Thabo Mbeki, the ANC and the ... intoxication of power

2007-11-17 00:00

“I remember, as a young boy living in Vienna, reading a book called The Mind of Adolf Hitler. I had a strange interest in the man,” says Feinstein.

We are talking about integrity and where it comes from, and Feinstein, a trained clinical psychologist, is talking about a new theory that says integrity is inherent.

“According to this theory, some people cannot help themselves. It is just the way they are. They just have integrity. The other view is that integrity has something to do with the environment in which you grow up - what you see and hear - and how you respond to it. In my case, I believe that I was affected, more than anything, by hearing about the experiences of my mother, who was one of a handful of Jews who survived the Holocaust.”

Feinstein continues: “There is a great deal of literature about the children of Holocaust survivors. Some are deeply traumatised. A number of clinical psychologists say that the post-traumatic stress of the experience often transfers to their offspring. There is often a manifestation of depression in the children of survivors. All I know is that from a very young age, I learnt from my mother that, as Jews, we must always be sensitive to the suffering of others.”

The former Wynberg Boys' High School head boy recalls having a “bizarre” sense of ethics and service. “Even as head boy, I remember saying to my fellow prefects that it's not about catching someone smoking behind the shed and sending him to get caned. At the end of the day, it's about whether you feel you have done the right thing.”

We are meeting to discuss Feinstein's acclaimed book After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC, which, among other things, spills the dirt on the South African government's multi-billion rand arms deal.

When we meet, the publishers have run out of copies of the book and are arranging for a second print run. Feinstein - hailed by some for the book, but cold-shouldered by many of his former comrades - is “absolutely sick” of talking about the arms deal and, in fact, can't wait to go home to London.

Home for him these days is a little house in Primrose Hill in north-west London, a five-minute drive from the West End, where he lives with his Muslim Bangladeshi wife, Simone, and their two “Juslim” - or half Jewish, half Muslim - children, Misha and Maya.

“As more and more people read the book, I am looking more and more forward to leaving,” he says. “I took part in a debate with Mo Shaik the other day - a man I once really enjoyed - and he was trying to use me to identify legal issues to exonerate his brother [Schabir]. He was very aggressive and kept shouting at me, and saying that the prosecution of his brother was not fair. But, just as the country has to face up to what has happened, for us to move forward, unfortunately, in that family, so does Mo.”

Although he has been feted by the media and opposition parties, Feinstein finds it strange the way the ANC has ignored the book. “[ANC spokesman] Smuts Ngonyama said he could not afford to buy the book, which, given all his empowerment deals, I find surprising,” he quips.

Feinstein was an ANC MP for more than seven years before resigning in protest at the way the party handled the arms deal. In the book, he has strongly condemned the deal and the corruption that characterised it. He has also slammed the years of Mbeki's presidency, during which the government prevaricated in dealing with HIV/Aids due to Mbeki's denialism.

He has made no bones about airing his conviction at every opportunity during his stay in South Africa, that Mbeki's presidency has tragically changed the values of the ANC and that it is time that he and his former deputy Jacob Zuma step aside for leaders who represent the original ideals of the organisation. He has cited Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Kgalema Motlanthe as individuals with whom he has worked closely and who he believes could lead a regeneration, both within the ANC and in the country's politics.

Feinstein refers regularly to a book called The Hubris Syndrome by David Owen, which, using the actions of George Bush and Tony Blair during the war on Iraq, tries to identify a medical syndrome that is a consequence of the intoxication of power.

The book discusses how this “intoxication of power” lead to decisions being made by Bush and Blair that made no logical sense. The author lists a number of telltale signs of this syndrome.

The book had a profound effect on Feinstein, who is convinced that Mbeki too suffers from the Hubris Syndrome. People with this syndrome, says Owen, identify themselves with the state, to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical. They tend to speak of themselves in the third person. They have an exaggerated self-belief, which borders on a sense of omnipotence in what they can achieve. They believe that, rather than being accountable to mundane public opinion, the real court they answer to is much higher - history or God. They have a loss of contact with reality, which is often associated with progressive isolation.

