Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
1 August 2007

Mbeki in a bubble?

I was quite harsh about President Thabo Mbeki’s Internet letter in which he said the Daily Dispatch was lying about conditions at Frere Hospital in the Eastern Cape. But it struck me today that part of the problem might be that the President lives in a bubble and just does not know what is going on because his advisers are too scared to tell him.

Last week at an Imbizo in the Western Cape President Mbeki startled the crowd by asking: “What is Tik?”. When he gave a news conference on Sunday and was asked about reports in the Afrikaans newspapers about the abuse of funds by the Deputy Minister for Home Affairs journalists were taken aback when he had not heard of these allegations – despite the fact that the story was published two days earlier and the Presidency was asked for comment.

This morning Anton Harber has an interesting column in the Business Day about joining the President on one of his Imbizo trips and writes:

Mbeki himself goes out of his way to give the event substance. He is attentive and responsive. There are scribes taking down every issue raised for follow-up and there are full minutes of the previous imbizo so the president can monitor what has been done since then. Local and provincial officials are in trepidation for the closed meeting at the end of the imbizo, in which they will have to account for their activities, and in which Mbeki is known to lambast laggards.

To be in the media contingent trailing the president’s entourage is to get a sense of the bubble in which he has to live. At every venue, curious locals press at the fence. As the security men race the convoy through streets cleared of other traffic, people gape from a distance.

I still think the President’s tendency to paranoia is mostly to blame for the kind of embarrassing Internet letter published last Friday. But if he lives and travels in a bubble and if his officials are all scared of him, there would be little incentive among his staff to tell him the hard truths. Was he given a sanitised version of the report about what was happening at Frere Hospital because officials or the Minister was too scared to admit that the Hospital is a disgrace?

This would be troubling because it would mean that officials really controlled to a large degree what the President would hear and what not. They could thus shape his view of reality and could distort it beyond what its tenable. I for one would feel better if m President were surrounded by strong and honest people who never shied away from telling him the truth as they see it – no matter how unpalatable.

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