not have known that people only show such sycophancy (applauding your decisions, for goodness’ sake!) if they are scared of you; scared of how you can humiliate them or “fix” them later by making sure they lose their job as premier or making sure that they get a diplomatic posting to Tjikitjikistan? Did the president really think all these people applauded him because they absolutely agreed with what he said, or was there at least a smidgen of self-knowledge that made him wonder whether all the agreement was just not a bit weird?
It seems absurd for the president now to feign hurt and confusion when he acted in so many ways to bully or humiliate his opponents — often through surrogates like his men and women on the national executive committee of the ANC. Thus when Jeremy Cronin warned against the “Zanufication” of the ANC under Mbeki in some obscure interview, he was humiliated by being forced to apologise for the “uncomradely” criticism of the ANC (but really Mbeki). What about Archbishop Tutu who was vilified and in effect called a coconut creation of the white media when he criticised Mbeki? What about the premiers who were worked out because they seemed too ambitious? What about Mathews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, accused by Mbeki on national television of plotting against him?
But our president was feared not only because of his paranoia and vindictiveness and because the NEC members and ANC MPs are spineless twats, but also because he is an intellectual bully with a Stalinist bent. Thus whenever someone disagrees with him, the disagreement is seldom framed by him as just a disagreement, but is more often than not turned into a fight about what was “objectively” speaking correct or wrong, true or false.
In his world there is no space for opinions, only for “objective facts”: Opinions, ideology and disagreements is turned into a “factual” dispute in which only one person — the president — could ever be right because he is the only one with access to the “truth”. That is why he so loved to talk on his blog about “objective facts” and why the blog on the ANC website often attacked those who criticised him and the ANC for its “blatant lies”, even when the criticism could easily be construed as a matter of opinion.
When Madladla-Routledge was fired — a disastrous decision — he attacked her and those who supported her for spreading “lies”, when what was really at stake was different perceptions and views about what needed to be done. When the Daily Dispatch reported on the appalling conditions at Frere Hospital, the newspaper was equally vilified for spreading “blatant lies” — as if those hundreds of babies never died in that hospital.
A person who refuses to or has a complete inability to deal in opinions, perceptions or life itself, and tries to turn his own views, opinions and way of looking at the world into “objective facts”, is not a person open for discussion. Those cowards who were consulted about the appointment of new premiers and the yes-men and -women on the NEC knew this all too well. From the Mail & Guardian interview it seems the only person who never realised this was the president himself. This makes him a tragic figure — dangerous but tragic.
Only time will tell whether the new guy (if he wins) will be any better …