This year, perhaps because I like punishment, I spent considerable time poring over the 7 800 words of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation address. It was not reading it, however, that was punishing, rather its central message. The text itself is a good read, filled with quotes from Shakespeare, the poet Ingrid Jonker, and a liberal smattering of the prophet Isaiah. Mbeki is eloquent and his speeches are often interesting. But what I missed this time round was the challenge and the controversy. The core message was just a little too mainstream for my anarchic brain. Remember Mbeki’s comment in 1998 that South Africa consists of two nations, one white and rich, the other black and poor. Now that got the nation talking. His challenges about ongoing racism at the national conference on racism, in 2000, and at other times too, have had similar effects. Mbeki’s message these days, if his State of the Nation speech is anything to go by, is a lot blander. He seems to think, while acknowledging challenges like corruption and poverty, that South Africa is a nation of patriots shaking off the past and happily working together in partnership on board the slow gravy train to transformation. Using Mbeki’s own words, “yesterday was another country” and South Africa is entering an “age of hope”. He feels “the years of freedom have been very good for business” and business need not fear for its financial wellbeing, as long as it is helping grow the economy. In fact, the word ‘growth’ is used a whopping 19 times in his State of the Nation speech. Mbeki also spends much time in his speech thanking the world, its brother and its former roommates for their contribution to the new South Africa, from ‘Bollywood’ actor Anil Kapoor to the millions who have tried to make a go of things since 1994. The only ones to get a lambasting are Bafana Bafana, who are singled out because they “did nothing to advertise our strengths as a winning nation” in the African Cup of Nations. Again, hardly a controversial statement, since 99% of South Africans probably agree.
Where has Mbeki the controversial gone? Although some parties criticised Mbeki for skirting issues concerning Aids, crime and corruption, they all, from the SACP to Tony Leon, liked the focus on the economy.
This I find worrying rather than encouraging. Have Mbeki’s years of being beaten by the local and international press, if he vaguely challenges the wealthy, muzzled him, or is South Africa becoming a boring middle-of-the-road sort of place, where fiscal man-agement and interest rates are hot topics of discussion? If I can put this another way: if we substituted the words ‘Bafana Bafana’ for the England football team (who also have a knack for falling from footballing grace given half a chance), there is something decidedly Tony Blair about Mbeki’s speech.
The standard New Labour mantra works in a similar fashion: sycophantic praise for various people, excessive mention of public–private partnership and a barrage of statistics to drive home how good the ruling party has been for the country, the economy and, largely, the middle class.
That said, I do not doubt the achievements of the ANC government, given the social problems facing South Africa, and it is great that South Africa has a literate president, unlike some superpowers. But I think a good president challenges the population. Mbeki has excelled at this over the years. I know some of you reading this probably dislike him intensely for that but, as they say, you have to break eggs to make an omelette. If the president is not going to cause a hullabaloo from time to time, and particularly challenge the wealthy and the complacent, then who will?
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 February 2006.