Alison Tilley
Alison Tilley

The Mbeki biography — the good one

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.

  • Percy Mabandu

    Mark Gevisser in his book, A Dream deferred points us to Mbeki’s wounds of character and of psychology. He shows us Mbeki, as a child deprived of familial affections and a sense of home and belonging thus hollow and “dislocated”. He reads Mbeki’s longstanding commitment to the liberation movement as an attempt to, if not an actual act of surrogating “Family” with the ANC. Thus Mbeki’s African renaissance drive, the 2010 world cup, the arms deal and so on are mere attempts by a brutalized and unloved child at an ostensive display of a longing for parity with the neo/post-colonizer.

    It is Gevisser’s apparent blind spots that I find telling; For it’s in his encounter with Mbeki’s wounds, both as an individual native and as a microcosm of the collective natives, that Gevisser draws his summations on, perhaps, Mbeki’s (un)fitness to govern.

    Thabo Mbeki was shaped in all his being by the times of his belonging, and the depths of his wounds only betray the dimensions of the imperial brutality as it expresses itself upon each native’s character and psychology.

    Perhaps Gevisser would have us believe that our attempts at collective self restoration as natives (Afrikan Renaissance) are mere ostentatious displays of a longed for parity with the imperialists, that the native only asserts himself in jealous comparison to his (Gevisser) fellow European descendents. It is to be made clear though that Gevisser fails to see that “…Black folk wealthy and poor in this country remain among the walking wounded, viral carriers of a historic truth that all the ducats in the world cannot reconcile”, as Greg Tate once wrote. What betrays his centre and location, whether in the imperialist tradition or resistance stream is his attempt at disconnecting our wounds from the assaulter; it is how he averts that connection of our wounds to his heritage of privilege that ought to be marveled at.

  • MidaFo

    I have read Mabandu’s logic before and it is equally impressive and necessary now.
    All South Africans will benefit from reading it. It is an essential part of our only possible future

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  • lavani

    what a well written story, a Fengu who was dislocated at young age, who grew with coldness, bitterness, who doesn’t play daddy to anyone, a perfectionist, i can go on n on to show that Mark has done an extensive research on this orator, stateman. i can trek again trough this piece of journalism.. coz u can’t get enough of it. good one Mark.

    Lavani Mathameni
    Jim Nghalalume-Giyani

  • Albertus van Wyk

    What a great piece of journalism. Bloody well done Gevisser!

  • Rob Wallace

    I just finished reading Gevisser’s biography yesterday, quite intensively over two days, after getting bogged down in Mervin Gumede’s rather tedious and repetitive volume.

    I really admire the job that Mark Gevisser has done, the quality of the writing particularly, the meticulous research done, over a period of 9 years at least, and the empathy he displays in analysing Mbeki’s background, education, experiences and growth, and how these inform Mbeki’s sometimes bewildering actions,lack of action and attitudes. It is a riveting read, and like Alison, I await the next instalment, probably a second edition of the book, bringing the journey up to date; clearly the current volume was put to bed to catch the Christmas book-buying period, and missed the Polokwane denouement.

  • Elias matome

    …well written one.