The President who fell from grace

OPINION – We are far from understanding fully the rise and fall of a man whose blunders threaten to eclipse his feats.

AS THE country starts to wave goodbye to President Thabo Mbeki (eagerly it would seem), are we as a nation any closer to understanding him? A spate of recent biographies are illuminating, but commentators have mostly turned upon him with a vengeance, obscuring any objective assessment of his legacy.

This could not have been more clearly demonstrated last week when, on the day of what should have been Mbeki’s greatest triumph — closing a deal between President Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai — Jacob Zuma won his court battle and Mbeki came in for a blistering attack from Judge Chris Nicholson, opposition parties, the media and African National Congress (ANC) leaders. Zuma’s supporters even staged a mock funeral for Mbeki last week. How did he end up so ubiquitously unpopular?

Mbeki rose to the position of president without contesting a popular vote among the rank and file of the ANC.

The assassination of his archrival, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) chief of staff Chris Hani, in 1993 removed the only major obstacle to Mbeki’s inexorable ascendancy.

After 15 years as the de facto commander-in-chief of the country, Mbeki was rejected by an overwhelming majority of his comrades in Polokwane last year. It was a devastating defeat for a tragic man who has had no purpose, or even personal ambition, beyond his dedication to the ANC.

To many in the ANC, his trouncing by Zuma was retribution. The MK veterans were especially active in co-ordinating the show of support for Zuma outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court last Friday.

Since Nelson Mandela, the relationship between South Africans and their president (whether they have met him in person or not) has been personal. Reading or writing about our president is cathartic. Attitude, rather than thoughtful examination of his policies, has been the locus of Mbeki’s biographers.

Ronald Suresh Roberts’s Fit To Govern is an intellectual hagiography posing as an exegesis of Mbeki’s philosophy. Written in close consultation with Mbeki and for about R1,4m solicited from the private sector by a minister in the Presidency, Roberts set out to demolish Mbeki’s critics, egregiously caricatured as anything from “academic rent-boys of imperialism” to one “noted jihadist of neoconservatism”.

Much of Roberts’s analysis is between quotation marks, amassed from diverse sources . His scattershot approach fails to offer a coherent and logical analysis of what forms Mbeki’s opinions.

He all but ignores the intellectual products of which Mbeki is chief architect — the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and his conception of an African Renaissance.

He does, however, raise important issues for debate which will be sharpened under a Zuma presidency: policy capture in the developing world by global financial interests; the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal establishment, who still refuse to face up to the nation’s ugly past and the ongoing need for revision of Africa’s colonial history.

An empathetic approach would have helped clarify how South Africans talk past one another from a lack of critical self-awareness around the way they see each other. Given our country’s past, it is unsurprising that debates over major challenges facing the country — economic disparity, health, education, foreign policy — are obfuscated by unconscious racism and racial hypersensitivity from both black and white.

No serious analysis should take a sitting politician at his word at all times. Roberts never examines to what extent Mbeki has lived up to his high-minded speeches. Mbeki’s words are often political acts. He is adept at shifting the debate from the issues to debates about debate.

Criticism of Mbeki is dismissed by Roberts as a function of an “old and largely unreconstructed media oligarchy bereft of electoral influence”. Mbeki’s recent humbling put paid to that untruth. Mbeki has been orphaned by the only constituency Roberts recognises as conferring legitimacy on his subject’s legacy. He too will, to use his own phrase, “need to heed the verdicts of the South African native electorate”.

Roberts’s grossest act of disinformation is his spurious argument that “Thabo Mbeki is not now, nor has ever been, an AIDS dissident”. Besides Mbeki having failed, with calculated neglect, to show leadership on the HIV/AIDS pandemic , if he is so grossly misrepresented by the media as Roberts argues, he has fuelled controversy rather than set the record straight.

Events have overtaken Roberts. As Mark Gevisser’s magisterial biography of Mbeki, A Dream Deferred, was poised for the presses, Mbeki couriered Gevisser an updated copy of the Castro Hlongwane document that expounds AIDS denialist and dissident positions, saying it accurately reflected his views.

Mbeki wanted it clear-cut in Gevisser’s text that he still questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and regretted withdrawing from the debate under pressure from the cabinet.

