These days we wake up every morning to United States diplomats’ candid assessments of the world’s leaders, courtesy of Wikileaks. The revelations are generally unflattering and cause a few blushes, but no juicy titbits have been let out. Nor are they life or career threatening as US government officials would want us to believe. Every new leak draws the now familiar response.
The US government feigns annoyance and even calls Julian Assange, the man behind Wikileaks, a terrorist and promise him an all-expenses-paid stay in Guantanamo Bay. They are probably more embarrassed by the inability to keep their secrets than the actual revelations.
And so they scramble to make insincere apologies to those about whom they have said some frank things.
Those foreign leaders that have been exposed cry foul and condemn Americans as, loudmouthed gossips, rumour mongers and arrogant and ungrateful guests.
An army of cyber space warriors are excited about the prospects of doing battle with the most powerful country on earth and anyone who dares touch Assange. They sharpen their tools to break into communication networks and spill some more secrets.
Newspapers get free stories.
The general public have unpaid for entertainment and interesting subjects to talk about in their favourite watering holes.
Whether the response is shock, horror, anger or glee that should not really come as a surprise. There is nothing new or astonishing.
Take the following examples. Kenya is described as a “swamp of flourishing graft”. Every Kenyan and visitor to the country knows that.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is described as a “ruthless but brilliant tactician”. Ian Smith, Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo found out about that long ago and went to their graves with the bitter knowledge. Morgan Tsvangirai, also described as “flawed, indecisive and closed-minded” lives with it daily.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi revels in his eccentricities. He goes everywhere with a bevy of heavily armed and attractive female body guards, his famous Bedouin tent and has now added a Ukrainian nurse.
The Green Book has long been discarded and been replaced by a new-found interest in African kings and chiefs and their queens, who now surround him at every African Union summit.
South Africans will not be surprised by the description of former President Thabo Mbeki as “thin-skinned, shrill and defensive”, if cerebral.
All this is common knowledge. Behind the affability of the diplomats lurk shrewd, cunning and sharp minds. The smooth, non-committal and inoffensive language in public lures unsuspecting people into a false belief of friendship and makes them say more than they should.
In private the urbane diplomats are given to blunt and colourful language as we have seen.
This, too, is not strange. I am sure African leaders have equally colourful names for their foreign counterparts. Ordinary people certainly do.
Indeed President Mugabe has in the past called President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair uncomplimentary names – and not in secret diplomatic dispatches, but in public addresses.
So why are people miffed by the revelation of what we all know? For both sides, it is really the story of the naked emperor.
Politicians (and many others in public life) love praise songs that extol their virtues and abilities, and they actually come to believe this. And so when this vanity is exposed – thieves are called just that, lunatics named and suckers of blood are shown the dried carcases of their unnatural thirst, they realise that they are actually naked.
The other reason has to do with spying. Wikileaks has shown that the United States uses its foreign missions to routinely spy on other countries. That, too, is normal practice. Spying is one of the duties of foreign missions.
Of course, spies are given fancy diplomatic titles and there is a great deal of make-believe among all parties concerned, but that does not fool anyone. Some, like the United States, have more resources to do it more effectively. That is all the difference.
There is something positive to be said about Wikileaks exposures. They offer nice entertainment. Since the end of the cold war, we have been starved of exciting stories of espionage – real and fictional. Occasionally, we get a few exceptions like the red-headed Anna Chapman and her Russian colleagues uncovered in the United States early this year.
Chapman was the closest we got to the glamour of spying for quite a while. But even she did not come close enough. And then she disappeared too quickly.
Assange, his Wikileaks and an anonymous volunteer army of hackers may not be very sexy (except for the sex charges against him in Sweden) , but they are refreshingly subversive. A little upset of the existing order is always good.
Knocking the powerful out of their stride and causing them some anxiety brings smiles on the lips of ordinary people. They can look at the emperor, notice that he is naked and laugh at his self-deception. The emperor does not have the same luxury.
One warning, though: Do not think that the western newspapers that Wikileaks has given the US diplomatic cables to publish are revealing all. They are leaving out what will harm the security interests of the US, but no one is clamouring for full exposure.
Try that here and the media freedom police will descend on us in hordes.