Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 1999-06-20 Reporter: Mark Gevisser

The Thabo Mbeki Story : The Chief



Sunday Times

Date 1999-06-20


Mark Gevisser

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"I play the man I am."

These words are at the core of the Shakespearean tragic hero Coriolanus. The Roman general who went to war against his own people is usually seen as a vainglorious proto-fascist, but in a series of letters Thabo Mbeki wrote from Moscow to his friend Rhianon Gooding in 1969, he tried to convince her that Coriolanus was the very model for a 20th-century revolutionary.

The fired-up young communist, studying at the Lenin School, saw Coriolanus as a revolutionary because he was prepared to go to war against his own people, who had become a "rabble", an "unthinking mob": Rome had to be purged of its rot, and he would kill his own mother in the process if he had to.

The conventional reading of Coriolanus is that his attack on his own people was in vengeance for their having exiled him from Rome. The reason for this exile was that, when he had returned to the city after a victorious battle, he refused to boast about his war wounds. He would not swagger or take part in the "heroic" performance of the returning conqueror. He would not dissemble: "I play the man I am."

Now, three decades after he was so inspired by Coriolanus, Thabo Mbeki sits in his Tuynhuys office and tries to remember why: "It was this thing of not dissembling . . . If you convey an image of yourself that's not correct, in the end you get caught. It's fatal. It's really better to behave as yourself, I believe."

Mbeki's assumption of the presidency has been driven by his determination to "play the man I am". It is evident in his dogged anti-populism; in his refusal to spin the media or play to the crowd. It was evident in his inaugural address on Wednesday, which did not for a moment jettison Mbekiesque lyrical polemic in favour of something more pompous and robust.

He disagrees sharply when I suggest that he is a master of image manipulation; that this is borne out by the way he lightened his touch in the electoral campaign and by the way he cultivated suave urbanity while in exile. These are "not image things", he says. They are "how best do you position yourself in order to communicate effectively"?

One way or another, Mbeki, a subtle reader, would understand that Coriolanus's tragic flaw was his refusal to find a way of casting the image of himself that the people expected while remaining true to his principles. He would understand, too, that Coriolanus's death was ultimately because he succumbed to emotion; to the pleas of his mother on behalf of Rome which caused him to soften and thus betray his new-found anti-Roman allies, who killed him.

People are divided as to whether Thabo Mbeki dissembles. They all agree, however, that he never succumbs to emotion. Ask him how to escape the fate of Coriolanus and his answer is fascinating: change society, not yourself. He cites a Soviet critic who argued that the reason Shakespeare's heroes always die is because this is the way the playwright illuminated society's imperfection: "The person who does good, and does it honestly,must be expected to be overpowered by forces of evil. But it would be incorrect not to do good just because you know death is coming."

That is, of course, the very antithesis of pragmatism: what good is a dead hero?

There is a part of Mbeki that rises to the challenge of telling it like it is. This is the Mbeki who pushed the government's Gear economic policy against the orthodoxies of his movement; the Mbeki who has been seen lambasting the Communist Party for its fractiousness; teachers for their drunkenness; his own government for corruption; his own people for their moral degeneration. This is Mbeki as Coriolanus; Mbeki the prophet.

Then there is an Mbeki who appeases and accommodates. This is the man who is accused of cutting his sails to the cloth of the times; of forming whatever alliances - now with communists, now with Africanists, now with high-flying capitalists - that will help him move himself forward; of deposing comrades not because they are corrupt or inefficient, but because they threaten him. But this is also the man who is said to understand the ways of the world, to work with what is possible and thus advance himself and his people incrementally. This Mbeki is the pragmatist.

Somewhere between the two - the prophet and the pragmatist - is the man who now rules South Africa.

Even though Thabo Mbeki was groomed for leadership from his teens, his ascendancy, as we have seen in the past weeks, was by no means sealed.

In a recent interview with me Nelson Mandela said that, just after the 1994 elections, he presented the choice of Cyril Ramaphosa and Mbeki to the remaining three ANC senior officials - Walter Sisulu, Thomas Nkobi and Jacob Zuma. "They unanimously said, 'It must be Mbeki' ", even after Mandela stated his preference was for Ramaphosa because of his worries about the perception of Xhosa domination of the ANC.

Of course, the appointment was Mandela's choice alone, but "I felt myself bound by this because I really have confidence in Thabo's leadership ability".

