Tito’s ego

Fred Khumalo

The governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, is a snazzy dresser, always well-groomed, and has a ready smile. He also likes talking about himself. Hallmarks of a vain man.

In the age of celebrity, vain people go to extremes in order to attract the attention of newspaper and television cameras.

Which boggles the mind, then, that Mboweni, who is the epitome of vanity, has decided that photographers will henceforth not be allowed to take pictures of him – even at official functions. This is a first for South Africa. Not even PW Botha tried to prevent photogs from taking unflattering pictures of him wagging his notorious finger.

In fact Tito has gone to the extent of hiring an official photographer to take “proper” pictures of him, to be vetted by him and distributed to the media by his office.

But, wait a minute, I think I get it: the man is so bored with the dour pictures of him that get snapped at his official functions that by barring newspaper photographers from his gigs, he is deliberately needling paparazzi to go to extremes to get pictures of him – doing other things than being his besuited self speaking into a microphone.

And he will get what he wants. Maybe someone should sponsor a Spot Tito Competition where members of the public will be encouraged to snap the governor wherever they see him. Just to teach him a lesson.

But on a more serious note, the decision by the Reserve Bank governor is a bizarre manifestation of egomania. Well, Tito and ego – they rhyme!

Come hither, let me give you a story that bears testimony to Tito’s egomaniac tendencies. Immediately after his appointment as governor, he sent out an instruction to the Reserve Bank canteen telling whoever was in charge there to change the menu to suit the new governor’s culinary preferences. I think he said the canteen would henceforth stop serving meat on the bone, or did he say the canteen would henceforth only serve meat on the bone? Anyway, something as trivial as that. But maybe that was not trivial: a black man is serious about his meat! By the way, this story is not an urban legend. Mboweni himself repeated it when he addressed senior journalists at Media24 in 2000 or 2001, when I was still working there, for Rapport.

To move back to the more pressing issue at hand, Mboweni’s decision to ban photographers to shoot as the moment dictates is an attack on the free flow of information. It ill becomes anyone holding high public office to decree that press photographers may not do their job in his presence.

We know Adolf Hitler was sensitive about his height, but not even he tried to stop photographers from taking pictures that recorded the fact that the dictator was vertically challenged, and had a curious moustache that, at a glance, looked like a blood clot.

Photography is about recording watershed moments in the life of a nation, especially if the subject is a public official. These photographic moments should be spontaneous and not posed.

If a photographer snaps Mboweni wiping sweat from his brow, that is a slice of history. It puts into context what he was going through as he was delivering the painful blow on unsuspecting South African homeowners.

When I first read about the governor’s preposterous edict, I could not help but close my eyes, and mentally claw back to the past. In my mind’s eye I could see the governor holding court at La Copa Restaurant, in the insalubrious suburb of Yeoville.

Mboweni did not have any of these uppity inhibitions then. He used to laugh out loud, throwing his head back with careless abandon. He was always waxing lyrical about nationalising everything that moved. Oh, how times have changed.

He was usually in the company of a well-known lady who later became a famous beauty queen. Oh, if only I had taken a picture of him then, to use it in these days of the Tito-imposed drought.

It’s been reported that by barring the media from snapping him, the governor is taking a leaf from the book of his erstwhile US counterpart and idol Alan Greenspan, who was equally camera shy.

Well, to give you my two cents worth of opinion, Mr Governor, Greenspan had every reason to be camera shy. Those glasses of his were ooogly! Not just ugly, ooogly! The less said about his suits the better.

By allowing only kosher pictures of him to be disseminated to the media, the governor is airbrushing some important moments of history from the collective memory of this nation – not unlike Joseph Stalin airbrushing Trotsky and Lenin from that historic picture.

And, he could be setting a bad precedent: our ministers always behave like parrots. When the media waxed lyrical about how President Mbeki enjoyed quoting Shakespeare and other great scribes during his presentations, many ministers started squeezing literary and poetic nuggets into their speeches.

Stop it, Tito, before it gets out of hand!

Fred Khumalo is editor of the Insight & Opinion Editor section of the Sunday Times, where he also writes an award-winning sociopolitical column. His novel Bitches’ Brew won the European Union Literary Award in 2005. In 2006 he published his autobiography Touch My Blood: The Early Years, which was short-listed for the 2007 Alan Paton Non-Fiction Award. His second novel Seven Steps To Heaven was published by Jacana Media in 2007. He is finishing an unauthorised biography of African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, commissioned by Penguin Books South Africa. He also hosts the television show Encounters on SABC2.