Sunday, 26 August 2007

Mantogate: the unraveling of national focus and direction

The current political turmoil, centred on the political leadership of the Health Department, is leading to a major unraveling of the sense of focus and direction in Mzansi.

The current phase of instability was triggered when the President fired one leader (with controversial timing and a peculiar way of handling reactions) and insisted on holding fast to another. Large numbers of people are getting involved in what is a burning hot controversy, lining up to support or denounce the leadership of the President. Colourful language, scathing cartoons and funny but insensitive jokes are the order of the day.

There is an unraveling of, shall we say, a spirit of broad consensus, of working towards the same goal as well as, in national terms, dilution of the sense of direction, pace and due regard for leadership. The project of national advancement is of course much more deeply rooted in policies, institutions and aspirations. The fundamentals are in place. But the erosion is nonetheless worrying. It has a tiring effect, drains hope and among some causes depression.

As particular interests enter the debate, they add to the shrillness. Unthinking interventions can entrench the modes of attack and defend. Many a contribution does not help to draw lessons or lead to institutional and policy changes that will ensure the same mistakes are not made again. In only few instances does the rhetoric progress from the particular case (and the specific personalities) to elaborate on how we might build from here – what practices, behaviours and principles need to be restored and re-emphasized.

Sure, many don’t like the Minister and some of us doubt she adds value any more – but what are the underlying values that we want to emphasise, popularize and consolidate? Let’s keep spelling that out and perhaps we can still draw something edifying from the sordidness and noise.

At the same time, we should perhaps acknowledge that a good spin-off of the saga is that many ordinary people are yakking about the health of the nation. People care! There is a sharp decline in passivity and a widespread spike of interest regarding the behaviour and performance of politicians. It is positive that many ordinary people airing their views are adamant that their motivation is that they desire something better - for example, a better quality of politics, media and practice around public debate for South Africa.

The current squabble links to the ANC succession debate. Who can deny that either the causes or effects of the saga (and actions of key roleplayers in it) have a bearing on the succession battle? Madlala-Routledge – the fired former Deputy Health Minister – indicated as much when she made reference to the succession struggle within the ANC at her much-cited press conference on 10 August.

Clearly, while the Mantogate saga makes its specific contribution, the succession battle and its protagonists take the prize for having a debilitating effect on key national processes and on processes of policy development and review. In fact, in quite a few rows, conflicts and controversies affecting the tripartite alliance, the rot (and allegations of rot) starts there (in the way the succession battle is being waged).

Not so long ago - around mid-year and just before - the ANC was emphasizing the concept of a developmental state that could play a leadership role through key interventions in society. Of course, the state cannot adequately lead change if those in power are mired in conflict, and others outside stir the pot in specific ways. As I have argued before, the current climate means that agreement on important projects and initiatives are stalled or slowed down. Of course, many initiatives already approved and budgeted for are continuing – such as preparations for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. It is new initiatives, as well as precarious projects and campaigns that require a broad unity of purpose among all stakeholders such as the HIV and Aids strategy, that may run aground as a result of divisions in government decision-making structures.

In the rest of this blog post, and in perhaps a less serious vein, I share comments I have heard on the Mantogate affair:

A young women, too young to have been involved in anti-apartheid campaigns, said to me: “You guys were so united during the struggle. Now that you have power there are so many vicious fights.”

A progressive theologian and now a businessman, during a conversation on Mantogate, referred to his recent visit to Zimbabwe where he noted the shocking extent of collapse: “Their problem was that they loved their leaders too much. We should not go down the same path.’ I argued that our democracy is stronger and our political culture of better quality but the reverend, who is very much an ANC man, cautioned that many people are willing to rally blindly around leaders.

In a casual discussion at lunch with a group one day, I noted that, if it were true that the Minister drank a glass or two beyond the limit, surely it could in some respects be understood: “If I opened the newspaper every day and saw myself lampooned and lambasted, I would say: pour me another one.” I reminded the group how a foreign traveler on SAA refused to sit next the Minister, causing the Minister to flare up and starting yet another row. “That must be depressing,” I said, only half-seriously and desperately trying to find another angle to what was becoming a repetition of just a few similar viewpoints on the issue. The group of women I was speaking to were totally unmoved: “She brought it on herself,” they said.

A consultant working on behaviour-change programmes in the HIV/Aids area told me: “There is a human element, certainly. But I think it is good she (Tshabalala-Msimang) is getting roasted by the Sunday Times. Think of the many lives lost as a result of her approach to HIV and Aids. She deserves what she is getting.”

An ANC representative, Hope Papo, was explaining on radio why we should ignore allegations of theft. “Many things happened in exile,” he said, and suggested that Tshabalala-Msimang could easily have been set up. (If you have any more information on this, Hope, please elaborate!)

A friend SMSd me to say: “Enough already,” adding that the Sunday Times "drunk and a thief" revelations/allegations about the Health Minister were “below the belt”. This was a sequel to an earlier message which noted the following “lekker consequence” to the Madlala-Routledge controversy: “the nation is awake and paying attention again”.

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