The greatest bubble inhabitant of all is our president. His world view allows him to think — even in the wake of Nkandla — that he is a victim
There’s a John Travolta movie from 1976 called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Based on a true story, the film traces the teenage years of a Tod Lubitch, born with a defective immune system. This meant that he lived, literally, in a protective bubble insulated from contact with the outside world. In his sterile environment his encounters with other humans are restricted to those with gloved hands.
Government and high office similarly can insulate office holders from basic reality.
It’s a universal thing. But there are also ways around it, of escaping from “the bubble”. For example, Steve Hilton , former adviser to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in a new book More Human, recounts how his boss commissioned intense “mystery shopping” research so that he could learn how his policies were actually being implemented in the real world.
Further back in time, there is the strange encounter of President Richard Nixon, at the height of the Vietnam War, and the furious student protests it unleashed in the US.
One night in May 1970, just days after four student protesters at Kent State University had been killed by the National Guard, the tortured head of state, accompanied only by his valet, took a late night walk from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. There he encountered dozens of student protesters and he engaged with them in what an eyewitness described as “a bizarre rambling debate”. It clearly did not change the course of events, since, a few weeks later, the president ordered the invasion of Cambodia. And as one analyst later told it, far from changing the presidential mindset it did the opposite. “Listening to Nixon’s later accounts of his odd, but human, sojourn at the Lincoln Memorial is to hear a man who’s already sold himself on an alternative version of reality.”
Cameron, clearly mentally healthy, learns from the encounters his minders have with citizens and adjusts or tweaks his policies. Nixon, famously once described as “an awkward loner who essentially disliked people”, did not.
Back at home, former president Thabo Mbeki found late night internet sessions the most congenial method of dealing with the greatest public health disaster on his watch, the HIV-Aids pandemic. And we know where that led.
What of our current political masters and rulers? No doubt they are less socially awkward or haunted than Nixon, the only US president in history to be forced to resign his office, 41 years ago this week.
But they, too, seem to have designed for themselves, in the spirit of Nixon, “an alternative version of reality”. Or a whole series of them. And like Tod Lubitch in the movie, they live in a protective bubble, insulated from the realities of the outside world.
How else do you explain, for example, the fiasco around the new visa regime, to which this column first made reference in late May, with a summary of all the tourism industry and expert warnings of looming disaster? Minister Malusi Gigaba, a bubble inhabitant of note, pressed ahead regardless.
Then last week, veteran radio show host John Robbie burst the bubble when he wrung an admission from the tourism minister, and Gigaba’s colleague, Derek Hanekom, of the wrecking effect the new system was having, and admitted to a “worrying drop” in foreigners visiting these shores. Hanekom at least lives outside the bubble, in the real world. Undaunted by this rare public display of ministerial disagreement, Gigaba blames the tourism providers for bad-mouthing the government and their industry. No need for a mystery shopper here, just go and check the figures of Chinese tourists, now down nearly 40% in a year.
Then there’s the parastatal bubble, except its barrier from the real world appears to be made of reinforced concrete. In a very overcrowded field of governance malfunction and boardroom chaos, South African Airways stands out as the poster boy for the ailing state.
On Monday it appointed its sixth CEO in six years. Except Thuli Mpshe is the second one in six months to act in this post. The airline is in an advanced state of turbulence. Just look at the billions in red ink on its balance sheet. But heedless of all this, the former school teacher and close friend of Jacob Zuma who chairs its board, Dudu Myeni, appoints the human resources head, Mpshe, to take the reins.
This quite fantastical scenario was apparently occasioned when the outgoing, and also acting CEO, Nico Bezuidenhout, who apparently has some track record in running an airline, butted heads with the chairwoman over a lifesaving deal with Emirates Airlines to save the local carrier. Apparently Zuma, not a known expert on aviation economics, instructed the chair to instruct the CEO not to sign.
There’s a lesson from the real world out there actually. In fact several of them. Emirates Airlines, like SAA, is wholly owned by its government, Dubai, via its investment corporation. But in just 30 years it has created, with assistance from its government’s oil wealth, the world’s biggest, and arguably most competitive, airline. But it didn’t do this by appointing friends of the emir to run the airline, or loading its carrier with more political freight than the most overweight bag it carries. No, its CEO and president is a grizzled veteran of the aviation world, British-born Sir Tim Clark. He’s been around the aviation business in several countries since 1972.
But then again, the beleaguered SAPS commissioner, Riah Phiyega, was a social worker whose first job in policing was to become its chief.
And, of course, when the bubble burst at Marikana the fallout was and the victims were far greater than red ink on the balance sheet, but in the form of real blood on the mines.
Perhaps the greatest bubble inhabitant of all is our president. His world view, cut off from inconvenient reality, allows him to think — even in the wake of Nkandla — that he is a victim hunted by predatory opponents; a sort of political equivalent of Cecil the Lion.
But when his bubble finally bursts or is prised open, cold reality waits.
This article first appeared in The Times