Many say that Ramaphosa discredited himself by neglecting his responsibilities as secretary-general of the ANC and that it was Mbeki who played the key role in leading the attack on this. There is evidence, too, that Mandela consulted African leaders like Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, who advised him that Mbeki would keep the movement united the way Tambo had in exile.

One thing is clear: in selecting Mbeki over Ramaphosa, Mandela had reverted to the conventions of the conservative, hierarchical ANC. If Mbeki was a son of the ANC, born and bred in a movement that was, literally, his family, Ramaphosa was a parvenu. Regardless of whether Mandela was correct in his choice, the ascendancy struggle between them must be viewed, on one level, as a struggle between two conceptions of the ANC: that of a hegemonic family bound by a predetermined set of assumed values, and that of a heterodox and open-ended movement willing to allow its personality to change as it moved forward.

After the 1994 elections, Mandela also consulted the senior leadership of the ANC's alliance partners, and, in a meeting with John Gomomo and Mbhazima Shilowa of Cosatu and Joe Slovo and Charles Nqakula of the SA Communist Party, only Slovo declared himself against Mbeki.

Mbeki's skill was his ability to win over key "internal" activists who might otherwise have sided with his "militant" adversaries from exile. From the early '80s he had been developing a relationship with the trade unionist Sydney Mufamadi, who now became one of his strongest supporters; he cultivated strong friendships with Shilowa and Nqakula (who has just been appointed his parliamentary counsellor).

Mbeki also consciously wooed the ANC Youth League, which ultimately engineered his rehabilitation within the movement by nominating and lobbying for him to be national chairman in 1993. Mbeki's strategy worked: he won by an overwhelming majority.

Until 1994, when he was appointed Deputy President of South Africa, Mbeki was under perpetual challenge.

"I play the man I am." Mbeki's defenders say the way he has always responded to conflict - and the setbacks he has suffered - is by ignoring them and getting on with his work.

But Mbeki, the chess player and strategist, was without doubt also the engineer of his own recovery.

Perhaps the most revealing example of how Thabo Mbeki has tried to find a balance between the prophet and the pragmatist within him after winning the battle for ascendancy in 1994 is the way he has mutated Nelson Mandela's official ideology of national reconciliation into his own signature African renaissance. When Mbeki stood up in Parliament at the adoption of the Constitution on May 8 1996 and declared, "I am African", he was self-consciously echoing one of the seminal texts of African nationalism, a 1906 article by Pixley ka Seme, the principal founder of the ANC, which began, "I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion," and called for the "regeneration" of the continent.

Seme's youthful law partner and ideological heir was Anton Lembede, the founding president of the ANC Youth League in 1944 that Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo all joined. Mbeki's particular combination of a call for an African renaissance and for the moral reawakening of a dissolute people comes straight out of Lembede's mystical, prophetic writings.

But Mbeki, like Lembede before him, is adept at using prophesy to a particular advantage. In the '40s, Lembede deployed Africanism to challenge both the Marxist influence on the liberation movement and the conservative leadership of the ANC. Half a century later, Mbeki is deploying it for his own strategic reasons. While Mbeki the prophet seeks redemption for his people through a mystical invocation of past African glory, Mbeki the pragmatist sees an effective implement for facilitating change on the continent and for holding his support base together in South Africa.

In the '80s, Mbeki understood that the apartheid state could be brought down by cleaving the leaders of white SA civil society from the National Party government. Now, in the '90s, he seems to understand the lesson of social upheavals the world over: the first dissidents of a revolution are not the peasants or the workers, but a restive bourgeoisie. It is thus critical not only to grow a black middle class but to find a way of bringing it into the ruling elite and to hold it there with a set of policies (black economic empowerment) and an ideological frame (Africanism) which resonates with its own aspirations.

Mbeki has used the African renaissance to bring on board articulate black journalists, lawyers and academics who might otherwise become the ANC's most damaging critics; people like William Makgoba, Thami Mazwai, Christine Qunta and his own legal adviser, Mojanku Gumbi. He has also deployed it, very powerfully, to effect a reconciliation - based on "shared" African values - with the Inkatha Freedom Party. Obviously, the African renaissance comes in part from an understanding that a healthy South Africa will not be able to function on a sick and corrupt continent, but it arises, too, from the internal agenda of developing a loyal black intelligentsia and professional class.

In a 1978 speech, Mbeki slammed "black capitalism" as having "no redeeming features whatsoever, without any extenuating circumstances to excuse its existence". But in the early '80s, he was already holding meetings with black SA entrepreneurs. Gabriel Mokgoko, who often travelled to Lusaka to meet him, recalls how Mbeki assured him "that black business people were an important component of the broader society and were faced with the wrath of the same government, [so] their perspective must be listened to by the ANC".

On his return from exile, Mbeki took the initiative in connecting with black professionals. He led early delegations to formal meetings with such groupings, and, as he settled in back home in the early '90s, he began to socialise more within this world. "At a time when black professionals were feeling they did not have access to politicians," says former ANC MP and Transnet chair Saki Macozoma, "Thabo found a way of engaging with them, socially and intellectually."

He soon formed a "consultative council" - dubbed a "kitchen cabinet" by the media - made up of an exclusively black grouping of friends in politics, business, the professions and academia. This informal advisory group, convened by Essop Pahad, meets monthly at the presidential guest house in Pretoria and is both a powerhouse of the African renaissance and an influential grouping of people in key positions in SA society. It includes Independent Electoral Commission chair Brigalia Bam, SABC chair Paulus Zulu, politicians Sydney Mufamadi and Mbhazima Shilowa and many business people.

Another intersecting group, clustered around Saki Macozoma and Reuel Khoza, called itself "The Network" (it was exposed in this paper as "The Africanbond") and developed the notion of a "patriotic bourgeoisie". Although Mbeki recently lambasted self-enrichment masquerading as "empowerment", he remains engaged in the workings of black enterprise, and his ideas about how to use the African renaissance to develop this sector have emerged through this engagement.

Mbeki's relationship to the mainstream business world provides a sharp contrast to this; the flip side, perhaps, to the coin of the African renaissance. In the late '80s , his urbanity and moderation (he was one of the first ANC officials to say publicly that the movement should not be doctrinaire about nationalisation) rendered him the darling of the business sector.

Although an economist, he became actively engaged with economic policy only as Deputy President and had little to do with the ANC's economic liberalisation after its unbanning. Nonetheless, two of his particular missions in those days - to move the ANC away from its adherence to sanctions and to fundraise within the business sector on behalf of the ANC - entrenched him more firmly, in the corporate sector's imagination, as its Man in Shell House.

Something collapsed, however, around 1993, and the relationship between Mbeki and big business became adversarial. Some of his colleagues say he was "burnt" by allegations of impropriety - particularly following his huge 50th birthday bash at Douw Steyn's mansion in Sandhurst, Johannesburg, in June 1992, and the holiday he and his wife took, courtesy of Sol Kerzner, at La Pirogue in Mauritius in December 1993; that he realised he could not trust anyone in white business and retreated. Others maintain that the media and big business, sensing that Cyril Ramaphosa was to be the heir apparent, dropped him in favour of the former union boss, with whom they felt more comfortable, thereby burning their bridges.

One influential player in the business world notes that "Thabo's problems with business arose because he could not be Mala-Mala'd into submission like the rest of them."

By late 1997, Standard Bank's Conrad Strauss, the president of the SA Foundation, wrote a letter to Mbeki complaining that "the relationship between government and business in our country is at a low ebb". The letter was a response, in part, to Mbeki's cancellation of a meeting with the foundation because he had been instructed by Nelson Mandela to attend an important United Nations summit.

Due to the kind of scheduling glitch for which Mbeki's office had unfortunately become notorious, the foundation was not informed, and Strauss sneered to Mbeki's secretary: "If he cannot manage his diary, how can he manage the country?"

Word had got to Mbeki that this was the sort of message South Africa's corporate executives were spreading all over the world. The Deputy President also felt betrayed that, rather than supporting his pragmatic and business-friendly Gear policy, the SA Foundation had sharply criticised it with a document of its own, entitled "Growth for All".

And so although Mbeki kept individual relations going with some younger executives, he effectively slammed the door shut on organised big business. This might have been petulance and annoyance - he was allegedly enraged at corporate South Africa's arrogance - but, as always with Mbeki, emotions were channelled into strategy. He sent the message out that if big business wanted to talk, it would have to bring something to the table.

And that was the genesis of the billion-rand Business Trust for job creation announced last September. The trust requires interaction between the government and business: as a by-product, senior members of the government and of business began meeting, in March this year, in a consultative forum. The doors were opened again.

Hang around Thabo Mbeki and you will hear, all about you, the word "chief" explode in little eruptions that have become the signature verbal tic of his presidency. Mbeki's contemporaries from Lusaka recall that it was he who introduced the word into ANC head office vernacular: he decided everyone should be addressed thus as a way of blurring hierarchy.

