Mbekism sophistrified

Fit to Govern

by Ronald Suresh Roberts


Is Ronald Suresh Roberts’ Fit to Govern fit to defend Thabo Mbeki from (mainly) “illiberal” critics of different hues? Roberts has positioned himself as a radical nationalist, and unfortunately most critiques of his book to date presume he genuinely speaks from the left.

This position, he clarifies, is distinct from the “ultraleft”: Naomi Klein, John Pilger, John Saul, Alex Callinicos and myself, though tellingly he neglects legions of home-grown, grass-roots, shopfloor activists who have made South Africa the world’s most protest-intense society per capita (nearly 6 000 measured by police in 2005).

Against their concerns that Mbeki mainly uses the state against the ANC low-income base, Roberts’ spurious defence relies upon the ruling party’s ability to win (not earn) votes, which in turn follows the failure—so far—of trade unions to launch a workers’ party, which in turn is part of our ultraleft lament.

A more trivial question from both ultraleftists and illiberals: is Roberts fit to receive R1,4-million for this job from a bank, Absa, whose nose was browned deep within Pretoria’s National Party bum long before Chris Stals’ notorious Reserve Bank bail-out in the early 1990s? (Roberts’ other crony capitalist sponsors are Vodacom, CNA, Siemens and Interactive Africa.)

Notwithstanding Roberts’ lefty vocabulary, Fit to Govern was a relatively safe gamble for Absa verligtes (far safer than their support for Robert Mugabe—a man whom Roberts would learn far more about from Moeletsi than Thabo Mbeki). Roberts’ last Mail & Guardian outing, for example, excitedly compared the Congress of South African Trade Unions to a corrupt Venezuelan labour movement allied with US imperialism against Hugo Chavez.

That mistake, denounced by Drew Forrest and others last year, is not made in this book, though Chavez and Cosatu are mischaracterised in other ways. A chart with South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela statistics shows only that Roberts tortures data until they confess.

Cosatu is criticised mainly because Tony Leon admits labour has been tougher on issues of mutual concern than the Democratic Alliance—but the ANC’s alliance with the DA against unveiling campaign funders is not mentioned.

Indeed if disguising real power relationships is what an Mbeki biography most needs, Roberts is eminently fit to spin. Thus, on the one hand, it’s refreshing for Roberts to rubbish Jonathan Oppenheimer’s bold query, “What’s wrong with policy capture if it’s good policy?”

On the other, to answer properly would require confronting the cronyism so commonplace in the ANC that treasurer-general Mendi Msimang has just defended receipt of Brett Kebble’s stolen spoils: R3,5-million in bribes “were for value received” in “indirect benefits”.

Speaking of reactionary alliances, characteristically, Roberts does not trouble to explain how, if Mbeki was opposed to the Iraq War, he stood by in early 2003 while Denel sold R1,4-billion in ammunition to the British army and US Marines.

At Mbeki’s explicit urging, Roberts regurgitates some excellent Frantz Fanon, but highlights the anticolonial psychological project rather than dwelling upon Fanon’s materialist attack on the neocolonial collaborator, a role Mbeki plays so well on the stage of reality. Wasn’t it Mbeki who declared in 2002, after joining the G8 meeting in Canada, that his visit “signifies the end of the epoch of colonialism and neocolonialism”?

Roberts spins left instead. He opens a chapter on Muscular Liberalism with smoke and mirrors: “Mbeki’s robust engagements with companies such as Anglo American reflect the ANC’s determination to protect democracy from a history of corporate oligarchy.” Come off it, the decision eight years ago to let Anglo and DeBeers flee the Johannesburg Stock Exchange with apartheid-era loot intact—no wealth tax or reparations demands (in spite of Jubilee campaigning)—reveals Mbeki’s flacid neoliberalism.

Roberts is silent on pro-corporate white-elephant spending for Coega, Gautrain, 2010 stadia, pebble bed nukes, unneeded Lesotho dams, as well as on the municipal services-disconnection epidemic. Emblematically, a vignette of the Constitutional Court’s opening on March 21, 2004 has Mbeki serving as Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson’s valet—the robing signified executive respect for the judiciary—but there’s no mention of another drama over apparel that played out a few metres away. Police arrested more than 50 people wearing red (even bystanders), as the Anti-Privatisation Forum’s nonviolent march on the court to demand constitutional water rights—against Johannesburg Water practices designed by the Paris-based Suez company—was banned.

Still, a book-length defence of Mbekism is long overdue, after false starts by Alan Hirsch on economics, Joel Netshitenzhe on social policy and Antony Brink on Aids denialism. Perhaps because they’re not so compelling, Roberts barely cites work by the former two. And in offering a half-baked defence of Mbeki’s slow defeat by the Treatment Action Campaign, Roberts slams Brink as an unscrupulous self-promoter, though six months ago he raved about how “very important” Brink’s work is. (Shades of his Gordimer reversal—Mbeki should watch his back.)

This book is as unfit to read as Brink’s raves, as it mainly amounts to sophistry. Mbeki deserves better, and indeed Roberts can do better. But not so close to the president’s rear end, not so blind to the realities of sub-imperialism, and not so well paid as to become complacent to the hard lives faced by the majority of South Africans, thanks to Mbekism.

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