From the man who would be king to the king who would be decapitated

A year ago, when Thabo Mbeki was still deep in the political wilderness, I was invited to attend a performance of Mbeki and Other Nitemares, a play written and directed by Tsepo wa Mamatu, and performed by his students at the Wits University Drama School.

The play expands the few days it took Mbeki to resign after he was “recalled” into a Lear-like eternity, wherein he is faced with the consequences of his actions and his audience is forced to confront its collusion with the politics of power as represented by the current-day ANC.

It becomes the escape-vehicle with which the writer and his cast free themselves from the constraints of their own political heritage, by articulating an agency and identity beyond allegiance to the ANC.

And, in so doing, they force their audience to confront — as Mbeki’s downfall has — the reality that we are ruled not by saints, but by flawed men who are subjective beings rather than noble avatars of struggle and who act in their own interests rather than, necessarily, those of their people.

Mbeki’s greatest unwilled legacy
Such consciousness appears to be Mbeki’s greatest — unwilled — legacy to South Africa: he seems to have ushered us into a very necessary coming of age; an era of realpolitik where we find ourselves unshackled, at last, from the redemptive fantasies of the liberation era.

And yet, when chatting with the cast afterwards, I came to understand more deeply another element of Mbeki’s legacy; one which suggests a continuation of the redemptive impulse in South African politics.

I was sitting in a circle with the best black students that one of South Africa’s best universities has to offer — all of them manifestly critical thinkers with a deep social conscience — and I was struck by the passion that Mbeki aroused in them. They all articulated a deep distress at what had befallen him, even as they understood it to be a consequence of his own actions.

One of them spoke about how Jacob Zuma had “lowered the bar” set by Mbeki and all saw Zuma’s victory as a consequence of the law of diminishing returns: South African political leadership on a downhill slope. They all were — as defined by their current circumstances, if not by their provenance — indisputably members of a black elite.

And as I sat with them, I felt that I was touching something profound: how important Mbeki has been to the formation of this class in South Africa, with his emphasis on self-reliance and excellence; with his deep commitment to the notion that South Africans, and particularly black South Africans, had to be “world class”.

Effects of BEE
Too often, we forget when decrying the way black economic empowerment created a few black millionaires but left everyone else in the dirt, about the tens of thousands of black people who entered the middle class as a consequence of his policies: not Ramaphosas or Sexwales, but bank clerks and copywriters, medics and accountants.

Certainly, these include a fair number of unqualified public servants who grow fat on corrupt tenders and the teachers who care more about their salaries than the social good, but they also encompass an entire generation of young, educated people who strive towards an excellence and a critical independence that is the very safeguard of South African democracy.

Even if forced to abandon formal politics by the likes of Julius Malema and the lack of a viable alternative, the cast of Mbeki and Other Nitemares represents the class who will run South Africa in the future: its banks, its media, its mines, its universities, even its trade unions.

They are Mbeki’s Children and we should thank him for them, even if, at the same time, we castigate him and his government for having paid too little attention to a new lost generation that came of age, unemployed and uneducated, alongside them.

Writing two years after Mbeki left office, it might still be premature to pronounce definitively on his legacy. But it does seem apt — even urgent — to consider the question of why the former South African president has been so consistently vilified, as if he has come to carry all the sins and shortcomings of the generation charged with shepherding South Africa into liberation.

The rise and fall
The Fifa World Cup was his grand project: he carried the responsibility for it and thus whatever praise was due, alongside Sepp Blatter, Danny Jordaan and Trevor Manuel.

If it were not for his war with Jacob Zuma and the ANC, he would have been standing next to his successor, or near enough to have been captured in every shot.

His palpable absence from the festivities is a mark of just how far he has fallen, and how far he will have to rise, on the wings of his new foundation and African Leadership Institute, if he is to re-enter the pantheon of great South African leaders.

How can we account for this, beyond the trite explanation that history is written by winners?

Mbeki promised a certain kind of African leadership and failed to deliver it. So much of the anger against him has been directed at a man who seemed unable to live up to his own exacting standards of democratic practice; standards he codified and spent millions of rands of South African tax money peddling to the rest of the continent as the African Peer Review Mechanism.

