Biographer: There's logic to Mbeki's actions

2007-11-17 00:00

These were some of the questions put to Mark Gevisser, the author of the acclaimed biography on Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, during an address to the Cape Town Press Club this week.

Gevisser, who spent a total of about 20 hours with Mbeki over the eight years during which he worked on the 800-page book, described Mbeki as a man with a “dislocated and disconneced background” who finds it difficult to separate the personal and political.

“This has been one of the failures of his presidency. He has not understood how, when competing for the attention of voters, you do have to connect the personal and the political,” Gevisser said.

“Unlike his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, he has always buried the personal, which is partly due to shyness.”

Describing Mbeki as the “colossus of the post-apartheid era” in South Africa, Gevisser said it is not clear to him that Mbeki “desperately” wants to stay in power. “But he is certainly allowing himself to be put forward as a candidate … My speculation would be that this is because he believes his job is not yet done.

“Secondly, he has been in power for 15 years … which is a long time, during which one can get used to being able to change things. Thirdly, I think that he and the people who are urging him to stand really do believe that a Zuma presidency would turn South Africa into yet another neo-colonial African basket case.

“They have persuaded him that he is the thin blue line between a successful future and a future that would confirm all the Afro-pessimistic visions of the country.”

Turning to why Mbeki has kept Tshabalala-Msimang and Selebi on, Gevisser said: “There is a reason and a logic to why they are still in their jobs. With Manto, there is the question of loyalty. There is a photograph, which hangs in Mbeki's private study, showing a group of people getting off a plane in Dar es Salaam who went to exile together. She is in the picture with him. There are ties that bind. These are people who spent time in jail together.”

He added: “A key reason she is still there is that she is articulating Mbeki's policy about HIV/Aids”.

The Selebi issue, and why he is still in office, is “more complicated”, Gevisser said. “What I would say in relation to Selebi is that, at the moment, everything that happens in government has to do with Polokwane and the votes that might be tallied for Zuma at Polokwane. One has to read who is fired and who is kept on through that prism.”

Turning to Mbeki's role in the arms deal, Gevisser said: “If the arms deal is a poisoned well … then Mbeki played a significant role in contaminating the water. Even if he did so with the best of intentions, I have no reason to believe that he is in any way personally implicated in any of the corruption around the arms deal, but he was a major champion of the arms deal,” Gevisser continued.

“However, he spoke about the get rich culture of self-enrichment, of which the deal is an example - and in the book, I track the way he deals with the consequences of his policies. There is a response of revulsion about what has happened [in the arms deal]. I believe that he is an ascetic man, not a voluptuary. He is a man who is appalled by the craven rush to acquire - and yet I think he knows he has played a part in the arms deal.”

Asked why Mbeki maintains his present stance on Zimbabwe, Gevisser said that the president's attitude to Zimbabwe is logical.

“His own understanding is that, if South Africa was to respond in a different way, it could cause massive instability. He believed that the idea that the best thing to do would be to get Robert Mugabe to step down quietly. But the point is that that did not work.

“The second reason for Mbeki's attitude to Zimbabwe is that Mugabe is a father to Mbeki, in terms of the liberation movement and the specific relationship the two had. The point is that Mugabe is a father, which gets in the way of Mbeki being able to act.”

Gevisser said that, after agreeing to co-operate for the book, Mbeki “put the boundaries up”.

“He was clear about his boundaries. He did not want me to get too close and was not going to give me his darkest secrets. I am grateful for that. It remained an independent project.

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