Thabo Mbeki is not Hugo Chávez

Stripped of the glossy prose and clever-dick references, “One step leftward, two steps right” (June 23) is standard Ronald Suresh Roberts fare — an elaborate exercise in sycophancy.

Thabo Mbeki’s intellectual biographer clearly sees it as his job to justify the president’s ways to South Africa. He does this not just by parroting his subject and muse — the latest offering is little more than a rehash of the African National Congress’s infamous 2002 “briefing notes”, approved by Mbeki — but by sallying forth to yap, Maltese poodle-style, at the president’s adversary of the moment.

Last week’s offering is an apparent response to Mbeki’s plea, at a recent national executive committee meeting, for protection from the “ultra left”.

In his spat with novelist Nadine Gordimer, Roberts sought to portray himself as a fearless purveyor of the truth. One waits with interest to see if his Mbeki biography is a similar triumph of intrepid truth-telling.

The latest Roberts script — casting Mbeki as Hugo Chávez and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) as Venezuela’s right-wing labour movement — hardly warrants serious attention. However one views Mbeki’s policies, it is fatuous to suggest that a president who embraced privatisation, presided over a series of contractionary budgets and dropped tariff barriers faster than required by the World Trade Organisation is a working-class hero.

Tony Blair, with a hefty dose of Malaysian bumiputra, would be nearer the mark.

For the rest, Roberts merely warms up the theme of the briefing notes and another document jammed under union noses, “A right-wing revolution under left-wing colours,” approved by Mbeki in 2002 in a move to squash union dissent after Cosatu’s anti-privatisation strike.

Intensely hostile to politically independent unionism, these documents argued that “ultra left” labour leaders were objectively in league with forces of the right. Roberts repeats the canard, seeing sinister significance in Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon’s agreement with “the left faction” on Mbeki’s dictatorial tendencies.

Boiled down, we are presented with the crude authoritarian nationalist view that, in political matters, labour should be a conveyor belt for the vanguard party.

Curiously, for one posturing as a true leftist, Roberts appropriates the stock DA charge that Cosatu is a labour aristocracy. “True radicalism” must reinstate the sense of proportion between unions and the rest of the nation, he unctuously opines.

On what does he base his claim that Mbeki is more deeply moved by the plight of the rural masses than Cosatu? Rural development has no dedicated ministry in South Africa and received no specific allocation in this year’s Budget. And if elitism so offends him, why the conspicuous silence on black economic empowerment (BEE), which has produced a crop of (urban) multi-millionaires?

Roberts elides the central fact that Cosatu’s rejection of the Mbeki project is not purely ideological — it is also a reaction to his leadership style.

The 2002 briefing notes were not a fraternal chopping block. By projecting top unionists as ideological aliens to be “isolated and defeated”, they were an unmistakable call for the rank and file to rise against their leaders. In the paranoid climate they spawned, unionists received death threats.

Yet as frequently happens, Mbeki miscalculated: ANC regions responded to the notes by telling the tripartite allies to settle their differences. It was a straw in the wind. As graphically illustrated by last year’s ANC national general council, Mbeki’s real problem is not the communists and the unions; it lies in his own party.

Roberts also averts his gaze from this. Presumably out of embarrassment, he makes just one fleeting reference to Jacob Zuma, around whose deeply fallible person ANC rank-and-file disenchantment with their president has crystallised.

That Roberts’s lefter-than-thou endeavour is toxic froth does not, of course, mean the left’s position is unassailable. Instead of telling Cosatu that Mbeki is Chávez — one can just hear the wild laughter — and parading his book learning, he could have posed some hard questions on policy.

For a party considering standing in elections, the South African Communist Party platform is remarkable for its fuzziness and abstraction. Its latest discussion document picks obsessively at the tired theme of class versus national democratic struggle, but sheds no light on what, practically, the socialism it so stridently espouses would entail.

Would it really nationalise Anglogold and FNB, and how, with a state sector that struggles to distribute social grants, would it propose to run them?

Does it want a siege economy, with a pegged rand, rigid controls on capital flows and prohibitive trade tariffs? Would it withdraw from international bodies like the World Trade Organisation? What are its plans for small and medium enterprise? For black economic empowerment? This is just a sample of the unanswered questions.

It is time Mbeki dropped a word in his biographer’s shell-like ear: he really does not need this kind of advocacy. It is not just that Roberts is an Oxford-trained literary gent whose obsequious offerings on local politics are widely scorned. By reheating Mbeki’s arguments for union subservience, he can only reinforce the fears and suspicions of the president’s restive constituency.

Drew Forrest is deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian

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