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
7 May 2010

The office of the President: a magnificent colonial building?

When one is a public figure making public statements (or, if one wants to be pretentious one can call them “pronouncements”), it is probably better first to think before you talk. I am a bit late to come to this, but I was reminded of this fact when I read the hilarious or embarrassing  (depending on your point of view) interview Chris Barron did with Black Management Forum’s (BMF) Jimmy Manyi in the Sunday Times on Sunday.

In an address to a BMF conference on the constitution Manyi had questioned whether the media had taken the right to freedom of expression too far. “Why is it” he asked “that the media can have a field day railroading the office of the president [with] impunity?” Quizzed on this rather odd statement bby Barron, the following exchange ensued:

CB: Are you saying the press should not be allowed to criticise the president?

JM: No, not the president, the office of the president. Under the guise of freedom of expression the office of the president is disrespected by the press.

CB: How do you distinguish between the office of the president and the president?

JM: If the media doesn’t know that I will be disappointed.

CB: Can you give me an example of the criticism of the president’s office you’re talking about as distinct from criticism of the president?

JM: If you’re saying the media does not know the difference then it’s another discussion.

CB: So you can’t give me an example?

JM:The office of the president is an institution of democracy.

From the exchange it is clear that Manyi was unable to explain what the distinction was between the office of the President and the President himself (who happens also to be the leader of the majority party in parliament). If I was mischievous I would have suggested to Manyi that the President had two offices: one in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and one at Tuynhuys in Cape Town, while the President was that rather affable guy with the good singing voice who never refuses to make a decision unless he absolutely has to. but rather wants us to discuss every controversial issue to death until we all fall asleep and so that he can go off to visit one of his wives or mistresses.

But, of course, I would never be that rude.

Strangely enough, Manyi might not have realised it, but he did have a point – although he could not articulate it. One can make a distinction between the office of the President and the incumbent who holds that office – although I suspect this valid distinction is not what Manyi had in mind. Of course, it is rather difficult to explain the difference between the office of the President and the President himself: like pornography one just knows it when one sees it.

Respect for the office of the President would entail showing respect for the President when he or she exercises a ceremonial – hence non-political function. When the President appears at the opening of the Fifa Soccer World Cup™ (I hope someone from Fifa is not reading this Blog because Fifa might take exception with the fact that I am using their trade mark) it would show disrespect for the office of the President not to stand up when the President arrives or to boo the President when he walks onto the field to greet the teams. (Booing Sepp Blatter, is another story, of course: I am definitely in favour of that.)

Regardless of your political affiliations, President Jacob Zuma remains President of all South Africans and when he acts in such a ceremonial capacity we have an ethical duty to respect that – at least for as long as we live in a constitutional democracy. (In my book one has no ethical duty to respect a dictator or a tyrant, so if Robert Mugabe ever visited this part of the world I will be happy to give him the middle finger wave when he inspects our troops.)

Even when the President fulfils a duty that has political ramifications but also has a strong ceremonial aspect, for example, when he or she opens Parliament and delivers the State of the Nation address, I would contend that respect for the office of the President would require that one does not interrupt proceedings or shout down the President when he or she speaks.

But when the President does or says something really stupid or scary (like appointing a liar and a anti-constitutionalists as head of the National Prosecuting Authority, making babies with women he is not married to, or threatens to knock down homsexuals) it is our constitutional right – no duty – to criticise and even to ridicule the man. After all, he is only the leader of a political party who, just for the time being, has the support of the majority of the voters. 

I suspect Manyi really does not agree with this view. Now, I would be delighted if he writes to inform us that my distinction is one with which he agrees fully. But if that is the case, he would have to point to those occasions when ordinary South Africans and the media have not respected the office of the President. I can’t recall any such event. Even the Blue Bulls fans (not known for their progressive values) cheer the President when he arrives for the final of the Super 14.

Manyi probably does not like democracy because in a democracy a political leader – whether he is the President or not – is not above criticism and ridicule. Our Constitution declares that whether you are the President or a homeless person you have exactly the same inherent human dignity. This does not mean that you cannot be criticised, ridiculed or made fun of. The inherent human dignity possessed by all cannot be affected by what ordinary voters say about you – you have that dignity regardless of whether you drive in a Porsche or live in a shack and will retain that dignity regardless of whether you are called  a gangster or treated like a princess.

In any case, Manyi can rest assured, every time I walk past Tuynhuis I only show the utmost respect for the Office of the President – it is, after all, a magnificent monument to colonialism and I have a healthy fear of colonialists. Whether I whistle a song about gangsters and crooks as I show my respect to that beautiful building? Well, I would rather not say.

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