Book review – Chikane’s rough draft of history

2013-03-24 10:00

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Former director-general of the presidency attempts to set the record straight on some of former president Thabo Mbeki’s more contentious calls, writes Sabelo Ndlangisa

There are very few issues that seem to split public opinion down the middle in South Africa than former president Thabo Mbeki’s political legacy.

Some commentators tend to cite the way he built a unitary state out of the fragments of various apartheid fiefdoms and his attempts to bring about peace on the continent as some of the achievements that will define Mbeki’s legacy.

His detractors tend to invoke his stance on HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe as the issues that will sully the way political history will remember him.

These two issues loom large in Frank Chikane’s latest offering, The Things that Could Not be Said: From A(ids) to Z(imbabwe), even though the book also explores issues such as the unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the fall from grace of former police chief Jackie Selebi.

The book is an attempt to explain why Mbeki acted the way he did on some of these contentious issues.

Chikane worked closely with the country’s second democratic-era president –?albeit as a reluctant civil servant – from the days when Mbeki was Nelson Mandela’s deputy until he was unceremoniously removed in 2008.

So his account of the controversies of the Mbeki era is told from the vantage point of an insider and the book is not an attempt to give an objective or a definitive history of that era. Being an insider serves as a double-edged sword – it gave him access to the inside track, while binding him to confidentiality. The book tries to explain Mbeki’s actions within the confines of such rules.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe described Mbeki as a man “with the patience of Job” when that country eventually signed its Global Political Agreement in 2008, paving the way for a government of national unity. But Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” towards the protracted political crisis in our northern neighbour drew flak at home and abroad. Without giving too much detail about the actors, Chikane gives the reader a sense of the atmosphere of mistrust that marked those negotiations.

More revealing are his explanations of the role played by international actors, especially the former colonial power, in frustrating attempts to find a solution to the Zimbabwean political crisis. And Chikane claims that some role players even wanted foreign powers to invade Zimbabwe to effect regime change, even though he does not give specifics about such events.

But Chikane still does not explain why Mbeki was so patient with the Zimbabwean government when its approach to land reform caused him many a headache, except to hint at what might or might not be an apocryphal story about an ANC leader who urged Mugabe to delay land reform to allow the South African democratic transition a chance.

Similarly, Chikane dedicates a lot of space to explaining his former boss’ public views on HIV/Aids, which suddenly changed in 1999, leading to the controversy that raged at the time around the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs. It was also the time of Mbeki’s flirtation with dissident Aids scientists. Again, rightly or wrongly, Chikane points to the behind-the-scenes influence of multinational pharmaceutical companies in attempting to influence government policy. The book suggests that Mbeki was unfairly targeted because of the enormous economic and political power he wielded as the leader of Africa’s economic powerhouse.

But this argument is not new. Versions of it have been used, for example, in Suresh Roberts’ book, Fit to govern: The native intelligence of Thabo Mbeki. Chikane does, however, admit to shortcomings in the way Mbeki’s presidency approached this sensitive subject.

Perhaps the book is at its best when the author comments on issues that directly involved him, such as managing the fall-out between Vusi Pikoli and former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, and his attempts to find out about the apartheid security agents who ordered and carried out his poisoning in the 1980s.

Here he explains with authority why the presidency feared that the Scorpions’ planned raid on the SAPS crime intelligence would have led to loss of

lives had two armed state agencies literally exchanged fire. At the time, the authorities emphasised the breakdown of the relationship between Pikoli and his political boss Brigitte Mabandla.

There was also, of course, a vague mention of the raid posing threats to “national security”. There are also moving accounts of how Mbeki and Chikane unsuccessfully tried to persuade Pikoli to delay Selebi’s arrest. The fall-out over this eventually cost Pikoli his job as the head of the National Prosecuting Authority.

Chikane seems to believe that international and local rogue elements were at play in what might have been a strategy to pit comrade against comrade, eventually plunging the government into chaos. This contrasts with the way the story unfolded in the public domain as a struggle of good versus evil, good comrade versus bad comrade.

The account of what really led to Pikoli’s suspension remains partial, and we might not know the whole truth until Mbeki and Pikoli write their own accounts.

Overall, The Things that Could Not be Said feels like a rough draft of history.

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