Minutes before the Wits University book launch of Mark Gevisser’s over-hyped book on Mbeki, the traffic was forced to part on Jan Smuts outside the university as The Leader zipped past in RSA1 with a siren-blaring retinue of seven vehicles across three lanes. It lent an authentic African feel to the event.

It is the flaws that make President Thabo Mbeki interesting; it is his complexity that intrigues. And that is why a veritable publishing industry has sprung up around him — yet none of the authors who have delivered books on him, neither William Mervin Gumede nor Ronald Suresh Roberts, and most certainly not Mark Gevisser’s much-touted but acutely disappointing book, have come close.

Like moths to a flame, they have circled the enigma of Mbeki, but none has dared interrogate who this man really is and why so many fear him. Their books have drawn accusations, post-publication, ranging from plagiarism to defamation and over-identification with the subject in the latter two cases. Interestingly, those accused of “over-identification” were the ones who received the most moola to write the books.

The best commentary on Mbeki’s years is contained in Mike van Graan’s brilliant Bafana Republic at the Market Theatre and acted by the exquisitely talented Lindiwe Matshikiza. It has a backdrop of cartoons by Jonathan Shapiro — Zapiro — a persistently fearless commentator and the only one where newspapers fear their readers more than Mbeki and so continue publishing him, instead of bowing to pressure to isolate tainted writers as many have.

The cost of the theatre tickets is a modest R40 for just over an hour of the best political satire since the 1980s, compared to R229 for Mark Gevisser’s apology of a biography, 892 pages of The Dream Deferred, that few will ever complete.

Bafana Republic has a number of cameos. One is Dr Kabouter Basson, a thinly disguised characterisation of Dr Death, apartheid chemical and biological warfare anti-hero Wouter Basson. He is shown reflecting on how more people have died during Mbeki’s African renaissance than under apartheid. He morosely muses that “people have accused me of having something to do with research to develop the HI virus. I said, ‘I wish.'”

Kabouter Basson observes that in South Africa there are now 51 murders a day; about 50 more die a day in road accidents, a further 800 to 1 000 a day die of Aids (an under-estimate given that 450 000 died of Aids in South Africa in 2005, according to UNAids) and most of those who die are black. Yet, Kabouter Basson muses, only 23 000 people came to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It’s eina humour. But then again, living in a Cape Town shack and drawing water from the Black River, which has three times the E coli danger limit, or being one of the 54 500 rape survivors (of an average 55 000) who lay a charge each year and see the rapists go free because the cops lack sufficient cars to investigate even if they had the interest, is pretty eina too.

Peter Gill, in his 2006 book Body Count: How They Turned Aids into a Catastrophe, quotes Dr Nono Simelela “who from 1999 until her final exasperated resignation in 2004 was head of South Africa’s National Aids Programme”. Talking about Mbeki’s Aids denialism, Simelela speaks of meetings between scientists and dissidents hosted by Mbeki in South Africa.

“I sat at these meetings and heard these international scientists fail to agree on anything … The dialogue became pathetic. They were swearing at each other on email … Some of the emails we had to mediate were scary.

“I thought it was quite tragic that we had people discussing this in a country where the evidence was so stark … And these scientists were coming from countries where people were alive because they were getting treatment … One can’t underestimate how much it diverted our attention and slowed us down. They had wasted money. We still hadn’t got an answer and people were still dying.”

There is none of this humane despair quoted by those within government frustrated by inaction in either Suresh Roberts or Gevisser’s books.

Let’s look at the Mbeki books. Gumede, the one writer with the political savvy to interrogate Mbeki, although he regrettably too hesitated and turned back, saw his book tainted by charges of plagiarism. Suresh Roberts’s pseudo-intellectual ravings, funded to the tune of R1,8-million by Absa (what was its reward, I wonder?), attempt, and fail, to analyse Mbeki’s detractors.

Gevisser’s book that was launched amid fanfare that not even our two Nobel laureates have enjoyed — the author receiving a standing ovation from Johannesburg’s neo-liberals desperate to hear that tomorrow will be OK — is heavy with detail about ancient history: the Mbeki and Moerane families’ privileged past. It is low on the analysis that Gevisser at his best is capable of, and it lacks human considerations of the people who don’t come from the backgrounds of privilege he admits he and Mbeki share.

One sharp television presenter observed: “The minute I saw he had so many pictures from the Mbeki family albums, I thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ It’s a hugely unsatisfying read; just when you think he’ll make a point, he skirts it.”

But let me backtrack. In 2002, Gevisser phoned me to chat about his research on Aids for the Mbeki book. Since 1999, the year I was raped, the president and then health minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had viciously attacked me on a few occasions for my writing about rape and HIV. I was not reticent about hitting back either; in June 2000, I referred to the president in a Washington Post article as “Chief Undertaker Mbeki”.

Gevisser opened the conversation with: “Did you and Thabo ever have an affair?” At one time I had been a friend, separately, of Zanele Mbeki and Thabo Mbeki. I’d known him in the late 1980s in Lusaka and in the early 1990s shortly after he returned from exile; either he or Aziz Pahad would call and ask if I knew of any parties and they and Jojo Saloojee would join me at some, Mbeki often with a close female friend in tow.

