Normally, from mid-November to mid-January the country enters into “silly season” mode. Politicians join the productive sectors of the economy on an extended holiday, which sees the office blocks empty, while the shopping malls and beaches fill. Rather than serious news and political analysis, the media concentrate on lifestyle and celebrity rubbish designed to promote consumer spending.
This year, with the crucial African National Congress presidential election in Polokwane in a few weeks time, it promises to be different.
Politics is afire. The media are filled with discussion around this watershed event and for once it is not just earnest journalists pushing it down the throats of Everyman. Radio talk shows, newspaper letter columns and Internet blogs are filled with speculation and commentary.
Symptomatic of this is the interest that has met Mark Gevisser’s biography, eight years in the making, of President Thabo Mbeki. Gevisser is being fêted in a manner reminiscent of a pop star, rather than an earnest writer. Ordinary South Africans are simply desperate to unravel the enigma that is Mbeki.
Reading Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, one can’t help wondering why the sycophants in the presidency bothered to orchestrate the millions Ronald Suresh Roberts was paid for his fawning hagiography. Gevisser’s biography is everything that an Mbeki acolyte could hope for: critical enough to be believable, but written with an empathy that seduces the reader.
Despite the adulation lavished on Mbeki’s predecessor, Nelson Mandela, Mbeki took power with substantial reserves of popular goodwill to draw on. Mandela’s administration was strong on reconciliation but poor on delivery. Mbeki promised to smash, finally, any legacy of apartheid and then bolt together the new utopia.
It hasn’t worked out like that. Violent crime and corruption flourish, the record on service delivery is appalling and whatever Mbeki’s successes as a statesman elsewhere on the African continent, his record on Zimbabwe and HIV/Aids has brought international derision.
The ANC this week admitted the obvious — the party is split down the middle, the supporters of Mbeki and Jacob Zuma are engaged in “trench warfare”, the mechanics of the succession process remain murky and the two camps vie for support with inducements and threats.
Mbeki finds himself isolated and besieged, viewed by his many critics within his party as aloof, paranoid and vengeful. The mostly white opposition accuses him of being race obsessed and his personal popularity, according to the opinion polls, is at an all time low.
Gevisser’s undoubted skill is to disentangle some of Mbeki’s psychological and political complexity and, in doing so, remind the reader of Mbeki’s substantial part in bringing about peaceful change, a flourishing economy and a country unafraid of choosing its own way in international diplomacy.
Gevisser leans over backwards to understand and like Mbeki. He skirts gingerly around the failings of the Mbeki presidency and makes what is a serious failing in a biography, that of straying at times beyond the boundary of empathy into unconditional sympathy. As Mbeki critics have pointed out, whatever the deep-rooted and tragic reasons for Mbeki’s psychological pathologies, there is no reason why the whole country should suffer because of them.
They are too harsh. South African politics needs all the nuanced analysis that it can get, rather than simplistic populism of the anti-Mbeki campaign. It is the packaging of Zuma — a man who in Mbeki’s view, writes Gevisser, “possessed a dangerous combination of unhealthy ambition and poor judgement” — into the symbol of everything Mbeki is not, that has brought South Africa to the most fraught moment of its young democracy.
The Polokwane delegates face, according to the Mbeki camp, a stark choice. On the one hand a Zuma who has no respect for the law, a tribalist and a man “who would undo the meticulous stitching of South Africa into the global economy”. On the other hand, the less than ideal Mbeki, “but perhaps the only ANC leader who has a chance of defeating Zuma and keeping South Africa stable”.
• Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred is published by Jonathan Ball.