Book review: finding a vocabulary to judge Thabo Mbeki

Former South African presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki at Mbeki’s inauguration in 1999. Reuters

South Africa’s second democratically elected president remains a puzzle to many notwithstanding Mark Gevisser, who wrote the fine 2007 biography, “Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred”.

Of course, there are many different explanations for why he puzzles us so. Also, why he haunts our politics nine years after he lost the African National Congress (ANC) presidency to Jacob Zuma.

One reason surely is that that Mbeki, at one time or another, was the poster-child for one or other faction of those who walked the thin line between democracy and one-party rule: Africanists, business, youth, the left, the right, the free-marketeers, the modernisers – sometimes, even the traditionalists.

This list seems endless. The tragedy, of course, was that each of these was to be bitterly disappointed by him.

And yet for all this disenchantment, it is difficult to dismiss Mbeki. After all, he is close enough to be remembered as an intellectually engaged leader. He is still young enough to be considered an African statesman. And he remains un-ignorable each time his ideas appear in the press.

So what are we to make of a book, written by those who know him, which was published with the support of the foundation that bears Mbeki’s name?

Two introductory essays (both called “Foreword”) are followed by a mix of mini-essays and reports of interviews in “The Thabo Mbeki I Know”. There are 44 in all, offering insights into the man and the career.

The contributions are divided into ten categories: Family Friends; African Leaders; Cabinet and Government; Advisers; South African Ambassadors; Cadres and Comrades; Support Staff and Media; Acquaintances; Friends from other Countries; Academics.

Cover of the newly published ‘The Thabo Mbeki I Know’.

Beyond the praise-singing

Expectedly, perhaps, there is much praise-singing in these pages. Indeed, in a very superficial reading, the book is corroded with clichés about the man. He is “hard working”, “articulate”, “conscientious”, “passionate”, “cool”, “strategic”, “measured”, “detailed”, “committed”, “thorough”, “thoughtful”. He has “impeccable integrity”, “unwavering commitment” – and many attributes more besides.

But between all the admiration, approval and appreciation, there is much in this book to whet the intellectual interests of historians, political scientists, economists and, of course, ANC-junkies. But to get to these interesting parts one needs to approach these pages alive to the limitations of the restorative end of the Mbeki project, which seeks to sanitise him. Also, to closely read the text.

This means putting, as far as one can, predilections and prejudice to one side.

One of the introductory essays is by the redoubtable academic Mahmood Mamdani. This is a helpful primer to the contents because he isolates four important “chapters” that run through these pages, as they ran through Mbeki’s time at the top. First, the hullabaloo over his macroeconomics strategy of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) versus the left-leaning Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) of the Nelson Mandela administration. Then, South Africa and Africa (including the policy over Zimbabwe). Third, the storm over HIV/AIDS. And, last, the calamity at the city of Polokwane when he lost the leadership of the ANC at the party’s national conference.

The launch of ‘The Thabo Mbeki I Know’.

Each of these “chapters” builds upon the long years in exile that, between these covers, is explored with a certain tenderness and empathy.

Consider these three stories: Tiksie Mabizela lovingly knitted Mbeki a jersey that would keep him warm in a Swazi jail. Brigalia Bam remembers that on his wedding day to Zanele the bridegroom was “very serious, although he smiled a lot”. And several contributors warmly recall that Mbeki often sang at parties – and did so very well.

These accounts draw attention to the fact that the ANC-in-exile was a series of networks in which the bonds of kinship and affection were as important as the politics of liberation. The former offered multiple forms of personal support in the face of contingency, while the latter was the reason for sacrifice and hope for the future.

No everyday political party

This suggests the ANC was no everyday political party. It was much, much more – a substitute for the country itself. It was a replacement for the family; it was the closest confidant – and, sometimes, it was the source of betrayal. Without this historical framing, there is no understanding of Mbeki, nor (if truth be told) of the ANC.

Then, embedded within these very stories, new things about this country’s history emerge. So, for instance, Ami Mpungwe, Tanzanian bureaucrat, aide to Julius Nyerere and first Tanzanian ambassador to South Africa, provides an intimate account of the links between the ANC and the Tanzanian presidency.

Hopefully, serious scholarship on this vital aspect of the southern African liberation story will build upon these insights, and on those offered by another Tanzanian contributor, Salim Ahmed Salim.

But most readers who come to these pages will be not be captured by the region, and will only seek out the four “chapters” that Mamdani isolates in his primer – the economy, foreign policy, AIDS and Polokwane.

Here, too, there is interesting material – some of it, in my view, quite new.

So, minister in the Mbeki cabinet Alec Erwin is plain that Mbeki is “a hell of a good economist”. He suggests that the move from RDP to GEAR was, if not quite the only option, then certainly the only reasonable one. Interestingly, he seems to admit that it was fear of the capital markets that prevented a public debate on the move from the RDP to GEAR in a pre-ratings agency age!

Mbeki’s foreign policy trinity

Most attention on foreign policy is devoted to that trinity of African Renaissance, the development plan, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the African Union, which were Mbeki’s pathway towards a new continental understanding. But the determination of the West – led by the British under Prime Minister Tony Blair – that Pretoria should invade Zimbabwe in the name of democracy and good governance appears here in a new and sharpened form.

As my University of Johannesburg colleague, foreign affairs specialist Chris Landsberg, has often suggested, Mbeki’s foreign policy needs much more scholarly attention. But one hopes that Mbeki himself will write more both on Africa and on South Africa’s foreign policy which, right now, seems to be in need of fresh ideas.

Then, while it may not help to assuage the anger that many still feel over Mbeki’s dissident view on HIV/AIDS, health scientist Andrew Mbewu’s long, 13-page contribution tries to put this issue into the context of three categories – knowledge, politics and race. For those interested in the history of ideas behind this controversy, this will be essential reading.

On Polokwane: each contribution is rueful over the circumstances – and the events themselves – in which Mbeki lost the presidency. Understandably, perhaps, there is much anger – most of it controlled – but there is also a deep sense of loss over what might have been.

In the mid-1970s, the controversial British politician, Enoch Powell, wrote in “Joseph Chamberlain” that

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs (p151).

But recognising this as a searing truth in Mbeki’s case, does not explain why he remains an enigma. South Africa struggles with Mbeki because the country has no vocabulary to speak about him … and this is what makes this collection as important, as it is interesting.

Very often conversations on Mbeki turn to comparisons with Nelson Mandela or, bizarrely, even to Jan Smuts. Both these associations, of course, are lacking, which is why they yield only clichéd thoughts.

But outside of this comparative method, there are few ready points of reference to judge Mbeki. This collection, which complements Gevisser’s book, tells us much more about the man than the low horizon of politics through which he is invariably judged.

“The Thabo Mbeki I Know”, edited by Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu and Miranda Strydom, is published by Picador Africa with the support of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.