The fatal flaws of a brilliant man

2008-07-21 00:00

So, with events in South Africa becoming “curiouser and curiouser”, you want more insight into our enigmatic president, Thabo Mbeki?

Then, says Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser, you must turn to literature — and to the Shakespearean tragedy Coriolanus, to be precise.

At a recent discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair, Gevisser, the renowned author of Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred drew strong parallels between Mbeki and the legendary Roman leader, Gaius Martius Coriolanus, on whom Shakespeare based his play.

Gevisser told a rapt audience that he is as riveted now by the unfolding South African story as he was while working on the biography on Mbeki.

“My work is not over. I have to continue to watch. I feel as if I have seen the tragic fifth act of a Shakespearian tragedy, where a brilliant man is brought down by his fatal flaws,” Gevisser said.

In conversation with fellow author Andrew Feinstein, Gevisser referred constantly to Coriolanus, a man often described as unsympathetic and carrying a caustic kind of pride as well as a reluctance to be praised by his compatriots. He likened Mbeki to a figure of tragedy.

Coriolanus, which is, interestingly, one of Mbeki’s own favourite plays, and one from which he has quoted in speeches, carries rich political themes, with the main character being depicted as an autocrat in a drama which highlights the divide between democracy and autocracy.

But, for Gevisser, one of Coriolanus’s fatal flaws was that he refused to be anyone else but himself, a characteristic which the author believes Mbeki shares.

“When Coriolanus was banished from Rome for refusing to be who the people wanted him to be, his words were: “I banish you. There is a world elsewhere.”

For Gevisser, Coriolanus’s words to the people he is supposed to serve, have echoes with Mbeki’s attitude to South Africa’s people, who, he believes have rejected him, in favour of Jacob Zuma.

“In effect, he is saying to us, “I banish you. There is a world elsewhere. You’ve rejected me, so I am rejecting you back. I am off to Japan. You remain here in your uncertainty,” Gevisser said.

“I’m not Mbeki’s therapist. He doesn’t lie on my couch and tell me what is wrong, but, I believe that he is experiencing a feeling of profound rejection from the family.

“It must be a terrible rejection, because, love him or hate him, Thabo Mbeki has given his life to the movement.”

According to Gevisser, it is important to remember that the African National Congress is a family. Mbeki and Zuma, for instance, are “brothers” in the organisation.

“It is critical to understand that the ANC as an organisation is very different from, for instance, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom,” Gevisser said. “There is this perpetual internal struggle between being a beacon on the continent and being a family.”

Citing examples of Mbeki responding to a feeling of rejection by the family, Gevisser recalled Polokwane. “In his speech at Polokwane, he called the people who were expected to vote for him a mob. There is something really tragic about this. The word ‘disconnect’ just keeps coming up.

“Despite his intellectual brilliance, he finds it hard to connect with those who are expected to support him.”

In Gevisser’s view, Mbeki has been driven by one overarching dream — that of self-determination.

He has described Mbeki as “an intellectual dissident” with a lifelong habit of fighting against the majority view. It was this quality that drove him to persuade the ANC to talk to apartheid’s leaders and to lead the ANC away from Marxism towards the free market. “But that same contrarian instinct is also behind the positions for which he has been most harshly criticised: his refusal to condemn Robert Mugabe and his scepticism, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, that HIV is the principal cause of Aids.”

But this kind of independence of mind could have seemed callous and led to Mbeki’s alienation from the ANC. According to Gevisser, Mbeki has become increasingly convinced of a conspiracy against him and this has led him into an “increasingly sullen and irascible isolation”.

Gevisser continued: “We need to pull him down because we set him up. We made him a king in the first place. Hopefully, the best thing to come out of Polokwane is the realisation that there is no God, that all those in power are flawed and possibly corrupt.”

Gevisser, who is currently working on a collection of essays for Jonathan Ball Publishers, said anybody who thought that all South Africa’s problems would be solved after Polokwane would have been disappointed. “What happens in a deeply divided society will never end in victory. It is just a road to travel along. It’s pretty bumpy.

“It was always going to be bumpy, but perhaps it’s going to be more bumpy than I ever thought it was going to be.”

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