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Brent Meersman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A comparison of Gevisser, Roberts and Gumede’s biographies of Thabo Mbeki

As the country (eagerly it would seem) has waved goodbye to Thabo Mbeki, are we as a nation any closer to understanding him? On the one hand a spate of recent biographies are illuminating, on the other hand commentators and columnists have mostly turned upon him with a vengeance, obscuring any objective assessment of the man’s legacy.

This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than when on the very day of what should have been Mbeki’s greatest triumph, closing a deal between Mugabe and the opposition MDC, it was Jacob Zuma who won his battle in court to have charges against him dropped and Mbeki who came in for a blistering attack from just about everyone – the judge, opposition parties, the media, the ANC executive. Zuma’s supporters even staged a mock funeral for the incumbent. How did Tambo’s chosen heir end up so ubiquitously unpopular?

The point is Mbeki rose to the presidency of South Africa never having contested a popular vote amongst the rank and file of the ANC in whose vanguard he had been for nearly forty years. He was appointed Deputy President reluctantly by Nelson Mandela in 1994 and anointed President by Mandela, again with a heavy heart, in 1998. Mbeki, after 15 years as the de facto commander in chief of the country, was rejected by an overwhelming majority of his comrades at the party’s 52nd Congress in Polokwane last year. He had hoped for a similar outcome as that achieved by Vladimir Putin. Proscribed from a third term as President of the state, he wished to be the real power behind the office as President of the party. But democracy in South Africa is healthier than it is in Russia. It was a devastating defeat for a tragic man who has had no purpose or even personal ambition, beyond his dedication to the ANC.

Mbeki was born in rural Transkei in 1942, into a family of educated communists fighting against the implacable erosion of their rights as black South Africans and the brutal attrition of their material upliftment hard won through education and brave entrepreneurship. His resilient mother, now in her nineties and still living in modest conditions in her community, is of the industrious, Christianised and elite Bafokeng lineage. His father’s people were Mfengu. Whatever one’s belief in genetic determinism might be, his heredity strikes one as deeply symbolic. The Mfengu (or ‘Fingo’ in the colonial lexicon) were expelled by Shaka’s Zulu army around 1830. The first of the Nguni to convert to Christianity and accede to be subjects of the Crown, the Mfengu became black ‘settlers’. The colony enfeoffed them in British Kaffraria as a bulwark, and enlisted them as auxiliaries (where they acquired a reputation for brutality). Their participation was the decisive factor in British victory during several frontier wars with the Xhosa. The Mfengu position was contentious, regarded with suspicion but jealously admired for their prosperity. During the calamitous cattle killing of 1856 following a millenarian prophecy, unswayed by superstition, the Mfengu turned the slaughter into a tidy profit by buying up the herds of broken chiefs.

Perhaps of greater significance to Mbeki is that the Mfengu were ultimately betrayed by the white colonists, the British government and unforgivably by the missionaries. Mbeki’s grandfather had the vote as early as 1852. He and his descendants would watch as the title to their lands was abrogated, their people pressed into slave conditions on the mines, and their franchise eventually revoked (by an act of law in the House of Commons one must add), all this long before apartheid came to deal its final sadistic blows by trying to eliminate even the possibility of acquiring higher education. Thabo Mbeki has in the 20th Century recapitulated the contradictions of his ancestors in his ambivalent relationships with Africa and the West.

Mbeki chose exile in the 1960s, leaving behind his two-year-old and only son (conceived when Mbeki was 16), along with 27 students, including Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, our unpopular and internationally ridiculed minister of health who Mbeki has ever since loyally supported beyond all prudence. Unlike many of his comrades, he would never be imprisoned by the apartheid state.

He read economics at the new, experimental and politically radicalised University of Sussex. Unfortunately, his university records are missing, his secondary school records incinerated in a fire and his class records at the Lenin Institute in Moscow shredded.

The outwardly conservative Mbeki (he dressed like a county squire in tweed and smoked a pipe) was however permanently influenced by the British Labour Party. He even campaigned in the swing constituency of Kemp Town that proved vital to Wilson’s slender majority, though the black Mbeki was discouraged by the Brighton Labour Committee from canvassing door to door.