At one memorable party at the home of political scientist Susan Booysen in Florida, he and an American sang for the favours of his then constant female companion (who later died in a car accident) with not a thought to discretion. Interestingly enough, in none of the biographies yet published has there been any accounts of Mbeki’s liaisons and his wife’s despair at them.

No, I said to Gevisser, I hadn’t had an affair with Mbeki. Gevisser said: “He’s obsessed with you. Why is that?” I don’t know, I said. We chatted a little more and then I said to Gevisser: “You’re in a difficult position writing this book, aren’t you? If you write the real book you’ll have to leave South Africa and ensure no one can ever find you. If you write a sop to Mbeki you’ll never get invited to any decent dinner party in Jo’burg or Cape Town again.” It’s the fate that has befallen Ronald Suresh Roberts. Gevisser agreed. “So what are you going to do, Mark?” I asked. “Will you try to fall in between the two, satisfying none?”

Although Gevisser told the Wits audience “he didn’t get into bed with Mbeki”, he certainly used some of the same old arguments from Mbeki and ignored corrections.

On page 738 of Gevisser’s tome he writes: “Charlene Smith would write in the Washington Post that rape was ‘endemic’ in Africa and had become ‘a prime means of transmitting the disease, to young women, as well as children’.” He gives the source of this as “Smith, C, ‘Their Deaths, His Doubts, My Fears’, Washington Post, 4 June 2000″.

What I wrote was: “Give the man his due. Mbeki is right, of course, in saying that African solutions must be found. In the United States, Aids is primarily a gay men’s and intravenous drug users’ problem. Here, it is spread primarily by heterosexual sex — spurred by men’s attitudes toward women. We won’t end this epidemic until we understand the role of tradition and religion — and of a culture in which rape is endemic and has become a prime means of transmitting the disease, to young women as well as children.”

In this article, frequent speeches and books — all of which Gevisser is aware of and some of which he has been present at — I have devoted considerable research to dissecting how rape is the fastest-growing crime in the world and the one least likely to result in an effective prosecution; how “tradition” across the globe on every continent enables a culture of violence against women and takes insufficient action against it; how religions from Judaism to Islam and Christianity and others help create a culture where women consider many bodily functions as unclean or dirty.

What I don’t say is that rape is endemic in Africa, as Gevisser wrongly quotes me saying in his book and at Wits. The author of that comment is Mbeki in a letter to Tony Leon who wrote: “rape is ‘an endemic feature of African society'” on July 1 2000.

Now if Gevisser, who says that Mbeki is a denialist, not a dissident, with regard to Aids and understands those semantics, why can he not understand the difference between someone who says rape is endemic or ‘an endemic feature of African society’? The nuances, as any writer and lawyer will tell you, are important. And in South Africa, where race baiting has become a feature of life, it is particularly important.

On page 749, he writes: “… his response a few months later to Charlene Smith’s comment that rape was ‘endemic’ to African culture shows that he had developed an acute understanding of the way Aids was being used, specifically, to stigmatise male sexuality. In her ‘blind … racist rage’ following her rape, Mbeki wrote, Smith represented the ‘considerable number of people in our country who believe and are convinced that most black (African) men carry the HI virus’ — and were using sexual violence to spread it”.

In an article published eight days after I was raped, in the Mail & Guardian and which Gevisser sources, so he must have read it, I wrote: “I tell you the race of my neighbours because I want you to know that rape is not about race, as some South Africans think. It is not about what men do. It is about what a few sick individuals do; it has nothing to do with race or malehood. Indeed, for the most part men treated me better than women that night.”

If Gevisser found racism in that, then I cannot contemplate what he was blinded by. And balance is the first rule in journalism — why did Gevisser not balance Mbeki’s statements with that? Anyone reading the book and its structure gets the impression that I am indeed racist.

Gevisser repeated the defamation at the Wits University launch of his book where he said: “Careless language by Charlene Smith said rape was endemic in African society.” The language was, in fact, Mbeki’s deliberate use of words.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town who also worked as a psychologist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asked Gevisser at the Wits book launch: “What does it mean that we have people in leadership who have a disconnect, who have unfinished business in their life?

“As a biographer one can’t avoid empathising and over-identifying with the subject. I sense that when you left this work you felt and emptiness, a sense of sadness. Why should we be implicated in an individual’s [Mbeki’s] search for identity?”

Xolela Mangcu, intellectual commentator, was more direct: “Mbeki has an inability to deal with duality.” He quoted John Mills: “Biography can never substitute for politics.” Even gender researcher and close friend of Gevisser Deborah Posel observed: “There is a disconnection between the way Mbeki see himself as a man and his refusal to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence and Aids.”

The question that has to be asked is: Why is it easy for writers, especially men, to see the problems in Mbeki not confronting HIV and Aids directly, but why are they so silent or lax on reporting on his failures to protect women against violence?


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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