The world from Mbeki's shoulder

2008-03-31 00:00

PAUL Johnson’s riveting, if prurient, 1988 collection of mini-biographies, Intellectuals, in which he delights in exposing the personal flaws of some of the world’s leading thinkers, left me at an impressionable age with a slightly nervous respect for biographers. How many life stories, no matter how noble they looked from the outside, could withstand the sustained critical scrutiny of a Paul Johnson, I wondered.

It’s a question I returned to recently after reading Mark Gevisser’s multi-layered biography of Thabo Mbeki — The Dream Deferred. But Gevisser is no Johnson. Unlike the conservative British writer who was keen to topple the pedestals upon which Western (mainly left-leaning) intellectuals have been placed by society, Gevisser set himself a far harder task, especially given the notorious opaqueness of his living subject: to sit on Mbeki’s shoulder “and see the world the way he did”.

As far as this is possible, I think he has succeeded. Gevisser admits that it’s a “narrative made up of the shards and fragments” he has collected over the years, but these have been perceptively and eloquently pieced together to create an intense weave of the personal and political.

The sheer size of the volume (800-odd pages) and the time taken to complete it (eight or so years) is indication enough of the author’s painstaking attention to detail, his judicious attempts to tease out the implications of his subject’s words and actions over the years and those of his colleagues and family members, excluding his wife Zanele, who declined to be interviewed for the book.

While Johnson declared open season on the sex lives of his targets, Gevisser steers avowedly clear of Mbeki’s love life, choosing to understand seduction “politically rather than sexually; in its effects on the seducer and on his conquests, and in the role it has played, as an instrument of political power, in the story of the South African transition to democracy”.

It’s an intriguing and convincing conceit. The chapter titled “The seducer” is one of the book’s most absorbing and delicately penned, revealing the political foresight of Mbeki — the fact that he was always one step ahead of his comrades — and the lengths to which he was prepared to go to secure desired political outcomes.

It’s a chapter which highlights the debt South Africa owes to Mbeki who recognised long before many of his comrades that a negotiated settlement was the only solution. Realising what was needed, he set about wooing the West into accepting the ANC as a liberation movement, and white South Africans into seeing the ANC as a reasonable and capable government-in-waiting.

So charming was Thabo Mbeki in a 1986 meeting involving Pieter de Lange, then chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond, that the Afrikaner “made an emotional speech in which he declared he would henceforth be dedicating his life to the pursuit of racial reconciliation”. De Lange then went home, says Gevisser, resigned as rector of Rand Afrikaans University, told the Broederbond that “the greatest risk for us as Afrikaners is to take no risk at all”, and urged PW Botha to release Nelson Mandela.

But there was inevitable fallout. Using the metaphor of seduction to frame the disaffection of certain white “conquests”, Gevisser interviews people like Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and Max du Preez, the latter blowing the whistle in 2001 on Mbeki’s alleged womanising. These men still live with the disappointment, and even sadness, of being treated by Mbeki as “expendable”.

To Gevisser, Mbeki admits the “instrumentalist nature of his affections” but couches it as a strategy to overcome white fear of blacks. It was a conciliatory strategy that ultimately led to the power-sharing agreement brokered in 1992, but it produced, in Mbeki’s words, a “particular definition” of national reconciliation, one in which “things stay the same” for whites. When Mbeki started to challenge this notion, as he always knew he must, he says, people began saying: “Now this is a departure from the national reconciliation of Mandela ... This is now a different Mbeki. He never said these things to us!”

Gevisser’s closing sentence pins Mbeki down like a lone specimen moth: “And concedes Mbeki, admitting to his complicity in the seduction and its bitter morning-after, ‘we probably never did’.”

On other major issues linked to the Mbeki presidency — Aids, the arms deal and Zimbabwe — Gevisser continues to play the sensitive but persistent investigator. Where Mbeki is contradicted in his memory of events by others, Gevisser is diligent about airing these contradictions. He questions the political wisdom of the arms deal in which Mbeki played a leading part. Gevisser is empathetic to his subject, as he set out to be, but not at the expense of the truth.

