[Marxism] New Thabo Mbeki biography
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 30 07:58:42 MST 2007
Inside the outsider
Review by Alec Russell
Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred
By Mark Gevisser
Jonathan Ball Publishers R225, 892 pages
In a month’s time, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress holds
its most divisive leadership election in 50 years. It is an event that
poses a serious test for the post-apartheid state. At the heart of the
drama is Thabo Mbeki, the urbane, intellectual, enigmatic, prickly and
paranoid president, as he has been variously described over the years.
He is controversially running for a third term as leader of the party.
Anyone who wants to go beyond those cliches, and also to understand what
has happened in South Africa since the end of white rule, should read
Mark Gevisser’s biography. In the process, they will get swept up in an
extraordinarily compelling and at times infuriating and tragic story.
Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred is far and away the most authoritative
book on Nelson Mandela’s successor. At 800 pages (plus notes), it is
also the most substantial. Readers might question the need for such a
volume. But at the risk of reaching for that lexicon of dreary cliches,
Mbeki is one of the most intriguing contemporary political leaders. His
life, almost from birth, has been caught up in South Africa’s struggle
for freedom and now its struggle to succeed. The question that Gevisser
leaves unanswered is the one being raised ahead of next month’s vote:
after 13 years in government might it not be better for South Africa if
Mbeki were to step back from the political fray?
From the opening pages, when he describes his first encounter with his
publicity-averse subject seven years ago, Gevisser – one of South
Africa’s foremost journalists – writes with passion and conviction.
After endless attempts to secure an interview, he is summoned to the
presidential residence and ends up spending six hours talking with Mbeki
late into the night. That was to be the first of many exchanges over the
nine years it took Gevisser to complete the project. The only previous
writer to gain such access – Ronald Roberts – ended up writing a thinly
disguised hagiography. This book is far superior.
Gevisser’s over-arching thesis is that Mbeki has been an outsider from
his early years, when he grew up with a father who saw him more as a
disciple than a son. An early girlfriend, who bore him a son who
tragically disappeared in the 1980s, suggests it was his 27 years in
exile that hardened him. “The laughter I remember from him … it was an
open laughter,” she recalls. That may be. Mbeki has certainly never had
difficulty making friends, notably at Sussex University where he was the
centre of the trendy left-wing set. But his public persona is far more
reserved, if not austere.
Profile writers were once tempted breezily to ascribe this austerity –
and Mbeki’s reputed mastery of the darker political arts – to the legacy
of his years looking over his shoulder in exile. But his aloofness has
broader origins. It is rooted in a personal quest to challenge
consensus, an obsession with work, a desire to be his “own man” and also
an old ANC mentality of “you are with us or against us”. This is the
side of Mbeki that lies behind both his greatest successes and failures.
And Gevisser deftly lays it bare.
One of the more telling anecdotes occurs when we meet Mbeki in Moscow in
1969 distressing his comrades when he lauds Coriolanus as a role model
for his willingness to take on his own people. It was this impulse that
led him in the early/mid-1990s to challenge the party over its left-wing
economic policies, and ultimately steer it to follow a market-friendly
approach. It also, far more controversially, if not catastrophically,
has led him to heed the scientists who dispute a link between HIV and
Aids. The flirtation has, over the years, obstructed the delivery of
antiretroviral drugs to hundreds of thousands of people with Aids and
threatens to do to his legacy what the Iraq war did to Tony Blair’s. By
the end of the Aids chapter you sense Gevisser must long to go up to his
subject and say: “We understand your desire to be ‘a prophet in the
wilderness’, but why not get on with governing and keep your
idiosyncratic musings to yourself?” But he does not and the book is the
better for it.
Mbeki has long bemoaned the sound-bite culture. He cannot complain about
his treatment here. This biography is neither simplistic nor synthetic.
Rather it is one of the great explanatory narratives of South Africa
over the past 60-odd years.
Alec Russell is the FT’s Johannesburg bureau chief
More information about the Marxism