Phindile Xaba

[intro]Onkgopotse JJ Tabane’s thought –provoking, and emotionally stirring encapsulation of South Africa’ State of the Nation, in his book – Let’s Talk Frankly – Letters to Influential South Africans about the State of the Nation – is out right bravado. He publicly expresses what many probably discuss in private exchanges.[/intro]

This unrelenting opinion-maker, recorder of history and an advocate of fair economic participation, was once an ANC Youth Leaguer, who left for a short-lived political career only to be propelled to the helm as a spokesperson of the ailing political party – COPE – during its formative period. A party he described as “having died before it took off”.

Like a prodigal son, Tabane returned to the home of the ANC.

He says his letters reflect a nation “hanging in the balance”. His book is a combination of wit, humour, intellectual depth, calculated opinion, and an objective interrogation that doesn’t fear or favour any of its subjects. Sifiso Yalo’s ever-intelligent cartoons give the book an additional satirical depth.

Tabane traverses the socio -political, economic issues, so comfortably yet probes with intensity the reality of where we stand as a South African nation. This is a page turner from beginning to end as he takes on the sitting president – President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, Mining giant – Nicky Oppenheimer, South African Communist Party leading man turned Minister of Higher Education – Blade Nzimande, EFF leader Julius Malema and DA leaders Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. Afrikaans musician Steve Hofmeyr and current chair of African Union Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma also do not escape Tabane’s sharp pen.

Tabane says EFF leader Malema is just as much on the gravy train as the other ‘honourable’ members. Apparently, when EFF arrived at the Marks Building, its troops demanded bigger office space over smaller parties. “Not a good sign,” says Tabane.

He further decodes the 7 pillars of the EFF manifesto, that includes the nationalisation of all commercial establishments plus the thorny land issue, which resonated with most South Africans and gained EFF a good spot in the sun in parliament. Tabane’s letter advises that Malema stops the parliamentary gimmicks and starts working hard between the screaming and the shouting.

The mining family descendent Nicky Oppenheimer of Anglo American also earned himself a spot in the book and his letter is about how he believes the mining industry’s modus operandi has reinforced White Monopoly Capital, colonialism, and sustained long-standing white supremacist patterns.


Tabane lambasts the Oppenheimer’s family for their willingness to benefit from the “apartheid sun” and criticised the Afrikaner elite whose activities were bankrolled with state money, leaving the country in the red by 1994.

His haunting question is what are Oppenheimer and company prepared to do to address the injustice visited on black people. He suggests that the mining magnate walk just a mile in the shoes of communities that have suffered as a result of digging for minerals. His asks that Oppenheimer and his cronies mobilise white business to build a new cohort of entrepreneurs with partnerships between white corporations and small black businesses in pursuit of mutual gain, and revise whites’ attitude towards black economic empowerment.

Tabane then roughs up the DA camp suggesting that Helen Zille practices double standards, pointing to the donation her party received from the Guptas. He questions the correctness of crediting her for apparent anti-apartheid activity. He calls on her to clearly state her position on BEE and affirmative action.

Other influential figures in the firing line include ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, COPE leader Mosiuoa Terror Lekota, Former social activist turned AGANG SA leader Maphela Ramphele, Trade Unionist Zwelinzima Vavi, Mining Magnate Patrice Motsepe, Newsman Peter Bruce, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, and many others.

Tabane leaves the best for last – the honourable President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. There is a laundry list of praises on Zuma’s accomplishments while serving as president, and a very short list of mess ups- spectacular ones that overshadow the good deeds! He acknowledges Msholozi’s remarkable journey from the dusty streets of Nkandla to the Union Buildings. Despite having made his mark in the movement; the controversies that have followed him have made many forget about his contributions. Among the most notable was his contribution to bringing peace to KZN at a time in the 90s when conflict was claiming many lives.

Since then “Msholozi” has been mired in controversy, starting with the Schabir Shaikh matter. Tabane encourages Zuma to have a little bit of faith in the court system as “Schabir only spent two minutes in the cells, and Yengeni is now living the high life”. Tabane also lays bare the paradoxical thinking process of the honourable president – he appointed the most effective public protector – Thuli Madonsela, but has yet to fire a minister for corruption. His is a story of two streams that are irreconcilable, he has a foundation that educates many yet he labels educated Africans, ‘clever blacks’ when challenged about his indecisiveness. Tabane offers free advice to Zuma to fix the deployment system, to reward capacity over loyalties, fire his advisors, privatise key parastatals, deploy the best to local government and compensate the Marikana victims.

For the public figures that escaped this round, expect a message from Tabane some day, he is no novice at writing open letters. He is currently a columnist with Daily Maverick and has scribed numerous torturous letters sometimes moving the subject to respond. Wait for your “ You’ve got mail” turn.

Q&A with JJ Tabane


Why did you feel the need to write such a collection of letters – were you insane messing with the calibre of addressees?

I wrote these letters partly as an expression of frustration for not having a platform to hold these leaders accountable. But I also wrote them because I believe the culture of debate is waning and needs to be resuscitated. Our leaders and some of these addressees are responsible for killing debate because of patronage. I know that these are high profile people who are often feared by citizens – I believe that none of them should be above criticism or satire for that matter. I am testing the limits of the freedom we fought for and so many died for.

I believe that writing these letters is a calling that I will pursue throughout life and cannot be intimidated by a spirit of fear for anyone no matter how powerful they may be. I believe that especially politicians are always in power temporarily. Soon they will be like you and I -ordinary citizens.

What is your process of choosing the addressees?

Most of the choices were inspired by the outrageous things that the addressees did recently but there was also a deliberate attempt to make sure I cover leaders from all sides of the political spectrum while also paying attention to civil society – business, unions etc.

Where did you find time to write these letters in your busy schedule?

In fact these (letters in the book) are only a fraction of the letters I have written. When you have a passion it ceases to be work. It becomes a labour of love. My PhD supervisor wondered where I got the time. It simply means I will graduate much later – but hopefully the time I took to write the letters will make a difference in our body politic somewhat. The letters are based on observation of politics and less on research.

Which of the following is effective in transforming lives in society -political or social activism

They complement each other. We cannot resign everything to political activism. We need everyone to brighten the corner where they are in order to effect change across society. We all need to play our part, thus the letters. This is the voice I can use to inform public discourse.

Why did you choose addressing the political issues?

The political issues I selected range from corruption to governance, accountability to alignment of the political spectrum – these are issues that are shaping conversations at present. These letters are my opinion and therefore contribution to these issues of our day. In a sense they chose me because I couldn’t ignore saying something about them.

What were your thoughts about this year’s State of the Nation?

I think the state of the nation was correctly focused on the economy. The taste of the pudding will have to be in the eating!  We have already seen that the markets are still skeptical which means they are taking a posture that says – we have heard this before.