Also read Rapule Tabane and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya’s counterpoint to this article
In April 2001, 22 months after Thabo Mbeki became President, the Mail & Guardian ran a full-length front-cover photograph of him alongside the question: ”Is this man fit to rule?”
Letters to the paper the following week convey the intensity of the reaction. ”Who are these racists masquerading as newspapermen?” demanded Chane Ketane of Pretoria; ”a newspaper once respected by all sections of our community is rapidly degenerating into a sleazy sectarian tabloid driven by personal agendas,” raged Siphiwe Ndwalaza of Meadowlands. Even people who were then staffers on the paper expressed disquiet.
A week later Mbeki’s business friends posted a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times containing a vitriolic assault on the media (read the M&G) as racist and rightwing.
As government advertising dried up, M&G reporters found it increasingly difficult to deal professionally with a bristling ANC.
Ultimately the paper was dragged into Mbeki’s onslaught on the ”ultra-left”, stigmatised in a document clearly written by him as part of a counter-revolutionary plot also including Cosatu and the DA.
The M&G had never been so isolated.
Yet re-reading then editor Howard Barrell’s editorial seven years later, particularly in the light of anti-immigrant hysteria of the past fortnight, one is struck by how accurate it was. All the personal failings and policy delusions he recognised in Mbeki have now become the stuff of mainstream political discourse.
With the president’s power broken, everyone from ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa to businessman Christo Wiese is fearlessly breaking cover and putting in the boot. Never mind questioning whether he is fit to rule; hardly a week passes without a strident call for him to step down.
Writing immediately after Mbeki’s extraordinary claim, through his minister Steve Tshwete, that three top ANC businessmen were plotting against him, Barrell wrote: ”This week he has taken us across a new threshold. He has allowed the organs of state security to be deployed in defence of his leadership of the ruling party.”
Familiar? Consider the comment on the ”singular failure” of Mbeki’s Zimbabwe policy: ”The dictatorship of Robert Mugabe gets ever more crude, brutal and idiotic; the Zimbabwean economy spirals with increasing speed towards total collapse; ordinary Zimbabweans’ appeals for action … from their South African neighbours become ever more hopeless; and the damage to the prospects of prosperity in our country and region becomes ever more severe.”
Crucially, Barrell fixed on the denialism basic to Mbeki’s personality, his defensive evasions and attempts to hold reality at bay by tightening his grip on power and demonising his critics.
”A great party is at risk of being turned into the instrument of a man caught up in his personal rages and with so brittle an ego that he fears evisceration if he retreats on an issue or allows a recognition that he has failed,” he wrote.
It is Mbeki’s refusal to confront unpleasant facts, on Aids, Mugabe, crime, corruption and now xenophobia, that has been his principal undoing.
It underpins his long delay in deploying troops against xenophobic rioters, his scapegoating of ”a few criminals” and unruffled sorties to Maputo and Arusha while the shack settlements burned.
In his master’s voice deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad soothingly assured a media conference last week that xenophobia was common in countries worldwide.
Dazed by the ANC’s Polokwane conference, Mbeki seems to have withdrawn even further into a self-protective bubble.
But the point is not to vaunt the M&G or say ”we told you so”. It is to ask how a party, which now enthusiastically embraces Barrell’s analysis, could take so long to do so.
In the three years following the article the ANC would reconfirm Mbeki as its leader and presidential candidate, despite the clearest possible warning signs. Why did it cut him so much slack?
Part of the answer lies in the loss of political nerve. One of most depressing spectacles of post-apartheid South Africa has been that of resistance heroes once ready to die for their beliefs reduced to timid placemen.
Basically good men and ministers such as Ronnie Kasrils and Trevor Manuel, for example, made public statements designed to curry favour with Mbeki on HIV/Aids or lent weight to his onslaught on the parliamentary oversight of the arms deal.
Time and again in the early 2000s ANC leaders privately criticised Mbeki to the M&G but would not speak out in their own names. At the 2002 national executive committee meeting, where Nelson Mandela was attacked after querying the party’s Aids stance, the mass of members sat tongue-tied.
Compounding the failure of individual conscience was a reflex of racial defensiveness — that black people had to rally around a black president regardless of his policies.
This was assiduously promoted by Mbeki and the racial paranoiacs who have been his ideological mainstay. Typical of their approach was Ronald Roberts’s patently dishonest claim, in his ”intellectual biography” of the president, that to question Mbeki’s fitness for office was to question majority rule.
Not all black leaders took the paranoid line. South Africa should gratefully acknowledge those who stood up to Mbeki in the fear-filled climate of the early 2000s, including Sipho Seepe, Kgosi Letlape, Malegapuru Makgoba and, yes, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Whatever one may think of the ANC’s new leaders — and the M&G has been forthright about Jacob Zuma’s shortcomings — they seem to be gradually reorienting the movement towards its non-racial traditions.
There also seems to be a new realism, indicated by the appearance of Madikizela-Mandela and other party leaders in the riot-torn settlements while Mbeki stood aloof.
The danger is of a new militant orthodoxy in the ruling alliance, worryingly signalled by the purging of Cosatu and the South African Communist Party of perceived Mbeki supporters and determined moves to marginalise even the best servants of the ancient regime.
What is really frightening about contemporary South Africa, in politics as much as in the xenophobic upheavals, is the tendency to hunt in packs.
A leitmotif of the Mbeki era was the use of witch-hunts, plot claims and political denunciation to keep dissidents in line. The new leadership has to entrench a culture of openness and tolerance of diversity in the ruling party.
And members have to recover their political backbone to ensure that, in the words of the old revivalist hymn, they can ”dare to be a Daniel; dare to stand alone”.