Malema's intellectual games won't deliver a better life for all
"Things are never so bad they can't be made worse," said Humphrey Bogart. It is a thought worth holding on to as we tumble towards the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung at the end of the year.
There will be a host of proposals ahead of the final showdown and some will be as absurd as the ANC Youth League's current campaign to make deposed party boss Thabo Mbeki an intellectual force again in the affairs of party and state.
Youth league president Julius Malema's bid to raise the intellectual capacity of the party is as ridiculous as President Jacob Zuma's promise - right after slaughtering a bull to appease the ancestors - that he would modernise the ANC.
There can be no doubt that the party could use an intellectual lift or that it should shed some of the traditions of its 100-year history in favour of more modern practices - but there are some things that some people should leave to others to say. Mbeki has said through his spokesman that he has no intention of returning to active domestic politics, and he probably means it. But we know from our long public association with him that he loves to split semantic hairs, so one should always be wary of his apparently absolute statements.
Malema is using the spectre of a Mbeki revival for politically opportunistic reasons only. Many lament the decline in thought and values in the ANC and in government and might be tempted to welcome Mbeki's return to the frontline.
It would be comforting to believe that the leadership of party and state was at least trying to identify the right things to do, and to do them.
But we don't need him anywhere near instruments of government where pride might cause him to abuse public facilities, as he abused the health department under Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in an effort to prove his dissident theories.
Mbeki is more intellectual maverick than heavyweight. Just this week, he suggested in an aside at a conference about knowledge that the swine flu panic a few years back had been concocted by the pharmaceutical industry to grow its profits.
As with his campaign against the common wisdom about Aids, he took a few strands of truth and spun a yarn, which is amusing in a college debate over a few drinks, but potentially disastrous, as we know from our experience of his medical interventions, when it is used as a basis of state policy.
It was also his style to over-engineer solutions to the country's problems, adding ever more complex layers of governance to address frontline management problems. He appeared to believe that a better high-level theory would somehow make a bad teacher good. We need simplified government that removes the friction of too many layers and gets the job done, not theoretical leadership exercised through conferences, studies or another inter-ministerial working committee.
A technocratic government probably would be best for us now - one that focuses on the mechanics of social, physical and service delivery within sustainable budget parameters and which measures its own performance rigorously.
Such a government would be most effective if it was leaner, not bigger, and if it was stripped as far as possible of the politics that impedes performance appraisal. Mbeki spoke of doing that, but never got it right.
He has nothing to teach us about efficient and effective government. One of his political misjudgments was to promote the belief in 2007 that it was a two-man race for the leadership of the party - that he was the only person who could defeat Zuma.
Now we risk another election in which the choice is actually for or against the incumbent with everyone else rallying around an opponent simply because he or she is not the incumbent. And Mbeki's name is being dragged in to lend intellectual weight to the anti-Zuma lobby.
Leaving aside the debate about electoral support based on a diminishing voter turnout, it would be safe to assume that at least half the population could fit the definition of a cadre suitable for deployment, and among them are many people capable of running an aspect of government or the economy.
There are also many not currently in consideration who could do a much better job of running the party and so contribute to stabilising government at all levels.
There is one slate doing the rounds that includes the names of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Joel Netshitenzhe and Trevor Manuel for positions among the party's top six under Kgalema Motlanthe as president.
All were prominent in Mbeki's administration, have continued to serve and would make a valuable contribution. But there must be more people like them within party structures, people who really are willing to put the job first and to tackle the country's challenges as management problems rather than political opportunities. If there is no concerted effort within the ANC to deliver that much promised better life for all rather than just the few then, as Bogart warned, things probably will get worse.