Describing himself as one “whom history destined to be caught in the storm”, Frank Chikane sees the writing and publishing of his latest book Eight days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki as a “responsibility which no one but me can discharge”. Who better to tell this story than one who has not only worked with and for Mbeki but one who has “been in the presidency from Mandela to Zuma” for thirteen and a half years? For ten of the thirteen years, Chikane was also a member of the ANC’s national executive committee. “I have seen it all from … the apex of government and within the leadership of the ANC,” declares Chikane.
While his approach to the story, his recollections and his interpretations of what happened may and will probably be disputed, the version presented in the book is ‘true’ for him. We will and must defend that perspective as well as Chikane’s right and good intentions in telling the story. But if Chikane has the right to tell his truth, every South African citizen has the right not only to evaluate the story of Chikane but also to posit other possible alternative ‘truths’. The challenge before us is that no version of what happened can be regarded as ‘the Truth’. Instead what we have are clusters of coexisting truth-claims jostling for hegemony. The Chikane version of the truth is but one participant in stampede of truth-claims about what happened before, during and after the fateful eight days in September.
The book is written in subjective and emotive language. Those who wanted Mbeki removed are castigated and cast into the category of a non-thinking group who sang the “ngoku (remove-him-now) chorus” – a group that had no rational or reasonable arguments for wanting Mbeki out and no proper care for the possible consequences of their actions.
While the allegation of irrational haste may apply to the events that unfolded over “eight days in September”, I do not see how the same allegations can be made in relation to the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane. As someone who was at the Polokwane conference as a so-called political analyst, I noted that the conference was characterised by robust debate though some of it was marred by unruly behaviour. In the last page of the book, there is a shocking suggestion (amazingly attributed to Mbeki by the author) to the effect that “the electoral college at the conference [of Polokwane] was not representative of the real cadre of the movement”. This is a rather severe assessment of a legitimate ANC process – and why, because it did not deliver the results that would have been preferred?
The best sections of the book are those that deal with the constitutional challenge and the dilemmas that opened up for the state with regards to the ruling party’s decision to remove a sitting president and the mechanisms used to carry it out. In this regard, chapter 9 of the book, titled “Conflating state and party”, is notable as it contains the most interesting and perhaps most important messages in the book. Any reader pressed for time, should begin reading the book in chapter 9.
Chikane utilises every available superlative to praise Mbeki and his “glorious” legacy. This approach is ostensibly adopted to counter the alleged practice of “Mbeki-bashing” utilised by some media and political commentators. Throughout the book, Mbeki is presented mainly as a victim – “crushed like a bug” – by a powerful but irrational (if also somewhat intellectually insecure/inferior) faction in the ANC. He is also presented as an ethical leader who “disarmed” both those who offered to defend him and those who spoiled for a state-debilitating fight with him, by choosing to comply with the decision. In doing this, he put the interests of the country and the ANC first rather than his own personal interests, argues Chikane.
Mbeki is even compared to Jesus and his supporters are described as being “like the disciples of Jesus”. He is also compared to Kwame Nkrumah for his “outstanding intellect” and for their commitment to the liberation of Africa and its peoples. Even his stance on HIV/Aids is defended as he (not Zachie Achmat and the TAC) is credited with taking the fight to the powerful pharmaceutical companies of the world. Judge Nicholson is blamed for not only for making a judgement that was “later set aside by the Supreme Court of Appeal as baseless” but for diverting attention away from Mbeki’s mediation breakthrough in Zimbabwe. Although Mbeki is described as “just a human being like all of us”, it is only on page 212 of a book of 235 pages that we see the first ever backhanded “criticism” of Mbeki in the book – and only fleetingly. According to Chikane, Mbeki’s “greatest weakness was directly related to his greatest strength – his intellect (and) because of his high intellect, many people misunderstood him”.
If Chikane has a right to tell his story, he also has a right to respect and stand in awe of Mbeki. He is probably not alone in this regard. But the rest of us are under no obligation to join the queue of the awestruck. Nor are we obliged to stand in awe of the contents of this book. Chikane informs his readers that flowing from his decision to publish this book, he has become a “persona non grata” in certain influential circles, so that he is being excluded from business and employment opportunities. Like Mbeki he has also been victimised.
In spite of Chikane’s best attempts, this cannot be construed merely as a book written by a victim about a fellow victim for the benefit of other victims in the past or in the future. This is a book written by one of the most powerful men in the post-apartheid South African state. It is a book about one of the most powerful and most influential men in (South) African politics. None of them are mere victims, mere angels or mere villains. If anyone wants to understand Mbeki and the ANC deeply, including the antecedents to the events of the eight days of September 2008, Chikane’s book is not entirely helpful. Read William Mervyn Gumede’s older Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC instead. Even Ronald Suresh Roberts’s Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki presents a better argued case. Mark Gevisser’s biography of Mbeki titled Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred will help readers understand the character of Mbeki and perhaps even understand how he might have brought himself to the point of the “eight days in September”. While Brian Pottinger (The Mbeki Legacy) is irreverent to the point of violence, it will sober up anybody who has read only Chikane on the removal of Mbeki.