The cheeky commentator

2008-03-03 00:00

There is a certain irony that a staunch Black Consciousness follower would write a book criticising President Thabo Mbeki for squandering the non-racial legacy of the African National Congress.

Newspaper columnist and academic Xolela Mangcu doesn’t see it this way. In his book, To The Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa, launched in Durban recently, he sets out a powerful argument showing that black consciousness and even black intellectual thinking going right back to the 19th century never displayed the type of racial exclusivity that has come into play under Mbeki’s rule. His book is far more than an intellectual excursion into concepts of race. It is a deeply personal account of what he believes has gone wrong in South Africa today. He comes across as openly disappointed and even angry with Mbeki, holding him responsible for bringing South Africa’s young democracy to the brink.

He explains that he wrote the book out of an urgent sense that South Africa’s black political intellectual tradition is being deeply violated. This is a result of what he calls Mbeki’s legacy of “racial nativism”. According to Mangcu, simply put, his argument is that the current, particularly political trend of condemning anyone who is not black and who is not on the side of government (“what can be called racial nativism”) is a negative and destructive one that has developed in the past eight years.

He says racial nativism is exclusionary and inevitably leads to political intolerance. “In my regular newspaper columns and from other platforms I have been openly critical of racial nativism — essentially because I have felt something precious slipping away from me and from our political and intellectual landscape. I have spoken out whenever our government deployed race to show callous indifference to the suffering of people with HIV/Aids, or the people of Zimbabwe, or victims of crime, or to shut down those who have opposed its policies. I have often been compelled to say this is not how it was supposed to be.”

Mangcu sees a forum of black journalists in 2008 as an extension of the Mbeki legacy of racial exclusion. He is dismissive of Mbeki’s Native Club for intellectuals, saying it is not about race but more about a gathering of insiders who support one’s cause.

Similarly he would see the derogatory actions of white students at the University of the Free State forcing black workers into abhorrent rituals while videotaping them, as all part of the racialised landscape inhabited by South Africans.

In his writings whites are not easily let off the hook and he sees white denial or the underplaying of the atrocity of apartheid as an important reason why leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Mbeki are “able to get away with the manipulation of race”. He says, “There is a certain smugness and lack of contrition in the white community that is at times quite breathtaking. It is as if there was no social catastrophe that literally consigned half the population to becoming indigent.”

He believes that this is why, hardly 14 years into South Africa’s new democracy, whites have so easily slipped into the role of victims.

He acknowledges that with the recent power outages, crime and a government that has come to use the race card to thwart criticism, there is a degree of gloom among the elite, both black and white. “You hear it in the public discourse — it’s on the radio and in letters to newspapers.”

As a commentator, he has also been accused of feeding into this despondency. “I always ask myself, as a writer, whose responsibility is it to sound the alarm when a house is on fire? As black people we must stop the idea that whenever people point at problems we say they are motivated by race or they are all sellouts. How long are we going to do that?”

For Mangcu there is hope. He believes that in adverse times some of the most creative ideas come to the fore. “South Africa needs to rediscover the politics of community that resides in its history. There is a need to get people to talk more together and to act together on common issues. I pray that the Scorpions issue and the threat to our Constitution will galvanise people.”

He feels certain this will happen in mainstream society rather than within political parties. “There is a critical mass out there among both blacks and whites who feel equally strongly about sustaining South Africa’s democracy.”

Mancgu’s outspokeness has seen him come under bitter attack by Mbeki acolytes and he recalls one incident in which he and other commentators were called coconuts (black on the outside, white on the inside) and “celebrity intellectuals who have made their way to the top by criticising a black government”. He acknowledges that it is tough withstanding such abuse but he says, “You’ve got to be cheeky, you’ve got to refuse to allow other people to have a sense of entitlement over your life and that you give up your reasoning because of them.”

It’s hard to imagine the studious-looking Mangcu as cheeky. He certainly has a sense of humour, judging by some of his tongue-in-cheek columns in Business Day. However, there is a refreshing straightforwardness about him. In Durban two weeks ago after he delivered the Harold Wolpe Lecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, he was asked, “Are you a racist?” His response: “I’m not going to prevaricate on this and say outright, no, I am not.”

