Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Roberts’ book disappoints

Not in a long time has serious journalistic discourse in this country been centred around or even shaped, in a way, by one individual who is not a politician or some such official.

The Great Native Debate, started by Robert Suresh Roberts, has the makings of a discourse-changing intervention.

The little man from Trinidad, bright, bold, garishly verbose but sometimes obsessed with his own self-importance and intellectual prowess, has done everything to entertain, shock and offend South Africans – on television, radio, print etc. Hate him or love him, you can’t ignore him.

His first book, “No Cold Kitchen”, a biography of the author Nadine Gordimer, stirred controversy even before it was published. His American publishers Farrar, Straus & Giroux, withdrew their offer to publish at the last minute when Gordimer expressed disapproval with some aspects of the book which probed too deeply into what she considered her intensely private personal life. I will not attempt to give a full historical analysis of the push-pull debacle that followed.

But when the book did finally come out, it seemed to tread on some people’s metaphorical toes as it ventured to dismantle the liberal edifice which Gordimer had been bestriding like a Colossus all these years.

To his credit, Roberts debunked some myths about the likes of Gordimer vis a vis their commitment to true equality between the races in this country. That got many South Africans, especially white ones, hot under the collar. Race is an uncomfortable subject to discuss in this country, especially because it demands of us to go back to the past and be honest with ourselves.

Now, we get to Roberts’ latest book, “Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki”. As the title suggests, the book seeks to take us inside the mind of Thabo Mbeki, as it were.

This is not a review of the book, but a broad comment on the themes at the heart thereof.

If your mission is to explain and explore the president’s intellectual inclinations, you have to explain the historical context within which his intellectual tradition unfurled itself. You have to show how racism has manifested itself in all sectors of South African life: academia, the media, politics, religion, etc. That is the unfortunate and inevitable reality.

Media has always been central in the sustenance of the hegemony of the ruling class, from colonial days down to the apartheid era. Media practitioners, therefore, cannot be spared criticism in this context.

Racism, it must be pointed out, still exists in our newsrooms and in the boardrooms that prevail over those newsrooms, in as much as it permeates all nooks and crannies of our lives. This is a country trying to fashion itself into a fully-fledged nation. We didn’t just become racists by osmosis, but social structures were set up to nurture and sustain the ogre of racism.

Roberts is therefore right to use this historical tableau as a springboard into the heart of these vexatious issues. But then he succumbs to the venomous tentacles of history. He fails to move forward and show us exactly how the president thinks, and how history might have shaped his thinking.

Instead of jumping from this springboard into the heart of the matter, Roberts suddenly strays from his primary mission of explaining the intellectual tradition of the president, and then spews the poison of history at enemies – real or imagined. The book consequently falls flat on its face and becomes an angry racial, ideological, personal invective against those who might have crossed the president’s path, or Roberts’ path himself. What a pity.

A pity because Roberts’ detractors, some of whom are indeed guilty of political and racial bigotry and hypocrisy, end up appearing as hapless victims of a madman’s poisonous pen.

A work of great potential academic intervention becomes the mutterings of a possessed but inarticulate schoolboy ranting against The System.

A sadly missed opportunity to address important issues that will not simply go away as we try to negotiate the issue of where we come from, who we are, and where we want to go, and who we want to be.

Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Fred Khumalo
Guest Author

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

South Africa’s mothballed ‘supermall-ification’ sets strip malls up for success

Analysts agree that the country has enough malls and that, post-Covid, the convenience of local centres lure customers

Mabuza’s Russian jaunts and the slippery consequences of medical tourism

For more than five years the deputy president has remained steadfast in his right to travel abroad to receive medical treatment

More top stories

Deputy president Mabuza begs Tshwane voters: ‘Don’t abandon the ANC’

Angry Atteridgeville residents hurl insults at ‘dysfunctional’ ANC full of ‘corrupt individuals’ as Mabuza fails to placate them with party T-shirts and doeks

Taxi operators clash with cops over disputed Route B97 in...

Three suspects remain in custody following their arrest on charges of attempted murder and assault after eight taxis were impounded

SA teens, you’re next in the queue for a vaccine...

Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 will be able to register to receive their Covid-19 jab from 20 October. This group will be given only one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, for now

Former US secretary of state Colin Powell dies aged 84

The 84-year-old died as a result of complications from Covid-19
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×