Failing the test

2007-12-18 00:00

THE main headline in yesterday’s issue of The Witness — “Mbeki misses his chance” — said it all. Thabo Mbeki’s performance in his final speech as outgoing African National Congress leader confirmed the concerns of many about him. Where human warmth, emotion, empathy and an honest admission of failures, together with an appraisal of successes, were what was called for, what delegates of the ANC congress at Polokwane got was a dull, over-long address full of intellectualism, statistics and denialism. This was certainly not vote-catching stuff of the kind that would enable him to survive as party leader.

Over the years that he has had the responsibility of high office, has Mbeki undergone a personality change? This is not the person whom people spoke so highly of when they met him in the late eighties in the initial talks between prominent South Africans and ANC leaders in exile. There he came across as possessing all the warm, human qualities which he now seems to lack. Whatever future historians (or psychologists) might make of the reasons for the change, the fact is that the Mbeki who appeared before 4 000 delegates at Polokwane was a figure whose followers had long grown tired of his aloofness and prickly defensiveness.

Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, although he did not have the opportunity of speaking, is indeed all too human, which is what makes him seem so attractive despite his many faults. While his appeal to his vociferous supporters (whose behaviour surely raised deep unease in all impartial observers) is undoubted, so, too, as has often been noted, are his inadequacies. His inability to articulate any policy is masked by populism. His inability to manage his personal finances has been amply demonstrated in the Schabir Shaik case. His own admissions when he gave evidence in the rape case brought against him demonstrated what are at best his confused ethical values. And it must surely be unprecedented for a candidate for the leadership of the ANC and a future potential president of South Africa to be indicted for receiving corrupt payments exceeding R4 million and for tax evasion of a sum exceeding R1 million.

When one remembers some of the giants who have led the ANC — Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, for instance — one realises how dire the situation has become. As so often happens in the case of political leadership worldwide, the person who wants the job is not the person the people should have, while individuals of real quality shy away from such posts. The tragedy of this is that, now more than ever, South Africa’s democracy needs a statesman.

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