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Thabo Mbeki is quite right

The elevation of axed deputy minister of health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge to heroine status is a little farcical. The president has every right to relieve members of the executive of their duties, for any reason, or indeed for no reason whatsoever.

It is true that she has been publicly hostile towards both the Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and President Thabo Mbeki in the past. If that isn’t enough, Mbeki certainly has the right to fire her if the member in question disregarded protocol or acted against direct instructions, one of which is almost certainly true. Besides which, flying to Spain accompanied by her son, on business class, at a cost of seven RDP houses, is among those profligacies that the opposition and the media have consistently — and most aptly — criticised before.

So why not be consistent and welcome Mbeki’s prompt action? After all, Madlala-Routledge is a member of the Communist Party, so she hardly deserves loyalty from the classical liberals in the Democratic Alliance. Mbeki was quite right to fire her, and setting her up as some kind of saint smacks of shortsighted partisanship.

That said, I must disappoint readers who suspected, by now, that someone other than me is writing this post. Our esteemed president is not getting off scot-free.

In his actions, superficially correct though they are, Mbeki betrays a stunning inconsistency. Of course he had the right to fire Madlala-Routledge, even without a formal investigation and disciplinary procedure. Yet his prompt and decisive action is entirely uncharacteristic. It doesn’t usually happen when someone is accused, sometimes by Cabinet members themselves, of misusing government funds. Travelgate and the Gravy Plane scandal weren’t models of a presidential hard line on profligacy and corruption. Such apparent double standards, combined with the PR crisis the government faces over HIV/Aids (which the president flatly denies), are only likely to fuel the notion that Madlala-Routledge is a martyr for a cause.

If she does not deserve this image, her criticisms deserve more than just a new fact-finding visit, conveniently with plenty advance warning this time, to the Eastern Cape hospital she flagged as a national crisis. Mean time, all we get is one denial after another, from both the health minister and the president. If Tshabalala-Msimang — or indeed Mbeki himself — really were accountable to the electorate, they’d be jumping to take action to make the mess go away, not to cover it up and deny it exists.

Mbeki’s characteristically wordy defence of Madlala-Routledge’s dismissal in his Letter from the President of Friday August 17 2007 reveals not only a curious reading of the constitution, but also a level of paranoia that has been growing both familiar and tiresome. It’s always the British newspapers, innit? Or those racists who are not “happy that the ANC enjoys the confidence of the masses of our people”, or are “unhappy that, contrary to the predictions of the doomsayers about African dsemicadsdsgljk hiels hksi …failed continent and civilisation.”

Sorry. That sentence went on for a while. But you get the drift: if you oppose someone loyal to Mbeki, you’re an unreconstructed counter-revolutionary who wishes for a return to Apartheid, or a foreigner who wishes for a return to colonialism. His racial insecurity would be sadly funny in anyone else.

It’s all the more troubling when you read Mbeki’s repeated appeal to the Constitution. As he wrote in Madlala-Routledge’s letter of dismissal. Her failing was her “inability to work as part of a collective, as the Constitution enjoins us to.” Now I’ve read the Constitution, and though I’m no lawyer, the closest I can find to such a call is that Cabinet members are accountable, “collectively and individually” to Parliament. It seems far-fetched to interpret this clause as meaning independent thought, individual responsibility or public criticism on the part of a Cabinet member is verboten. Of course, such independent-mindedness would also be a breach of the ANC’s own policies, which demand that differences remain safely within the “structures of the ANC”, where they can be handled (or ignored, as the case may be) without public fallout.

The perception of double standards was reinforced when Mbeki publicly refused to consider even an investigation into the very serious allegations of alcoholism, abuse of power and dishonesty, made against Tshabalala-Msimang. He wants evidence first, he says. Maybe my dictionary is too unreconstructed, but last time I checked, that would be the purpose of an investigation: to determine if there is evidence, and if so, to gather it. Sorry, scratch that. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary. Clearly colonial. Still, the constitution to which the President appeals says he “is responsible for … appointing commissions of inquiry.” Unlike the media, these have the necessary powers to conduct credible investigations into the actions and behaviour of Cabinet members, and if the accusations are false, to definitively clear their names.

Mbeki’s loyalty to and defence of under-performing ministers is nothing new, and Tshabalala-Msimang isn’t its only beneficiary. His contrasting reactions over Tshabalala-Msimang and Madlala-Routledge remind me of a famous quotation by Lyndon B Johnson, 36th president of the United States in the 1960s. It’s been pointed out to me that I’m not the first to note its relevance, and that due credit must go to a fellow smoker who goes by the moniker Van Hunks, but whose columns I can’t read without having the Cape Argus delivered to me in Johannesburg. LBJ said:

It is the common failing of totalitarian regimes that they cannot really understand the nature of our democracy. They mistake dissent for disloyalty. They mistake restlessness for a rejection of policy. They mistake a few committees for a country. They misjudge individual speeches for public policy.

President Mbeki’s paranoia about public dissent, and his dismissal as racist any criticism against his loyal cadres, is deeply troubling for the future of our democracy. It bodes ill for effective service delivery. It undermines confidence about public accountability to the people who elected the government to serve them.

He is quite right to fire Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. He’s quite right that she does not deserve to be beatified by the media. However, his wider reactions reveal a far deeper pathology in the ruling party and its supreme leader.