Once upon a time, I was prepared to give Thabo Mbeki the benefit of the doubt. He was a clearly intelligent man with noble aims to revive Africa and extract the dark continent from the dismissive rhetoric of western, post-colonial discourse. Admittedly, he did this by evoking the quinesstentially European concept of ‘renaissance’ and his speeches were somewhat academic, but the big lug had his heart in the right place.
In the last few years, however, our urbane president has gone bonkers. Whether it’s about HIV/AIDS, crime, Mugabe, Zuma, or Manto, he has become an arch-denialist of the worst order. His knee-jerk rejections of every crisis and challenge facing the country have made him into a global laughing-stock. What’s more damaging, it’s made him irrelevant – just another tinpot loony, mouthing insufferable nonsense that tragically undermines the relevant points he occasionally brings up.
I think the reason for Mbeki’s absolute refusal to sully himself with reality stems from a stubborn determination to save face. This social concept is prevalent in Eastern cultures, such as China and Japan, where the appearance of respectability is more important than the truth.
According to the mighty Wikipedia, ‘face’ in this sense can be divided into two aspects: Lian is about moral character, and mianzi is about prestige. It is considered inappropriate for one person to malign another, either in respect of lian or mianzi. Interestingly, moral character and prestige are considered two distinct attributes, and one’s morals can be called into question without it affecting their prestige. Furthermore, in the Chinese culture, it is considered acceptable to tell lies in order to protect your ‘face’. What a bonus!
That’s why I think Mbeki’s turning Japanese, just in like the words of The Vapours’ song. He is so obsessed with people’s perceptions about his lian and mianzi, that he has become two-faced. He will literally do and say anything to protect the values he is trying to cultivate. Unfortunately, all this has exactly the opposite effect. It’s kinda sad, like the biblical David refusing to acknowledge that there’s a bloody great giant standing in front of him.
So, criticise him and you implicitly criticise everything he stands for. Criticise his cronies, and you criticise him. It’s a vicious circle of denial that is only going to come around and bite him in the ass. But Thabo is sticking to his misguided guns and refuses to budge from the old political axiom, ‘first, deny everything’.
Oh well, at least he is consistent. And he’s also in good company. George W. Bush, Gordon Brown and several other world leaders are all guilty of denying things that are blatantly obvious to everyone else. ‘Mission Accomplished’, George? I don’t think so.
All that remains is to ask: is the sky blue, Thabo? Is the grass green? Is your legacy in tatters? Is Mugabe a despicable goon with sociopathic tendencies? You’d better believe it, buddy, and no amount of denial is going to change that. IMHO.
[Originally posted 07/06/2008]