How Mbeki Failed

Thabo Mbeki
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.”…

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