What’s eating Pallo?

2011-09-10 09:28

For two weeks I’ve been mulling over whether the almost physical attack by a significant political leader on an ordinary member of his own party at an open meeting in is “the public interest”.

Public interest being a rather pressing matter right now in the light of this week’s attempt by the ANC to have it excluded as a clause in the controversial Protection of Information Bill.

The incident happened at an Alex la Guma branch meeting in Cape Town that took place on August 23 at Idasa’s Spin Street offices.

The branch had invited members of the media, including myself, a journalist from a local daily and a representative of the Right to Know Campaign to discuss broadly “the ANC and the media” and more specifically the Protection of Information Bill and the ANC’s proposed Media Appeals Tribunal.

Dr Pallo Jordan, ANC MEC member and one of the leading intellectuals in the ruling party, was there to present its argument.

Jordan was last to speak and began by stating that while he was personally opposed to the idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal, some form of media accountability was required.

“We need to ask what exactly is in the public interest?”

A short way into his speech, while recounting the treatment of Diana Princess of Wales and other public figures in the United Kingdom by the tabloid press, an oldish man seated near the back of the room began murmuring.

At first Jordan paused, clearly irritated.

When the man continued, Jordan shouted for him to be removed. The man then tried to respond.“You, sit down I am speaking,” Jordan barked.

Organisers padded over to the man requesting him to refrain from commenting. Suddenly Jordan completely lost it. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of the room as he barrelled down on the individual from the podium.

Frantic organisers tried to prevent a scuffle and escorted the man from the venue.

Shocked ANC branch chair, Stuart Collins explained that the man “had been heavily beaten on Robben Island” but Jordan would hear none of it.Another member in the front row gently admonished Jordan for his outburst saying that as a leader he should have shown more restraint.

“No, you should not allow that. I should not have to get up here and throw someone out of the meeting myself. You should not allow that…Goddammit…It has nothing to do with tolerance it’s just got to do with decorum, that’s all.”

With a radically altered atmosphere in the room Jordan continued. At the end a few questions were asked but the mood remained subdued.

I sat there trying to fathom what had just happened and why?

What history or what current frustrations were playing themselves out in the room, all of it under the gaze of an airborne sculpture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu swinging from a chandelier.

I decided not to write about it. But as the week wore on I wrestled with the fact that Jordan is a highly influential public figure who is accountable for his behaviour, whatever had motivated it.

Then this week, a veteran of the branch who had been as shocked at Jordan’s eruption cornered me at the theatre and provocatively asked, “Why didn’t you write about it?”

“Is it in the public interest?” I asked.

“It was wrong. It was an open meeting. It was unacceptable,” was the veteran’s reply. Jordan’s curmudgeonly temperament is well known and indulged. But there was something deeply disturbing about his uncontained rage at a relatively minor infraction.

Surely he was aware that two journalists were witnessing it all?

Did he even care?

To me, his behaviour smacked of brittle intolerance and the fear in the air was tangible. It closed down all space for free dialogue.

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