Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Fit to Govern:fireworks in the battle of ideas

I recommend that you read the book Fit To Govern: the native intelligence of Thabo Mbeki. In the many reviews and commentaries (most of them harshly negative), the writers fail to advise whether it would be worth your while to read this book. Some hint that reading the book would be a waste of time.

But I say: check it out for yourself. After all, the commentators had the occasion to read the book and found the contents stimulating enough to warrant writing about it. Furthermore, this book is about important issues and - significantly - about what the country’s president thinks about them.

You most likely don’t need advisory notes, but I will give you some pointers anyway:

(a) Roberts can overdo things a bit; for example he repeats his dig at the Sunday Times as the main culprit each time he refers to what he sees as the deficiencies of the media. One wants to say to the author: we do “get it” the first time.
(b) The writing can be dense. It is jam-packed with references. As Roberts explains political conduct and ideological positions in Mzansi, he takes you to various theorists as wells as other contexts and points in history.
(c) Roberts can pump up the venom, and spit it out in a spectacular way. He is able to combine an issue- and theme-based approach with strong person-based adversarialism. He appears to believe that he can say his say better if he foregrounds personalities; that blasting away at behaviour and statements of such personalities is a good way of debating contending positions on key socio-political questions. An alternative approach would place more emphasis on themes, trends and positions, and would devote less energy to dismantling the credibility of particular persons in the process of analysis.
d) The author can write well, make no mistake. Leave aside for a moment the current book that is the subject of so much debate. An example of Roberts’ writing skill is his recent newspaper feature on crime in South Africa. Another example is the greater part of his biography of Nadine Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen. (See Judge Dennis Davis’s views on the book at ccrweb.ccr.uct.ac.za/fileadmin/user_upload/WordFiles/ No_Cold_Kitchen.doc.)

I turn to my own reflections on Fit to Govern.

This book is not a biography; rather, it is a book about President Mbeki’s thinking and belief system. It tells us why he approaches issues and challenges in the way that he does.

I got the sense that Roberts puts himself into the picture a bit too much. We gain an insight into some of his longstanding battles, with the consequence that some bits of the book can be seen as gratuitous. For Roberts, it goes like this: Sunday Times calls me names (in comments referred to in a recent court case), I cite a reference where the Sunday Times’ editor is referred to as partially “brutalized” and I go into the kind of “psychologising” that I say I detest.

The book is engaging. It shows that ideas and contestation around ideas can be as gripping as an adventure novel or an action movie: the forces involved are similarly fighting all-out for ultimate survival or conquest. Fit To Govern is also invigorating in that it punts ideas that are heretical in terms of mainstream national discourse.

Roberts and the President suggest that we should all be reading, talking and engaging much more at this level (at the level where the clash between different worldviews is unmasked), and in this way become aware of underlying thinking frameworks that inform party positions and media editorials. Through such engagement we will better understand the mental frameworks that (a) inform the often heated political disputation in South Africa (b) underlie the implacable rivalry between influential voices in the media as well as between various other forces (a) would help us make sense of the massive communication gaps in South African political debates.

Fit to Govern touches on Mbeki’s view of the media and some of the practices of the media as seen through anti-imperialist spectacles. The question put here to commentators is worth reflecting on: are we sometimes too sloppy, shallow and superficial in our analysis of events?

The book also zeroes in on what Mbeki said or did not say on HIV and Aids. It does raise the question: is there scope to look again at what Mbeki’s real views are on HIV and Aids? Roberts researches obsessively and he brings to light views (from Edwin Cameron and Njabulo Ndebele) that they could find no record of an Mbeki statement to the effect that he does not believe HIV causes Aids. This issue reflects an important tussle between the two power centres – the media and political power.

At one level, it is about semantics; at another level, it is about truth, integrity and accuracy. Clarifying what words were spoken is relevant because the mass media believes that the expressed views of the President are central to understanding public policy on HIV/Aids, but also because it is the mass media that amplifies what it hears or thinks it hears. Yet we must bear in mind this is but one aspect of debates around HIV/Aids in South Africa. Clarifying what was actually said from the highest political platform does not deal with broader governance questions as it relates to the pandemic. Nor does it do away with the duty to examine the inaction and action(s) by government and various players over time on the issue of HIV/Aids.

In his book, Roberts is taking up arms against what he sees as a plethora of hostile and antagonistic attitudes to the President. For my part, I think Thabo Mbeki as leader is often underrated or mis-rated. Though tough challenges remain, he has led the country through a period of undoubtedly significant achievements. He becomes a more imposing figure as one considers the challenge of finding a suitable successor.

Can Tokyo Sexwale be as visionary on Africa, can Kgalema Motlanthe challenge the power structure of multilateral bodies as eloquently, can Jacob Zuma manage and co-ordinate policies as well? Maybe they can, but would-be presidents and successors would have to show their mettle.

In responding to what he perceives as multi-sided attacks on Mbeki, and in fervently supporting Mbeki’s resistance to imperialism, Roberts allows the pendulum to swing too far. He does not discuss nor debate any areas of weakness, forgetting that no leader has 100 percent capability, wisdom and vision on every front. Roberts also forgets that every leader has their own internal struggles to contend with (and manage). Thus he does not probe, for example, developments in the party – with the advent of Zuma mobilisation – and what President Mbeki and the ANC NEC could have done differently to have forestalled the groundswell of support for a Zuma faction. Nor does he discuss whether Thabo Mbeki could have communicated better on HIV and Aids – so that he could have achieved a positive outcome and united action between government and NGOs during his two terms.

Roberts is consumed with rebutting the slings and arrows from various quarters (trade unions, black journalists, the conservative and ultra-conservative liberals and certain voices internationally). That task (of acting as defence counsel) is so central that for him, the book is no place to discuss Mbeki as anything but a saint. In practice of course, Mbeki does not appear to view himself as angelic and his frequently-expressed commitment to dialogue, debate and vibrant intellectual activity would suggest that he is not averse to some critical reflection.

Fit to Govern makes strident comments about a set of people that can be described as the who’s who of the media world. Roberts prefers to lash out, and his choice of phrasing seems to be designed to provoke a reaction. It will be interesting to see if - and how - the victims of his tongue lashing will respond.

Fit To Govern – notwithstanding flaws and imperfections – contains many nuggets and food for the mind; in certain key areas , it challenges us to think differently about the contest between power groups in South African society.


Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for that.

I've seen the book in book shops, and wondered if I can afford it, and more especially if I can afford to buy it and the Bizos biography in the same month, and leaning to the latter because of my interest in history.

It seems to me that the closer we get to the replacement of Mbeki, the more irreplaceable he appears. When I look at other world leaders (if I can even remember who they are, they are so forgettable) I realise how lucky we are to have Mbeki. He certainly looks a lot better than Bush, Blair/Brown (two cheeks of the same backside, as one Welsh MP put it), Putin or Mugabe.

As for Jacob Zuma, if he isn't actually thicker than George Bush, he certainly manages to give that impression.

Frank said...

Indications are that, even though there are delivery problems and the usual examples of inability to spend allocated funding at provincial level, Mbeki is a hands-on head of state. He manages all major government programmes through a framework he has defined and manages. With Trevor Manual, he has also met his own objectives (though not those of left wing groups) of balancing macro-economic stability with massive programs to address socio-economic backlogs. The potential exists for an Mbeki successor to do better in key areas; but his successor could as easily lead the country less effectively. We need to value what we have so that we can build on it.