Owen contends that out of these characteristics arises a consequent incompetence in carrying out policies, which could be called hubristic incompetence. Feinstein is convinced that Mbeki suffers from this same syndrome.

“Look at the way he has handled Aids,” he says. “And look at how he refuses to accept a range of incontrovertible facts about the arms deal. Schabir Shaik has been convicted of fraud, but still Mbeki and his ministers refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with the arms deal. Are the courts wrong?

“The other area the syndrome manifests is in Mbeki's inability to countenance dissent or criticism. I have never heard Thabo Mbeki admit that he is wrong. Then there is this notion that only he can lead the ANC to what he sees, I suppose, as the New Jerusalem. He has a similar view, which is more implicit, that only he can lead the renaissance of Africa. Unfortunately, he is doing neither.”

Feinstein contends that what South Africa needs, in terms of political leadership, are people steeped in the historic values and traditions of the ANC, who are committed to open, transparent, participative and accountable government - “which is everything we don't have at the moment” - and who, with fervour, will restore the country to the sort of moral high ground it occupied for a few years.

“Public service should be seen as that and not as a way to make money. Wrongdoing should be dealt with regardless of who the wrongdoer is or who he or she happens to be politically loyal to. The institutions of democracy should be respected.

“And I think we need something of a political and moral regeneration,” says Feinstein. “I find it absolutely extraordinary that the political advisor to the president, paid from the public purse, has time to engage in a massive takeover attempt of some of the most important media in the country. Firstly, he should not have the time. Secondly, it is such an obvious conflict of interest that I cannot believe it is even being contemplated, let alone allowed.”

After leaving SA for the UK in 2001, Feinstein worked as a banker for five years before becoming a full-time writer eight months ago. He has been commissioned to write a book on the global arms trade and how it undermines democracy in the countries who both buy and sell the arms.

When he is not writing, Feinstein enjoys life in London, which he loves for its diversity. “It is a city in which 340 languages are spoken. While, initially, we left SA because we needed time out from here, now we are there because we want to be there.” His children go to Anglican schools and his daughter is at school with Kate Moss's daughter and Jude Law's son.

He is passionate about parenting - “the most exhilirating and exhausting thing I have ever done” - and is determined that his two children will be exposed to “as much as possible” so that they can make big decisions on their own.

“The only thing we can do is give them a set of values and the information to make their own choices when they are older.”

No matter where he is, he will always be an activist for the issues close to his heart. One such issue is the HIV/Aids tragedy - and he is one of the people who started the Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign (Fotac) in London.

Another area in which he considers himself an activist is the issue of diversity. “A world view I have, which I describe as cosmopolitanism, is that we should not just accept differences, but that we should embrace our differences.”

His third area of activism is the arms industry and its corrupting effects. “There are certain industries that have such an insidiously negative impact on the world we live in and on the quality of our democracy and I think they should be far more regulated. I believe there should be a more rigorous global regulation of arms, gambling, natural resources and the tobacco and alcohol industries.

“In the case of the arms industry, there should be some sort of global corruption watchdog. If companies are shown to have bribed officials, they should no longer be allowed to conduct business. If political parties have operated in corrupt ways, they should be de-registered as political parties. I believe that every single cent of donations to political parties should be public knowledge. I find it indescribably odd that parties can describe themselves as servants of the people - but that they don't let people know what their source of funding is. The only way to deal with that is to make it completely transparent.”

Asked what he feels should be done about the arms deal, Feinstein says: “The government should appoint an independent judicial inquiry, which is able to conduct a completely unfettered inquiry with no political or other pressures brought to bear on it.

“It should be able to work freely and openly with all the international investigations into the arms deal and it should set out, once and for all, exactly what happened in that deal. It should identify - whether they are alive or not - everyone who was involved in corruption in the deal - and exactly who was involved in covering it up.

“This should be done so that we can learn lessons from this, so that those who benefited inappropriately can suffer the legal consequences of that and so that we can move on.

“A thorough examination of the deal, as well as an examination of how we got into this mess on HIV and Aids, would be a very good place to start, for some sort of moral regeneration.”

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