Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 1999-05-16 Reporter: Mark Gevisser

The Thabo Mbeki Story : The Family Man



Sunday Times

Date 1999-05-16


Mark Gevisser

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The road to Mbewuleni, Thabo Mbeki's birthplace, takes you away from the anarchic modernity of the market town of Idutywa, into the hills and the mist. Even on a midsummer's day, the paradoxical Transkei is both verdant and barren; both the damp "Little England" of missionary fantasy and the most desolate basket case of Third World erosion.

The monochrome landscape is grey-green, and, in contrast with the teeming settlements strung along the N1 down below, it feels strangely depopulated. Next to me, in the car, is a tiny woman with huge eyes behind glasses. Her name is Epainette Mbeki, known as "Piny" or "Ma Mofokeng"; she is 82 years old, and she is taking me back to the village to which she and her husband, Govan - young, educated, urbanised communist pioneers out to make a Brave New World - moved in 1940 to set up their co-operative store. There they planned to find a way of living independently of government salaries and to attempt to put their ideologies of peasant upliftment into practice.

After 18km, the road summits the crest of a hill. To the east, a valley opens out dramatically into a bowl ringed by mountains, and tumbling down the side of this valley is the settlement of Mbewuleni, "a place of seed". A bumpy, sodden track leads one through the homes of the amagqoboka, the "educated ones", the Christians, down into a valley and up the other side to the Mbeki homestead, situated on the amaqaba (red-blanketed or illiterate) slope of the village.

Epainette Mbeki, whose only concession to age has been to move closer to town and its amenities, now leases the property out. Decayed by poverty and the weather, it is in a state of dilapidation, with a weedy yard and broken windows. When she and her family lived there, it was renowned for its order and tidiness.

"When we arrived," she says, "there was nothing. But that was marvellous, because once we set up, we saw how people came to change from their unproductive habits, and [how they began] trying self-improvements. It was, I am sure, taking an example from us."

And there you have the ethos of the Mbeki family: they are missionaries, they are workers.

Now, as we enter the homestead, a cluster of women approach, diffidently. Epainette Mbeki interacts with them the way her son Thabo does when he meets poor, needy people. It is a way that can best be described as pastoral: empathetic but not sentimental, paternal but not patronising. She is with them but not of them, removed, somewhat, by her aquamarine twinset and her education.

One woman, a retired teacher, has none of the shy reserve of the others.

"I'm so glad to see you," she says loudly to Epainette Mbeki and her visitors, "but where is Thabo? We want to see him. He is our child. He was born and bred here, and we have things to say to him. We have no telephones, no Eskom, no water, nothing. We are struggling. We want to say to him that we are getting impatient."

As we get into the car to leave, Epainette Mbeki shakes her head. "I've told Thabo the villagers want to see him. But as I have tried to explain to them, this is the very last village in South Africa he will ever come to."

It is a comment that says much about Thabo Mbeki; about his stern disavowal of both the sentimentality of ethnicity and the favour of patronage. He has no demonstrable attachment to Mbewuleni or, for that matter, to his family. His modernism does not seem to sit easily with the conventions of being a member of a clan, or of having a "home town".

His closest friends in England - where he spent his first few years in exile studying - know where he comes from politically, but they have not the slightest idea of his geographical or emotional roots. There is no apparent nostalgia for the tobacco-and-cow-dung-scented hills of the Transkei. One senses it is little more than a place, like many other places, that must be made better for its people.

Centuries away, in the airless glitter of the Sandton Sun one evening in late 1998, Thabo Mbeki is launching his book of speeches. The room is packed with a crowd that sweats success. Brian Gilbertson, the Billiton chairman who paid for the Mbeki book, introduces his new friend: "The most frequent question I am asked is, 'Who is this Thabo Mbeki?' "

The crowd laughs with identification. Mbeki takes the podium and responds with an anecdote: when he was studying at Sussex University and trying to score with "those lovely English female students" they would rebuff him with the line, "But Thabo, we don't know you!" - "This even though I had been in the same class as them for the past two years! You see, Brian, this is a persisting problem!"

On the surface, he was acknowledging that people have always claimed not to know him. But he was also identifying with those Sussex girls - telling his suitors that they might think they know him; that they might think, because they have seen him on television every night or even spent an evening drinking with him, that they have some claim to intimacy with him. But knowing him means owning him, and he belongs to no one.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, who made a fetish of his biography for South Africans to identify with ("I was in chains, you were in chains; as I was liberated, so were you; as I can forgive my oppressors, so too can you"), his successor seems to be saying, "If you want to know me, listen to my message. My policy is my personality."

