Niren Tolsi’s report about President Thabo Mbeki’s recent KwaZulu-Natal imbizo (Mbeki’s day out, October 12) reminds one of Chinua Achebe’s 1977 comment on Marco Polo’s 13th-century forays to the Far East: “Travellers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves.”
Achebe was lamenting the “extraordinary omissions” in Polo’s book, ‘Description of the World’, giving the author’s impressions of the people, places and customs he saw during his travels.
Tolsi’s account of the imbizo seems to be in line with the apparent preoccupation of some who package facts in accordance with their preconceived perceptions of Mbeki. Readers learn less about the purported subject matter than about the views and agenda of the writer.
What else could one make of Tolsi’s remark that “at a time when there is more chance of being abused by one’s own party members than by the opposition, the cordon of police officers tramping through Beauty Mdlolo’s sodden front yard seems inappropriately excessive”?
Or this one, which evidently contradicts Tolsi’s apparent objection to the president’s security: “Yet, despite the proliferation of IFP banners, there is an ambivalent attitude towards Mbeki’s visit.”
Or this patent fabrication: that the imbizo was an occasion for Mbeki to “garner unconsolidated votes during the ANC’s branch nomination process in the build-up to its December conference”.
Those who follow politics would know that the ANC conference nomination process began on the very weekend of the imbizo. The president did not visit an ANC branch, which is the only place he could “garner votes”.
Yet another falsehood is apparent in Tolsi’s suggestion that the izimbizo have assumed the nature of a “whirlwind,” and that “Mbeki’s intractability render[s] them little more than photo opportunities”. Needless to say, he provides no backing for these claims.
In many countries, people interact with their leaders mainly during election periods. In contrast, South Africa’s izimbizo provide a forum for popular participation. Each year, more than a thousand such events take place at local, provincial or national level. And as a result, all of government learns about imperfections in policy and its implementation.
Surely the izimbizo — for which the African Peer Review Mechanism rightly praised the government — deserve a better, genuinely critical appraisal than such crude treatment.
They are not perfect, but dismissing them as a mere “whirlwind” says more about the writer than his subject. Tolsi’s invective about the president’s supposed “intractability” (a president who is also said to have been [once] “convivial”) is little short of vulgarity parading as intelligent analysis. The argument becomes farcical when one considers the logic of intractable whirlwinds that end merely in photo opportunities.
Tolsi takes us further away from understanding what really happened at the imbizo when he writes: “Voices are heard, challenges are raised, yet only the blind are oblivious to the looming spectre of the ANC succession battle and what the DA called last week a ‘constitutional crisis’ sparked by Mbeki’s suspension of National Prosecuting Authority head Vusi Pikoli.”
In fact, no one at the imbizo raised ANC leadership issues or Pikoli’s suspension. People came in their thousands; they spoke of lack of water, roads, access to land, social grants, jobs and so on. Fellow-traveller Tolsi must have closed his eyes and his ears, as well as his mind!
Surely we can agree to respect the truth. Tolsi would have to manufacture more falsehoods to blind the memories of all of us who were present at the imbizo to convince us that reporters other than those from the SABC were “denied access,” or that access was made as “difficult as possible”.
Mukoni Ratshitanga is President Thabo Mbeki’s spokesperson
(This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian edition of October 22, 2007)