“His willingness to corrupt”
I have lost count of the number of South Africans who have said to me: “Whatever else I thought of Thabo Mbeki, I at least thought he was clean. I was wrong.” Or: “Whatever else I thought of Thabo Mbeki, I at least thought he was a democrat.

Now I don’t believe that either.” Nothing — not even his Aids policies (which at least were well-intentioned) — did more damage to Mbeki’s reputation than the evidence of his willingness to corrupt the organs of state and of his determination to hold on to power in 2007.

Mbeki was meant to have been the supreme rationalist; the technocrat who could save South Africa. And if he was not always transparent or pleasant, some comfort could be taken, at least, in the belief that he was a master strategist who knew how to wield power effectively.

If his response to the Aids crisis compromised that notion by revealing him as someone who saw himself more as a prophet-in-the-wilderness than a Machiavelli (it took him five years to accept that his position was doing irreparable damage) his ham-handedness around the charges against Jacob Zuma put paid to it entirely.

If his intention was to dispatch Zuma, it had the opposite effect: it made Zuma a victim, a martyr, and it gave him a cause.

If Mbeki was such a skilled operator, how could he not have seen that the decision to announce publicly that there was prima facie evidence against Jacob Zuma without charging him would backfire?

The answer, as in so many other of his political decisions, must be found somewhere else: in his personal anxieties about power, so at odds with the public persona, built over decades of being the ANC’s suave propagandist, of being a man at ease in the world.

“Not presidential material”
The brilliance of his opponents was to identify — and to exploit — these weaknesses. Using the same vanguardist mode in which Mbeki was schooled, but deploying it more effectively, Zuma’s supporters identified a latent dissatisfaction within the ANC and sparked an anti-establishment rebellion.

Mbeki’s victimisation of Zuma, allegedly because he was both ambitious and uneducated — “not presidential material” — became symbolic of the way so many people felt left out, or left behind; denied a seat at the banquet of victory.

For many reasons, not least the country’s early industrialisation and thus its proletarian history, South Africa’s politics are driven by an acute sense of aspiration; a sense that people can alter a prescribed destiny.

While this energy gave South Africans the perseverance to struggle for decades against apartheid and the imagination to forge a new democratic society, it also generates a by-product — perpetual grievance.

This is the labour movement’s great gift to the South African democracy, for it counterbalances the feudal fatalism of tribalism and ensures that the ANC does not install a Mugabe, a Moi, an Mbeki-for-life, a Zuma-for-life. But it also ensures chronic dissatisfaction with those who have more than you do: the rich, the powerful.

Oppressed against the oppressor
Within the post-liberation ANC, such discontent was (perhaps necessarily) repressed by the first generation of leadership; by Mandela, by Mbeki and by Zuma.

Once the pantheon splintered and the leaders started fighting with one another, permission was implicitly granted to complain; to campaign, again.

Central to the campaign to prevent Mbeki from remaining in power, then, was a pivotal notion in post-liberation politics: that the leader must represent the oppressed against the oppressor; that he is their candidate against “The Man”, even if he is, simultaneously, “The Man” himself.

This requires an almost impossible double act: even as you need to prove to voters that you can dispense largesse and offer access to power, you have to convince them too that you are, in fact, being elected to challenge this power on behalf of the ordinary, the down-trodden, the left-behind.

Jacob Zuma’s ticket to power — and thus out of jail — was, of course, that Thabo Mbeki was “The Man” and that the rest of us (like Zuma himself) were the victims. As is now common cause, Zuma’s campaign drew together the “walking wounded”, comrades who had, in one way or another, been alienated or sidelined by Mbeki.

The perceived injury to Jacob Zuma became a symbol of the injury to them all, and was the vehicle for their successful coalition. All they had in common (beyond membership of the ANC) was a shared loathing for Mbeki. Their only glue was that they were all set against “The Man”.

Mbeki the “villian”
If Mbeki ceased to be the villain, they risked disintegration. Notwithstanding Mbeki’s own weaknesses and failures, there was thus valuable political capital in assigning the mistakes and the excesses of the first 15 years of ANC government primarily to him.

