Sunday, November 9, 2008

South Africa needs some loving

I admit I feel sorry for former President Thabo Mbeki. I know there are many out there who think he got what he deserved, but his summary dismissal smacked of retribution rather than mature democracy in action.

As I sat thousands of miles away listening to the news on internet radio one image came to mind: a ship of revenge-filled and rum-laden pirates forcing their former captain to walk the plank to jeers and applause.

This is not to say I am a die-hard Mbeki fan. As regular readers of this column will know I have criticised him on several matters. Then again I doubt I will be asking Jacob Zuma over for a cup of tea soon either. The way scandal follows him worries me, as well as his polarising politics.

Since when did South Africa start embracing the "you are either with us or against us" mentality of George Bush? These days it appears as if any remarks about the presidential brawl results in one being placed in the Mbeki or Zuma camp. How did South Africa come to this?

At the risk of reducing complex political shenanigans to the absurd, I see the furore, at least in part, as being linked to the politics of emotion.

It is a well-known story that when Thabo Mbeki met his father, the political stalwart and Robben-islander Govan Mbeki, after not seeing him for 28 years, the pair first shook hands and then briefly hugged calling each other comrades. When Govan was asked about what it was like to see Thabo he said: "Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade".

At the risk of psychoanalysing the Mbekis, and notwithstanding decades of hardship, exile and harassment from the apartheid police that saw Thabo Mbeki's son and brother disappear, this incident speaks volumes. Mbeki was not a man prone to sentimentality and emotion, and this came through in his presidency.

On one level, he failed to deliver sufficient material progress, which was inevitable given the apartheid backlog. However, I also believe he did not demonstrate enough understanding and empathy. His continual denialism - whether about HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe, crime, or the importance of reparations to TRC victims - painted the populace as unable to deal with difficult problems, thus disempowering them. He seemed to feel that he could think his way out the problems rather than lead his way through them with the people.

I believe that his pragmatic and enigmatic persona, whether his true self or not, was an anathema to the South African psyche. We are an emotional people. This is captured in the Toyi-toyi dance used at celebrations and funerals. Emotions and politics are integrally linked, embodied in all the cuddly stereotypes projected on to President Mandela. Against this backdrop it was inevitable that at some point the emotional void created by Mbeki at the top of the political ladder would become unbearable. The result was mutiny.

But now what?

Emotionally speaking, Jacob Zuma is a much better fit for South Africa. He is said to be an amiable, charming and compassionate person. But the court cases and his ruthless ability to dispose of political opponents is hardly appealing making him a difficult person to warm to politically. I think he is, at best, a quick fix, emotionally speaking.

The new South African President, Kgalema Motlanthe, is said to be smart, likeable and exudes a quiet charisma. However, he has risen to power in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

So the emotional vacuum created by Mbeki is still gaping, filled momentarily by a cathartic rage and some bloodletting, and an affable caretaker President. But I fear that more needs to be done for a nation that is, at least at the leadership level, in desperate need of a damned good hug.

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, October 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 October 2008