Mbeki author lashes critics but his book is 'fit to read'

A gathering this week of academics, journalists, students and business people - in what was informally dubbed a "festival of ideas" - saw author, Ronald Suresh Roberts vent his anger at his detractors, critics of him and his book.

A gathering this week of academics, journalists, students and business people - in what was informally dubbed a "festival of ideas" - saw author, Ronald Suresh Roberts vent his anger at his detractors, critics of him and his book.

It was at the Wits Business School where the author of Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki that Roberts retaliated at those who have criticised his book. He was scathing in his attack of Business Day editor Peter Bruce, and the paper's columnist, Xolela Mangcu.

Among others in the firing line were Sunday Timeseditor Mondli Makhanya, journalism professor Anton Harber, columnists Justice Malala and Fred Khumalo and journalists Karima Brown and Vukani Mde.

Roberts said they suffered from what he termed "functional illiteracy". In Roberts' dictionary, that means lacking the literacy necessary to cope with most jobs and many everyday situations (including solid facts).

He dedicated his entire response to severely dealing with the critics, to the extent that a Wits politics professor questioned Roberts' motives in deviating from the topic - Thabo Mbeki.

The author lambasted the professor on the spot and the man was visibly humiliated.

Roberts said "protocol in the context of healthy democratic discourse in a liberal democracy and principles and procedures that separate liberalism from illiberalism, help to tell good journalism from bad".

He accused media leaders today of systematically flouting these protocols.

According to Roberts, some "good rules of journalism or intellectualism or common sense" were being ignored. The basic principles of proper literary criticism and journalism being ignored are that if you are going to write about a book, take the trouble to read it first, air both views, respect the intelligence of the public by not censoring or rewriting the opposing view, do not plagiarise the work of others and stay awake during the events you are reporting upon.

"And yet as I began to work on Fit to Govern, I quickly realised that these basic principles have been very visibly and blatantly violated in the reporting on Mbeki, and in the critical responses to my book. I give many detailed examples of such lapses throughout the book," he said.

He said he realised that the story of Thabo Mbeki and his portrayal in the media were in fact "separate and starkly different" stories, each at war with the other and, therefore, inextricably interlinked.

"It was impossible to address the substance of Mbeki without at the same time addressing the media distortion of Mbeki."

Roberts said Bruce had dismissed his book, and even encouraged people not to read it, although he confessed to not having read it.

The author was "pissed off" by the fact that Bruce once said he did not read books by authors younger than him.

During the meeting, Roberts accused Bruce of publishing Mangcu's column every week yet refusing to publish his articles since 2004. Roberts described Mangcu as Bruce's "native assistant".

In another instance, according to Roberts, Malala withdrew at the 11th hour from a radio debate on the book when he learnt that Roberts had also been invited.

Harber allegedly called for a postponement of a forum in which Roberts' book was to be discussed, because the author would be present as well.

In my first face-to-face encounter with Roberts, I found him to be a very intelligent person. Those who know him better than me describe him as "super-intelligent".

The guy knows his topic and is an engaging debater, but I don't like his being emotional and personal when talking about his critics; such as publicly questioning Harber's professorship at Wits University.

It is no wonder his critics are wary of debating issues with him face-to-face, rather preferring to talk about him or his work in his absence.

He will knock them out.

The fact that none of the commentators was present on Monday gave the impression that they were really avoiding Roberts.

Thami Mazwai, journalist and businessman, was there. He disagreed with Mangcu's assertion that he is against Roberts' book. Instead, Mazwai told the gathering that he supports the good job that the author had done and agrees with his views. Earlier, Mangcu had written that Mazwai's comment on the book was "probably the most important put-down of Roberts' book by someone in the inner sanctums of power".

Personally, I tend to agree with Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, when he told the gathering that those who did not like the book may have an issue either with Roberts or the subject of the book, Mbeki. Fakir said, while he identified some of its weaknesses, the book is "fit to read and Mbeki is fit to govern".