THANKS initially to Nelson Mandela, the ANC’s transition from exile or incarceration to the oak-panelled negotiation halls of the US and Europe was remarkably efficient. As a young lawyer, Mandela recognised the value in good tailoring; Sussex University-educated Thabo Mbeki then advanced the already impressive gravitas with the refined habit of smoking a pipe.
Both men were discerning and subscribed to the unwritten code of diplomacy: if you wish to be treated as an equal, you should try resembling one.
But President Jacob Zuma was unhappy that members of the erudite, metropolitan elite had assumed SA’s appearance. He wanted to elevate another kind of politician, someone with limited exposure, who felt and saw the world as he did. This explains the prominence of the village statesman in South African politics and diplomacy.
The profile of the village statesman isn’t appealing. These curtain-twitching, amateur-nationalism-preaching people frown on “too much” education and believe in the narrowness of things. They employ entry-level wit (Des van Rooyen’s remark that Afrikaners once thought he was white was a side splitter to many of his party ilk). Village statesmen see sophistication as a symptom of oppression, but their antipathy is not influenced by white Marxist academics, rather by the experience of walking dust roads, lacking internet access and inheriting folklore gossip about city depravity.
Zuma’s village statesmen are not inspired by service, but by hedonism. To them, struggle is individual: they respond to protest in the manner of a warlord. The assumption that people who think in this way would or should express natural solidarity with the trials of their rural kith is ambitious; village statesmen do not care.
However, they are fond of the excesses of base consumerism: expensive liquor in Cuban-styled bars, studded jeans, extended stays in Gauteng’s pseudo-Tuscan luxury hotels and gold watches that hang off wrists like loose bracelets.
There are many examples of the village statesman in the Cabinet, the Premier League and the state security apparatus, but International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has recent form here. Shortly after a shambolic interview with Al Jazeera, she released an undiplomatic response to the terror alert issued by the US mission to its citizens in SA. Nkoana-Mashabane has never suffered an attack by Saudi zealots, so she would not think to reconcile the warning with the experience of a 9/11 or an embassy attack.
Her reaction, infested with irrational prejudice, prompts the question: how much does the official charged with SA’s international relationships actually know of the world? Not much, apparently, with the possible exception of Indonesia, as it was there that her tragic late husband served as ambassador before he groped one too many consular assistants at the photocopier and was summoned home to face more than 20 counts of sexual harassment.
Being cursed with paranoia, the village statesman is central to the phenomenon of government by conspiracy; with straight faces, these people circulate many grammatically suffocated documents, claiming, as one example, that the US is plotting illegal regime change (not that they would know, but President Barack Obama has in effect authored the reverse by conceding once-American oil fields and exploration licences to Brazil, lifting sanctions against Iran and opening an embassy in Havana). Zuma’s own provincial son, Edward, seems delighted to admit the conspiracy theory, Project Spider Web, as evidence to support his slanderous attacks on Johann Rupert.
In addition to the portfolios of international relations, police, small business and co-operative governance, energy, sport, state security, men and women of the village statesman profile occupy roles in South African Airways, Eskom, Transnet, the SABC, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority, Denel, the ANC Youth League and, indeed, Parliament.
A former ambassador to SA recently reminded me: “No other country on the continent has such a reservoir of polished skill in people like Mavuso Msimang, Ivan Pillay, Cheryl Carolus and Pravin Gordhan.”
In Zuma’s ANC, these individuals are now jeered; they are too worldly — too informed — to share the burden of the president’s inadequacy.
• Reader works for an energy investment and political advisory firm