Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Every President needs a Slumber

The legendary British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously once said that “every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

She was referring to her immensely loyal deputy, Willie Whitelaw.

Willie was to Thatcher what in street lingo might today be be referred to as makay ÔÇô or an errand boy, so to speak.

He brought order, predictability and discipline to the life of an otherwise powerful but hopelessly erratic Thatcher.

Willie’s responsibility was to do all small and awkward but important roles that might otherwise have gotten the Prime Minister bogged down.

It is important for a Head of State to always have their eyes fully cast on the big picture events that are more at strategic level.

Willie’s loyalty to Thatcher made it a given that the two never crossed paths.

Willie was a master of working from behind the scenes; he was witty, delightful and trustworthy. He was persuasive when he needed to, jolly when required but never openly self-seeking.

A famous light-hearted Willie story was when he visited a government hospital.

A grounds man, who obviously did not know who Willie was tried to stop the deputy Prime Minister from walking on some reserved grounds marked “a site of special scientific interest by the Government.”

The grounds man stood in front of Willie and pointed at the sign board: “Excuse me sir, can’t you see what is written on that board?” quipped the grounds man.

“Of course I can. I am the Government,” replied Willie. The grounds man was disarmed.

Another time when as Home Secretary he visited a prison Willie came into contact with a prisoner: “And what are you in prison for, my man?” “Murder, home secretary,” ÔÇôSplendid, Splendid,” Willie replied.

But in private, Willie could also be ruthless to the Prime Minister’s opponents.

His biggest political asset was patience and also a strong antenna to detect troubles coming the Prime Minister’s way when they were still miles away ÔÇô and act accordingly.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi can be erratic, condescending, divisive, discourteous, moody, irascible and even petty.

This makes him blunder-strewn and also prone to small but costly gaffes.

He needs a Willie in his life to bring him down to earth ÔÇô from time to time.

That Willie’s role falls on none other than vice president Slumber Tsogwane. And under the circumstances only Tsogwane is able to restrain these presidential excesses.

For the last few months the vice president has come under immense but ultimately misplaced and un-deserved criticism for being too meek and not doing enough to defend the president.

Such criticism, unfounded as it is has grown shriller with time.

The more uncharitable of these critics are prepared to go all the way to come up with all sorts of caricatures to depict their own depraved imageries of  the vice president.

Some of them are even prepared to compare and contrast Tsogwane with the late General Mompati Merafhe, a combative and sometime wicked-tongued politician who before becoming vice president was a self-confessed factional schemer.

Tsogwane should be least worried by such ill-tempered, mischievous comparisons.

They are only calculated to bring out of him a personality that is altogether not his.

Tsogwane’s critics mistake his decency for wimpishness.

And inevitably they have not a slightest idea how important he is to president Masisi.

Tsogwane brings order and indeed meaning to Masisi’s daily life as Head of State.

He also brings out the best in Masisi.

Tsogwane’s loyalty to the president is absolute. This however does not make him a “yes man.”

Far from it!

All it means is that he rightly knows that his job is to provide unvarnished advice to the president only when there is just the two of them in a room.

In politics being outspoken might be an asset. But when you are vice president, loyalty to the president carries with itself far greater weight.

He would never leak anything he has discussed in confidence with the President.

I doubt the same can be said about Merafhe.

In his own peculiar way Tsogwane is an effective vice president. He is also mature.

Additionally, unlike Merafhe, Tsogwane has no ambitions of his own ÔÇô covert or overt.

The job of the President can be boring, painful and cold.

As Bill Clinton once put it, the White House for him often felt like a glorified prison cell.

President Masisi clearly enjoys Tsogwane’s company.

At one press conference I observed how the president’s face lit up as his deputy arrived.

That was during one of the darkest moments of Masisi presidency when it was rumoured that more than half of his cabinet were said to be against him.

Today that is no longer the case.

And all credit goes to Tsogwane.

It is all too likely that Masisi feels so comfortable in the company of Tsogwane because the two have such starkly opposite personalities.

Where Masisi is outspoken and gregarious, Tsogwane is discreet and withdrawn.

Where Masisi is intellectually exuberant and even pompous, Tsogwane is modest and self-effacing.

Masisi’s spat with Ian Khama could worse than is the case were it not for Tsogwane’s cool-headedness.

Those who talk about Khama’s love for fighting sadly do not seem to know that Masisi too relishes the same.

It is also important to note that not every little dispute in Government can be brought to the President’s attention.

Only big ones should be for the president, like the existential threat posed by the Khama/Venson axis.

The vice president in our case, Tsogwane is effectively the head of government business. Ministers report to him almost on a daily basis.

That role demands a unifier rather than a rouble-rouser.

Many people have no idea how many of the ministers were often put off by Merafhe’s combative but ultimately divisive antics.

The same cannot be said about Tsogwane.

My advice to his critics; undermine him at own peril.


Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.