An acquaintance recently broke up with the guy she’s been dating. The reason? He didn’t know that South Africa had a new president. Now, you could hardly blame the guy if he hadn’t heard of Kgalema Motlanthe before he was suddenly president. I mean, Motlanthe was the VP, but let’s face it, he was not exactly high-profile. (Which is not altogether a bad thing, considering that high-profile South African politicians tend to be in the news when they’re up on rape or corruption charges). But I see the girl’s point. You want to be able to have a conversation in public with your man, and know he’s not going to expose himself as utterly oblivious.
Still, I have to admit, I’m amongst the many that had never heard of our new president before he was, uh, our new president. So I asked one of my more plugged-in friends, who is this guy, where does he come from? And she sent me an article, appropriately titled “Who is Kgalema Motlanthe?”.
The article tells you a fair bit about Motlanthe. But it tells you far more about the state of South African political journalism.
It starts with about seven paragraphs of dry biographical detail, and an outline of Motlanthe’s history in the anti-apartheid struggle. We read about his surprise when he first met white people that washed their own dishes and did social work, and about the cameraderie he experienced during his years on Robben Island. In other words, this bit is code for – this guy was involved in the struggle. Fair enough, but isn’t his stance on, say, HIV and Aids more relevant? Only about sixteen (yes SIXTEEN) paragraphs later (and how many people read past the first two, I have to wonder?) we start to encounter a few shreds of Motlanthe’s peculiar vision.
For example, he expresses admiration for a book on the Broederbond, entitled Super Afrikaners. He is quoted as saying:
one can’t help but admire their determination because they were exactly more or less in the same situation that we find ourselves in today…” [They knew] “what political power means, and how it must be utilised to advance the cause of the Afrikaner. They were very meticulous, they understood that they were now in power and that these levers of power must be utilised to advance their cause.
A somewhat disturbing view, I think, for someone now in the driver’s seat of our country. Nearly as disturbing as this (also from the same article):
In early May 1998 Motlanthe told the Sunday Times that the ANC wanted to review the constitutionally protected independence of various institutions – if it won a two-thirds majority in the 1999 election – so that it could govern “unfettered by constraints”. This initiative stemmed, apparently, from growing frustration within the ANC that “it has been unable to grasp the key levers of power.”
Among the institutions the ANC wanted to review, the article stated, “are the Judicial Service Commission, which advises the President on the appointment of judges, the auditor general, the attorney general and the Reserve Bank.” Motlanthe was quoted as saying, “you need people in these positions who buy into the value of the new nation.”
These are not the noises of someone committed to the cause of a free and healthy democracy. They are also not the noises of someone committed to safeguarding against the dangers of corruption and eventual dictatorship that have threatened other African democracies. But what does the journalist do next? Scratch at the surface of these worrying quotes? No, he goes onto … more biographical detail.
Several paragraphs further on, we learn that Motlanthe is firmly in Mbeki’s AIDS-denialist boat, and also explicitly supported, until only a few years ago, Zanu-PF’s reign in Zimbabwe:
In an interview with O’Malley in September 2004 he stated that in “our analysis” the MDC was in essence “not a political party, it was a protest vote.” He criticised the EU and the British whose interest, he said, “was to exert pressure so that they can see a regime change” in Zimbabwe. The ANC’s fear, he continued, was that if the West was allowed to get away with this across the Limpopo, very soon they would be trying the same thing in South Africa.
In a country where you have to agree with the reigning leader in order to avoid being stamped as a traitor, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Motlanthe has backed up Mbeki’s peculiar views up til now. Certainly, in the South African press, whenever someone expresses a view at odds with the party line, they get squeals of racism in protest. But I find it annoyingly difficult to learn anything about South African politicians and their views when our journalists present them in such insistently fuzzy light. Is it just incompetence? Or is there a fear at play: do South African journalists (or, for that matter, politicians) enjoy the freedom to comment critically on our political leaders? It does not inspire much confidence.