Marianne Thamm

The native who caused trouble

2007-06-28 09:59

Marianne Thamm

It is a rare occurrence that the launch of a book in South Africa makes it onto the SABC's prime time news slot.

We are not a nation of readers and news about authors, their books or their subjects is usually consigned to the back pages of the "lifestyle" sections of popular newspapers and magazines.

On TV, books only make it (often unread) onto Noleen Moholwana-Sanqu's 3-Talk, usually to be giggled and glossed over in passing.

But there it was, a longish but disjointed clip on the 19:00 bulletin about the launch of Ronald Suresh Roberts' authorised biography of President Thabo Mbeki, Fit to Govern - The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, (STE publishers R150) that took place in Pretoria recently.

Embedded presidential reporter, Miranda Strydom, struggled to pin the garrulous Mr Roberts to a suitable sound bite. So, instead we got a voiceover about the book and its importance in understanding the president's intellectual tradition.

Unlike Nadine Gordimer, subject of Suresh Roberts' previous first-authorised-then-unauthorised-biography, No Cold Kitchen, the president attended this launch and actually signed copies of the book. We can take it then that President Mbeki fully endorses the work and all it represents. After all, his office did exert some influence in getting Absa to contribute a lovely R1.4m to the project.

What biographers should do

I bought Fit to Govern this week. It wasn't easy. After wandering around my local bookshop looking for it in the "New Arrivals" and "African Non-Fiction" sections, an assistant informed me that "we're not allowed to stock it". The publishers have apparently done a deal with CNA, presumably so that larger numbers of ordinary South Africans might have access to it.

Now, while I have never met and hold no candle for Ronald Suresh Roberts, I do vicariously enjoy the frisson he brings to public debate. Since his arrival in South Africa in 1994 as a coordinator for a contingent of international monitors who had come to observe the elections, Roberts has managed to generate a considerable amount of controversy and alienate a significant number of influential people including Kader Asmal, Ken Owen and most famously, of course, Nobel Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer.

I recently finished his 2005, weighty biography of Gordimer and actually found it highly readable. Roberts is passionate about and understands his subject. Apart from that, he is also an engaging, intelligent writer even if he can't resist inserting himself into the text.

And while the biography may have needed an edit, was undisciplined at times and unravelled entirely towards the end, it did what good biographies should do; take you back to work of the author with a renewed sense of understanding and enthusiasm. Also I did not come away from No Cold Kitchen thinking anything less of Gordimer.

On the defensive

Fit to Govern - The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki is not exactly a biography, it is more an attempt to present an intellectual portrait of the president outside of the one rendered by what Roberts views as a flawed, essentially racist and "colonial" media.

Roberts asserts that South African media is immature and has contempt for black people and black intellectuals (like himself) in particular. And it is because of this contempt, he says, that the media has such contradictory and inconsistent views on Mbeki who has been labelled variously as "an enigma", "a Stalinist", "aloof", "a dictator" and an "imperial President".

Roberts assumes the average reader (who shops at CNA) will be familiar with a range of philosophical and political theories that he relies on to build on or justify various arguments, some more compelling than others. Ultimately though, these references serve more to illuminate Robert Suresh Roberts' intellectual influences rather than Thabo Mbeki's.

In the book, Roberts also defends some of Mbeki's most controversial policies and actions including his views on HIV/Aids, multi-party democracy and Zimbabwe.

There is an unfortunate defensive and accusatory tone that permeates the entire work and that begins at the start with a quote from Mbeki who predicts, "the representatives of the colonial 'mother' will be waiting to do everything possible to discredit the book". This is followed almost immediately by an attack on the media by Roberts and from there the punches roll, thick and fast.

"Colonials", "settlers" and "liberals" all come in for a drubbing, which detracts somewhat from the stated intention of the book - a supposed exploration of the president's "Native intelligence".

Thabo Mbeki is a prolific writer and if you want to know what he thinks without using Ronald Suresh Roberts as a filter, read his weekly online newsletter or two collections of his writings, Africa The Time Has Come published in 1999 and Africa Define Yourself published in 2002.

That said, Fit To Govern offers an alternative angry, intelligent, provocative, intriguing and at times revisionist view of one of the most influential African leaders of our time.

Send your comments to Marianne

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