Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 448 pp., $29.95
“If I were God”, said a prominent Afrikaner in Dakar, Senegal at a 1987 feeling-out meeting between prominent but renegade white South Africans and the then-banned African National Congress (ANC), “I would hand over government in South Africa to Theuns Eloff and Thabo Mbeki.”
It was neither a rogue nor a rare comment. To meet Thabo Mbeki in the late 1980s was to be won over—by his commitment to dialogue over violence, his intellectual sophistication, his charm, his reasonableness. And one after another they were won over: the maverick head of South Africa’s liberal opposition party; leading academics from the country’s universities; even the chairman of the Broederbond, the secret society that had orchestrated Afrikanerdom’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s and had shepherded the management of state and society ever since.
Fast-forward two vertiginous decades later, past the un-banning of the ANC, past Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and emergence as a global secular saint, and past Thabo Mbeki’s triumphant re-election as President in 2004, when he was widely acclaimed as both the skillful manager of South Africa’s complex economy and society and the architect of a nascent African renaissance. Fast-forward all the way to early 2007, when Mbeki shocked the world by firing Nozizwe Madlela-Routledge, the Acting Minister of Health who had reversed domestic (and global) disgust at South Africa’s AIDS policies, and then reinstating her predecessor who, notoriously, had advocated garlic as part of a homebrew treatment for AIDS. Keep going to Polokwane, the site of the ANC’s 2007 congress, where Mbeki’s leadership was decisively rejected by the political party to which he had given his life—and to 2008 meetings of the African Union in Egypt, where Mbeki seemed to many to be an apologist for the latest in the pantheon of Africa’s thuggish leaders, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. “What on earth happened to the charming, smiling, generous, warm, straightforward Thabo Mbeki we got to know in Dakar?” asked the journalist Max Du Preez, a participant in that 1987 meeting.
Du Preez’s question is of more than ordinary import. As Mark Gevisser’s magisterial biography of Mbeki suggests, finding an answer takes us deep indeed—beyond the narrative of one man’s life, beyond the history of one country or even one continent. It takes us to the heart of the challenge of how individuals, leaders and whole societies define their place in an increasingly interdependent, globalized world. How we resolve this challenge cuts to the core of what kind of world we and our children will live in for many years to come.
The Rational Man
Thabo Mbeki was born in 1943 in the rural village of Mbewuleni. As a child, he spent his time after school behind the counter of the rural general store run by his mother, where he was a letter-reader and letter-writer for the illiterate adults of his community. “Imagine”, writes Gevisser:
being seven years old, reading to a distraught woman that her miner husband had died from phthisis, or taking dictation, from a mother to her migrant son, that his wife is pregnant with another man’s child, and then reading back to the wife her husband’s chastisement.
Listening has been Mbeki’s lifelong modus operandi. He “very seldom disagreed publicly with anyone. . . . [I]t has been an article of absolute faith that he keep his interlocutor engaged.” “Talking is always better than killing”, he told an early visitor from establishment white South Africa in 1985.
Mbeki, the rational man, was far more than a listener. “You could see that he tested things”, said Ann Welsh, a sponsor of his undergraduate education at Sussex University. “It was obvious that he was able and ambitious and very exploratory minded. He was quite brave with ideas, not frightened at all by new ones.” At Sussex, his first stop on what was to be a 28-year exile, his friends cut across class lines and cliques. One of his first was the gorgeous Scottish sugar heiress, Veronica Lyle:
‘The thing I remember most’, she said, ‘was his quiet, calm presence. I just enjoyed his company very much. He was a very attractive man in every way; a sweet man. . . . We talked a lot about literature and books.’
In Gevisser’s judgment, over Mbeki’s entire life “the people with whom he felt most at home were his Sussex set.” With them, he could share his love of Beethoven, Brecht and Shakespeare and write letters fantasizing about being a jazz pianist. Mbeki’s fate, however, was to be not the Renaissance man but the ANC cadre, not the jazz pianist but the revolutionary.
