Tjatjarag: Mbeki’s Big Sigh to Zuma’s Big High

2013-09-22 12:00

So, yesterday was five years since then president Thabo Mbeki was so unceremoniously evicted from office by the governing ANC. How time flies. I remember that tatty time as if it were yesterday.

It ushered in a politics of purge, an era of the strongman, and patronage where alignments have hardened into factions and where acting on principle is an anachronism.

This happens when politics is built on fear and Mbeki’s ouster ushered it in.

It wasn’t the wisest time, that. Vengeance and mob justice overtook the ANC’s historic stance of trusting in collective wisdom and fighting for a greater good. The guy had had about five months left to serve.

They could have left the former president to leave with dignity.

In Mbeki’s circles since then, it is the era of the Big Sigh. If you meet someone who was in his inner circle, they sigh at what has come to pass, casting a snooty glance at the new mandarins who are somewhat less grand.

The author of their nostalgia is Reverend Frank Chikane, whose book Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki offers a fascinating insight into those dramatic days of September 2008. He tracks the opportunistic eschewing of institution, procedure and principle that characterised that time and which has in pockets become the way of the new order.

But nostalgia can mist up your eyes so badly your view of history becomes corrupted. The people of the Big Sigh conveniently forget how we supped at death’s door for long years as the former president dabbled with Aids denialists.

The death hump on all statistics of the time intrude cruelly on the reverie: Too many people died unnecessarily.

The greatest feat of the past five years is the way in which South Africa has reversed the years of Aids denialism to deliver antiretroviral drugs in numbers large enough to make a difference. That is the work of President Jacob Zuma.

There are other credits too.

Back in 1999, I was a presidential correspondent and spent a lot of time in the Union Buildings. President Mbeki’s era was built on a foundation of managerialism and modernism.

He wanted to be a CEO and run SA Inc. And he failed.

One of the first stories I wrote was of how Mbeki would get Cabinet’s performance management institutionalised and chuck out nonperformers quickly.

I wrote lots of that spin, but Mbeki did not reshuffle his Cabinet. Neither did the lieutenants of his large presidency ever complete a performance-management scorecard.

Last week, the presidency of Jacob Zuma released a set of performance assessments. Rigorous, frank and diagnostic, it was the first time in nearly 20 years this was done.

It told us exactly who was doing well (and why) and who was failing (and why).

President Zuma has reshuffled his Cabinet so often that just over four in 10 of its members are in the same jobs they held in 2009 when he was sworn in.

These are important developments, for which Zuma gets insufficient credit.

What is a patriot? I consider myself one in that I love my country and want to be a part of its making, from what it was into what it can be.

South Africa is our country (not “this country” as some resident citizens refer to her) and it is an interesting place with profound history, good geography and cool people.

And as a patriot, I’d like to differ with President Zuma’s view of patriotic reporting.

Last week, he told a group of journalism students that he wanted Mexican-style “patriotic reporting”, where you only present the sunny side up of your country.

I hope they don’t listen, for three reasons.

One, Mexico is possibly the deadliest place on earth to be a journalist.

Two, the journalism our president wants is possibly the most deadly dull reporting you can find.

Three, it is an act of profound patriotism to follow the public money and ensure it is spent to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans.

It is profoundly patriotic to help uncover corruption and to stand for good governance.

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