I have just put down of Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred and I have to say I am disappointed, but only because the end came too soon — I thought I had at least a chapter to go, but in fact the pages under my fingers were the 90-odd pages of footnotes, bibliography and index.
The book is a wonderfully lucid account of a fascinating life. I think good biography can tell you a great deal about yourself and your world as well as the subject. In compassionate reflection on a life lived in terrible times, sense is made of the way people think and respond to the world, and your own responses become more intelligible to yourself. The book does not sit in judgement of the president, but rather maintains an empathy throughout that held my attention far more effectively than relentless criticism or mindless adulation could. I like a good literary knife job as much as the next woman, but this is far more compelling than any hatchet job could be.
The photographs are a particular pleasure, especially one taken of a young Mbeki in the mid-Sixties, apparently by Essop or Meg Pahad. The young man looking out at you from that photograph has already been through a great deal, but he looks hopeful, and intensely vulnerable. I did not know Mbeki could have looked like that — when he arrived on my political horizon, he was already part of the leadership, and old beyond his years.
How exiles come home is clearly a much more complicated process than I had imagined, and one into which I have not had much insight before. I thought they just pulled up a chair and joined in the conversation, but the fact that these were people who thought they were in some way responsible for the conversation, and responsible alone, explains to me so much of the exile/incile tensions.
I don’t read the book as justifying Mbeki, but rather as explaining him, and the world he finds himself in and has helped to shape. His mother has taken on a whole new life for me — an indomitable woman, it seems. I particularly like her consulting her children on whether she should leave home in 1952 and return to teaching. The littlest one, five-year-old Jama, puts his finger on a problem with her solution: “Your nephews will be excited that you are bringing provisions home, but after two or three days you will be a burden. No, Ma, you’d better stay with us.” She does. A woman would be considered pretty radical consulting her children in such circumstances now, let alone 50 years ago.
The difficulties of leadership are all over this book — it seems to me a mini MBA in how, and how not, to lead. Do you put your position clearly, as the leader of a group? Or do you wait until the others have spoken? Does it matter when the sense of hierarchy is so strong that everyone just wants to say what you say? And what are the limits of the individual, however gifted, created by their race and class origins, and cemented by their own choices?
This book is everything good biography should be. I hope the next Gevisser biography is flickering on a screen as we speak — put me on the waiting list.