Old habits die hard – Ray Hartley and the demonisation of the Mbeki Presidency.
On Monday this week, former President Thabo Mbeki released the first of a series of articles intended to correct distortions about the period when he served as President of the ANC and the Republic.
As was expected, this article, which discussed the former President’s alleged paranoia, has generated much discussion and debate across the country.
One such contribution has come from a familiar place, the desk of former Sunday Times editor, Ray Hartley.
In an online article headlined: “Sorry, Mr Mbeki, but I just don’t buy your story,” Hartley regurgitates the claim of paranoia on the part of the former President and disputes that the latter reprimanded late Safety and Security Minister, Steve Tshwete, for publicly naming Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa as subjects of a police investigation for an alleged plot to topple the President 15 years ago.
Hartley relies on selective quotation and misrepresentation of the facts, an age-old trick in the book of bad journalism, to substantiate his claim that in Mbeki, South Africans had a paranoid President.
He writes: “In a separate interview, Mbeki said: “Some people want to be president of South Africa. That’s fine. The matter that’s arising is the manner in which people pursue their ambitions.” He went on: “It’s a conspiratorial thing. I know you have business people who say we will set up a fund to promote our particular candidate and we will then try to influence particular journalists.”
Hartley adds: “The public were suddenly exposed to the extent of the paranoia which had gripped the Mbeki presidency.”
The interview he is referring to took place on 24 April 2001 and was conducted by E-TV journalists, San Reddy and Deborah Patta.
Here is the full transcript of the part of the interview in which the alleged plot to topple the President is discussed:
“Deborah Patta: But right now there is talk and we read of plots to oust you. How safe are you, given that police are investigating a plot to oust you?
“President Mbeki: No, it is not a problem. I think that what you are seeing is that people have got natural ambitions. Some people want to be Presidents of South Africa.That is fine. The matter that is arising is the manner in which the people pursue their missions.
“Deborah Patta: Is it getting dirty?
“President Mbeki: That is part of the problem. That the mannerin which some people do this is part of the problem. For example, here is Deborah Patta, who is a good broadcaster. We want her removed so that I can take her place. Therefore, I am going to spread particular stories, that her feet are smelly, she wears oversized blouses and so on, to create an impression about her so that she is removed. But, if you want to enter into open competition with Deborah Patta so that she is removed from this position because I am better, then that is fine. It is that kind of thing; so you get all sorts of crazy things.
“Deborah Patta: But how will you deal with this dissent if there is a serious presidential challenge to your leadership?
“President Mbeki: There is no problem. The ANC structures can deal with that and let it all be done. We discussed the matter, and indeed the National Executive Committee said, “We need to create a space so that all competitors are able to compete openly.” That is fine. It is the conspiratorial thing. I mean I know you have business people who set up a fund to promote a particular candidate, who will then try to influence particular journalists to present an image.
We all talk about transparency, and openness and all that, Glasnost, as Russians said during Gorbachov’s time. It is stated in principle, but in practice people do not want to come up. What I have said to everybody in the ANC and in the government is that the best way to deal with matters of contention, including matters of contention about leadership, is to say, let us surface all of this, and let’s have an open debate about anything, including the presidency.
Because once you start a conspiratorial thing, you are implanting a destructive process, because whoever might feel threatened, may then themselves enter into a conspiratorial underground thing, and you get all sorts of manoeuvring. Let us have open debates in front of the South African public and let the South African public judge. That is what I have been saying. I am very keen. If there is any talk of plotting, that those who have information must come out openly, publicly, and say this is what we know about the plotting, this is who is involved and so on. It is better.”
What is clear from the foregoing transcript is that President Mbeki was addressing both the specific incident of the police investigation of Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa and the principle that leadership and other matters must be dealt with honestly and openly rather than through underhand methods.
But Hartley is not going to permit the facts to interfere with a false image he and his fellow travellers have cultivated for nearly two decades. This is why he has absolutely no ethical qualms with amending the quote:
“It’s the conspiratorial thing” [which is a problem] to a definite: “It’s a conspiratorial thing” so that President Mbeki appears to be accusing Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa of a conspiracy and to suggest, by way of innuendo, that he is lying when he writes that he reprimanded the late Steve Tswete: “Tshwete is conveniently not around to corroborate [the reprimand].”
It is worth noting that the issues President Mbeki raised in the e-TV interview which Hartley deliberately distorts have continued to exercise the minds of ANC members and leaders ever since.
To cite but one out of many examples, in his report to last year’s ANC General Council, ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, wrote, among others, that: “We have observed the corporate capture of the organisation at all levels, where business people fund individual leaders, their campaigns and popularising them and spending huge resources throwing dirt at imaginary enemies in the organisation. The NEC has decided that this must be confronted and culprits named publicly. Only when we stop generalising will the ANC succeed in fighting this tendency.
“These business people, in return, get contracts and tenders even when they have no capacity, and thus weaken the capacity of the government to deliver. The risk is that of the ANC being sold to the highest bidder…”
But Hartley’s article does worse than selective quotation and misquotation to paint a false image. He accuses President Mbeki of yet another crime.
He writes that: “This was not the first instance of the Mbeki administration ‘investigating’ a senior official. Mbeki had earlier asked De Klerk – then still fellow deputy president – to investigate Sexwale for drug trafficking. The probe became an embarrassment after only one barely credible source was found. The ANC later apologised for ‘the deep hurt that has been inflicted on the person and reputation of Sexwale and his family.”’
The facts, which Hartley can establish if he so wishes, are that sometime during the early part of the Government of National Unity, the then second Deputy President, Mr F.W. De Klerk, approached his colleague, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, about a request that had been communicated to him by the then National Commissioner of Police, General Johann van der Merwe.
Gen van der Merwe sought to meet the two Deputy Presidents to discuss information which the Commissioner said the Police had obtained about the then Premier of the PWV, Tokyo Sexwale. Mr de Klerk said Gen van der Merwe wanted advice from the two Deputy Presidents on how the Police should proceed with the information, given the seniority of the Premier in government and the ruling party, the ANC.
Deputy President Mbeki declined to participate in the meeting, arguing that the Police should deal with any information they obtain about alleged criminal activity without any political interference, regardless of whether this information implicated politicians or any other citizen.
Accordingly the meeting requested by Gen van der Merwe did not take place.
The question remains as to why Hartley decided to manufacture a complete fabrication about Deputy President Mbeki having asked then Deputy President de Klerk to cause the investigation of then Premier Sexwale for criminal misconduct.
Or, alternatively, who fed him this outright lie and why is he so willing to regurgitate it enthusiastically, brazenly transgressing all journalistic and other ethical considerations?
Then Deputy President Mbeki was taken by surprise that what had presumably been a confidential Police inquiry suddenly became a matter of public information.
It is indeed very interesting that Hartley even knows the Police information that “The probe became an embarrassment after only one barely credible source was found,” as he said, which information Gen van der Merwe never communicated even to Deputy President Mbeki.
In ‘Black Skin, White Masks,” the Martinican revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, wrote that: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
In Hartley’s case, there is more than cognitive dissonance at play. South Africa’s past, present and future is a hotly contested theatre by different ideological and political forces. Propaganda masquerading as objective representation of reality has been and remains part of the arsenal. And so, as the saying goes, old habits die hard!