In the ANC, “from the very beginning, Mbeki’s primary experience of the world of work was that of being the most competent person in the room.” Mbeki had been the wordsmith of the ANC’s longtime President Oliver Tambo since the early 1970s. “It’s impossible to satisfy Tambo! The only one who can is Thabo!”, stormed a senior ANC official at the time. But superior competence and good listening skills didn’t always fit well together for Mbeki. In 1997, colleagues complained about his practice of remaining silent until the end of a discussion:
‘This thing is not working’, they told him. ‘We talk for three hours, four hours, making very significant contributions, and then you come in at the end and say, “no, this is the direction I want to go.” And then we all feel very foolish because you are right. Whereas if you had spoken at the beginning…’
Thabo Mbeki’s sense of certainty had another source. His mother joined the South African Communist Party in 1937. At about the same time, his father published a Marxist-Leninist history of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and later was the leading Marxist theoretician and educator of young prison inmates during his 25-year incarceration on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and others. Thabo himself joined the SACP in 1962, spent 1969 studying Marxist-Leninist doctrine at the Lenin Institute in Moscow, and remained a member for the next two decades, chairing the 7th SACP Congress in Cuba in 1989. He resigned only in 1990, just prior to the implementation of the SACP’s decision that all members should make public their allegiance.
But context must temper any stereotypical conclusions as to communism’s formative influence on Mbeki. The Communist Party had a distinctive early role in South Africa. In the 1920s, it was the only forum that welcomed on (almost) equal terms African, Indian and white activists against apartheid. For better or worse, it leveraged that early credibility into a long-standing role as intellectual leader and strategist for the ANC:
‘As a young man’, says Mbeki, ‘you would naturally try and get some understanding of South Africa . . . the history of the evolution of apartheid, the colonial legacy etc. But you were in a process of seeking greater knowledge. Being a member of the communist party, with its Marxist-Leninist philosophy takes you a step further to say “study societies! Not just apartheid society, but the evolution of all societies.”’
More fundamentally, for Mbeki any mono-causal explanation of the source of his ideas inevitably fell short. In Sussex, his greatest influence was Tibor Barna, once a member of the Hungarian Central Planning Commission but later a defector who became a forceful critic of communism. In the latter 1970s, Mbeki intervened determinedly to block efforts by Joe Slovo to have the ANC declare itself the party of socialism. He repeatedly locked horns with Slovo, going so far as to declare that “the party is dead” when Slovo was elected its chair in 1984. From the mid-1980s onwards, he advocated softening the rigid economic doctrines of the SACP; his mid-1990s implementation of neo-liberal economic policies had thus been at least a decade in the making. For some, this confirmed long-standing suspicions that Mbeki has been “billeted to the SACP leadership by the wily Oliver Tambo, a nationalist who understood the power and importance of the communists even as he suspected their intentions—to be his eyes and ears in the leadership.”
In all, Mbeki’s involvement with an underground Communist Party plausibly reinforced some of his more distinctive decision-making traits. A lack of sentimentality helps account for his actions on AIDS and Zimbabwe. A chronic suspicion of the motives of those who disagreed with him helps account for his eventual isolation and loss of power, culminating in his September 20 agreement to step down from office in response to a recall vote from his own party. But even more fundamental to Mbeki’s approach is the ferocity of his intellectual independence, his commitment to think his own way through problems and address them on his own terms. As Gevisser underscores, to understand how these traits could on occasion lead to profoundly perverse outcomes, we need to probe more deeply.
The Weight of Identity
Awhite South African magazine editor journeyed to London in mid-1985 to meet with Mbeki. The meeting took place only a few days after a bomb had exploded in Durban:
‘I must tell you’, said the editor, ‘it is very difficult for me to be sitting here with someone who is responsible for these brutal bombings. I’m full of revulsion.’ The way the editor remembers it, his interlocutor shot back without hesitation: ‘I am glad you have started off on that note. Because I think I should tell you about the revulsion I feel for you and your kind.’ Recalling the interchange two decades later, the editor conjures the rage in Mbeki’s eyes . . . as well as the way he held this rage in check: ‘I don’t mean this as a personal attack’, Mbeki said, ‘so let’s sit down and talk about it.’
Black South Africans have, of course, no shortage of reasons for rage at the injustices of colonialism and apartheid, but for the Mbeki family there was an added twist of the knife: the pain of aspiration encouraged and then frustrated.
