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Jordan's definitely not the man to cross

By unknown | May 12, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

If you'd intended to get in and out of an interview, with the same haste the military tackle a reconnaissance mission, Dr Pallo Jordan is not your best bet.

He comes trudging in, almost an hour late, his well-polished Ettiene Eigners scraping the carpets leading to his well-appointed 10th floor office on Kinglsey Buildings, on the corner of Beatrix and Church streets in Pretoria.

He's from a cabinet committee meeting that took for ever - but this is an explanation that comes, if now now is good language, much much later.

He stares almost unseeing into the couch area of his office and asks, in unhurried isiXhosa, who we are. At least he remembers he had people from two newspapers waiting to see him that Thursday afternoon.

This brings to mind the writing of one columnist - not the one without a job - who describes the political head of the Arts and Culture Department as "fuzzy- faced and sleepy-looking".

But he's awake all right and as we reach his office, the subject of discussion is his name.

Z Pallo Jordan, he enunciates as he fiddles with his PC, no doubt checking his mail: "You must get the sequence right," he reprimands.

Like Thabo Mbeki, who has a isiXhosa middle name and a Sesotho first name, the minister says his P-A-L-L-O is Sesotho and he tells a beautiful sentimental story of how his late father, Elijah, told an Irish missionary, a Father Ramsay, how there was no name more biblical than Zweledinga - the promised land.

"This had to do with our parents," he says about the names, "at the time they were at college in the 1930s. Many of them made the decision that they were not going to give their children the so-called Christian names."

Like the Mbeki children, he says, none of whom bear this sort of name.

Maybe it is the nature of the week we were in, but it is a tad difficult to write about Jordan without stumbling into Mbeki similarities.

This is the same week he'd told sacked columnist David Bullard not to import his racial prejudices from Britain, the same country Jordan had first met the Mbeki boys, Thabo in 1963 and Moeletsi three years later.

"The sister I met in Cape Town," he says about the Mbeki's late sister Linda.

While Jordan took a lot of flak from some newspapers who editorialised that he stooped too low in his Bullard telling-off, Mbeki would, on the occasion of Freedom Day celebrations, call on South Africans to unite in action to confront the savagery of racism. Not once mentioning Bullard by name, Jordan is adamant we have enough problems of our own not to import more.

Bullard's offending article, says the minister dismissively, "is the height of presumption".

Born in the same year as Mbeki, 1942, he refers to Zimbabwe as "the mess next door", while Mbeki has consistently been rapped over the knuckles for his quiet diplomacy.

"He's nobody's fool," Jordan says of Mbeki, "His contribution has been great, not only to South Africa but the continent."

He thinks Mbeki is one of the best heads of state the country has had, ever. This is the same Mbeki who overlooked him for a cabinet post after Jordan featured prominently in Nelson Mandela's government.

The most popular rumour then was that Mbeki, who reportedly was content surrounding himself with sycophants, saw Jordan, an intellectual of his own ilk, as a threat.

But, says Jordan, everything is kosher between them.

"We're on first-name terms. There's nothing unpleasant between us. We don't snarl at each other."

But he snarls when asked if "President Z Pallo Jordan" doesn't have a nice ring to it.

He doesn't aspire to higher office, says the man who headed posts and telecommunications in Mandela's government and Environment and Tourism when Mbeki later had a change of heart.

He's content: "I pioneered posts and telecoms policy in this country." And even in his second government posting he's been able to leave his footprints and "make interesting interventions in terms of giving policy direction".

"I am very happy where I am."

Like Mbeki, renowned for his anthemic I Am An African speech, Jordan also makes a point of giving his speeches a personal touch.

"I never just deliver a speech," says Jordan, a historian by training. "And if its something on which we need to make a serious point, I'd tend to write it myself."

His reading matter?

"I wouldn't say that I choose any particular author over others but there are those I like and those I do not care about. With South African writers, I read them as they come off the shelves," says the avid Internet user, who mentions Victor Hugo and Chester Himes by name.

His memoirs will come, he says, but with his biography he hopes to give it to someone objective "and sympathetic".

While it is known that Mbeki has a heart for jazz, Jordan's answer to "who do you listen to?" is like a treatise.

"It depends on my mood," he says of his eclectic taste. "This past Sunday I was at the house here in Pretoria and I put on Bach, his B Minor.

"By late evening when I got to Cape Town I was listening to something completely different. I was playing Ntemi Piliso."

Just as Mbeki has always had Essop Pahad, the Minister in the Presidency, as a shadow, Jordan has his buddies. The late Dumile Feni was a "very good friend of mine".

Another close buddy is Zola Skweyiya, with whom Jordan shared a house in Lusaka, Zambia, during the exile years. "We get on like a house on fire."

The same was true of the late Chris Hani and Steve Tshwete.

It is not true that leaders of the ANC were made in exile, he says, citing names of internals, such as Cyril Ramaphosa and Mosiuoa Lekota, among others.

"In terms of exposure, if you hadn't left, you could well have been disadvantaged. There were books, certain pieces of writing and music that were scarce."

The racist regime also ensured people were cordoned off from the information allowing only negatives in, he adds. "In that sense I'm sure people's knowledge was impacted on."

But despite this cordon, illicit information was always smuggled into the country, including even Robben Island.

Contrary to popular belief, Mbeki was not OR Tambo's anointed one, says Jordan. While Mbeki worked closely with Tambo by the time he left Britain for Zambia, he was not the only one.

"Tambo's style was to develop a whole galaxy of young people as future leaders. He nurtured them all the time."

Tambo was a remarkable leader who kept the movement together as he was able to bring even the rogue back into line. This he did even while the other liberation movement, the PAC "was quite literally disintegrating".

While the story of how Govan and Epainette Mbeki shaped the characters of their children is almost the stuff of legend, little is known of what an influence Dr Phyllis Priscilla Ntantala, the minister's mother, had on the thinker in him.

"I grew up in a household where we could discuss everything. Nothing, except the fact that all humans were equal, was ever taken for granted."

Those, going to Polokwane, who accused Mbeki of being an aloof man of letters have obviously never bothered to look at Jordan.

The minister, who gave up the bottle many moons ago, regrets the break-up of his first marriage. His only biological daughter is a 28-year-old solicitor in London.

He has two grown-up stepchildren, a daughter, 32, and a son who is three years older.


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