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From ever after to nevermore



Copies of Frank Chikane’s new book are stacked waist high in Hyde Park Exclusive Books. Hlumelo Biko’s stack isn’t quite so extensive, but it’s big. Many others of this ilk — about South Africa’s past, present, possible futures — crowd the “current affairs” shelves. What to buy, if, like many in our country, you want to know what the hell is going on, and if, like so few, you can afford those luxury items called books?

There’s William Gumede’s Restless Nation, but as with Xolela Mangcu’s similar volume it is a collection of old columns so doesn’t offer much of a larger perspective. Ray Hartley promises How to Fix South Africa, but it’s branded very much like the Sunday Times’s “Each One Hire One” campaign, so that’s an off-putter. Also, one is tired of the great and the good earnestly telling us what the government should, must, or dare not fail to do.

With some dramatic irony, The Death of Our Society by Prince Mashele cosies up next to Architects of Poverty by Moeletsi Mbeki, Mashele’s former think-tank boss, now his antagonist. Nearby, offering a historical-political overview, is Alec Russell’s After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, which shares a title with Douglas Foster and most of a subtitle with Gumede’s previous book. It may be worth comparing the perceptions of the British Russell and the American Foster, but the Russell paperback has such small type it looks like the whole text is a footnote to another book.

Foster, at any rate, offers a very full picture of South Africa “after Mandela”, meaning after the dream, post-liberation. We are in the odd space Freud calls Nachträglichkeid — afterwardsness — and our feeling of afterwardsness couldn’t be expressed better than by adapting an old joke: South Africa’s got a great future behind it.

This future behind us is the present Foster explores. His modus operandi is very much that of in-depth long-form journalism, which ties together meticulous observation “on the ground” with detailed background research and analysis. This means a lot of scene-setting, speaking to an appropriate person, adducing the telling detail; it’s a bit of a formula, and one can be irked by yet another description of yet another dusty demesne or ragged interlocutor, but it’s a form of which Forster is clearly a master.

He appears not only to have read all the relevant books but to have been to every backwater in the country, and to have listened attentively. As one reads After Mandela (and it’s probably best read slowly, or a few chapters at a time, rather than straight through), Foster’s way of telling such stories becomes ever more compelling. He is both able to draw on his personal reminiscences of Randy Shilts, the pioneering writer on Aids, and to get close enough to Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to smell the alcohol on her breath.

Careful portrait of the president
Foster spent a great deal of time in South Africa over the past decade, and talked to people from the lowest to the highest — literally. He seems to have had more face time with Jacob Zuma than any local journalist, or perhaps to have used that time better. His careful portrait of the president (supplemented by conversations with his daughters) offers more insight into the man than all the pieces by South Africans I’ve read, including Jeremy Gordin’s biography. The president’s own unscripted pronouncements may even, now, make a little more sense to me.

Chikane’s book follows hot on the heels of his Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki and his revised autobiography (both 2012), and calls itself The Things That Could Not Be Said, noting in its subtitle that among those things are Aids and Zimbabwe — two of the three issues that defined and then destroyed the Mbeki presidency and its “African renaissance” aspirations. (The third was corruption: A is also for Arms Deal, and Z is for Zuma.)

Mbeki drew very firm lines around what could be said during his rule, and Zuma is going even further. Interestingly, though, the location of the sayable has shifted. The kinds of things Desmond Tutu said during Mbeki’s tenure, which got him personally denounced by the president, are now common currency.

Yet, today, South Africa’s citizens engage in extremely drawn-out legal battles with the presidency over old reports on Zim elections, “spy tapes”, and of course the arms deal. Or they get blasted for making a satirical painting.

As someone commenting from “the helm of government”, having spent 14 years in the presidency, Chikane’s experience of what could be said or not said to the president is fascinating. It shows what could be heard or not heard, as it were, by power. As an instance of this, Chikane reproduces his 2001 discussion paper on “Threats and Potential Threats to the National Democratic Revolution”, bemoaning the fact that the ANC did not listen.

But maybe that’s because the concerns about “Corrupt or Corrupted elements”, the “Culture of Greed and Pursuit of Self Interest” and the corrosive effect of “Ambitions for Leadership Positions” are buried among a lot of other internal and “external” threats to the ANC and the NDR, threats guaranteed to appeal to the paranoid ear of the Mbeki era: “Criminal elements” and “Agents of the Old Order” within the ANC, “external and/or foreign entities” trying to delegitimise, discredit and undermine the party and its alliance, plus “sustained vicious attacks on the person of the President”.

Observant account
By “attacks on the person” Chikane does not mean physical assassination attempts, though one can’t be sure what Mbeki believed, even via Chikane’s often observant account. Did he really believe, for instance, that Vusi Pikoli’s case against Jackie Selebi should be held back because of his concerns about the dodgy plea bargains made with mafiosi and murderers, not (or not primarily) for party-political reasons ahead of Polokwane? It’s impossible to tell; what we have are Chikane’s beliefs about what Mbeki believed. Although this lightens the usual portrait of Mbeki’s presidency a little, given as it is from someone on Mbeki’s side, it doesn’t really add much but detail.

Presented in parallel with this account are Chikane’s personal quests: for the truth about the apartheid agents who tried to kill him by poison in 1989 and, later, for the correction of a bizarre error in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His thoughts on “closing” the past, as he puts it, are worth having. Overall, his heart is in the right place.

Chikane cautions that, despite the book’s title, he will not be saying all the things that could not be said — some are not sayable because of “regulatory issues”, others he’s saving for later works. It’s a pity that, apart from the odd echo of the pulpit, Chikane writes in a kind of officialese, a circumlocutory style in which “elements” make “interventions” and events “impact negatively” on processes (or is it the other way round?).

It’s a relief when he expresses himself bluntly, as he does on the outcome of his 2001 warning: “Unfortunately, the cancer [of corruption] overtook our efforts and by the end of the first ten years of the ANC in government the festering sore burst open and splashed over all of us, turning a glorious liberation movement into a movement that fed on its own.”

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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