The result is a portrait that gives you a sense of the man without being overly prescriptive and is grounded by Gevisser’s poignant excavation of Mbeki’s personal history — from his early years in Mbewuleni, his experience as a diligent young schoolboy being farmed out to live in other family’s homes, his position as a thwarted father, the gifted student, his complicated relationships with his father and siblings, the dislocating period of exile, and his ardent need to be productive, self-reliant and independent.

I suspect that Johnson could have had a field day with Mbeki — as he could with any subject. But Gevisser has done a better job.

• There were many sections of the book that brought out my underlining pencil. What follows are some of my favourite nuggets.

• Gevisser interviewing Mbeki for six hours in the president’s residence while night falls around them. “Finally, close to midnight, I was running out of tape. I was exhausted and hungry, dying for the toilet but terrified to go in case, in my temporary absence, he realised he had a country to run. If this was an endurance test, he won.”

• Mbeki at the age of six rushing to the radio whenever he heard the “beeps” of the radio news. “If she [his mother, Epainette] asked him what he was listening to, he would reply, ‘World affairs, Mommy. You wouldn’t understand.’ Her son, she says, ‘had grown-up ideas from a very young age. I don’t know how he sucked them from us.’”

• Zanele Mbeki being frozen out of the room by her “glowering” husband. During one of Gevisser’s interviews, Zanele contradicted her husband on the matter of the ANC’s approach to the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the seventies. “I was thrilled to have Mrs Mbeki’s response ... but her husband did not share my enthusiasm: either because he did not approve of this interpretation of [Oliver] Tambo’s duplicity, or simply because he thought his wife was impertinent for interrupting, he glowered at her with such ferocity that she gathered up her things. ‘I can see Thabo wants me to leave,’ she said, and did.”

• The image of Olive Mpahlwa, who gave birth to Mbeki’s son Kwanda in 1959 and suffered the pain of having him disappear in 1981, patiently waiting for Mbeki to acknowledge her while she tagged him during one of his visits to Port Elizabeth in 1998, the only way she could get to speak to him. “Finally, as he was leaving to catch his plane back to Johannesburg, ‘he turned around and saw me, and waved. I took this as a signal, and moved forward to him ... I complimented him on the good work he was doing, and then I said, ‘I’ve come to bid you farewell ... I am trying to break away from the past ...’ He smiled, as he always does, and nodded. He didn’t say a word back. And then he was whisked off.”

• Journalist and now editor Peter Bruce recounting his encounter with Mbeki in London in 1979. Bruce was given two hours by the Weekend Post to have someone from the ANC deny a Sunday Times report that the ANC had met with Buthelezi. He tracked the members of the party down to a public swimming pool where they were competing in a gala. Most of the ANC men there were too drunk to speak. Then, the door “swung open and two huge black guys walked in. Behind them was a small black guy immaculately dressed.” It was Thabo Mbeki who, says Bruce, “immediately grasped the importance of having a counter to Buthelezi’s claims on the same day ... and quickly told me a long story which I filed from a nearby callbox.” Bruce told the story 25 years later, writing that he had “never forgotten how different Mbeki was, and still is, from the people around him ... when he is working he is a perfectionist.”

• Jacob Zuma being taught how to use a gun by Mbeki in Swaziland. Zuma is quoted as saying: “It was Thabo who taught me how to use a gun, what it is, the theory of it, the dismantling of it, all the rules of it.”

• Mbeki’s ability to predict in 1988 that the ANC would be home by 1990. When asked the same question separately, Chris Hani speculated that it would still be a decade.

• Mbeki’s public insult to Nelson Mandela. In 1997, he stepped on to the podium to accept the mantle of ANC president from Mandela and said: “Madiba … members of the press have been asking me how it feels to step into your shoes. I have been saying I would never be seen dead in such shoes. You wear such ugly shoes.”

• Thabo Mbeki — The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser is published by Jonathan Ball.

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