At the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival, I watched a fascinating interview with mega-bestselling author (320-million books sold to date) Jeffrey Archer and local radio host John Maytham.
The most interesting part of the discussion with the spry-looking 82-year-old author was his description of his daily work routine: at an age when most in his cohort would consider a gentle walk a major achievement, this octogenarian sits at his desk for eight hours each day. There he churns out the pages for the first of 14 drafts, which is his writing formula for producing his next chart-busting volume.
While critics sharply divide on Archer’s literary merits (or lack thereof), there is no doubting his amazing energy and productivity, and — based on the Maytham interview — lucidity and acuity.
Until last Sunday, I thought Archer provided a fantastic rebuff to those who write off (forgive the pun) the usefulness and prolificness of octogenarians. That was the day I read the long interview which historian Niall Ferguson conducted with the subject of his biography, Henry Kissinger, aged 99.
Forty-five years after leaving office as US secretary of state, Kissinger will later this month, publish his new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.
Kissinger, whose commanding views expressed in majestic language are still sought by international leaders and major audiences, inevitably chose as one of the sextet for his latest work a study of the hugely consequential and flawed US president Richard M Nixon.
Inevitable because it was Nixon who appointed Kissinger to high office. Between them they piloted a grand strategy which broke the mould of American foreign policy, and in many instances changed the world we live in today: “We had a grand design,” Kissinger elaborated to Ferguson in the interview on the book in the Sunday Times (London). This included attempts at ending the Vietnam War, avoiding nuclear war with the Soviet Union via detente and arms control policy and — crucially — opening the way to normalising relations with China for the first time in 25 years.
Yet these achievements abroad were undone by the darker side of Nixon: his coverup of the crimes of his operatives who burgled the headquarters of the opposition Democratic Party national committee at the Watergate complex in Washington DC in 1972, the year of Nixon’s re-election campaign .
This Friday, June 17, is the 50th anniversary of the infamous burglary which saw Nixon’s forced resignation from office just over two years later on August 8 1974.
According to Kissinger, Nixon was a tragic figure, whose enlightenment on foreign policy was matched by a paranoia and unscrupulousness in domestic politics. However, he will along with his achievements be forever remembered as the only US president to date forced from office before his term expired.
Here on the southern tip of Africa, we have three examples of president obliged to surrender the presidential seals of office before due date: John Vorster under apartheid ejected due to the Information Scandal in June 1979, and, in the current era, Thabo Mbeki in September 2008 and Jacob Zuma in February 2018.
Whatever scandals attached to both Mbeki and Zuma, their resignations were prompted by their own party largely because both had lost its confidence after failing to stop their successors from being elected — Mbeki wanted to succeed himself as ANC president, and Zuma wanted his former wife to do so. It was after their failures on the succession stakes that ANC impatience commanded their ousting.
Aside from providing a modern template for ousting an all-powerful head of state from office, ‘’Watergate’’ also gifted the English language with a powerful — and now overused — suffix for political scandals everywhere.
Indeed, early on in his administration, and when corruption was less hard-wired into the DNA of both the SA government and the ANC, Mbeki admonished parliament for the use of “gate” in respect of each scandal afflicting his administration. He suggested we find a more indigenous expression of outrage.
The passage of years — and the normalisation of corruption and maladministration from Travelgate and Oilgate to Nkandlagate — suggests that Mbeki pleaded in vain. The power of “gate” as a metonymy or figure of speech as shorthand for political corruption at the highest level is too advanced and well known to overcome even presidential disfavour.
And so, inevitably, the mushroom cloud of presidential scandal which former spymaster Arthur Fraser exploded over President Cyril Ramaphosa’s head recently was predictably dubbed “Farmgate”.
The unanswered question here is whether there is enough sleaze and scandal in the break-in and the coverup after the robbery on Ramaphosa’s game farm over two years ago to also see his early departure from office. And his legacy to date in terms of achievement must be rated modest at best.
And while Nixon had no knowledge of the break-in of his opponents’ election HQ, a smoking gun tape, which the US Supreme Court forced him to reveal, implicated him in the coverup of this crime. Indeed the most penetrating single line in the US Congressional inquiry into the scandal came from his fellow Republican, senator Howard Baker: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Intended, ironically, by Baker to defend Nixon, this simple question to Watergate whistle-blower and White House employee John Dean over time brought down Nixon.
Ramaphosa, by contrast, is unlikely to have recorded his conversations with his presidential security team, and the pliant speaker of our parliament has nixed any parliamentary enquiry on Farmgate, so there is little likelihood of any hair-raising disclosures on either fronts which will implicate Ramaphosa in any illegalities.
And while Nixon declared early on that “I am not a crook”, he thought the best form of defence was to stonewall any enquiries from the congressional committees. Ramaphosa, too, has decided early on not to engage in any explanations, not to provide his own narrative beyond offering that he did not steal taxpayers’ money (which no one has suggested he did) and stating that he will allow due process to work — “I am a process person … the process must unfold,” he advised the media last week.
But what happened in the aftermath of the robbery of the foreign currency stolen from his Phala Phala game farm and whether forex breaches, money laundering crimes, tax fraud and kidnapping and suborning witnesses was perpetrated in its aftermath must await, on his version of “process”. Quite whether “process” can explain why an off-the-books investigation was conducted by his presidential protection unit and not the SA Police Service is another matter entirely.
Ramaphosa suggests that relying on process is “the best that I can say”.
To many South Africans his best, at a crucial juncture for both his presidency and the country, is not good enough. And this is not only from the “usual suspects” in his own party (the RET faction for example), the parliamentary opposition or even the media.
For example, a deputy general secretary of the SA Communist Party, Chris Matlhako, a Ramaphosa ally, advised the New York Times on June 10: “I think it is a huge dereliction on the part of Cyril, and this is despite the fact that he has been doing good things.”
Leading from the front would mean getting ahead of the narrative, not being captured by the telling of others and painted into a political corner from which escape becomes impossible. But maybe there is no good story to tell about all this, or there is the hope that weary South Africans, deprived of electricity and (in Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha) of water, have simple survival to think about.
But for a presidency to survive scandal, anywhere and at any time, the famous Howard Baker question of 50 years back still applies: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA