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How Mbeki Failed

Thabo Mbeki; drawing by Pancho

Even a politician more thick-skinned than Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s recently ousted president, might have felt oppressed under the long shadow of Nelson Mandela, his universally heralded predecessor. Mbeki, who functioned as Mandela’s de facto prime minister and wrote most of the speeches on the theme of reconciliation that the country’s first black president then delivered with powerful effect, found Mandela’s shadow so smothering that he once made the great man wait for more than a year before granting him an appointment he sought. In an odd toast on the occasion of Mandela’s eightieth birthday in 1998, President Mbeki exposed his wish to see him disappear into quiet retirement by recalling Lear’s fond invitation to Cordelia on their way to jail to “live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies.” Mbeki’s diligent and not unsympathetic biographer makes the inescapable point: Mandela had already done time; twenty-seven years, to be precise.

Though Mbeki’s casting of Mandela as Lear was less than apt, there’s still a tragic element in the multilayered narrative Mark Gevisser has painstakingly constructed. It attaches to both the country and Mbeki. Freed from the scourge of apartheid, a liberated South Africa wasted the better part of a decade before starting to marshal its considerable resources to confront the scourge of AIDS (by which time nearly 30 percent of pregnant South African women were estimated to be HIV-positive). Thabo Mbeki was the central reason for that catastrophic misjudgment. In his suspicious mind, the notion that HIV and AIDS were causally related was only a “thesis” propounded by multinational drug companies bent on opening new markets in Africa.

In private sessions with his party’s caucus, Gevisser tells us, Mandela’s successor speculated about the likely role of the Central Intelligence Agency in supporting these exploiters; his aides sometimes worried aloud that the President’s life might be in danger because of his determination to probe beneath the science establishment’s analysis of the plague, which, he convinced himself, grew out of a racist obsession with the sexual behavior of black men. Meanwhile, his chosen health minister, who lost her job only after Mbeki was summarily forced to resign as president last September by the African National Congress, prescribed garlic, beetroot, and olive oil as antidotes to the disease.

Mbeki’s biographer struggles mightily—sometimes wordily, drenching his subject in adjectives like “guarded,” “paranoid,” and “repressed”—to reconcile the brooding recluse who sat up late into the night at his computer in presidential mansions in Cape Town and Pretoria, exploring the speculations of AIDS deniers, with the charming, reassuring diplomatic operative who in the 1980s sold the path of negotiation both to a nervous white establishment and to an underground movement that imagined itself bent on armed struggle. Even though the underground had accomplished very little in the martial line over more than two decades, its strategic aim remained a “seizure of power” through “mass insurrection.” In another context, it spoke of making the country “ungovernable.”

Mbeki, as a secret member of the Politburo of the South African Communist Party, had himself supported that strategy. But he realized that a country that became ungovernable for whites would not easily be made governable by their black successors. Possibly no one, not even Mandela, deserved more credit for the South African miracle—the peaceful handover of power that occurred on May 10, 1994, to international acclaim.

Gevisser labored prodigiously over a period of eight years, comprising all but the final year of the Mbeki presidency. Mbeki, who had scratchy relations with the press, sat still for twenty hours of interviews. When the biographer set out, he had every reason to imagine that he was writing the life of the chief architect of a new South Africa. He traveled to Brighton to reconstruct his subject’s life as a student at Sussex University in the 1960s; to Moscow to visit the building that once housed the Lenin Institute, where Mbeki was enrolled for nearly two years, and to interview his Soviet teachers and handlers; to an obscure village in the former Transkei Bantustan called Mbewuleni, his subject’s birthplace (unvisited by Mbeki himself in his first fifteen years after returning from exile, even when his mother was still there).

He had searching interviews, it seems, judging from a list of over two hundred names appended to the bibliography in the South African edition, with practically every consequential black or white who crossed paths politically with Mbeki; also mentors and lovers and all the members of his far-flung family, with the glaring exception of Zanele Mbeki, the former president’s much admired and, we learn, often neglected wife. Also missing is Oliver Tambo, the leader of the ANC in exile, Mbeki’s political patron, who died before the research began but not before he’d positioned his protégé to succeed Mandela (who had a clear preference for an Mbeki rival, Cyril Ramaphosa).