What remains murky are the reasons for Mbeki’s intransigence. He indulges in sophistry that doesn’t grasp scientific process. Science is a systematic explanation of the world as it is experienced, not a revelation of a philosophically incontestable reality.

Mbeki’s “intellect is marked by perpetual questioning: he advances not through enthusiastic exclamation points or staccato full stops but along a line of question marks”. Gevisser’s description is also the method he employs, often concluding with a series of speculative questions, notably when touching sensitive issues that might offend his subject. But he sincerely attempts to understand Mbeki’s arcane positions.

Mbeki emerges from Gevisser’s psychological biography as highly functional, but callously detached. Govan Mbeki was of the same ilk and during his 25-year incarceration, Thabo didn’t write to him.

When the death sentence hung over his father, although mounting a march to 10 Downing Street to highlight his plight, Mbeki stated coolly that the “revolution produces new leaders all the time”.

Mbeki’s brother, Jama, was murdered, but Mbeki has not prosecuted the matter for political reasons. Jama’s widow sadly observes: “In the Mbeki family there is no (such) family value. They believe in politics (more) than real life.”

Perhaps the most moving accounts are about his only child Kwanda, conceived when Mbeki was 16, which came to light in testimony given by the mother, Olive Mpahlwa, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission . Kwanda disappeared in 1981 and evidence suggests a violent death.

Although Gevisser achieves a judicious balance, he is susceptible to occasional sycophancy. Mbeki’s appointment of the Hefer Commission to investigate a spy allegation made by struggle veteran Mac Maharaj was simply “a public drama”, “calculated precisely” (its terms were altered three times) to humiliate his challengers. Hardly “a stroke of genius”, and Gevisser fails to realise Mbeki undermined the judicial process, abused his executive power, and fuelled perceptions of him as vindictive.

Conspiracy theories stalk our politics. Mbeki’s unprovable accusations of plots against him and his interference in constitutionally independent structures, such as the National Prosecuting Authority, mean that widespread belief in these conspiracies is not altogether irrational . He has imperilled the rule of law.

William Mervin Gumede’s book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, gleefully enters the fray in the style of a hard-bitten journalist. It is informative and fluent, if somewhat inelegantly cobbled together.

Gumede’s thesis is that Mbeki and a small group of technocrat centrists imposed undemocratically upon the ANC an economic policy that embraced the Washington consensus foreign orthodox global capitalism, a shift to the right which split the ANC. Recent events bear out his analysis.

How the biographers differ in their approach is illustrated by their take on Mbeki’s controversial “quiet diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe. In defending Mbeki, Roberts cries hypocrisy: those who opposed sanctions on the apartheid government call for them against Zimbabwe; many howling for regime change by force in Zimbabwe are against such measures taken in Iraq.

Gevisser uncovered Mbeki’s close working relationship in the 1980s with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the leader of the notorious Fifth Brigade and perpetrator of the ethnic massacre (who also presided over the torture and detention of MK operatives in southern Zimbabwe).

When Mugabe triumphed, Mbeki was quick to support him, astounding his ANC comrades who favoured Joshua Nkomo.

Gevisser’s reductionism lamely places Mugabe as a father figure to Mbeki, a wayward one whom he is unable to confront expeditiously. Mugabe outmanoeuvred Mbeki at every turn, possibly even, as time may tell, in the recent agreement.

Gumede puts it all down to petty Africanist politics and incompetence.

He lambastes Mbeki for having “squandered countless opportunities to make a difference in Zimbabwe”, and his policy is a “gross betrayal of blacks in Zimbabwe and everything that the liberation movement fought for”.

Perhaps the greatest danger to Mbeki’s reputation will arise from the corruption surrounding the arms deal.

It was Mbeki who championed it; closed down the parliamentary investigation; bullied the parliamentary caucus into kowtowing to the executive; and who now stands accused of selective justice and is himself implicated in impropriety. At a crucial moment in establishing our fledgling democracy, Mbeki sent all the wrong signals.

Mbeki’s departure has ramifications well beyond the borders of SA. On his legacy, the jury will be out for some time still, his successes at present obscured by his monumental blunders.