Defend Truth


The rebirth of the Thabo Mbeki cult

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

What makes otherwise intelligent and rational human beings become fawning proselytes when the subject of our former president comes up? More importantly, if they are going to scrape the bottom of the barrel for role models, is that the best they can come up with?

Being middle-class in South Africa is such a drag. I mean, being privileged in a country where the majority are overwhelmingly not privileged is like having a giant target painted on your back, is it not? And boy, do they take pot shots. Being middle-class and black is, gasp, even worse. Not only is there the whole “haves-versus-haves-not” thing, you spend quite a bit of time in the office explaining to Craig from sales why President Jacob Zuma wore skins and leapt about when he married his fourth wife. Brittany is mad at you because her black neighbour decided to traumatise her mother by slaughtering a cow in his suburban backyard and Henk doesn’t quite understand why the blacks enjoy the benefits of affirmative action and he doesn’t.

All this proving oneself is very tiring. Isn’t it wonderful that we educated blacks have former president Thabo Mbeki to do the leaping over hurdles and breaking down of barriers for us? We can point to him when he swoops out of the sky in his jet, strides up to the podium and delivers a rousing oratory and show you whites that we’re just as equal as any of you.

Or at least, that’s my explanation for the hordes of Mbeki disciples that stalk the blog sites and column spaces of this nation.

Having lain low since that fateful September 2008 when their hero shuffled out of the Union Buildings, the Mbekists have suddenly found their voice again. They are everywhere, tugging pitifully at our shirtsleeves, begging us to acknowledge the man’s genius. They will just not stop. Much like accepting the pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witness at your doorstep so they’ll leave you in peace, the Mbekists wear you down with their tireless mewling, begging you to become “one of us, one of us”. Woe betide you should you not see things their way. To differ from a Mbekist is to grievously offend.

My feelings about the man are common knowledge. Every time I air my views on Mbeki, his acolytes immediately adopt that crouching defensive stance, and feverishly furnish me with a shopping list of his supposed exploits. When that fails, we enter into that famous ninth circle of hell, where the Mbekist will break every law of logic to explain away Mbeki’s gaffes. When that inevitably fails as well, I’m denounced as a dirty liberal or worse, an apologist for white hegemony (a tip to my fellow black counter-revolutionaries: If your opposition trots out the “you’re adopting a white frame of thought” argument, you know you’ve won the argument).

I know what you’re going to say next, dear Mbekist – yes, the man has said and done some things. Good things, even. I like how he put Cosatu in its place and made it do as it was told, for instance. And anyone who gives that oily Ryan Coetzee a lank tuning deserves a generous helping of grog. It’s not as if I disagree with everything Mbeki did or said (and we all miss Mbeki when we have to listen to Jacob Zuma stumble his way through a speech). Hell, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But to apportion Mbeki blind loyalty is disgraceful behaviour by people who really ought to know better. So the leaders who came after him didn’t engage in grand jousting matches of verbiage with their enemies, real and imagined. So they didn’t pursue the African Renaissance intellectualist wank. But so what? We must defend Mbeki at all costs because the Zumas and Malemas who came afterwards rub our aspirant “black diamond” pretensions the wrong way? He’s the man the African Union sends to trouble spots when it wants to stall (not make) progress, for the love of Jeremy Clarkson!

Showing middle-class black people that it is possible for us too to be on speaking terms with Olusegun Obasanjo and Paul Wolfowitz is no reason for us to abandon all reason. I have a dream that a man will not be judged by the colour of his skin, but by the number of Langston Hughes poems he can quote? Come on!

I know, I’m being obstreperous. And this dead horse has been kicked so many times, it threatens to come apart at the limbs. But Thabo Mbeki cannot be the best example of the kind of leadership to which we aspire. We can do better than that. Enough with settling for the least worst option. DM

PS Being a Zulu, a dangerous socialist and having no appreciation for portentous poetry is not the reason why I do not think much of Thabo Mbeki. No, it’s those ghastly tweeds he wears on the weekend that are the source of antagonism. Now you know.


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