Mbeki became known as the Crown prince under the personal guardianship of Oliver Tambo, who held the ANC presidency in curatorship during its long exile while most of the elected leadership (including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s distant father, Govan) were imprisoned on Robben Island. Tambo was his surrogate father, and the ANC his family, even arranging his marriage to Zanele Dlamini.

Instead of joining the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres in the African bush, Mbeki begged to complete his Masters at Sussex. He finally received military training in 1969 in the Soviet Union, a stark and uncomfortable contrast to swinging Sixties London. He became a Central Committee member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), a move that with hindsight may have been more for expediency than from ideological commitment. The Soviets bankrolled the liberation movement. Mbeki would march in protest against the American invasion of Vietnam, but join the ‘tankies’ (as they were called) in support of Brezhnev’s crushing of Prague in 1968.

From the 1970s, Mbeki maintained a high profile, constantly on the move around the world, a pattern he has maintained to date, becoming the familiar face of the ANC amongst the international political and business elite.

After Tambo suffered a debilitating stroke in 1989 on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release, Mbeki became indispensable in spearheading the peaceful resolution to apartheid’s dismantling. The key role he played in these negotiations was his finest hour.

The assassination of Chris Hani in 1993, the MK chief of staff and his archrival, removed the last major obstacle to Mbeki’s inexorable ascendancy. To many in the ANC, his trouncing at the last national congress by populist rival Jacob Zuma and his removal as the president of the country, feels like retribution if not outright revenge. The MK vets were particularly active in co-ordinating the show of support for Zuma outside the courts in Pietermaritzburg.

Since Mandela, the relationship between South Africans and their President, (whether they have met him or not) is personal. Reading or writing about our President is cathartic. Attitude rather than thoughtful examination of his policies has been the locus of Mbeki’s biographers.

Ronald Suresh Roberts’s Fit to Govern is an intellectual hagiography posing as an exegesis of Mbeki’s philosophy. Written in close consultation with Mbeki and for around ₤100 000 solicited from the private sector by a minister in the presidency, Roberts sets out to demolish Mbeki’s critics, egregiously caricatured as anything from “academic rent-boys of imperialism” to one “noted jihadist of neo-conservatism”.

Much of the Roberts is between quotation marks, amassed from diverse sources including third party e-mail correspondence. His scattergun approach fails to offer a coherent and logical analysis of what forms Mbeki’s opinions. He all but ignores the intellectual products of which Mbeki is chief architect – NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and his conception of an African Renaissance. Roberts is glaringly without the persuasive credibility of a Said, Sontag or even latter Chomsky.

He does however raise important issues on which debate will be sharpened under a Zuma presidency: policy capture in the developing world by global financial interests; the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal establishment who still refuse to face up to the nation’s ugly past; the ongoing need for revision of Africa’s colonial history. An empathetic approach would have helped clarify how South Africans talk past one another, how they lack critical self-awareness around the way they see each other. Given our country’s past, it is unsurprising that debates over major challenges facing the country – economic disparity, health, education, foreign policy – are obfuscated by unconscious racism and racial hypersensitivity from both black and white. Instead, Roberts manages to fuel those flames. Immersed in Frantz Fanon, whose oeuvre he uses as a sort of periscope to glimpse his targets, he maliciously torpedoes mostly fellow commentators, editors and journalists.

No serious analysis should take a sitting politician at his word at all times. Roberts never examines to what extent Mbeki has lived up to his high-minded speeches. Mbeki’s words are often political acts. He is adept at window dressing, gesture politics and political distraction, regularly shifting the debate from the issues – such as the crises of AIDS and crime – to debates about debate. In this, he has found a deft collaborator in Roberts. Criticism of Mbeki is dismissed as a function of an “old and largely unreconstructed media oligarchy bereft of electoral influence”. Mbeki’s recent humbling put paid to that untruth. Mbeki has been orphaned by the only constituency Roberts recognises as conferring legitimacy on his subject’s legacy. He too will, to use his own phrase, “need to heed the verdicts of the South African native electorate”.

Roberts’s grossest act of disinformation is his spurious argument that “Thabo Mbeki is not now, nor has ever been, an AIDS dissident”. Besides the fact that Mbeki has with calculated neglect failed to show leadership on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and his own government’s antiretroviral rollout plan, if he is so grossly misrepresented by the media as Roberts argues, he has fuelled controversy rather than ever seriously attempting to set the record straight.

