Mario Ambrosini: Crocodile tears for a political foe?

2014-08-17 06:00

There will be many tributes to Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. Crocodile tears will be shed.

His political enemies will overlook their differences and praise him for his bravery in his battle with cancer.

Those who crossed swords with him will only just touch on his controversial past and remark on his work as an MP.

I suppose that is the correct thing to do. Nobody wants to be accused of being mean-spirited. Ambrosini’s end was a painful one, but he did not let his ailment get in the way of his work.

Instead, he made it his inspiration for a new cause – the campaign for the decriminalisation of dagga for medical use. For that, he deserves respect and a dozen accolades.

Ambrosini also deserves accolades for being one of the most alert MPs in a dozy Parliament. As one of only a handful of IFP parliamentarians, but one of the most hardworking people on the opposition benches, he kept the governing party on its toes.

He did battle with a bullying ANC that often resorted to using its majority to push through bad legislation without properly considering the negative effects on SA’s democratic infrastructure.

He can count the battle against the Protection of State Information Bill as one of the proudest moments of a controversial career. He was one of the stars of the ad-hoc committee that processed the bill between 2010 and 2013.

He is among the many campaigners we have to thank that the pernicious piece of legislation Siyabonga Cwele put before Parliament in August 2010 never became law and that the watered-down-but-still-terrible bill has not yet been signed by the president.

However, we should not forget the destructive role that this man played during the negotiations in the early 1990s.

We should not whitewash history and gloss over the fact that he was one of those who deliberately loosened the fasteners on the rail-tracks to a democratic SA.

There will be all sorts of two-faced appeals not to disrespect the dead. Honest reflections on Ambrosini’s past will be seen as tasteless and tantamount to dancing on his grave.

That may well be the case.

But of more concern should be the graves of the thousands of South Africans who died in the early 90s because the party he belonged to was collaborating with forces who wanted to derail the freedom train. At the time, Ambrosini was the constitutional adviser to the IFP delegation at the Kempton Park negotiations and consigliere to party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Coming from a prominent Italian legal family, Ambrosini had a brilliant legal mind, which had seen him make his mark in his home country and the US.

When he arrived in SA in 1991, he virtually took over the shaping of IFP’s negotiating strategy. He gave flesh to the IFP’s rejection of a unitary state and its demand for a federal SA.

With Ambrosini pulling the strings in the background and Buthelezi hanging onto his every word, the IFP became the pivot of the spoilers at the negotiations.

With its numerical strength and Buthelezi’s own KwaZulu powerbase, the IFP was the lead party in the Concerned South Africans Group, a motley association of conservative formations and homeland parties.

At every point of progress during the negotiations, the IFP and its cohorts pushed back. They introduced impossible demands that would have led to the effective Balkanisation of the country. If they didn’t get their way, this group would throw their toys out of the cot and threaten to walk out.

For its part, the IFP wanted the Zulu king to have his own delegation, that the border of the new SA recognise the historic Zulu kingdom and other ridiculous measures that would have seen Buthelezi not only entrench his power in the KwaZulu homeland, but also extend it to the then Natal province.

The IFP delegation comprised of party veterans who were realistic about the way forward, consistently frustrated by having this new arrival second-guess them and angered by the access he had to the big boss.

They would whisper to other party delegations about their powerlessness and inability to make binding commitments in the interests of progress.

While they fully bought into their party’s positions, they knew they could not get their way at all costs and that this was a game of give-and-take. Not so with Ambrosini and his principal back in Ulundi.

The tragedy of this period was that, as the negotiations dragged on, people were dying in the streets of SA. Every weekend in the provinces now known as Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, there were dozens of funerals. Wives were widowed and children orphaned. Villages and neighbourhoods were hollowed out as citizens became refugees in their own country.

Some suspected that he was a foreign agent sent to weaken the shape and form that the new South African state would take.

That was far-fetched.

For Ambrosini, it was all just a game. He was having loads of fun putting his constitutional brain to work. On this big stage, with the world watching, he could try to put textbook theories into practice.

And he had the power and authority of a power-hungry Buthelezi with which to play this dastardly game. The flowing rivers of blood did not bother him a bit.

He and his political principal pushed the brinksmanship to the 11th hour, agreeing to contest the 1994 elections just seven days before the poll.

The IFP was to continue playing the spoiler after the democratic elections, constantly threatening to pull out from the Constitutional Assembly where the final constitution was being hammered out. More blood flowed.

Ambrosini alone cannot be blamed for the delays in the finalisation of the great South African deal. There were many other factors at play. He can also not be blamed for fanning the fires of violence in the 90s. He found SA already burning.

But – and this must be loud and emphatic BUT – he cannot be absolved and sanctified just because he pulled our heartstrings in his final days.

The ANC, which detested and distrusted Ambrosini to the end, said it would miss the “vibrant contributions he made to our parliamentary debates and national political discourse in general.”

It commended him “for the contribution he made to our democratic transition process as an advisor to IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.”

Hypocrisy or amnesia?

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