Not in a long time has serious journalistic discourse in this country been centred around or even shaped, in a way, by one individual who is not a politician or some such official.
The Great Native Debate, started by Robert Suresh Roberts, has the makings of a discourse-changing intervention.
The little man from Trinidad, bright, bold, garishly verbose but sometimes obsessed with his own self-importance and intellectual prowess, has done everything to entertain, shock and offend South Africans – on television, radio, print etc. Hate him or love him, you can’t ignore him.
His first book, “No Cold Kitchen”, a biography of the author Nadine Gordimer, stirred controversy even before it was published. His American publishers Farrar, Straus & Giroux, withdrew their offer to publish at the last minute when Gordimer expressed disapproval with some aspects of the book which probed too deeply into what she considered her intensely private personal life. I will not attempt to give a full historical analysis of the push-pull debacle that followed.
But when the book did finally come out, it seemed to tread on some people’s metaphorical toes as it ventured to dismantle the liberal edifice which Gordimer had been bestriding like a Colossus all these years.
To his credit, Roberts debunked some myths about the likes of Gordimer vis a vis their commitment to true equality between the races in this country. That got many South Africans, especially white ones, hot under the collar. Race is an uncomfortable subject to discuss in this country, especially because it demands of us to go back to the past and be honest with ourselves.
Now, we get to Roberts’ latest book, “Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki”. As the title suggests, the book seeks to take us inside the mind of Thabo Mbeki, as it were.
This is not a review of the book, but a broad comment on the themes at the heart thereof.
If your mission is to explain and explore the president’s intellectual inclinations, you have to explain the historical context within which his intellectual tradition unfurled itself. You have to show how racism has manifested itself in all sectors of South African life: academia, the media, politics, religion, etc. That is the unfortunate and inevitable reality.
Media has always been central in the sustenance of the hegemony of the ruling class, from colonial days down to the apartheid era. Media practitioners, therefore, cannot be spared criticism in this context.
Racism, it must be pointed out, still exists in our newsrooms and in the boardrooms that prevail over those newsrooms, in as much as it permeates all nooks and crannies of our lives. This is a country trying to fashion itself into a fully-fledged nation. We didn’t just become racists by osmosis, but social structures were set up to nurture and sustain the ogre of racism.
Roberts is therefore right to use this historical tableau as a springboard into the heart of these vexatious issues. But then he succumbs to the venomous tentacles of history. He fails to move forward and show us exactly how the president thinks, and how history might have shaped his thinking.
Instead of jumping from this springboard into the heart of the matter, Roberts suddenly strays from his primary mission of explaining the intellectual tradition of the president, and then spews the poison of history at enemies – real or imagined. The book consequently falls flat on its face and becomes an angry racial, ideological, personal invective against those who might have crossed the president’s path, or Roberts’ path himself. What a pity.
A pity because Roberts’ detractors, some of whom are indeed guilty of political and racial bigotry and hypocrisy, end up appearing as hapless victims of a madman’s poisonous pen.
A work of great potential academic intervention becomes the mutterings of a possessed but inarticulate schoolboy ranting against The System.
A sadly missed opportunity to address important issues that will not simply go away as we try to negotiate the issue of where we come from, who we are, and where we want to go, and who we want to be.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist