To the Editors:
Helen Epstein [“The Mystery of AIDS in South Africa,” NYR, July 20] writes of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa as a “visionary ruler,” albeit one who has “not adequately confronted the most deadly threat facing his country,” the AIDS epidemic.
Unfortunately, President Mbeki’s “African Renaissance” to the contrary, a visionary he is not. In terms of background, ideological formation, and current mode of thought, his closest contemporary parallel is probably…Vladimir Putin of Russia.
How else does one characterize a former member of the Politburo of the South African Communist Party who, post-Gorbachev and as head of state, has embraced the global market?
I knew Thabo Mbeki briefly when I arrived in London in 1967, a few months after being released from Pretoria Prison where I’d served a sentence for membership of the SACP. Still in his early twenties, Thabo was already a crown prince within the inner sanctum of the CP, which increasingly became the guiding force within the African National Congress in exile. The milieu of exile politics at the top of this highly secretive apparatus constituted the whole of Mbeki’s political life, from late teens until his return from exile nearly forty years later.
I got to know more about him when I left the ANC in the company of his younger brother Moeletsi, together with another dissident ANC figure (subsequently minister for telecommunications), Pallo Jordan, during the heady period before les événements in Paris and the Tet offensive in Saigon in 1968. In the radical atmosphere of those days, we considered Thabo to be an apparatchik of the classic Soviet type, an organization man through and through, an ideological hit man. Visionary he was not, then; and I cannot see how, now.
As dauphin and heir apparent within the CP and the ANC, Thabo’s political line of descent lay through his father, Govan Mbeki, sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1964, alongside Nelson Mandela. While local editor of the CP newspaper, New Age, in the motor industry city of Port Elizabeth, Govan Mbeki had built up the best-organized ANC branch in the whole country.
His virtues of strict, unquestioning Stalinism combined with serious attention to organization provided the model for how the CP was to hold the ANC together—and hold on to the ANC—through the decades of the exile. Thabo inherited his father’s immense prestige within the ANC, as well as his unquestioning orthodoxy.
Unlike younger “internal” leaders, who learned the skills of democratic leadership in student organizations, trade unions, and civic associations within South Africa in battle with the apartheid state during the 1970s and 1980s, Thabo Mbeki’s skills have been those of the smoke-filled room, behind closed doors, in exile. He is remote, aloof, at home with the cabal rather than the people, unlike Mandela. His instinct is to command support rather than to win it.
This was serviceable enough during the exile. Funded by the Soviet Union, its troops trained in Soviet-bloc states and supported across the world by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the ANC was the only show in town when young militants crossed the border from SA [South Africa] seeking weapons and training, in order to return and fight. By comparison, the ANC’s main rival, the Pan Africanist Congress, was in almost permanent disarray, poorly funded and poorly organized, with negligible military facilities.
In this milieu the ANC behaved in exile—especially in Africa—like a one-party state. Dissent of any kind was not tolerated. When Thami Mhlambiso, one of Mbeki’s colleagues in the leadership of the ANC youth in the 1960s, became critical of its links with the CP, he was expelled in 1975 in the purge of the so-called “Gang of Eight.” Mbeki then tried (unsuccessfully) to get him purged also from his salaried post with the United Nations.
Following a mutiny of about 90 percent of the ANC’s trained troops in Angola in 1984, in support of a number of democratic demands, Mbeki raised no objection when their protest was crushed, first by the Angolan Presidential Guard and later (at Pango camp, in northern Angola) by public executions. Leaders of the mutiny were subjected to torture and imprisonment in the notorious ANC prison camp, Quatro. Prisoners from Quatro were paraded before the media and expected to give a sanitized account of their imprisonment at a press conference held in Zambia in 1985, an event hosted by Mbeki.
More than a decade later, as vice-president of South Africa, and shortly before becoming president, Mbeki tried to prevent publication of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because of its recording and condemnation of ANC abuses in Quatro and other camps in exile. It is reasonable to think that his objection was grounded in his own complicity in structures that had at least endorsed and at worst directed these abuses. Mandela, by contrast, was the first ANC leader to acknowledge that abuses had indeed taken place, initially in a public statement in April 1990, then by throwing his weight in favor of two internal ANC inquiries, and finally in his support for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was this experience of a practice of suppression of dissent that governed Mbeki’s de facto support for fellow president Mugabe in the reign of fear preceding the recent elections in Zimbabwe, unlike his former fellow minister, Pallo Jordan, who criticized the thuggery of Zanu-PF supporters in a speech in the South African parliament.
Jordan, who was never a member of the CP, had himself been imprisoned by the ANC security department in Zambia in the 1980s for having described its mem-bers as “amaBhunu” (that is, as “Boers,” because they replicated the thuggery of the apartheid state).
Mbeki’s strange stance on the issue of the AIDS virus has two sources, one legitimate, the other not. It is fully appropriate that an African political leader should condemn the massive economic disparity between the rich, white West and AIDS-stricken Africa, where mega-deaths are indeed the wages of poverty. The destruction of Africa’s economically active population, aggravated by third-world debt and global terms of trade, is equivalent to the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s. Hatred of the West will be the result for generations if this is not remedied quickly. In however strange a manner, Mbeki in part articulates this anger, as does Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
What confuses their case, however, is Africanist ideology relating to sexuality, most graphically expressed by Mugabe, as president of the country with the highest proportion of total population with HIV/ AIDS. His response to the crisis has been a deeply prejudiced attack on homosexuality both within Zimbabwe and in Britain, most notoriously focusing on Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain.
In a similar manner, Winnie Mandela justified her kidnapping and assault of four youths in Soweto in 1988 (one of whom was murdered) on the grounds of the alleged homosexuality of the priest in whose manse they were staying. Before her conviction, her supporters paraded outside the court with banners stating “Homosex is not in black culture.”
It is this implicitly racially governed as well as homophobic mindset that lies behind Mbeki’s refusal of the judgment of the overwhelming majority in contemporary science on the nature of the AIDS virus. On the one hand such a view endorses an Africanist myth of a pure and primal Africa contaminated by a sinful West, a reversion to the race theory of the apartheid state. It reflects on the other hand the cloistered, driven mindset that produced the sham biology of Lysenko in the final years of Stalin.
The problem faced by the ANC in the 1990s was that with the end of the cold war, the ideology of the Brezhnev years ceased to be serviceable in the organization, in much the same way as in Russia or Serbia. The Freedom Charter—the social program of the ANC from the 1950s—was effectively scrapped, as a condition of the ANC entering government. The agreement of the new government to relocation out of the country of its central industrial/ financial nucleus, the Anglo-American/ De Beers complex, was massive proof of the relative weakness of the government. It has not been able to deliver on its social program, in any substantial way. The best way of interpreting Mbeki’s “African Renaissance” is as a nationalist alternative to the loss of his previous ideology.
That said, AIDS was always going to work havoc in South Africa, given the systemic disruption to stable, settled sexual relationships brought about over a century by the migrant labor system created by Britain in the early 1900s to serve the gold-mining industry, and policed by the pass laws (also a British creation, in the unified South African state set up after the Anglo-Boer War).
For this reason alone, South Africa and Zimbabwe are owed a special debt of recompense from the West, and especially Britain, as beneficiary over decades in terms of profit over from the migrant labor system. President Mbeki has not made it easier for this to be forthcoming. As Malcolm X used to put it, he is part of the problem, not the solution.