Diary Of A Bad Year: President Mbeki’s Letters to the Nation
by Imraan Coovadia
Thabo Mbeki’s 2007 letters in ANC Today begin on 26 January with a meditation on “the critical matter of ‘bucket toilets’ and the related restoration of the dignity of the African masses, at home, on the African Continent, and the African Diaspora”. They end, on 16 November, with an extended bilingual pun on the word canard that the President seems to have invented. In English, it means misrepresentation, in French, duck or newspaper, thus the satirical weekly, Le Canard enchaîné (“the chained duck”).
Facing removal from office at the Polokwane conference, President Mbeki criticises “the pernicious tendency in our country of the falsification of reality to advance the particular agendas of forces that are opposed to our movement and the national democratic revolution. I argued that we faced a permanent task to chain the canards.” Mbeki identifies a number of “the canards we must chain, by speaking truth to falsehood, in defence of our freedom and democracy, and leave the ducks to walk freely.”
The stamp of Mbeki’s style, as a writer and a politician, is here: the more direct the problem he encounters the more abstract, allusive and indirect his language and the more indeterminate his intention. This process of circumlocution occurs primarily at the level of the sentence. At the end of 2007, for example, he is again denying what is in plain sight. The strain shows up in the multiple and indeterminate articulations of the individual sentence:
“The perverse outcome to which I refer consists in the interpretation of any reassertion of the most fundamental values, policies and programmes of the ANC as amounting to an attempt to thwart the presidential ambitions of our Deputy President, Jacob Zuma.”
Mbeki quotes himself but then he quotes promiscuously in his letters from Pixley kaSeme, Albert Luthuli, Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, ‘Day-O’ (the Jamaican banana boat song), the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the NEPAD constitution, the dissertation of Jean-Bertrand Aristide submitted to the University of South Africa (UNISA) during the Haitian leader’s exile in South Africa, the UK Independent, Shelley’s antimonarchist poem, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, and the University of Cape Town (UCT) academic Melissa Steyn’s study of whiteness.
Mbeki’s practice of quotation seems to have two principal objectives. First, when quoting supporting material, he seeks to veil the directness of his own objectives and reasoning, even – and perhaps especially – when he cites his own speeches and observations; it is as if the President cannot present himself as the source of action. Thus the rhetorical question is a highly favoured mode of assertion in the letters. Second, when handling severe criticism, Mbeki seems to be trying to dislodge it from his mind by reproducing and deconstructing it.
In staging a monologue with his critics Mbeki, or his editor, falls rapidly into sarcasm but more often into a kind of pofaced defence. When Mondli Makhanya worries about the effect of Mbeki’s letters on the public, ANC Today reassures us that “absolutely nothing I have received in the feedback from the thousands of our readers, at home, in Africa and the rest of the world, over many years, has suggested, in any way whatsoever, that these readers have responded to the Letters from the President with disbelief, mirth, embarrassment or grave concern”. However, he pretends to concede, “I must accept that Makhanya, editor of the Sunday Times, may very well have better access to the honest views of the readers of ANC Today than the editor of this journal has.”
But there is no irony or self-consciousness in the letters. It wouldn’t be accurate to accuse Mbeki of having a one-track mind. If anything, his interests are as promiscuous as, if more predictable than, his quotations, ranging from poverty to colonialism to Vietcong memoir to the bucket toilet and the genesis of Picasso’s art (eventually “disconnected from its African inspiration, enabling Picasso’s European creativity to claim complete European inspirational domicile by denying its organic connection to the myriad of things that expressed indigenous African creativity as art”.)
Yet in each of his sallies, Mbeki’s blurring at the level of the sentence imposes a choice on the reader. One either stops following him altogether, or scans for coherent and recognisable phrases, or approaches his writing as a kind of intellectual free association. In this sense Mbeki’s letters perform the task of a certain kind of revolutionary practice, polarising the public, and attaching one section of it to leader, party and doctrine. But revolutionary practice is unusual and disconcerting in effect when it issues from the head of an elected government.
If one is to assess Mbeki as a writer, it is his inability to retract or revise an image which demands scrutiny. The ‘canard’ pun, stretching across the month of November 2007 when Mbeki’s political power is vanishing around him, shows a delight, otherwise carefully concealed, in his invention. His discourse of 27 July, a meditation on the need to look behind appearances, centres on an extended metaphor of the mini-skirt:
“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. 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.”
Mbeki urges mental labour on his readers in a characteristically oblique imperative: thus “one had to use one’s head to visualise what lay beyond the hem of the mini-skirt to arrive at the reality suggested by the mini-skirt. Thus they urged that consumers of published statistics had to use their brains to discover the fundamental truths, which these statistics could only suggest.” On other occasions, such as 11 May, the imperative comes in the form of a question and an echo of the Bible: “What impulse will compel all of us to listen to the words – he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
In this last instance the president might remind us of a preacher attempting to bring his audience into spiritual alignment. At other times, in a more familiar mode, he presents himself as a loyal son of the revolution. So, “as we grew up in our own liberation movement and struggle, we accepted at least two of Vietnam’s outstanding leaders, the late president Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho), and General Giap, as our own leaders.” The indirect recommendation to his audience is to accept Mbeki in the same spirit of familial and revolutionary reverence. The President’s other principal deficiency as a writer is his inattention to the subtleties of tone, register, and diction. The policy decision “to end the bucket system” is framed “in philosophical terms”, which “must take into account both the complex of observable contemporary human relations, and respect the functioning of the human mind”.
Mbeki can’t align his natural feelings with a natural style although he attempts to do so by quotation – on 23 March: “lest everything I have said comes across as but an inanimate representation of some of the pain which women, not men, have to bear, a cold and general summation denuded of the throb of personal pain intensely felt, I summon the words of another woman African American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.”
One can’t always look through a style to a psychology but here, in these 2007 letters, I am tempted to say, is a perfect match of unnatural style and unnatural feeling.
By 2007, having had a more vigorous plan for the HIV epidemic forced on it by party elders, the Mbeki administration was understandably keen to see the charge of denialism retired, but not so keen as to prevent the President continuing to try winning the argument. The New Age healer in Mbeki returned on 31 August, stung by the absence of public sympathy for his ailing Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Mbeki complained about the media misrepresenting the “arguments of our Minister of Health about the known nutritional (and micro-nutrient) value of olive oil, lemon, beetroot, garlic, and other foods, as well as the efficacy of traditional medicinal prescriptions based on herbs and other natural plants, as an argument against the use of modern drugs and medicines, including antiretrovirals (ARVs)”. Despite the “ugly and inhumane direction” of sentiments expressed in the newspapers, he wrote, Tshabalala-Msimang was restored “to full health and [enabled] to resume her place in the frontline of the noble struggle to build ours into a caring and people-centred society”.
Imraan Coovadia‘s review was first printed in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).
Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.Buy the Chronic