Events have overtaken Roberts. As Mark Gevisser’s handsomely illustrated and magisterial biography of Mbeki, A Dream Deferred, nine years in the writing, was poised for the presses, Mbeki couriered Gevisser an updated copy of the influential Castro-Hlongwane document that expounds both AIDS denialist and dissident positions. He said it accurately reflected his views. Mbeki wanted it to be clear-cut in Gevisser’s text that he still questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and regretted withdrawing from the debate under pressure from Cabinet.

What remains murky are the reasons for Mbeki’s intransigence. Mbeki, who unlike other African leaders such as Mandela, Kaunda and Buthelezi has not lost his children to AIDS, indulges in sophistry that doesn’t grasp scientific process. Science is a systematic explanation of the world as it is experienced, not a revelation of a philosophically incontestable reality.

Mbeki’s “intellect is marked by perpetual questioning: he advances not through enthusiastic exclamation points or staccato full stops but along a line of question marks”. Gevisser’s description is also the method Gevisser employs, often concluding with a series of speculative questions, notably when touching sensitive issues that might offend his subject. I have the impression that Gevisser is trying to find a point of identification with Mbeki and perhaps offering a tacit apologia for his public probing.

Gevisser, unlike Roberts with his disingenuous glossing, sincerely attempts to understand Mbeki’s arcane positions, such as Mbeki’s paranoid outburst to an astonished ANC parliamentary caucus that he is the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign by the CIA working hand in glove with “Big Pharma”. Ironically, Gevisser creates more empathy for his subject than Roberts, whose polemical style backfires. As difficult as it clearly often was for Gevisser, he modestly states at the outset that he has tried to balance his perspective “with the voices and opinions and subjectivities of others who know Mbeki far better than I do”.

The Dream Deferred is a psychological biography taking as its theme “disconnection” (Mbeki’s word) referring to his awkwardness in placing himself within his traditional culture, not only after returning from 27-years exile, but as a child.

Mbeki emerges from the Gevisser text as highly functional, but callously detached. Govan Mbeki was of the same ilk and during his 25-year incarceration, Thabo didn’t write to him. When the death sentence hung over his father, although mounting a 60-mile march to 10 Downing Street to highlight his plight, Mbeki stated coolly that the “revolution produces new leaders all the time”. Mbeki’s brother, Jama, was murdered, but Mbeki has not prosecuted the matter for political reasons. Jama’s widow sadly observes, “In the Mbeki family there is no [such] family value. They believe in politics [more] than real life”. Perhaps the most moving accounts surround his only child Kwanda, which came to light in testimony given by the mother, Olive Mpahlwa, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Mbeki sent his estranged son a “beautiful watch” with his name inscribed on it, which never worked and even “the best jewellers…could do nothing”. Kwanda “just could not believe it”. He disappeared in 1981 and there is evidence to suggest a violent death. Mbeki refused to meet with Mpahlwa despite her tenacious attempts for closure.

The “dream deferred”, taken from a poem by Langston Hughes and quoted by Mbeki, refers not only to his psychological difficulties at reconciling himself with his African identity, but also the postponement of delivering to his people on the promises of the national democratic revolution because of the inability to implement his policies. The Mbeki led ANC to date have only managed one-half of the equation – macro economic security and growth while reintroducing South Africa to the global economy. Fiscal austerity has so far failed the egalitarian dreams of the vast majority, who remain frustrated and impoverished with few prospects for economic self-determination, and who have now elected Zuma, a leader susceptible to demagoguery.

Gevisser is careful not to be judgemental (and his will be the more enduring biography of those under review here), but it was published at a time when perceptions of Mbeki as President are low, even amongst his core constituencies. Many in the white community are angry at his shift in recent years from a position of national reconciliation to one emphasising racial inequality and the need for social transformation. Gevisser’s biographical revelations were inflammatory, at the very least they have allowed Mbeki’s detractors to distil and verbalise their criticism. Mbeki is now deemed to have overplayed his hand and hopelessly mismanaged the succession battle for the presidency.