One comrade who was close to Mbeki in Lusaka believes that "ironically, the thing Thabo used as a way of getting out of the cult of personality around Tambo has now become the very thing that has imprisoned him, because while everyone is 'chief', he has become 'The Chief', and people don't challenge him as much as they should".

Partly this is because, as we have seen, he follows the Oliver Tambo method of withholding his opinions until the end of a conversation, so people do not know what he thinks and are therefore scared to suggest ideas in case he disagrees with them.

Partly it is because of his other predominant verbal tic: Mbeki advances not through enthusiastic exclamation points or staccato full stops but along a line of question marks.

He is generous with neither his affections nor his praise and is not one to say "That's great! Thank you for your contribution!" if he does not think it worthwhile - or even if he does. Even his most intellectually able peers admit that they do not easily challenge him or take new ideas to him as they fear he will punch holes in their suggestions with probing and sometimes derisive questions.

Mbeki's aides watch with amazement as he commissions them to write speeches and then rewrites them all himself without using so much as a sentence of their work. "When I sit down to write," says one, "I often feel intimidated. I think, what do I have to offer, given how well read he is?"

When I interviewed Mandela about his successor, he chose to draw the difference between himself and Mbeki through an analogy about himself and his former law partner, Oliver Tambo. Because Mandela would see four clients an hour to Tambo's one, people thought he was the better lawyer, and he developed a far bigger practice. Tambo, says Mandela, was "competent . . . he was patient, he was broad, he wanted to listen to someone even if not relevant. I did not do that. I confined the people [to the matter at hand]. But Oliver was a perfectionist. Thabo does the same thing, he writes his own speeches. I wouldn't say he is a perfectionist, but he is a near-perfectionist . . ."

It is a complex analogy, because even though Mandela suggests that Tambo's service might have been more thorough, he implies that his might have been more efficient. If Mbeki is going to achieve his intention of better delivery, Mandela seems to be saying, he is going to have to learn how to be more forceful - and also how to delegate more responsibilities.

Aides talk with some amusement of how, when they were returning from an election meeting in Mbeki's constituency earlier this year, their radios crackled into action: "The Chief wants a sheep." He was hosting a braai that evening and, although he was running late, he insisted on choosing the animal himself - and so a cavalcade of government cars bumped up and down the rutted roads of farms northwest of Pretoria until, at the fourth farm they visited, he found an animal to his liking.

Mbeki's obsession with detail demonstrates his ability and desire to involve himself in the messy, everyday business of making things work. But it also sometimes betrays a lack of trust in those around him and in the world. If this does create a closed circle - you appoint people who are not up to the job to justify your continued control over them - it is one that is going to have to be broken if Mbeki is going to govern effectively. He seems too often to believe that if you want something done properly, you need to do it yourself.

Mbeki is not, by nature or by intellect, an optimist. One of his present political colleagues talks of his approach to power as "joyless; something that must be done rather than something that is pleasurable".

Although he is prone to easy and infectious laughter in private, public expressions of joy are hard to find in Mbeki; they tend to be kneaded into his lyrical and rhetorical public speeches, or sometimes they escape when he is talking of art and literature rather than politics, as in his Coriolanus letters to his friend Rhianon Gooding, in one of which he riffed on a line from Gorky: "'Cities are man's prayer to the future' . . . one creates today because one has confidence in the future. A paper kite built by a child is his little prayer; cities are man's collective big prayer. Great art is also such!"

Govan Mbeki was a prophet who bounded off into the Transkei countryside to start a co-operative store and then left it to organise a revolution. Epainette Mbeki was a pragmatist who quietly stayed behind and tried to make the shop - and her community - work.

Mbeki is the child of both his parents; he flies on the wings of vision but he climbs on the rungs of detail.

We have seen how his leadership is strung between a series of tensions: between macrocosmic vision and microcosmic detail; between his experience of the ANC as a close-knit but atavistic family and his desire for it to be a modern engine of reform; between demanding loyalty and needing efficiency; between his heroic and anti-heroic - his prophetic and pragmatic - impulses. All of these tensions are dialectical: at worst, Mbeki will become paralysed by their opposing pulls; at best, he will be able to "play the man I am" in such a way that the Coriolanus of youthful fantasy need not die.

With acknowledgements to Mark Gevisser and the Sunday Times.