Isolated by gatekeepers

2008-03-14 00:00

I read a piece a few days ago in which the author wrote: “President Thabo Mbeki has withdrawn even further from the common gaze than normal, and like Shakespeare's Coriolanus he has chosen to play out the last act of his presidential drama in an attitude of haughty disdain.”

This comment is unfair. I have never known Mbeki to be either haughty or withdrawn and definitely not disdainful. In the few one-on-one meetings I have had with him or with him as part of a small group, he has been nothing but engaging, warm, caring, friendly and fully involved in whatever was being discussed. Politically wounded he may be, but haughty, disdainful and withdrawn — that is a load of codswollap and written by someone who obviously does not know him.

However, there have been problems, some of them self-inflicted, which have contributed to his political downfall. And, in part, they relate to the acts of those who were appointed as his closest advisors or gatekeepers. It is my impression that few ideas, comments or people can get to our president without them first being vetted by one or more of this small coterie. I doubt that many well-meant letters written to the president personally even reach his desk. My impression is that his gatekeepers screen all who wish to get in touch with the president. Personally aloof he is not, rather he has become dangerously overprotected from interaction with outsiders. He is a victim of self-inflicted isolation. This is why I am writing this public article and not addressing a personal note to the president which would probably never get to him.

Mbeki will not be our president after the next general election, which is due any time from March or April next year. In this intervening period many of his erstwhile allies will desert him. The Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula, has already publicly announced the dissolution of the Scorpions, thus ingratiating himself with the new ruling elite in Luthuli House.

I would like to put two thoughts to Mbeki which will almost certainly reach him through your columns, if not in a personal letter.

As a past parliamentarian of some 25 years’ service, I value the essential independence of the legislature from the executive and, in particular, I value and support the independence and impartiality of the Speaker of the National Assembly whose task it is to be the arbiter and protector of all members, regardless of their political affiliation. Baleka Mbete has played this role well and I have heard little criticism of her in the implementation of her duties.

Things have changed though. She is now the national chairperson of the ANC and, even more significantly, the chairperson of the Luthuli House-appointed Political Committee in Parliament. This committee governs much that happens in Parliament. It plans the ANC’s strategy in all the important debates, appoints the ANC speakers and sets the line they are to take, and instructs the ANC whips to determine the times allocated to opposition parties. It appoints the ANC chairs of portfolio committees and the ANC members of each committee. It sets the agenda for Parliament and its instructions are carried out by the ANC whips. Not even ANC caucus members have any say in the appointment of members of this committee.

The Speaker should not be the chairperson or even a member of this highly political committee. For her to continue in this position is to open the office of the Speaker to damaging accusations of conflict of interest as the Political Committee is dedicated to promoting the exclusive interests of the ANC. The Speaker’s task is to be above party politics and totally impartial.

Mbeki should offer Mbete a place in his Cabinet so she can perform her political duties without tainting the office of the Speaker.

The second thought relates to the transition from the Mbeki administration to a new government. This change-over should occur as painlessly as possible. Joint committees of the old and the new should be set up and get to work. Although both sides belong to the same party, what happened at Polokwane was little short of a coup d’état and the new men and women must be brought up to speed before they occupy the comfortable sofas of Tuynhuys. Because Jacob Zuma’s future is uncertain it is vital that at least one of his key allies join the Cabinet. Kgalema Motlanthe is the obvious choice. This will assist in a smooth transference of power, which South Africa sorely needs.

The gatekeepers won’t like this, but ignore them, they have caused enough damage already.

• David Dalling is a former member of Parliament and parliamentary whip. E-mail:

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