Although Gevisser achieves a judicious balance, he is susceptible to occasional sycophancy. Mbeki’s appointment of the Hefer Commission to investigate spy allegation made by struggle veteran Mac Maharaj he writes “was a stroke of genius”. Mbeki already had the facts and evidence. The commission was simply “a public drama” “calculated precisely” (its terms were altered three times) to humiliate his challengers. Gevisser fails to realise that in so doing Mbeki undermined the judicial process, abused his executive power, and fuelled perceptions of him as a vindictive political manipulator. Conspiracy theories abound and stalk South African politics. Mbeki’s unprovable accusations of plots against him and his executive interference in Constitutionally independent structures, such as the National Prosecuting Authority, means that widespread belief in these conspiracies is not altogether irrational perhaps even true. The consequences are lethal to the rule of law.

William Mervin Gumede in Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC gleefully enters the fray in the style of a newspaper columnist. This is the work of a hardbitten journalist. It does not have behind it the laborious research into primary sources and the discipline of a historical biographer like Gevisser, nor his meticulous referencing, but it is informative and fluent, if somewhat inelegantly cobbled together. Gumede’s accomplishment is the collation of a large amount of material in the public domain and in the new extensively updated edition, he goes further in examining Mbeki’s track record and machinations in government than any other extant work.

Gumede’s thesis is that Mbeki and a small group of technocrat centrists imposed undemocratically upon the ANC an economic policy that embraced the Washington consensus foreign orthodox global capitalism, a shift to the right which risked splitting the ANC. Recent events bear out his analysis.

How the biographers differ in their approach is illustrated by their take on Mbeki’s controversial “quiet diplomacy” towards the crisis in Zimbabwe. In defending Mbeki, Roberts deflects the issue by crying hypocrisy: those who opposed sanctions on the apartheid government now call for them against Zimbabwe; many howling for regime change by force in Zimbabwe are against such measures taken in Iraq. Roberts is forthright that “Robert Mugabe at the height of his murderous campaign [in Matabeleland]…slaughtered an estimated 20 000 black people”, but concludes peculiarly, “Mugabe in not a genocidaire”. Meanwhile Gevisser has uncovered Mbeki’s close working relationship in the 1980s with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the leader of the notorious Fifth Brigade and perpetrator of the ethnic massacre (who also presided over the torture and detention of the ANC’s MK operatives in southern Zimbabwe). When Mugabe triumphed, Mbeki was quick to support him, astounding his ANC comrades who favoured Joshua Nkomo. Gevisser’s reductionism, I think lamely, places Mugabe as a father figure to Mbeki, a wayward one whom he is unable to confront expeditiously. Mugabe on the other hand outmanoeuvred Mbeki at every turn, possibly as time may tell even in the recent agreement. Gumede puts it down to cynical and petty Africanist politics and incompetence. He lambastes Mbeki for having “squandered countless opportunities to make a difference in Zimbabwe”, and his policy is a “gross betrayal of blacks in Zimbabwe and everything that the liberation movement fought for”. He cites how Mbeki’s hand picked team of election observers shamefully declared the manifestly unjust 2002 election that returned Mugabe as free and fair, even though Mbeki’s own unofficial observer team reported widespread violations.

Perhaps the greatest, and to date still not fully excavated danger to his reputation, will arise from the corruption surrounding South Africa’s R60-billion armaments purchase. It was Mbeki who championed the deal, closed down the parliamentary investigation, bullied the parliamentary caucus in to kow-towing to the executive, and who now stands accused of selective justice and is himself implicated in impropriety. At a crucial moment in establishing South Africa’s fledgling democracy, Mbeki sent all the wrong signals.

Mbeki’s departure has ramifications well beyond the borders of South Africa. On his legacy, the jury will be out for some time still, his successes at present obscured by his monumental blunders.

(an abridged version of this article appeared in The Weekender) – Brent Meersman

Mark Gevisser
THABO MBEKI – THE DREAM DEFERRED
ISBN-13: 978 1 86842 301 9
892pp. Jonathan Ball Publishers.

William Mervin Gumede
THABO MBEKI AND THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE ANC
ISBN: 987 1 77007 099 8
456pp. Zebra Press.

Ronald Suresh Roberts
FIT TO GOVERN: THE NATIVE INTELLIGENCE OF THABO MBEKI
ISBN-13: 978 1 919855 64 6
296pp. STE Publishers.
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