01 Jul 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Giving the green light to the Guptas is apparently more easily accomplished than accommodating Clinton, who has an even-money chance of being the next leader of the free world, writes Tony Leon
HARRY Truman, the essentially self-educated, plain-spoken and hugely significant US president at the end of the Second World War and beginning of the Cold War, observed: "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers."
He certainly practised what he preached and in his spare time, besides playing competitive poker, he read ferociously, both biographies and history. His opposite number at the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin, in between murderous purges and directing (or interfering) in the military defence of the Soviet Union was an autodidact of note. Even on the eve of the German invasion of his country, he was apparently reading military history, with his notes recorded in bold crayon.
Today’s leadership is cut from a different cloth and has to surf the age of instant communication, where blogging, Facebooking and tweeting, not to mention the "selfie", crowd out more contemplative pursuits.
And, in the words of another intellectual leader of note, Francois Mitterrand of France: "If you want history to remember you well, make sure that you write it yourself."
Recently retired US secretary of state Hillary Clinton practises both pursuits and, while her reading list is formidable, her autobiographies are driven by two impulses: money (she received more than $22m in advances for both her memoirs) and to advance her political career. She is today the favourite for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 2016. Her book Living History did not help secure her the nomination in 2008, but it certainly added to her bank balance. Her latest offering, Hard Choices, hit the shelves last month, to a less than ecstatic critical reception. The Financial Times, for example, sniffed: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that presidential hopefuls must show their earnestness by writing crushingly dull books. Anything interesting would jeopardise their prospects. Hillary Clinton’s memoir is no exception."
The Economist was equally crushing in its review: "Earnest, dull and self-serving all at the same time … The memoir has the cautious, poll-tested feel of a campaign speech."
But there are some singular exceptions in this 656-page doorstopper and one of them relates to SA. To be sure, Clinton spends a few pages paying exemplary acknowledgement to her encounters with Nelson Mandela, not a difficult or diplomatic feat. But she opens up with far more candour when it comes to SA’s contemporary leadership.
Clinton, who has an even-money chance of being the next leader of the free world, writes: "In some instances, SA could be a frustrating partner … Presidents (Thabo) Mbeki and (Jacob) Zuma wanted to be taken seriously on the world stage. That’s what we wanted too … But respect comes from taking responsibility and sometimes it was difficult to interpret the reasons behind government actions."
She then relates an extraordinary and hitherto unrevealed back story of her last visit to SA in August 2012. Bear in mind that this was nine months before the Gupta wedding saga unfolded on the apron of Air Force Base Waterkloof — the difference in the reception for the wedding party and the then US secretary of state’s party is very telling.
In an incident which clearly still rankles, Clinton notes: "In August 2012, the South Africans refused at the last minute on my final visit to allow my diplomatic security team to bring the weapons and vehicles they needed into the country. My plane sat on the tarmac in Malawi, waiting to hear how the negotiations unfolded … the matter was resolved, and we were finally able to take off."
Clinton then, perhaps archly, notes: "I was leading a delegation of American business leaders from FedEx, Chevron, Boeing, General Electric and other companies, who were looking to expand their investments in SA." Indeed, at the time of the Clinton visit, trade between the two countries was valued at about R220bn, and while China had by then overtaken other countries as SA’s largest trading partner, the US was by far SA’s largest export destination.
It is unclear from her narrative how far up or down the chain of local diplomatic command the decision to keep Clinton grounded in Malawi went. In my own lesser diplomatic experience, these matters are often more cock-up than conspiracy. Still, I can imagine some official or group of them delighting in the idea of cocking a snook at the emblematic leader of the world’s remaining hyperpower, heedless of the reputational damage caused to our sovereign. Giving the green light to the Gupta wedding party’s unorthodox landing arrangements, at the same air force base, is apparently more easily accomplished.
Less than two weeks ago, Zuma advised Parliament and the nation that the government will "embark on various measures and interventions to jump-start the economy" and particularly render SA more attractive to investors. Perhaps it might be worth taking a leaf out of Clinton’s book, so to speak.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA