Flattering to deceive or just blindly loyal? Party sycophants and their letters – Herbst

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

At the very colonial high school I attended, we had a term known as greasing which described sycophantic schoolboy behaviour calculated to win favour from teachers or prefects. To be “a Grease” instantly put you beyond the pale, banished you to the collegial wilderness and earned near-contempt from your classmates. Some boys were very effective greases, going on to achieve great heights through their actions whose motives were either too seductive and/or undetected by those in power. Here Ed Herbst, draws a parallel in politics, using his usually diligent research to come up with some key and highly revealing Letters to the President (in particular Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma) from some controversial and calculating players in the political arena. He also examines a close relative to the letter (perhaps more likely to grab a President’s attention); the full-page newspaper advertisement proclaiming moral support for and to-the-grave-loyalty by, a tightly-knit group of cadres in their fearless leader’s battle against the forces of darkness. The punchline of course is in the reading, as Herbst reminds us of the destruction wreaked by the wild horses they backed. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

In a recent Daily Maverick article, Marianne Thamm quotes a letter to President Jacob Zuma from Marius Fransman, the man who has done incalculable and lasting damage to the African National Congress in the Western Cape.

In his letter to Zuma on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Fransman wrote:

‘In this (sic) trying times I want to wish you good health and abundant blessings over your life. Take comfort in knowing that this a beautiful season for any revolutionary, only a revolutionary will grasp that the road to real transformation is never easy, may the Lord spare you many more years for us to enjoy your wisdom and revolutionary spirit.’

Marius Fransman

This took me back to messages to former President Thabo Mbeki contained in two newspaper advertisements which, as an SABC employee at the time, interested me because one of the signatories was Christine Qunta. She will be remembered as a member of the dysfunctional SABC board but not as a fan of the TAC.

On 6 May 2001, she was one of eleven ANC-aligned people who took out a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times in support of President Thabo Mbeki who, at the time, was facing media criticism both locally and abroad for his HIV-AIDS policies and his support for Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF.

The advertisement was titled “The media vs President T M Mbeki”.

Among other things it said:

‘…the media does not act alone. It seems to us it provides a platform for a coalition of right-wing forces made up of white so-called liberal politicians, mostly leftovers from the apartheid era, certain so-called independent or research organisations run by whites and a few members of the white business community. Separately from them, there are a few Black commentators who unwittingly contribute to this campaign’.

Nothing changes in the ANC.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki

Then, on the 18th June, 2006 she was again one of several ANC-aligned people who took out a R500,000 full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times titled ‘Happy birthday Mr President.’

Among other things it said:

Dear Mr President, the burdens of leadership are many and the rewards few. No more so than in the political arena especially at a time of our history when we stand on the edge of a new society while the old refuses to die…Mr President, in those quiet moments when the burdens of statehood threaten just for a moment to overwhelm you, we would like you to remember that you have our support and that of the overwhelming majority of our people. We are proud of you.’

It thus came as no surprise when this loyal Presidential praise singer was twice appointed to the SABC board by Mbeki, first in December 2003 and then again despite fierce opposition from trade unions, NGOs such as the TAC and opposition parties in 2008.

As we now know, the policies of Mbeki which received such a ringing endorsement from Qunta resulted in more than 300,000 South Africans dying lingering, painful deaths as their immune systems collapsed and Zimbabwe has progressed to such an extent that its banks now accept livestock as collateral.

It was on Qunta’s watch as an SABC board member that it imploded in chaotic infamy being saved from financial collapse by a R1.4 billion bailout in November 2009.

Someone who also shared Qunta’s views on Mbeki’s policies was Mojanku Gumbi, his legal adviser – the one who in April 1995 found that no evidence existed to suggest that Dr Allan Boesak had misappropriated funds from DanChurchAid.

Zimbabwe banksIn an article, ‘Burning the Midnight Oil, in the Sunday Times of 19 September 2004, Gumbi, was interviewed by reporter Brendan Boyle on two topical issues  – HIV-AIDS and Zimbabwe.

Her response was succinct and telling and she did not subsequently deny making the remark or provide further explanation:

‘On AIDS and Zimbabwe, I have never lain awake at night on either issue.’

Whatever she’s on, she should bottle it. It must be the most beatific of soporifics ever conceived.

She will become an overnight billionaire. She will earn the gratitude of endless generations of humankind, relieved not only of their pain but of their conscience. She will, at a stroke, have rendered morphine and its derivatives obsolescent.

Things have changed little since then although a dislike of the incumbent president is common to both eras.

The snouting goes on – back then it was the Arms Deal, now it is what I call Rosatom Panic.

At the moment everyone is re-reading RW Johnson’s last book. He was right on the relegation to junk status but do its prescient pages give any clue on the coming IMF bailout?

The only enduring, indeed immutable, truth – although it provides naught for our comfort – is what has become known as ‘Mulholland’s Law’.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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