Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Xolela Mangcu at the Book Fair

Author, political analyst and Business Day columnist, Xolela Mangcu recently gave a presentation at the Cape Town International Book Fair. I took the liberty of recording the session and transcribing the proceedings and after much painstaking effort I am now finished. It is too long to post in its entirety on Quid Pro Quo, but you can view the full text in html format by clicking here: Book Fair - Xolela Mangcu Transcript.

Mangcu argued that the principal problem of our times is the problem of Nationalism. Under Mbeki, Mangcu argues, African Nationalism has been manipulated to stifle criticism by creating a racial insider-outsider dynamic that subtly dismisses dissent as anti-black racism. This problem has undermined our responses to HIV/AIDS, crime, the Zimbabwean crisis and countless other areas of public life because it immunizes our leaders from criticism. People like Mangcu - who is, ahem, black - are labeled as coconuts and foot-lickers of the white establishment.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the President's brother, who chaired the discussion, asked how it is that we got to this place, where did it all go wrong? In response, Mangcu addressed the notion of political agency. He basically said that we, as a nation, get the leaders we deserve:

What went wrong is that good men and women pretended that nothing was going wrong. That’s what went wrong. Good men and women inside this room, outside this room, people who could have spoken, people who had the capacity and the power and the influence to speak just didn’t speak. That’s what went wrong. And in many ways, yes its Thabo Mbeki’s creation, Thabo Mbeki’s problems, but I think the bigger problem is that we did not speak when we should have spoken. And I think the question we now face is whether we can as people in this room or outside in society, how long are we going to be able to stay in silence?

Not only was Mangcu an exemplary speaker, but remarkably, the questions from the audience were focused and insightful with none of the usual grandstanding that often accompanies such discussions. Notable audience members included Jeremy Seekings, Prof of Sociology (and Politics) at UCT as well as Anthea Garman, lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. Garman made this comment, which acknowledged our responsibility to speak out in the face of injustice, but also highlighted how the ANC had sought to restrict the ambit of debate in society:

Xolela, you said in answer to the first question that people with platforms didn’t speak out. But I want to suggest to you that one of the most damaging things the ANC did was, to use your language, “corral our public spaces” and to shut up the voices that were disagreeable and the “discontents”, to use your language again. I’m kind of reminded... of the ANC Today newsletter. Do you remember the thing about the sociology of public discourse, and who gets to decide what we talk about in public? And Thabo Mbeki, through ANC Today, was saying only the ANC as the voice of the majority gets to decide what we talk about in public and what our agenda is for public discourse.

I want to suggest that that is one of the most terrible erosions of our democracy. Because many of us will not join a political party, we won’t go and join the ANC, even if it is the majority party and the one that you can make the most headway with politically. What we want to do is to be public citizens, and we want to be able to play our citizen role. And when we’ve got the erosion of our public space, and our citizenship is also eroded, and many of us have not been able to speak out. It’s not just the kind of question of courage; it’s also a question of the space being eroded for us.

I also piped in with a query about Xolela's proposal for a new non-racial culture, what he terms 'syncretism', which I asked him to explain in more detail. His response was that 'syncretism' was the rejection of essentialised notions of blackness that currently dominates the identity politics of the ANC and an attempt to reclaim a moral consciousness behind a definition of blackness. This would make non-racial responses to problems more meaningful because it wouldn't have being black as the sole criterion of legitimate political participation.

The discussion was nearly 50min long so it makes for quite a big document. However, it is definitely worth devoting your energies towards as Xolela's is one of the bravest voices in South Africa today.


A review of Xolela Mangcu's book To the Brink: The State of Democracy in South Africa will appear on Quid Pro Quo in due course.


  1. You recorded it? So why not post the audio?

  2. I tried posting as a video, but obviously that didn't work. I will probably post to the Internet Archive and put the link on QPQ.