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The agony of analysing politics

I thought the time had come for me to do something a bit more analytical than a report on my weekend at Oppikoppi, my views on Facebook friendship, nudity in small-town America and angst about my cyber-footprint.

President Thabo Mbeki’s firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge seemed like fair fodder. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t I?

I braced myself, and penned the opening line of an argument:

“President Mbeki’s firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge has set in motion a series of events that could, ultimately, scupper any chance he has of retaining the ANC presidency in December.”

There followed a long, well-reasoned discussion on how he has shot himself in the foot. I agreed with fellow Thought Leader blogger Ivo Vegter and maintained that there was no real evidence that — apart from a brave and refreshing outspokenness and independence — she was actually making substantive headway in her ministry.

My argument whirled and swam along, taking nuanced dips and turns, and featured moments of elegant prose of which I was most proud. Of the media frenzy, I wrote: “The media are satisfying mankind’s innate desire for a good, clear-cut story of black and white, polar opposites and clear right and wrong. This story was a gift that would have had the authors of Genesis kicking themselves for getting distracted by fruit trees and gratuitous nudity.”

Along the way I leapt to the defence of Talk Radio 702’s John Robbie, labelled a mampara by the Sunday Times: “702 broadcaster John Robbie (himself no friend of the health minister — remember their public clash over her views on HIV and Aids a few years back?) called the Sunday Times on the style and tone of its coverage. The Times, in turn, turned its cannons briefly on Robbie, naming him its Mampara of the Week. I agree with Matthew Buckland that this response was harsh, unfair and unduly personal. Calling Robbie dull is a bit like calling Oscar Wilde slow-witted. There is simply no evidence to back up the statement, and tons to prove the opposite.

He’s not perfect –- but he’s brave, passionate, articulate and fully prepared to acknowledge those moments when he may have overstepped the mark. If the Sunday Times wants to compile a list of “dull” broadcasters, there are many who fit the bill. John Robbie doesn’t. The newspaper, ironically, allowed itself to display the very same attributes it claims to observe in the president –- an imperviousness to criticism, a tendency toward pettiness, arrogance and a propensity to play the man and not the ball.”

But then my argument floundered. I realised that, although I was noting some of the dynamics of the situation, I wasn’t really offering any new insight into it. More importantly, I wasn’t building a case that lived up to my opening line. So I deleted it all and started again, with the opposite hypothesis: “Despite President Mbeki’s firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, he’s done no damage to his chances of retaining the ANC presidency in December.”

I went on to construct the case, citing the way in which Mbeki musters high-level support for his position, as he did with the NEC. I quoted what Ferial Haffajee said to me in the M&G’s podcast, the point that President Mbeki won’t fire the health minister: “He simply doesn’t have it in him to retreat. He might lobby her quietly to resign, but she needn’t do so because, unlike her deputy, she already has public support from the Presidency. And so he (and the rest of us) will be stuck with her. And we will be stuck with him. He’ll avoid the final cut.”

But that didn’t really help me reach the conclusion that he will be re-elected as ANC president.

The upshot is simply this: there is no way that we on the ground can know exactly what is going on in the corridors of power. Just as we think we’ve got it all sorted, another twist hits the front pages of the media and, as Karl Kikillus once deliciously enthused on SAfm, a curve ball gets thrown into the equation.

And so we must wait. As the power play unfolds, lines are drawn, knives are unsheathed and politics happens as politics always does. If nothing else, December is going to be interesting. Meanwhile, I think I’ll steer clear of analysis. It requires way too much thinking …


  • Tony Lankester

    Tony is a corporate animal but it wasn't always so. He used to work in the media, with a specific interest in technology; travel; music; and getting free stuff. He doesn't consider himself a thought leader, although he does confess to having thoughts. He presents the M&G's weekly podcast.