Marianne Thamm

Translating the president

2007-08-02 11:32

Marianne Thamm

Generally, I try to remain objective about President Thabo Mbeki.

A fair number of books offering a wide (but seldom deep) insight and understanding into the thinking and politics of the most influential man in the country and the continent are collected on my bookshelf.

I am awaiting writer Marc Gevisser's much anticipated biography of the Prez, due out any-moment-now and which I'm hoping will plumb depths and fill in gaps one else has managed to fathom.

I try not to assume anything about the President and hold back while I consider other angles or currents that may (or not) surround or influence a particular contentious issue.

There is much about the President and the presidency that never makes it to the public realm. Reasons for this are varied and complex. Some of it has to do with government's attitude to the media (excluding the SABC), which it generally regards with deep suspicion, if not outright contempt. It has to do with those who surround and represent him in public and it has also to do with the President's formal and pedantic public persona.

The president, everyone seems to agree, doesn't care about being popular, he prefers rather, that he be respected.

In a profile published in UK's the Guardian in 2004, writer Roy Carroll commented; "Whether addressing the ANC party faithful or captains of industry, there would be no jokes or effort to connect, no projection of personality."

Show some emotion

And it is this aspect of his character, while it might be admired and lauded in certain sections of the country's fractured intelligentsia, that does not serve to endear him to ordinary people.

Take for example his response this past week in his online newsletter to the Daily Dispatch investigation into the high number of maternal and stillborn deaths in the maternity ward of the Frere Hospital in the beleaguered Eastern Cape.

Shortly after the story had appeared, Deputy Minister of Health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, paid a surprise visit to the hospital, and after a walkabout, announced that the situation was a "national emergency".

Her acknowledgement of the human (never mind the political) cost of the situation at Frere and her commiseration with staff who work under difficult circumstances and with those who had suffered losses is the mark of good leadership.

"We really need to understand why people are dying. It warrants a rapid review [of the national health system]. We need to understand exactly what money is being spent on, [and] whether the limited resources are deployed efficiently," she is reported to have said. Simple, to the point, humane but also with a promise to examine more fully and to act if necessary.

The President's response to the issue in his newsletter of July 27 on the other hand was a dense and defensive tract on "truth and lies", "fact and fiction" all via a long, rambling riff on the miniskirt.

"Mini-skirts achieved their high point as an indispensable item of women's fashion and an iconic representation of the ethos of an age during the 1960s. Even at the height of the craze, when it was virtually a social offence not to show a considerable part of women's thighs, the statisticians remained loyal to their profession."

Mbeki continues, "They spread the notion, not difficult to understand even by the most discreet observer, that mini-skirts showed or suggested more than they revealed. Presumably to demonstrate that they said what they said as an objective fact, without fear or favour or prejudice, they said the product of their trade, statistics, was distinguished by the same inherent features as the mini-skirt.

"Thus they stated, with no sense of embarrassment whatsoever, that more often than not, the statistics they compiled and published, like the mini-skirt, showed or suggested more than they revealed."


Please pass the decoder.

Ultimately the President asks that "consumers of published statistics" use their brains to discover the fundamental truths, which these statistics could only suggest." For context and full version of his text go to although I can't promise that you'll be any the wiser.

A broader view

Now the point here is although the President's assertions that the "facts" show that the death rate at Frere might well fall within "the national average", he makes no effort to engage on a human level.

The Deputy Minister of Health's statements after her visit show a sense of connection and concern that is more often than not lacking when it comes to Presdent Thabo Mbeki and his trusted Minster of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Of course, no one was surprised when the Minister of Health returned from her one-day, announced fact finding mission to Frere only to dismiss some of the allegations in the Dispatch Report which took two months to investigate.

Mbeki's insistence on always focusing on the "minutiae" and the "detail", while this is important, prevents him from seeing the bigger human picture and responding in an empathetic manner.

There appears to be an unofficial government policy never to admit to failure or error.

Come 2009 and the cost of this policy will surely yield interesting political results.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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