Dear President Thabo Mbeki: Are you aloof?

2016-02-02 09:46

Let me attempt to answer for you the question that has left you painstakingly in a state of bother. This question has occupied you because you have finalized that all those that said Mbeki is ‘aloof’ meant it pejoratively. In your recent missive (which read with the first is beginning to sound like an extract from a longer piece) you say,

“Thus I have never been able to answer the question – from whom and what was I ‘aloof’?”

Frankly speaking this would be a question for your musing but its answers do not rest with you. It is those that have the view or perception of you having been (some saying you continue to be) aloof that should answer it. I do not believe, as you have claimed, that they never advanced ‘evidence’ or some form of reasons as to why they believed you are aloof. What is at play is that you reject the ‘evidence’ they presented to prove their point.

The first step perhaps would be for you to critically engage some of those pieces of ‘evidence’ that were presented to brand you as having been aloof. Before going too far, perhaps one must ask what synonyms our dictionaries associate ‘aloof’ with. Some are: distant, detached, unresponsive, remote, unapproachable, forbidding, stand-offish, formal, impersonal, stiff, austere, stuffy, withdrawn, reserved, unforthcoming, uncommunicative, indifferent; unfriendly, unsympathetic, unsociable, antisocial, cool, cold, chilly, frigid, frosty; haughty, supercilious, disdainful. This is not an exhaustive list.

Before getting to the gist of this letter, let me put it to you that you can never really correct perceptions. Lies you can challenge – by simply tabling the facts. Perceptions are a sum total of people interacting with facts from various attitudinal dispositions that are influenced by politics, encounters, rumours, facts, propaganda, ideologies, etc. When we challenge perceptions formed by others about who we are, we risk further appearing as being in denial, defensive and vengeful. The truth is; in a society that does not succumb to the exercise of herd mentality, a variety of perceptions about a single event or individual will be developed. This is a good thing.

You can never set the record straight on perceptions. Only on missing facts you can do this. The first mistake you commit believes that all people should see you through your own prism of understanding your own self. This is an impossibility to achieve. The second mistake believes that mere presence in meetings exemplifies not being aloof. In fact, the single shortcoming (which may be a reality of aloofness) is over emphasizing that people must observe how procedurally you were on point and therefore could not be faulted. Implementation of bureaucratic processes with little flexibility to abandon them when situations so determined can easily showcase being aloof.

One such moment advanced by some who charge that you were and remain aloof is that in the 52nd National Conference of the ANC in Polokwane, you failed to read the mood of the organisation. Some contend that you defied the mood of the occasion and went on to deliver a state of the nation address type of political report to the conference. Many felt you could have in the substance of your report been more political more within the challenges that were besetting the movement and how you thought they could have been extricated from the movement, without overburdening membership with what was happening in government. How do you reply to such a charge? You may find it unfair and as being a misreading of your report by some given that you posed a frank and important question: “…if we are divided, what divides us?” The answer to which was unpleasantly stated as ‘you are’ by some delegates.

One of the synonyms of aloof is ‘distant’. When you took over as president of the ANC in 1997 and subsequently as that of the country in 1999, you were occupied by the vision of the African Renaissance. This involved a lot of work across the borders of the African continent as you, with Obasanjo, Wade and others were making propositions to your fellow heads of state. These culminated into the re-launching of the OAU as the African Union and the founding of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). In this time you were also lobbying the world’s rich nations to fund and assist these bodies to find their feet.

Then people said you were too distant to your own country, appearing to be caring about the problems of others – given the heightened involvement of South Africa in the resolution of some conflicts in the continent during your tenure. Here perhaps the issue is not that the work you did was unnecessary, it is that you failed to take along the citizens you were leading for them to understand the relevance, need and importance of that work. Thus the charge, you were distant arose. How do you respond to such a charge? Retrospectively, the African Union is not even halfway to achieving its intended objectives, further making some believe you should have solely focused on South Africa’s internal affairs. Your reflection on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the AU spelled its failures succinctly and it is not for me to point them to you.

Another synonym for aloof is ‘unsympathetic’. There is a charge that you obsessed about an intellectual discussion around HIV and AIDS at a time the country needed sympathetic leadership that was seen to be doing all in its powers to advance treatment of the epidemic in society. Many failed to see the merits of your continuous engagement that began to attract negative perceptions about yourself and your government. My limited experience is that at a moment of tragedy (perceived or otherwise) people have very little tolerance for academic discussions. They view it as not only being unsympathetic but as being terribly inhumane. The duty of astute men and women is to know where, how and when to have the academic discussions whilst being equally responsive to society’s needs. Failure to achieve this balancing act could prove one as having been aloof.

Another synonym of being aloof is ‘unsociable’. It could be an unfair charge to deem you unsociable given some of the lovely photos (in the public domain) from your time in exile where you are seen jovially dancing as a young man. The song in one of the photos could easily have been ‘phatha phatha’. But there is a photo in the biography written by Mark Gevisser. You are in a traditional setting with Amazizi but you look socially awkward and clumsily dawning a beaded piece - intsimbi. A Mbeki in a more presentable traditional outfit could have been more sociable in that context.

The point I am making with all these incidents I raise is that different people will have different perceptions. Some of these perceptions will find currency in the media and others will not. Irrespective, you cannot set the record straight on perceptions. You can only challenge lies by presenting facts. You do a disservice to yourself once you embark on the journey of not only setting the record straight on perceptions but going a step further to suggest implicitly that people should not hold perceptions about you that are contrary to how you view yourself. This belief is impracticable.

You have not begun to give us any insight on your character beyond just detailing the procedures on how meetings ran in the ANC and what the seminal document I love ‘Through the eye of the needle’ said. You have not given insight as to how you failed as President (and chief custodian of that discussion document) to implement processes that would produce these leaders that would have gone through the eye of the needle. Polokwane happened under your watch, leaders who had gone through the gates of malfeasance emerged and they continue to wreak havoc in the spheres of government. Was the production of ‘Through the eye of the needle’ one of the bureaucratic outcomes of the ANC, yet with no attendant understanding on how it would be implemented in the gigantic organisation that the ANC is? If so, could that not have been a sign of aloofness? The ability to produce sound visions with an inability to implement them in an organisation you were leading?

If these Monday installments are a lead up to a book, then that book better carry some counter-arguments to the ‘evidence’ that some people tabled in saying you were aloof as president. If the book carries no such then it must be rewritten. The truth is that you want to set the record straight on perceptions. To even get close (to this impracticable ambition) there lies a great burden on you to convince us, not with simple routine procedures of how the ANC meetings functioned and Presidential Izimbizos and working groups happened. You need to be argumentative to a point where you can be convincing. Thus far that is missing.

Are you aloof to be dealing with perceptions you dislike about Mbeki at a time our country is visibly descending to junk state and diminishing hopes of a better future for all? That is not for you to answer but for members of society.

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