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Reporter’s notebook: A cabinet press conference, touched by the hue of dystopia

Reporter’s notebook: A cabinet press conference, touched by the hue of dystopia

The last few days have seen the political press dominated by the story of Jimmy Manyi. The very same “there is an over-concentration of Coloureds in Western Cape” Manyi, the one Trevor Manuel called a racist. On Thursday, Manyi chaired what was by most accounts a normal cabinet press conference. Why then is STEPHEN GROOTES so disturbed?

Sometimes, you can be sitting in a very secure place, and still feel scared. While you and your body are perfectly safe, there can be unnerving movements in your belly as an edgy wave runs  through you. It is not chilly, it’s warm, it moves from your shoulders and settles in your stomach. It’s not a mental thing at all, it’s a sensation, when your very being knows that something wrong, something almost evil is with you. It’s when you know to an utter certainty that what is happening in front of you is bad. Really, really bad.

I felt this watching Jimmy Manyi gives his press conference on Thursday. It’s not that I’m scared of Manyi, or that he has the power to freak me out or anything. It’s what he stands for. And no, I may be white, he may be black, he may be the president of the Black Management Forum, but it’s not about all of that. It’s about the fact that he cannot see grey.

Manyi was always in for a tough ride: it was his first meeting with the assembled political press pack since those comments about Coloured people emerged, and the Trevor Manuel letter that followed them. He dealt with the issue in the usual Manyi way. He said that “there are some hygiene issues that need to be dealt with” before the conference could start. As if he were cleaning us up by pointing out that we could not ask him questions about himself, only about cabinet decisions. As if he could somehow wash himself clean of all of this, Pontius Pilate-like, by just refusing to recognise its very existence. He then started his schpiel, “this is the second cabinet meeting I’ve been to and I must say South Africans can rest assured that they have a good cabinet that is working well”.

“Like a good second-hand car” – the sentence shot through my mind.

Of course, that wasn’t going to work. Of course, that was just putting the bit between the teeth of some of us. To almost every question there was the same answer, “I will not talk about it, it’s not a cabinet decision”. Manyi is incredibly disciplined, he does not waver from his line, and he answers questions directly and quickly. That’s quite rare nowadays. But as the questions didn’t stop, he slowly got a little warm under the collar; yes, he still had confidence in his ability to do his job, “Can’t you see how I stand before you”, as to whether he could do it well, “You be the judge”.

All of this was to be expected, it’s the usual jousting from a pack of journalists intent on trying to drag blood out of a stone that has said it will not happen.

It was the unexpected, the actual Cabinet decision that sparked the limp rag to twist itself in my gut.

Cabinet has decided that the justice minister Jeff Radebe and the secretary of cabinet will “interact” with the public protector over her report that found serious wrong-doing on the part of senior police officers. This is the report that police chief General Bheki Cele claims “vindicates” him, despite the fact it recommends cabinet takes action. The same public protector whose office was “unexpectedly visited” by the crime intelligence officers on Wednesday night. The questions started with “what does interaction mean” and went from there. Technically, the public protector investigates, issues a report, and cabinet acts on it. The obvious starting point from the reporters’ point of view is that that’s not what’s happening here, that ministers are trying to put some pressure on her. Cele is very close to President Jacob Zuma, the potential for a fudge is huge.

Manyi’s response to all of this was simply to say “Cabinet will not cut corners on this, there will be proper governance, stay with us, but don’t dictate to us on how to do this”. Then, in response to another question on the same issue, “Nothing will be swept under the carpet, it’s going to happen”.

He followed it up with “Trust me on this one”.

Some backstory. In November 2006 I was a much younger and less experienced reporter. I was in the same room at the Union Buildings that I was in on Thursday. There had been a meeting between President Thabo Mbeki and religious leaders, and we’d been told crime was on the agenda, and that there’d be a briefing afterwards. Well, of course, Mbeki didn’t come to the briefing. But Ashwin Trikamjee did, as the leader of the Religious Leaders Forum. After a three-hour wait I was grumpy, and allowed myself to be less than tactful when I joined other reporters in asking what the president had said about crime. Remember, at the time, for media-shy Mbeki to mention the word was a news story in itself. Trikamjee was getting quite frustrated with us too, and then came a question about Jackie Selebi, what did the president say about him. Rumours had been swirling for months, and there’d been no comment about it at all. Trikamjee replied, “He said trust me”.

Last month, the night before Zuma’s State of the Nation address, there was a cocktail party for journalists and government communicators. It’s tradition for the cabinet spokesman to give a little speech, something warm and cordial, with a few jokes. This year Manyi was not so warm. “When I speak, government speaks” he said. That was the first time I felt a start, a jerk in my brain, a wish to rewind the moment and check it again. The next evening, a few hours after Zuma’s speech, I was in my hotel room, writing, and listening to the translation of Hosni Mubarak’s speech in which he refused to resign. I couldn’t get away from how he equated himself with the Egypt’s future. Over the last few days, Muammar Gaddafi has been doing the same. Equating the future of the country with himself. Gaddafi’s also been saying everything would be alright under his rule, that if only his people trusted him, it would all be okay and there would be freedom for all and a car in every garage.

Manyi is by no means the same as these deranged lunatics. But he thinks that we will trust him if he just says it. That the future of South Africa belongs to him and his people. People who fly the political flags of convenience, members of the first ANC generation that didn’t have to fight in foxholes, whose main motivation is power.

Manyi thinks he doesn’t owe anyone a personal apology. He thinks that it’s okay to do and say anything as long as it puts himself and those around him, in the pound seats. He thinks that government must be right, that political people in a cabinet must be right all the time, that the people should just “trust” them and “trust” him. That if we go away and just leave them to it, without any stupid questions, well then this country will be in a much better place. Because he knows more than we do, he’s in government, so he must just know what’s best. Because he thinks he’s better than us.

It’s not the here and the now that matters. It’s what’s going to happen. It’s about what can happen when someone who isn’t a democrat, who doesn’t believe that we are all equal, is appointed by the president. It’s about the shutting down of voices, the idea that you are not accountable to anyone or anything. That the only power that matters is the political power to which you are attached for the moment. And that the rest can go hang. It’s about how that view can infect others, at the top. It’s about how over time, more people will think that they too don’t have to be accountable, that belonging to a specific group matters more than laws and institutions of democracy, as experienced by the public protector. It’s about how making a simple apology isn’t necessary, because “ordinary” people don’t matter.

That’s the reason for the oil that’s moved through my being these last few days. DM

Grooets is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Big Brother, 1984.


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