Murder and mayhem in the firing of Madlala-Routledge

Thabo Mbeki’s firing of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge has been the biggest news in local politics since, well, Mbeki’s firing of Jacob Zuma.

In all the superficial and simplistic good-bad noise about the event, there’re a few important things that haven’t been said.

Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and Thabo Mbeki are about as close as two colleagues can be. They were in exile together, and in those paranoid days learnt to trust each other implicitly. Trust and loyalty are generally seen as positive human traits, and they’re often overlooked in politics, or at least in outsiders reading of a situation, where it’s the issues that are more prominent, and the personal relationships are not obvious.

They trust each other. Consider a highly trusted and respected friend. When this friend strongly dislikes another person, who you know much less well, it extremely difficult to choose the outsider over your friend, regardless of the issue.

Madlala-Routledge is clearly disliked by Tshabalala-Msimang, and, relatively speaking, is an outsider to Mbeki.

I’m not saying he made the right decision. It’s the wrong decision. But I’m saying that making the right decision in this context is extremely difficult for us as humans to do.

I remember making the same mistake once, making an arse of myself phoning and ranting at someone who I believed was mistreating someone I was close to, without giving this other person a chance to give their side at all. I may or may not have been right, but my response was based on personal loyalty, not on the issues at all.

A leader needs to be able to rise above this, but it’s difficult.

Besides personal friendship and loyalty, there’s the issue of being able to accept criticism. And here’s where Mbeki, and the party in general, are failing dismally. This lack of tolerance filters down, so that you even get doctors, of which there are a dire shortage, suspended for something as trivial as disagreement.

The best leaders are ones who surround themselves with people of differing opinions, and are able to learn from that diversity. Leaders who are able to listen to disagreement. Surrounding yourself by yes-men, is, unfortunately, all too-common, and is the comfortable way out. Again, it’s human, as we all like to be agreed with, but it doesn’t help us make the right decisions. Tshabalala-Msimang is a yes-(wo)man, who seems never to make any decision without the express support of Mbeki.

A classic example of a leader who surrounded himself with sycophants who dared not oppose him, and went horribly wrong, is Robert Mugabe. Thabo Mbeki is displaying similar tendencies. As I discuss below though, I’m not comparing them in any kind of crass SA is like Zimbabwe way, just pointing out a similariy.

The massively centralised structure of the ANC exacerbates this tendency, something that ordinary members of the party have recognised of recent in their attempts to reign in the president’s power. Our political system rewards loyalty to the president, not loyalty to the kind of entities we’d like it to reward, voters, the people, and so on. And this situation does Mbeki himself a disservice – his advisors are encouraged by the system, not only by Mbeki, to agree with him, rather than rock the boat

Mbeki is not stupid, someone who wants HIV-infected people to die, responsible for Chris Hani’s murder, or any of the other conspirational nonsense written about him. Angry ranting, as satisfying as it may be for the ranter and the listeners or readers, is not the best way of getting someone to listen, or change their mind. So Mbeki hearing this nonsense thinks, with good reason, that these voices have little to offer, or are enemies, and out to get him. Unfortunately this then cuts out another avenue to hear disparate views.

The press too paints itself into a corner. Instead of being a channel for disagreement, it sometimes seems like it’s involved in a hysterical slanging match. At times, Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang speak sense. Garlic and beetroot are wonderfully healthy plants. However, the mere mention of them has the press rushing to come up with a quack cartoon about Dr Beetroot. Poverty is important in the spread of HIV/Aids. It’s easy to see why the press can be regarded by Mbeki as an enemy, with its superficial coverage. The Sunday Times conveniently comes out the next day with a headline story about Tshabalala-Msimang being a drunk. No wonder they get ignored by government. Acknowledging truth, and then pointing out an area of difference, is a much better persuasive tactic than all-out attack.

Someone who rightly points out the mistake in firing Madlala-Routledge, but adds that Mbeki is being stupid or murderous, only allows themselves to be cast as anti-revolutionary, having a hidden agenda, and so on.

How can this be overcome? A wise leader can recognise these points, and try to make allowances. But that’s a heavy burden for one person, the system itself needs to support it.

