The problem with this perspective is cancel culture isn’t real, at least not in the way people believe it is. Instead, it’s turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to. I’m a black, Muslim woman, and because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before. That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to. This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny. Because they can’t handle this cultural shift, they rely on phrases like “cancel culture” to delegitimize the criticism.
When Thabo Mbeki was still President of the ANC it was one of my great pleasures (and ,I thought, duties) to read the letter from the President every Friday afternoon on ANC Today. Not that I always agreed with then President Mbeki or always found his arguments convincing or even plausible – Mbeki had a tendency to grab onto a very real issue (racism, poverty, respect for each other) and then misuse the issue to advance his own political agenda. Who can forget his use of racism in his vicious attack on the “fishers of corrupt men” when he wanted to push back against the very real questions of corruption in the arms deal?
But the letter often made for interesting and even entertaining reading and if it did not, it still was one of the few places where one could find out what the hell this very strange, lonely, stoic and self-important man was thinking. I suspect it often revealed more about Mbeki’s phsycology than he might have known.
So I was rather nostalgic when I read the letter Mbeki sent to Jacob Zuma earlier this week. There was the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the references to past heroes, the thinly disguised hurt pride – all the great themes of the Mbeki letters over the years. And there again was the use of a very real issue (“the noxious phenomenon of the personality cult”), deployed to attack a fellow comrade (in the most indirect of ways, of course).
It therefore came as a surprise to me that anybody within our revolutionary democratic movement could so much as suggest, and therefore insult somebody like Terror Lekota that he could act as he has, whether rightly or wrongly, driven by attachment to a personal cult!
In this context, given that I have worked longer with you than I have worked with Terror, I would be interested to know your view of any instance in our movement during which it fell victim to the noxious phenomenon of the personality cult, as a result of which it ceased to think, content to act in the manner of the “anointed personality”, such as the late Kim Il-Sung determined to the people of North Korea!
Ouch! Can it be that Mbeki is subtly saying that Mr Zuma is in danger of becoming a cruel dictator, like Kim Il-Sung? Perhaps, because he continues:
The beginning and the end of this particular discourse is that both of us have grown up in a political atmosphere that we fully respected and honoured our leaders, heroes and heroines without reservation.
However, for me personally, at no point did this translate into “hero worship” and therefore the progression to the phenomenon of the “cult of personality”. I know this as a matter of fact that all the heroes and heroines I have mentioned would have opposed the emergence of such a cult with every fibre in their revolutionary bones!
For this reason I find it strange in the extreme that today cadres of our movement attach the label of a “cult of personality” to me, and indeed publicly declare a determination “to kill” to defend your own cause, the personal interests of “the personality”, Jacob Zuma!
Some would of course argue that Mbeki is rather disingenuous here. He says in the ANC leaders are “respected and honoured without reservation” but that “for him personally” this never translated in hero worship. Some of us who lived through the height of the Mbeki years might wonder a bit about this statement as some of Mbeki’s followers sure gave a good impression of hero worshipping their leader .
I am also not so sure I understand the difference between respecting and honouring the leaders of your party “without reservation” on the one hand, and hero worship on the other. It seems to me the former will inevitably lead to the latter if not checked by an dollop of skepticism. I for one will never respect and honour any leader without reservation because I think in a constitutional democracy leaders are the servants of the people and should thus be subjected to serious scrutiny, criticism and – where they do really evil things like confuse people about the link between HIV and Aids – even vilified and ridiculed.
Maybe this is where the ANC as a movement might have gone wrong. Instead of the vigorous debate and arguments and the challenging of leaders who did or say things that were stupid or wrong that was part of the UDF, the party encounraged this kind of blind discipline and loyalty to the Leader. While Mbeki never encouraged the same cult of personality that Zuma and his supporters have, this notion that leaders are somehow above criticism (at least in public) probably made it so much easier for the Malema’s of the world to get to statements about how they would kill for Zuma.
In this regard (as Mbeki might have said) I find the letter rather sad because it does not show a hell of a lot of self-knowledge on the part of our ex-President. Has he learnt nothing about himself and his own limitations over the past year? He clearly never spent time getting in touch with his own contradictions and seems so angry, yet so controlled.
There is not one jot of self-reflection in the letter. Nor is there any sense that he might have done anything differently. How can that be? Surely this is not normal? Any normal person (and I exclude Kim il-Sung here) will at least sometimes have doubts and regrets about hhow they have acted. Yet Mbeki can write without apparent irony that:
There is absolutely nothing I have done through this half-a-century of struggle of which I am ashamed. Above all, I know of nothing I have done which, to my knowledge, constitutes a betrayal of the interests of the masses of our people and their confidence in the ANC.
That sounds a bit scary to me. Nothing, comrade Mbeki? Not even instigating the plot rumours against Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa? Not even when you confused people about HIV and AIDS? Not when you decided to stand for a third term thereby allowing a Zuma victory at Polokwane? Such a breathtaking lack of self-criticism is indeed sad. But it is also very, very scary. Cult of personality or not, leaders who are not self-critical do not – in the long run – turn out to be great democrats.
But hell, maybe I am just a misguided democrat who does not think one man or one party is more important than our democracy.BACK TO TOP