He calls himself a public intellectual, a title he wears proudly, and says it is important for people to know that this is not new. There have always been public intellectuals in black life. “Part of my own work has been to write about such 19th century intellectuals as Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu, W. B. Rubusana, William Gqoba and S. E. K. Mqhayi.”

Mangcu says there are people who are discomfited by the notion of a public intellectual, and describes it simply as artists, scholars and leaders bringing ideas into the public arena for discussion and debate. “We have done it all along. I myself — growing up in Ginsberg [in the Eastern Cape] — took part in political discussion groups with Neville Alexander, who used to come from time to time to our township. When it came to conscientising, where I lived there was an elderly man who always gave me books to read.” He added that Steve Biko himself engaged with ordinary people through groups, the arts and theatre.

“As far as I can remember, growing up I was always involved in public debates. I always occupied leadership positions. Having watched my parents being publicly-minded citizens, it seemed the natural thing to do.”

Mangcu, who set up the Steve Biko Foundation, is currently executive chairman of the Platform for Public Deliberation, a non-profit think-tank set up to promote a culture of open dialogue. He is also a visiting scholar at the University of Witwatersrand.

According to Mangcu, our universities have become closed areas and are not as active as they used to be. “You need institutions where people spend a considerable amount of time thinking about ideas, informed by what is happening in the society around them.”

His engagement with communities is through his newspaper columns, radio talk shows and community-type engagements. He keeps grounded through his family and deep ties with Ginsberg where he grew up. “I go there all the time. My friends are there. They are not intellectuals or politicians. We grew up together and they keep me in check and help me unwind. I find my identity and my memories reside in that space.”

For relaxation he reads and plays golf, an interest he developed from being a caddie while growing up. He is also involved in a golf development initiative in the Eastern Cape.

No, he does not do the dishes at home, but admits to making a mean omelette and unapologetically confesses that he has handed over the management of his life to his wife of 20 years, Phelisa.

Gradually taking control, as well, are his three daughters. Mangcu relishes parenthood. “Our generation grew up in an environment where our parents could not spend much time with us. It is different now. We can spend time with our children and develop friendships. My daughters think I’m the coolest dad, and this is great,” he says as he walks away to prepare for his next engagement.

Xolela Mangcu on Jacob Zuma and what the future holds for the ANCXolela Mangcu has openly punted Tokyo Sexwale as his leader of choice for South Africa. However, he has made some interesting observations on Jacob Zuma.

“Zuma is not the ideal person to lead but he is the person that history presented us with. Would he make a better president? His personal life is a walking disaster but he is a brilliant political strategist. He understands politics, he understands how it operates. There have been leaders who have had problematic personal lives but who have changed the face of the 20th century.”

Mancgcu believes the tri-partite alliance will not last long under Zuma: “The problem with populist movements is their arrangement around an individual who becomes a symbol. When they come into power they typically fall apart. New divisions emerge. I believe the present fight between the two factions in the ANC is nowhere near what is to come. The latest indications are that there are now two factions in the Zuma camp — those who see Kgalema Motlanthe as president-in-waiting and those who are sticking with Zuma. Rifts could emerge along ideological lines.”

On Zuma’s survival in politics: “You must never underestimate Zuma’s capacity to survive. There is the Constitutional Court hearing in March which will be reviewing his case. This is where he argues that he could not possibly have a fair trial and that his rights have been violated.

“The court could still make a ruling in his favour as this is a matter that has been under scrutiny for the past five years and he could successfully argue that he has been prejudiced.

On the media and Zuma: “I think that the way we have written about Zuma has not always been fair. I’ve always said I do not want Zuma as a political leader, I have big differences with him. But I said his human and legal rights should not be violated. My colleagues have negated his rights. You can go to my columns and look at the language I’ve used, I’ve always tried to be fair.”

On the ANC in the 2009 elections: “The party will win but there is a big possibility that it will not win by a big margin. I am not saying that people will go on to vote for the opposition, but that people will stay away from the polls. No political party can take its people for granted.”

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