Thabo Mbeki’s grandparents came from families that, in the mid-19th century, were among the first Africans in the sub-continent to open themselves to the influence of the British colonial power. They were early converts to Christianity, property owners and enfranchised citizens of the Cape Colony. As of 1910, just 6,663 male Africans were registered voters; this number included both of Mbeki’s grandfathers. By any standards, the children of these gentlemen farmers were remarkably successful: Thabo Mbeki’s mother Epainette, and her six siblings all received a tertiary education. His uncles included a renowned educationalist, a mathematician and an internationally recognized composer and musicologist.
The encroachment of apartheid reversed this rapid upward mobility. The 1894 Glen Gray Act prevented any black farmer from owning more than ten acres of land. The 1913 Native Land Act limited black ownership rights to only 7.3 percent of the country. In 1911, Mbeki’s 83-year-old grandfather, Skelewu—in the 19th century “a man of considerable means, a proud British subject, a servant of Queen and Christ”—was disgraced, convicted of illegally selling cattle in a desperate effort to maintain his status in straitened circumstances, leading to his dismissal as headman of the community. The loss of the rural patrimony occurred more slowly. Over decades, the family found itself hemmed in by encroaching restrictions on their commercial activities, mandatory cullings of their cattle and ultimately forced resettlements onto their land.
Mbeki’s parents came of age as apartheid closed in. They abandoned both their parents’ commercial aspirations and their traditional heritage. Both became communists. His father refused a petition from his own clan to take up the position of headman. But the Mbeki parents’ rebellion came with a surprising twist: In 1940, they walked away from town-based teaching careers to start a business in rural Transkei—the first black-owned business in its district, and one of the few remaining locations where they could abide by the regulation that no African business was to be within five miles of the nearest white-owned trading store.
Consider the implications of this legacy for Thabo Mbeki. At the surface is the buoyant act of will of a young man of power on the rise. Here’s how Gevisser, drawing on one of several evocative photographs in the book, describes Mbeki at his 1974 wedding to Zanele Dlamini, another South African exile (then a doctoral student at Brandeis University), at the 12th-century Farnham Castle, the home of the bride’s older sister and her husband, Wilfred Grenville-Grey:
Mbeki’s sartorial decisions hinted at both his sense of style and his own mutable identity: a swirling psychedelic tie beneath classic black pinstripes. Here he was, the respectable leader of a national liberation movement back from the ideological training grounds of the Lenin Institute and the front lines of southern Africa, in the England of both his comparatively freewheeling youth and his anticipated diplomatic prowess. Worldly prince, militant commissar, fearless guerrilla, radical intellectual: these would be the points of the quadrant in which Thabo Mbeki would attempt to forge his subjectivity from now on.
This is the stuff of drama and romance. But even for leading men the time comes when the curtain falls, the ordinariness of everyday life re-asserts itself, and the question arises: Who am I? For Mbeki this time came as the struggle was won and triumphs followed one after the other: the 1990 return from exile; the ANC’s accession to power in 1994; Mbeki’s election as ANC President in 1997 and then as South Africa’s President in 1999. Triumph laid bare the existential question. Such questions rarely have easy answers.
Upon returning to South Africa, Mbeki made a virtue of not returning to his childhood village, even as he embraced his larger African roots. “I’ve told Thabo the villagers [of Mbewuleni] want to see him”, said his mother, “but he told me this is the very last village in the whole of South Africa he will ever come to.” Though Mbeki refused to cultivate a regional home base, the theme of identity nonetheless pervaded his thinking. It was framed, however, in political rather than personal terms. He motivated his signature African Renaissance initiative thus:
Africans will be objects of compassion and contempt until such time as we have become demonstrable masters of our own destiny. . . . Confidence, in part, derives from a rediscovery of ourselves, from the fact that, as one who is critical of oneself, we had had to undertake a voyage of discovery into our own antecedents, our past as Africans. . . . Unless we are able to answer the question: who were we? we shall not be able to answer the question: what shall we be?
Not surprisingly, Mbeki bristled whenever white leftists or captains of industry tried to speak for Africans or tell him what to do. With black professionals the dynamic was different. In 1990, upon his return home:
Mbeki had just left the SACP. . . . He needed a new inner circle, with a new credo, to drive his political goals. He seems to have found it among the black professionals and entrepreneurs . . . [for whom] ‘African’ signified a contemporary and geographically indeterminate identity, rather than an atavistic, local or ethnic one.
