At the bottom of the pile of Thabo Mbeki’s speeches published in the book titled Africa: The time has come, is a speech that has haunted me for two decades. It is not the beautifully crafted I am an African speech. And no, it is not the speech about South Africa being a country of two nations.
Nor is it Mbeki’s brilliant farewell speech on the occasion of Madiba’s retirement from Parliament. Rather, it is a brief, little-known and seldom invoked speech which Mbeki made in 1998 titled Stop the Laughter.
He delivered it in Swakopmund, one of the most scenic settings in the Southern hemisphere, home to an indomitable people, the Herero and the Nama.
Bewitched by the magnificence of that Namibian coastal city where sea, desert and sky embrace, Mbeki delivered one of his best speeches, to my mind.
Maybe he was stirred by the knowledge of the violent colonial past of that beautiful place, to make a speech that was bitter and sweet.
And yet it is written in elegant prose, sprinkled with fragments of humour, punctuated with dazzling pearls of wisdom and delivered with the proverbial sting in the tail.
Perhaps by way of contrast, Mbeki chose to construct his speech around the the story of the 2000 or so inhabitants of Dead Man’s Creek, Mississippi, US. Among the citizens was one Stevie Wonder, the only black man in town.
With no access to the most basic forms of entertainment and little connection to the rest of the world, the boring lives of the inhabitants of Dead Man’s Creek, revolved around the "nightly" television news. When they heard on the news one day that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was preaching the gospel of African renewal, they said "Hallelujah!" because "they would no longer have to contribute some of their personal money to famine relief in the African Republic of Kalakuta".
And Stevie Wonder said "Amen", for the welcome respite from being called upon daily to explain embarrassing African experiences he knew nothing about.
But soon enough, the news from Africa reverted to the usual doom and gloom. One day it was about the Somalian relapse from modernity back to feudalism. Then the familiar stories of famine and war in Africa became regular again.
Then came the story of how one Gnassingbé Eyadéma stole the 1998 elections in Togo – a country he ruled from 1967 until he died in 2005.
Museveni is alive, so he is still president of Uganda, 31 years later. Seemingly, Paul Kagame intends to remain president of Rwanda, as long as he lives.
And the citizens of Dead Man’s Creek started to laugh saying: "African politicians must be the best comedians in the world."
Stung by that scornful laughter, Mbeki begged his fellow African leaders saying: "Let us stop the laughter."
But dear Mr Mbeki, I have news for you. The mocking laughter has returned, louder and bolder. It is no longer Dead Man’s Creek alone that is laughing. Villagers in the backyards of China are laughing at, and joking about, Africa. The entire world is in stitches over our fantastic ability to wound ourselves.
They see our leaders, including Mbeki, angrily frothing at the mouth about the blunt and punitive justice of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet all over Africa, state institutions are either being destroyed or non-existent. Instead, crooked individuals, family dynasties and cronies are consolidating their power.
Do we think these family dynasties will either enable the emergence of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, the ICC equivalent for Africa? How many Bashirs, Laurent Gbagbos, Joseph Kabilas and Yahya Jammehs must we tolerate and appease and for how long? What’s wrong with simply asking for leaders who will respect the will and lives of the people they lead?
Our country, South Africa, has become the laughing stock of the world again. In fact, I am not sure if the laughter ever stopped. Not even during the Mbeki presidency.
After all, is it not Mbeki who gave us president Jacob Zuma?
The inept and embarrassing attempt to pull South Africa out of the Rome Statute must be one big joke in Dead Man’s Creek.
Last week when the ICC ruled that as a signatory, South Africa was obliged to arrest Omar al-Bashir, which South Africa ought to have known, they must have been rolling on the wooden floors with laughter.
All indications are that if South Africa needed the ICC before, you can be sure we will need it soon – what with the emasculation and deligitimisation of key state institutions! Key instruments of the criminal justice system such as the former Scorpions, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate have been under siege for a long time with a view to turn them into mere tools in the hands of politicians.
We have seen state-owned enterprises (SOEs) being systematically turned into the cash cows of "the family" and its strategic allies. Why should the world not deride us?
When it emerged that Public Protector advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane had decided to oppose President Zuma’s application to set aside the state capture remedial actions of her predecessor, a television network issued a screaming headline, saying: "Breaking news, Mkhwebane criticises Zuma." Ought this not to be the normal, though not the only, job of the public protector? Clearly there is growing desperation nationally, for the incumbent public protector to demonstrate her independence.
Across the land, there is a palpable fear that, as well as the National Treasury and the SOEs, the office of the public protector might be in danger of being "Guptaed". When the public protector finally criticised the president, all the people said: "Amen! Hallelujah!"
We fear that the repeated jibes at the judiciary by the some of our senior political leaders, as well as the recent burglaries at the offices of the Hawks, the NPA and the chief justice might be part of a planned, albeit sinister, effort to intimidate and weaken the crucial institutions.
At the recent ANC policy conference, the ANC reminded me of my grandmother, who was nearly the same age as the party when the gods called her.
She would look everywhere for the container in which she kept her tobacco, to the point of dispatching us kids to help with the search everywhere. And all the while, she was absent-mindedly holding it in her hand.
Similarly, ANC policy conference delegates huffed and puffed about everything else, looked and searched everywhere, except whence their problems emanated – the absence of a moral and ethical leadership at the highest level of the party.
When the Gupta wedding Airbus A330-200 plane landed at Waterkloof Airbase in 2013, we resented the ruthless audacity of violating a national key point in that way. We were disgusted by the opulence of a luxury motorcade that ferried the family and their guests to Sun City, under the watch and guidance of our police.
It was nauseating.
To add insult to injury, we have recently learnt the South African taxpayer might have paid for it all, including the lavish wedding.
Surely, we deserve to be laughed at.
* Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria and an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter handle – @ProfTinyiko.