[Marxism] New Thabo Mbeki biography

Louis Proyect 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

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