The political implications of this approach to identity for South Africa have been profound. It has led to a strong focus on black economic empowerment, and rightly so, for it is hard to imagine how the country could remain stable politically with the economy wholly in the hands of apartheid-era elites. Even after a decade-long focus, black South Africans—more than 80 percent of the population—still own less than 10 percent of the country’s corporate equity. Nevertheless, the focus on black economic empowerment has inevitably soured the inclusive, “rainbow nation” euphoria of the Mandela years.
A further implication of the focus on black African identity is that the politics of elite transformation have taken precedence over broader challenges of economic justice. South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, with no discernible decline in inequality over the past decade. The politics of identity also shaped Mbeki’s approach to the AIDS catastrophe. He has repeatedly emphasized poverty and malnutrition as co-factors in its spread. But there was also this: In a speech in October 2001 he noted that Africans were being pressured to adopt the
strange opinions of AIDS orthodoxy to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease . . . by a racist medical discourse convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world . . . doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.
Anger, Truth and Reconciliation
Reflecting on the sweep of Gevisser’s magnum opus—and at 892 pages (in the South African edition) a magnum opus it is, compelling in its historical sweep, its biographical detail and its psychological acuity—the principal feeling that surfaces is one of sadness. Thabo Mbeki emerges as a remarkable man—fiercely determined, intellectually broad and curious, a skilled political strategist and maneuverer—who has devoted his life to confronting, transcending and transforming the legacy of shattered hope and appalling adversity that was apartheid South Africa. Yet for all his will and all his gifts, bitterness seems to have overtaken him, souring his decades of achievement. There is sadness, too, for South Africa. After centuries of appalling inequality and racism, South Africa emerged in the 1990s as a global beacon of possibility. In reality, though, the country’s challenges remain profound, and its future uncertain.
[credit: Simon Monroe]
At one level, the challenges are the stark but familiar ones of poverty and economic and racial inequality. These, as Mbeki characteristically reminds us, cannot be wished away by fine-sounding words of reconciliation. But there is a deeper level of challenge. We—all of us—urgently need a new understanding of the place of identity in our politics and in our lives, an understanding that offers a livable bridge between the particular and the universal. Thabo Mbeki’s journey, more than his destination, and South Africa’s history over the past two decades, have much to teach in this regard. In recent years, for reasons that will be clear to Gevisser’s readers, Mbeki has been accused of chauvinism, of a narrow “nativism.” In truth, Mbeki’s understanding of identity is far more subtle than that, as his classic statement upon the adoption in 1996 of South Africa’s constitution makes clear:
I am an African.
I am the grandchild of warrior men and women. . . .
My mind and my knowledge of myself is formed by . . . the victories we earned from Isandhlwana to Khartoum. . . .
My Africanness is formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions they remain part of me.
I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on Boer graves . . . who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk: death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads.
I am the child, too, of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour. . . .
Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest the assertion, I shall claim that
I am an African!
This is a long way from narrow chauvinism. But it is also ambiguous: It is not the identity-neutered embrace of non-racialism that was the formal creed of the ANC and South African Communist Party. Mbeki’s personal journey testifies to the limitations of universalism. But his more recent actions suggest that an ambiguous straddle may not be enough to avoid the slippery slope of particularism. The sum of many parts is less than a universal whole. Yet without some new balance we risk a nightmarish future, not only in South Africa, but worldwide, of a clash of civilizations. Where is the balance between a utopian universalism and a dangerous particularism to be found?
In his 2006 book, Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen suggested that
the hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding [that] the pluralities of human identity cut across each other. . . . In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups—we belong to all of them. . . . None can be taken to be [our] only identity. . . . We have to decide on the relative importance of our different associations and affiliations in any particular context. Central to leading a human life, therefore, are the responsibilities of choice and reasoning.
But perhaps even this is too narrow, too bloodless. Perhaps, even as we embrace and balance our distinctive legacies, we can take as a shared point of departure a fundamental truth: That we all are human beings fated to live and die together on this small earth. This truth was the basis of moral political leadership throughout the 20th century, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Nelson Mandela. Mandela communicated it powerfully in his 1994 inaugural address:
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.
Perhaps in the 21st century the embrace of our common humanity can evolve from prophecy to a shared understanding of something self-evident. Or not: Mandela’s words, Gevisser tells us, were penned for him by Thabo Mbeki.