Fishing for clues in the ruling party's stream

At last Mark Gevisser’s long-awaited biography of Thabo Mbeki is out. For a project that began in 1999 and took eight years to complete, the title The Dream Deferred seems especially apt. As a subject, Mbeki is a walking “writer’s block”. Not only is he a densely complex person, as the book confirms, but he shimmers in the light, making it all but impossible to have a single thesis to explain the man.

Moreover, for a perfectionist like Gevisser, it was perhaps inevitable that as he edged closer to the present day it would become harder and harder to retain a clear sense of his subject matter. Unsurprisingly, the witnesses to the action—the president’s contemporary colleagues—began to dry up when asked to illuminate the most recent events. So 650 of the 795 pages are devoted to the pre-1994 period, which may frustrate readers yearning for clarity about the whats, whys and wherefores of the Mbeki presidency.

When I arrived in this country in 1994 Gevisser appeared on the pages of this newspaper as a superb profile writer—the “journalistic niche” he says he had found but which he then came to realise “was not going to satisfy my exacting muse”. The 2 000 word profile was replaced by the search for the real Thabo Mbeki—what in the introduction to The Dream Deferred Gevisser portentously calls his “destiny”.

Regrettably, no one has filled the hole that Gevisser left behind in the newspapers—to South Africa’s collective cost. A small team of Gevissers could have made a significant difference to our political culture over the past decade. Good profiles enable ordinary people to better understand those who have power over them; in their absence, rumour and paranoia, not to mention bigotry and racism, gain ascendancy.

So my question about Gevisser’s biographical destiny has always been whether the quality of the book will make up for the absence of his profiles. Happily, he brings to The Dream Deferred all the skills he brought to bear in earlier work. It is cerebral yet intimate, and beautifully written, with just the right amount of “I”.

But the real challenge for The Dream Deferred is whether it helps us understand Mbeki and the organisation he heads any better. The book has arrived in the nick of time. Any later and it was in serious danger of being otiose: we need to understand Mbeki’s history now so that we are better qualified to evaluate him in office, not in retirement.

Gevisser quotes Virginia Woolf’s biographical metaphor of fishes and streams, and states that though the main subject is the fish, he hopes to help explain the stream. But it is a painfully difficult assignment, as Gevisser concedes. Fortunately, his book does not appear in isolation. It may be the only profound dissection of the fish available—which is why it was so eagerly anticipated—but there are other recent examinations of the stream.

So, on the delicate subject of Mbeki’s attitude to allegations of spying, Gevisser’s account of the insinuations of CIA collusion involving Mbeki in the late 1970s after he had facilitated and then starred in a CBS documentary on the ANC, one can set Gevisser’s interesting extrapolation—that “a deep personal wound had been opened, perhaps unexpectedly, by the smear campaign against [then national firector of public prosecutions, Bulelani] Ngcuka”—with the differently contextualised account of one of the chief protagonists, Mac Maharai, in Padraig O’Malley’s fascinating Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, published a few months ago. 

And while Gevisser offers up a theory as ornate as his subject’s own public views on HIV/Aids—by observing that Mbeki sees the epidemic through the prism of sexual shame—Andrew Feinstein is unequivocal in his attitude to Mbeki’s “deadly denialism” in After the Party. Covering similar political terrain as Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination by another former ANC MP, Pregs Govender, it reveals how much courage is required to swim against the tide of sycophantic “popular opinion” inside the ANC.

Good organisations require loyalty and discipline, but when there is rot, public dissent is essential. The vigour of Kader Asmal and Pallo Jordan’s recent public commentary is further evidence that alongside the visceral factionalism of the succession battle, there is a loosening of the rules of the ANC game as well as a potential changing of the guard.

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