[Marxism] How Mbeki failed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 23 08:43:15 MDT 2009

Volume 56, Number 6 · April 9, 2009
How Mbeki Failed
By Joseph Lelyveld

A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African 
by Mark Gevisser
Palgrave Macmillan, 376 pp., $29.95


By 1985, all but five of the twenty-nine members elected to the 
movement's National Executive Committee were simultaneously members of 
the South African Communist Party, according to Gevisser. Yet that was 
the year white liberals and business potentates from Johannesburg began 
what were called "safaris" to places like Lusaka and Dakar for meetings 
with Mbeki and his colleagues. The question of whether the movement 
could tolerate, let alone sustain, a market economy was a big one on 
both sides. Though the talks were preliminary—the movement, after all, 
was still in exile, still at war with the regime—assurances had to be 
given about the legal structure for democratic reforms in a 
post-apartheid era.

Mbeki, a smooth point man in all these futuristic exercises, had no 
choice but to wear different ideological hats if the discussions were to 
keep moving forward. In one week in April 1989, he flew from an Aspen 
Institute session with Afrikaner intellectuals in Bermuda to a Communist 
Politburo meeting in Havana. The next month he received word that the 
white government in South Africa was ready to talk to the outlawed 
movement without preconditions. "Yes, here we are, the terrorists," 
Mbeki is said to have called out as he and Jacob Zuma, who was at the 
time chief of intelligence of the ANC in exile, walked into the hotel 
suite in Lucerne where the first official exchanges took place. "Mbeki's 
life," Gevisser writes, "had become an almost-impossible layering of 
covert encounters." Yet a half-year later, Mandela was freed and the 
exiles were on their way home.

Of course, it was no coincidence that these epochal events coincided 
with the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the cold war. With the 
movement's Soviet backers fast losing interest and Western sanctions 
against the white regime biting, neither side in the South African 
struggle had any prospect left of outside support. Still, the idea that 
Mbeki had exceeded his mandate, that he had "sold out" the armed 
struggle, persisted in the movement he'd one day lead. On the eve of his 
return, his biographer says, he was "deeply unpopular" in the ANC, even 
more so for the acclaim he'd already started to receive from white 
journalists in Johannesburg.

For his more militant colleagues, such lionizing was further proof of 
his bad faith. Before the terms of the transition were nailed down, he 
was dropped from his lead role in the negotiations and replaced by Cyril 
Ramaphosa. The factional intrigues and power plays that landed him back 
on top as Mandela's designated successor are of interest now only 
because they show how difficult it was for the exile movement to adjust 
to its new role as the majority party in an open parliamentary system.

 From a distance it has seemed that the deepest cleavage was between 
those who had spent long years in exile and those who came up in the 
struggle in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who spent years 
in jail on Robben Island were endowed with a kind of sanctity so long as 
Mandela was on the scene, but they were never quite equal in political 
clout to the cadres who had languished in Lusaka, Angola, Moscow, 
Havana, or East Berlin. In this perspective, a great liability of anyone 
with a background like that of Cyril Ramaphosa, a onetime trade union 
leader, was that he was too new to be fully trusted, having lived his 
whole life in South Africa.

If this could be the case for people inside the ANC, the bar was set 
even higher for those who grew up in rival groupings such as the Black 
Consciousness movement that formed around the martyred Steve Biko in the 
1970s. Mbeki himself worked hard to recruit Biko's followers into the 
underground as they fled into exile but few ever made it into leadership 
positions. Antiapartheid whites found there was even less use for them 
in the emerging power structure. Gevisser is the kind of writer who 
can't help squeezing a metaphor dry through constant repetition. When it 
comes to Mbeki's relations with well-meaning whites, he finds the 
metaphor of seduction irresistible. Of course, in this portrayal, the 
whites end up feeling jilted and ill-used.

full: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22536

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