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
20 June 2007

Unlikeable Mr. Roberts fit to write a biography?

I bought Ronald Suresh Roberts’ biography of President Thabo Mbeki today. Called Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, the book contains a spirited defence of Mbeki and even more spirited or even vituperative attacks on many of Mbeki’s (and Roberts’) critics.

I am very much looking forward to read the book because I am rather confident it won’t be boring. It would be refreshing to read another view on Mbeki and to see how successful Roberts is in defending some of Mbeki’s most controversial (and in my opinion disastrous) policies, such as the HIV/AIDS fiasco.

I am not a great fan of Mr. Roberts and have written on this Blog about his unfortunate defamation case, but I suspect he is correct when he predicts that the liberal white establishment is going to pull the book to pieces for all the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance aligned James Myburg has already weighed in with a kind of review or debunking of the book in his Moneyweb column. He reminds us that Essop Pahad lied to Parliament when he denied that the Presidency facilitated a R1.5 million grant from Absa Bank for Roberts to write the book.

Myburg conclude his “review” as follows:

One oddity of the book is that very little of it is taken up with documenting and elucidating Mbeki’s own views, which do not seem to be of particular interest to the author. It is divided instead between “a theoretical dogfight in ideological outer space” (as Rian Malan put it) and vindictive attacks on Mbeki’s critics and opponents. At one stage Roberts writes (p. 125) that The Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli’s are what really “illuminates Mbeki’s statesmanship.” Yet, in that work Machiavelli advised:

I hold it to be a proof of great prudence for men to abstain from threats and insulting words towards any one, for neither the one nor the other in any way diminishes the strength of the enemy; but the one makes him more cautious, and the other increases his hatred of you, and makes him more persevering in his efforts to injure you.

“It is the duty”, Machiavelli continued, “of every good general or chief of a republic, to use all proper means to prevent such insults and reproaches from being indulged in by citizens or soldiers.” This is advice the presidency has clearly chosen to ignore. By supporting this project, in the way that they did, the presidency were clearly hoping to buttress Mbeki’s position, both morally and politically. Yet they may find that this book – which manages to direct “harsh sarcasms” against so many different people – has precisely the opposite effect intended.

After reading more of the book, I will weigh in with my own two cents worth. I suspect the book will become the talk of the town and that many words will be written about it. Sadly, I am not so sure much of it will be interesting or relevant. Let’s see.

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