On the eve of its general election, Chris McGreal reviews four books tracing South Africa's traumatic post-Mandela history.
Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president before an admiring world, South Africa is about to elect a leader who, despite his adamant denials, is widely regarded in his own country as a crook. Until a few days ago, there was a real prospect that Jacob Zuma would go on trial later this year as a sitting president on a myriad of bribery and racketeering charges. But the national prosecutor’s office dropped the indictment just ahead of this week’s general election, stating that there had been political interference in the process, saving the ruling ANC the embarrassment of its leader being prosecuted for corruption.
Yet the man to blame for creating these circumstances is not Zuma. Responsibility lies with Thabo Mbeki, the former president who succeeded Mandela a decade ago and who projected himself as an urbane intellectual promising a revival of his country and his continent.
Less than 10 years later, all that was largely forgotten as Mbeki was forced from office by his own party. Few regretted his passing even if they were disturbed by the manner of his removal. Mbeki made too many enemies with a governing style that demanded absolute loyalty while critics were ruthlessly vilified. The institutions put in place to defend post-apartheid democracy were subverted to serve his interests and South Africa’s moral influence was expended on perverse support for regimes in Zimbabwe and Burma. But most disastrous were Mbeki’s Aids policies, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of poor black people.
Mandela’s magic may have saved South Africa from full-blown civil conflict once the apartheid regime collapsed, but the country’s future path was decided by Mbeki, first as Mandela’s deputy and then as president. His dominance of the post-apartheid era is reflected in four new books about South Africa, all of which relegate Mandela to a secondary role.
The best, Mark Gevisser’s A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream (Palgrave Macmillan), seeks to understand how a man who came to power with so much goodwill behind him is today regarded with hostility. Gevisser, a respected journalist who conducted several lengthy interviews with the then president, follows Mbeki’s path from the cold insecurity of his rural Transkei home, where he lived with a distant father perpetually threatened with arrest for his anti-apartheid activities, through his exile at Sussex University and in Moscow and finally to the forefront of ANC politics. Gevisser carefully listens to his subject and those around him before artfully dissecting his thinking.
Nowhere is this clearer than on Aids. As president, Mbeki cost countless lives as he questioned the science of the disease and delayed the distribution of anti-Aids medicines. Gevisser describes how Mbeki’s views were shaped by an obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and “sexual shame”.
He recalls the president phoning him to ask whether he had seen a 100-page paper he’d secretly authored and distributed anonymously among the ANC leadership. In it, Mbeki compared Aids scientists to latterday Nazi concentration camp doctors and portrayed black people who accepted orthodox Aids science as “self-repressed” victims of a slave mentality.
Similar sentiments revealed themselves in other political battles. Critics were accused of being enemies of the people, corruption investigations were quashed as plots against the government and questioning of Mbeki’s support for Mugabe were dismissed as the product of a colonial mindset. But Mbeki’s damage runs deeper than that and South Africa will live with its legacy for years.
Mbeki was determined to create a black elite to match the old white one, which had swiftly bought its way into ANC favour by giving huge sums of money to the new leadership, including the Mandela family.
The old elite played ball on what was called black economic empowerment, which saw a small minority of black people become super-rich. Not coincidently, most were attached to the ANC.
That pursuit of money inevitably sent corruption running through the body politic. Charges of corruption brought out Mbeki’s instinctive defensiveness, because it played to what he saw as stereotypes about African leaders. And so he sought to cover up anything that might embarrass the ANC unless it was useful in going after opponents such as Zuma.
In After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future (Verso), Andrew Feinstein offers an insider’s view of the depths to which Mbeki sank to protect his friends and pursue his critics. Feinstein, a former ANC member of Parliament, was hounded from the party because he pressed too far for the leadership’s liking with a parliamentary investigation into an allegedly corrupt arms deal. He recalls his efforts prompting a furious diatribe from Essop Pahad, a Cabinet minister who was also Mbeki’s closest aide: “Who the fuck do you think you are questioning the integrity of the government, the ministers and the president?”
RW Johnson probes many of the same issues in South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid (Allen Lane), which offers glorious detail on the political infighting and Mbeki’s vindictive style of government. But, unlike Gevisser, Johnson offers few insights into what motivates Mbeki. His book is devoted to cataloguing what he clearly regards as the ruling party’s failure on almost every level since the ANC fought its first election in 1994 under the slogan “A Better Life for All”.
Johnson calls affirmative action “the single greatest disaster to overtake South Africa”, as there weren’t the necessary numbers of skilled black people to fill demand. But he sometimes seems to forget that the ANC did not create the problems of poverty, unemployment and a lack of basic healthcare. It inherited them from a system that disregarded 90% of South Africans.
There’s a better understanding of the strides the party, and the country, has taken, in Alec Russell’s After Mandela: the Battle for the Soul of South Africa (Hutchinson). Russell does not pull punches in describing the widespread disillusionment among blacks and the disasters of the Mbeki years. But he does seek to put the ruling party’s shortcomings in context and recognises that life is better for many South Africans than it was.
Millions now have access to power and clean water and affordable housing is more widely accessible.
While whites whinge about a deteriorating infrastructure, many black people see hope. It’s easy to run a country for the benefit of one in 10 of the population; it’s much harder to do it for everyone.
But the party has been distracted by the power struggle between Mbeki and Zuma that has torn the ANC apart. Russell maps it out and asks what path South Africa will now follow. Zuma is very different from his predecessor—an extrovert politician, comfortable in his own (black) skin. Although once a member of South Africa’s Communist party, he comes across today as almost shorn of ideology. Zuma seems up for grabs, willing to be guided by whichever of the factions that threw its weight behind him is able to assert its dominance, whether the communists and unions or the pro-business elite.
The charges against Zuma were dropped not because of a lack of evidence but because a tape recording of Mbeki speaking to the head of the investigation team suggests that the charges were being pursued for political reasons. It was classic Mbeki. No one was surprised. Zuma will have to govern with the legacy of that and much else besides.