6 months for Zuma to write an opus

2013-10-20 14:00

ANC president Jacob Zuma’s predecessors have all written extensively, but Number 1 is yet to publish a single book

Political analyst Richard Calland caused a storm in a teacup when he suggested that President Jacob Zuma does not read. And now he seems to be doing some creative footwork to explain himself.

Poor Richard.

I feel for you, my friend. In 2004, I wrote a column in which I suggested that one of then president Thabo Mbeki’s speeches confirmed that he was overrated.

Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! Talk about kicking the hornet’s nest. Bheki Khumalo, the then presidential spokesperson, wrote a rebuttal in which he called me “a sectarian advocate of black consciousness”. The then head of the ANC presidency, Smuts Ngonyama, shortly followed and called me “an insecure intellectual who chooses conjecture over facts”.

I took solace in Professor Njabulo Ndebele’s response: “I do not believe he (Mangcu), nor anyone else who dares to express considered opinions, deserves the ad hominem attack that presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo made in his letter.”

Ndebele made a suggestion to Mbeki’s men that might be useful to Zuma’s: “In my view, Mangcu’s offending article could have been better viewed as feedback for the president’s speech writers, who have to understand a complex national environment and then grapple, I suspect, with the search for appropriate, and the most effective, rhetorical strategies to achieve the desired effects in the president’s speeches.

A response in this regard could have helped the public better understand the challenges of preparing the president’s speeches. Instead, righteous indignation has left us in the dark. An opportunity to clarify has been lost.”

I suspect I would be complicating matters if I added the fact that Zuma is the only ANC president not to have written a book or any articles outlining his ideas.

I mean, out of all 12 of them since 1912. If you think I am wrong, dear reader, then come with me on this intellectual journey.

The ANC’s first president, John Langalibalele Dube, is known not only for having established Ilanga Lase Natal, but for writing biographies of the Zulu royal family.

Dube was followed by Sefako Makgatho, who wrote the Native Advocate with ANC co-founder Alfred Mangena. Makgatho was succeeded by Zac Mahabane, who wrote The Colour Bar in 1923.

Mahabane’s successor was Josiah Tshangane Gumede, who served as the editor of Ilanga Lase Natal. As we know, Tshangane was kicked out by the ANC old guard because he came back from the Soviet Union proclaiming he had seen the future – a line that, by the way, is eerily similar to muckraking American journalist Lincoln Steffens’ description of the Soviet Union: “I have seen the future, and it works.”

The ANC old guard elected Pixley ka Seme in Gumede’s place. By this time, “old dog” Seme was a feckless, conservative patriarch and, under his presidency, the ANC literally collapsed. But when it comes to writerly matters, Seme had established the ANC’s newspaper, Abantu-Batho.

We also know Seme for the speech he gave at Columbia University in 1906, titled The Regeneration of Africa: “I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over and against public opinion?…”

If that sounds familiar, it is because Thabo Mbeki used the same line on the occasion of the adoption of our Parliament 90 years later.

It took gynaecologist and obstetrician AB Xuma to revive the organisation in the 1940s. In addition to rebuilding the party, Xuma also wrote several articles and his autobiography.

And even that great quitter, James Moroka, played a leading role in drafting the Atlantic Charter of the ANC (African Claims) before he asked the magistrate to please excuse him from the company of the radical Mandelas and Sisulus, and allow him to go home.

Albert Luthuli replaced Moroka. An old man in Ginsberg used his book, Let My People Go, to teach me about the struggle when I was barely a teenager.

Luthuli was succeeded by Oliver Tambo, who wrote the introduction to Ruth First’s No Easy Walk to Freedom, and whose speeches and articles are collected in Preparing for Power: Oliver Tambo Speaks.

But Mandela and Mbeki were the most prolific of them all. Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Conversations with Myself have become international bestsellers.

But Mandela was writing polemical articles even in prison – even though one of those was my least favourite – the criticism of black consciousness contained in Reflections in Prison.

The more important point is that he wrote it for us to have a sense of what he was thinking at a particular time, even if he changed his mind later.

Thabo Mbeki’s oeuvre is probably the most extensive of them all. He was without question the most philosophically ambitious.

So, Mr President, writing is in the DNA of your organisation, passed down to you by your illustrious predecessors. You have six months to get it done and another five years if you get elected. But whatever befalls you, pick up the pen.

And before your supporters yell at me, let them be reminded that they cannot be angry about their own history.

»?Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and is the author of Biko: A Biography

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