The result was an 892-page book that came off the presses in South Africa in late 2007,1 too soon by a matter of weeks to include the first bump in Mbeki’s precipitous political downfall: his crushing defeat in December of that year when he sought reelection as president of the African National Congress, which after thirteen years in power still functioned with some of the conspiratorial secretiveness, the institutionalized paranoia, of the beleaguered underground it had been. A grievously wounded Mbeki staggered on as head of government for another nine months, but the outcome of the internecine contest made it plain that he’d permanently lost his grip on the movement and that power would swiftly flow to the man who’d vanquished him—once his most trusted ally, now his bitterest enemy—Jacob Zuma, a Zulu populist. The version of Mark Gevisser’s book that now appears here after Mbeki has been driven into sullen private life manages, somewhat breathlessly, to cover the final stages of his fall, filling the gap in the original, and still come in at less than half the length of the South African edition. Only specialists will miss the details that have been condensed here or hacked away.

Some of the effort Gevisser devoted to spelunking through the hidden recesses of Thabo Mbeki’s psyche might have been more usefully expended on the split personality of the movement that fostered and then spurned him, a governing party with the instincts of a beleaguered underground attuned to fending off the next attack. The grandson of first-generation African Methodists and son of first-generation African Communists, Mbeki, who was born in 1942, was reared to think of the African National Congress as more his family than his actual kinship group, which was scattered across the subcontinent and its diaspora. His father, Govin Mbeki, turned his back on the family homestead to pursue clandestine organizing and pamphleteering for the banned Communist Party when his eldest son was ten. The father, a dedicated ideologue who would spend twenty-three years in jail on Robben Island where he sometimes feuded with Mandela, never again had any closeness with his son.

Sent off to mission schools that were then taken over by the apartheid regime, Thabo was expelled for leading a strike at the age of sixteen. Back home in the Transkei, he had a brief fling with a woman three years older than himself that resulted in the birth of his only child, a boy named Kwanda whom he would never know and whose disappearance and presumed death at age twenty-two are among countless unraveled destinies of the apartheid era. The age at which the son disappeared turns out to have been the age at which the father he longed to meet had earlier fled the country to give himself to the movement.

A younger brother also vanished, turning up in a morgue in Lesotho, victim of a politically motivated killing that appears to have involved allies of the African National Congress; another went his own way politically, eventually surfacing as a sharp critic of his brother’s policies (especially on Zimbabwe). When Thabo Mbeki went into exile in 1962, he traveled exceedingly light, as far as his industrious biographer has been able to determine, when it came to feelings for the family he left behind. Presumably he had wounds, but these were covered in scar tissue; he never let them show.

Mbeki wasn’t simply being defensive when he warned his biographer not to dig too deeply into the psychological side of his makeup in search of a master key to his conduct. At any given stage, he said, his feelings were shaped by the needs of the movement. For most of his twenty-eight years in exile, he kept a home behind a high steel gate in a comfortable suburb of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. But he led a peripatetic life as the movement’s top diplomat and spokesman, living out of a suitcase in hotels around the world, changing his political vocabulary with each new city, depending on whom he was tasked with persuading: a Soviet paymaster one week, a Nigerian general or Scandinavian diplomat the next; Western businessmen hedging mineral investments in southern Africa; fellow exiles, in or out of the movement; even American journalists.

Adaptability was a necessary trait but it laid him open, in the more doctrinaire sectors of the movement, to the charge of being a front man who was too remote from the struggle, too flexible ideologically. The fact that his father was a leader imprisoned on Robben Island made him an aristocrat in the movement, a “crown prince,” but it didn’t protect him, on at least one occasion, from the suspicion that he might be an “enemy agent” himself. The exile movement, constantly on guard against infiltrators dispatched from South Africa, was chronically suspicious of its own.

By 1985, all but five of the twenty-nine members elected to the movement’s National Executive Committee were simultaneously members of the South African Communist Party, according to Gevisser. Yet that was the year white liberals and business potentates from Johannesburg began what were called “safaris” to places like Lusaka and Dakar for meetings with Mbeki and his colleagues. The question of whether the movement could tolerate, let alone sustain, a market economy was a big one on both sides. Though the talks were preliminary—the movement, after all, was still in exile, still at war with the regime—assurances had to be given about the legal structure for democratic reforms in a post-apartheid era.

Mbeki, a smooth point man in all these futuristic exercises, had no choice but to wear different ideological hats if the discussions were to keep moving forward. In one week in April 1989, he flew from an Aspen Institute session with Afrikaner intellectuals in Bermuda to a Communist Politburo meeting in Havana. The next month he received word that the white government in South Africa was ready to talk to the outlawed movement without preconditions. “Yes, here we are, the terrorists,” Mbeki is said to have called out as he and Jacob Zuma, who was at the time chief of intelligence of the ANC in exile, walked into the hotel suite in Lucerne where the first official exchanges took place. “Mbeki’s life,” Gevisser writes, “had become an almost-impossible layering of covert encounters.” Yet a half-year later, Mandela was freed and the exiles were on their way home.

  1. 1

    Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007).

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