I have written elsewhere that if Thabo Mbeki’s removal from power in 2007-2008 was something of a regicide, this was because the ruling ANC ceded so much power to him that the only way to claim it back was to decapitate him — metaphorically, of course. Certainly, Mbeki might have earned this fate because of his own regal behaviour. But what is remarkable about so much commentary on Mbeki after his fall is the extent to which it cedes to him precisely the power for which it purports to critique him: it creates of him a demonic fetish for all that was poisonous, or ineffective, or mendacious, in South African public life.

Since my biography of Mbeki was published, the majority of emails I have received have come from black students and young professionals. Here is a fairly representative example: “Thank you for your book. I feel I have learned so much about the Great Man. He remains my inspiration. I am what I am because of him.”

If so many public voices in South Africa seemed to have a vested interest in keeping Thabo Mbeki bad, then many of my correspondents seemed to have a vested interest in keeping him good. Or, in some cases, in longing for the good that was there until it went bad: “I still don’t understand [what happened to Mbeki]. It seems to me like he was corrupted by absolute power. Terrible. I had prayed and hoped that we would be different, but I guess look at Mugabe.”

What sadness there is in that “we”, for it is an acknowledgement of the end of South African exceptionalism, a coming to terms with the fact that “we” are just like everyone else: we produce our Mandelas, we produce our Malemas.

Thabo Mbeki carries the aspiration of a generation — Mbeki’s Children — on his shoulders. As one of my correspondents put it about his own work: “One of my pet projects is this question of blackness and capacity. I guess what I am saying is, I dare not fail …”

“Blackness and capacity” was, more than anything, Mbeki’s own “pet project”. “I dare not fail” was his credo: it drove him and it warped him. He transferred this quest for achievement and excellence — perhaps it is accurate to call it a neurosis — to a generation of young people, and it has defined many of them. And yet Mbeki himself is deemed by so many to have failed.

The class warriors
Whether this allegation is justified, the crisis it has generated is significant. Mbeki, like Zuma, was constructed as a class warrior, but it would be a caricature of his supporters to describe them solely as being interested in protecting the privilege of their class; in holding the barbarians at the gate.

Rather, particularly in the light of a Zuma portrayed as a traditionalist and mysogynist, Mbeki spoke to their quest for excellence and achievement, their creativity, their cosmopolitan aspirations.

For others, he is bad precisely because he has let the team down: a profound sense of betrayal drives their anger. And for still others — such as Tsepo wa Mamatu and his cast — his downfall has prompted an identity crisis and has begun the process of cleaving them from the mother-movement; a process that cannot but eventually reshape South African politics, even if the Congress of the People has proved to be a washout.

I have been struck, since the publication of my book, by how the expression “the dream deferred” has entered the South African political vernacular; it ran through Mbeki and Other Nitemares like a leitmotif, capturing in its rhythms (Langston Hughes’s brilliance, not my own) all the nostalgia and all the anguish of the play and its performers.

Perhaps this, then, is why Mbeki has become such a “Nitemare”, even for those, like Tsepo wa Mamatu and his players, who readily admit his greatness.

He urged the first generation of post-apartheid black professionals and intellectuals to define themselves, to follow their dreams rather than the destinies laid out for them by three centuries of oppression. And yet his story forces them — forces us all — to come to terms with a paradox about freedom: even if democracy requires us to act, there will always be limits to our agency.

This is an edited extract from Mark Gevisser’s essay in Mbeki and After: Reflections on the Legacy of Thabo Mbeki, edited by Daryl Glaser and published this week by Wits ­University Press

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Sabotage and corruption at Eskom’s worst power plant goes unpunished

A forensic report details how Tutuka power station is being crippled by current and former employees

Champions League final preview: A tale of revenge for Liverpool

The Reds are the favourites this time around, but they must not let emotions of the past cloud their heads when they face Real Madrid on Saturday

Stellenbosch Mafia mindset plays out in racist incidents at Maties

A white student urinating on a black student’s property has brought into focus a strong undercurrent of racism

Stalin’s reign of terror foreshadows Putin’s hold on Russia

Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has accelerated Russia’s slide towards totalitarian rule.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…