In both the US and UK systems, the unpopularity of Bush and Blair, and the likelihood that this would negatively affect fellow-Republican and Labour member’s election chances, resulted in party members actively distancing themselves from their leaders, mainly due to pressure from their constituents. Hardly any Republican wanted to be seen with Bush after most Americans began to realise the extent of the debacle he’d caused. This kind of situation isn’t possible in South Africa. Besides the ANC being so dominant, a more important reason is that their is no accountability to local voters, only to the party.

A major advantage South Africa has over Zimbabwe though is that in South Africa the president can only govern for two terms. It’s hard to overestimate the negative impact that potentially unlimited leadership has. No matter how good the leader, being the boss for too long distorts everything. And being the boss surrounded by sycophants in a one-party dominant, massively centralised situation such as Zimbabwe is a recipe for disaster. Although the UK potentially also has the pitfall of unlimited leadership, it’s balanced by the likelihood of the other party taking power before too long, as well as by the constituent system, where one’s own members can turn against one.

Mbeki has in many ways lost power, as his term winds down. As Pieter Mulder put it (back in February even), Die gas is uit die bottel van die Mbeki era (the gas is out of the bottle of the Mbeki era).

It would be a huge setback for South Africa to have Mbeki continue indefinitely as leader of the ANC, even if he was no longer president.

Insightful commentary by other bloggers:

UPDATE 2007-08-16: See Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and the Breath of Fresh Air for a beautifully-written take on the issue.



  1. I am just hoping that the ANC will not change the constitution and allow a third term. Mbeki’s days are definitely over.
    SA needs a forward looking president and not one who looks sideways for the support of his cronies.

  2. Welcome back to the Internet. It’s a good post, but I disagree with it.

    If Mbeki is ‘taken wrong’ by the media, it’s his own fault: while I agree about beetroot and poverty, he was talking about these while thousands were dying. The country was right to be outraged.

    Mbeki doesn’t take criticism of any kind, he retreats into his denialist shell, and uses the race card, the ultra-Left card or the counter-revolutionary card to attack his critics.

    Should we, then, use quiet diplomacy on him, as you seem to suggest, try to win him round?

    The answer for me is no. The emperor has no clothes. He is a disaster for Southern Africa, and we should not be afraid to say so.

    I don’t want to understand him, I just want him to go – while realising that he is only the manifestation of a deeper problem, as you outline above: the fact that we don’t have a government that’s accountable to the people.

    As for loyalty, I’ve always seen it as a vice that stops people thinking. It sends people off to die for their countries without thinking through the issues.

    Even in the case of friendship, it often causes a kneejerk reaction where we automatically side with some one we care about, even if it’s not in their best interests.

    Sometimes our friends are wrong, and we should tell them before some one who doesn’t care for them does.

  3. I’m not so sure that defending or whitewashing Madlala-Routledge is justified – especially not if she did waste R160 000 of taxpayers money on an unauthorised trip. After all, Mbeki has every right to hire and fire people for these (or indeed, any) reasons.

    However, there’s no doubt that double standards appear to apply. Madlala-Routledge is fired without so much as an investigation, while Mbeki says he won’t even investigate reports about Tshabalala-Msimang’s behaviour without “evidence”. Uh, Mr President, the entire point of an investigation is to gather evidence. Once there’s evidence, then you prosecute, or institute disciplinary action.

    The culture of cronyism runs deep in the ANC. It’s really not that dissimilar from the old NP, in many ways.

  4. Walton, I hear you when you say ‘I don’t want to understand him, I just want him to go’, but without understanding and changing (and that’s the hard part) the systemic causes of the problem – I can’t help laughing that I’m writing this in a response to you 🙂 – the situation is likely to be repeated.

    Mugabe leaving now in Zim may provide some relief and fresh air, but he’s surrounded by equally scary people ready to jump in and replace him. 20 years of most of the Zanu-PF bigwigs would be as much a disaster.

    10 years of a someone else – a Mbeki-clone – is not going to get us far on its own.

    And as for ‘Even in the case of friendship, it often causes a kneejerk reaction where we automatically side with some one we care about, even if it’s not in their best interests.’, don’t I know it!

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