His resistance to biography tells us that he is determined to draw a boundary around his privacy, but it also tells us that he has, very successfully, submerged personal identity beneath the greater cause, that he has subordinated sentiment to intellect. Perhaps, too, that he has sought meaning not in personal relationships but in tireless hard work, in a duty to the struggle. In all of these, he is very much the son of Govan and Epainette Mbeki - and of the liberation movement to which he has given his life.

If Thabo Mbeki lacks the noblesse oblige of a chief, of a Mandela, it is because he is not a chief. He is of the nose-to-the-grindstone middle class. Whereas the aristocratic Mandela has grace, Mbeki - the bourgeois - deploys charm. Mandela is a chief whom everyone calls "Tata" (grandfather); Mbeki a commoner whom everyone calls "Chief". Mbeki demonstrates the peculiarly middle-class ego: the prove-yourself impulse.

The Mbeki family constitutes a struggle dynasty, but its image is neither that of salt-of-the-earth goodness like the Sisulus, nor that of compelling (if dysfunctional) royalty like the Mandelas. For the Mbekis, the ruptures of dislocation - exile, prison, poverty - have not been sealed; there is the tension and energy that accompanies pursuit of a destiny not yet filled, a job not yet done.

"Independence" and "self-reliance" are Mbeki touchstones. The four Mbeki children were sent away at a young age - Thabo when he was only 10 - partly because of the lack of educational opportunities in Mbewuleni; partly because their parents wished them to learn self-reliance; and not least because of the threat of imprisonment they faced. Now, decades later, Epainette Mbeki will not move to the city to stay with her husband or her sons: "It's this independence, my whole family has it. It's this thing of being productive. You must not expect someone else to do it for you. You must do it for yourself."

Mbekis do not rely easily on others. They do things for themselves, believing, often with good reason, that no one could do it as well as they could. They are proud and private, inquisitive rather than acquisitive, sometimes prickly and contrary, their intensity covered, in the men at least, by a supposed social ease and gravel-voiced charm that woos yet gives away nothing. They are a questing, uncomfortable, fluent people, clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Govan Mbeki's family were Mfengu people ("Fingos"), early converts to Christianity who benefited through their alliances with the British in the Eastern Cape. They were the avatars of Cape liberal capitalism, known by white traders as "The Jews of Kaffirland", for they were educated, aggressive and unhampered by the feudal restrictions imposed by traditional hierarchies. They thrived - and soon became the enfranchised elite of the region: the first Africans there to ride horses, to farm commercially, to build four-walled houses; teachers, preachers and clerks.

Epainette's family, the Moeranes, are Basotho members of the elite Bafokeng clan and come from a similar background. But in 1962, when a 17-year-old Moeletsi Mbeki, the second son of Govan and Epainette, went to visit the Moerane farm at Mount Fletcher for the first time, he was shocked: "There was this enormous stone mansion of my grandparents, and this once-thriving dairy plant," he recalls, "and it was all crumbling away. It was horrendous to watch; there was a feel to it of Chekhov or Dostoyevsky - the collapse of a grand country manor."

When Epainette was growing up, her family's destiny as landed gentry seemed secure: her father's dairy farm, sorghum and wheat fields were so lucrative that he was able to send all seven of his children for tertiary education. Although on a more modest scale, the Mbekis, down at the other end of the Transkei, in Nqamakwe district, had similar aspirations.

Four decades later, at the time the young Moeletsi was watching his family heritage crumble, his father was in detention in Port Elizabeth; his older brother, Thabo, was preparing to go into exile; and his mother was alone at Mbewuleni, eking out a living.

The story of the Moeranes and the Mbekis, from aspirant gentility to near-penury and rebellion, describes the quiet, but devastating drama of the black SA rural experience in the 20th century. Africans were needed for labour in the mines, so the thriving peasant economy that families like the Mbekis and the Moeranes epitomised was ruthlessly and deliberately eroded.

In the history of Epainette Mbeki's own shop there is a similar constriction. Moeletsi remembers the Mbewuleni store of his childhood to be "like one of those general-dealer stores in the Westerns - bustling, rambling". A far cry from its current dilapidation, or from Epainette Mbeki's new shop, little more than a spaza, outside Idutywa.

By the time he set up his shop, Govan Mbeki, a teacher by training, had two university degrees and was one of the most educated young African men in South Africa. His bride, also a teacher, had been one of the first African women to join the Communist Party of South Africa. When they met in Durban, theirs was the world of the Party Night School, of the anti-fascist solidarity movement, of play readings and ballroom dancing.

The decision of two such educated sophisticates to set up shop in an isolated corner of the Transkei was startling. If Thabo Mbeki's grandparents had deployed the logic of capitalism to uplift themselves and bring efficiency and prosperity to the land, then his parents - the beneficiaries of this relative wealth - attempted to do the same through communism.

Yet the Mbekis had all the hallmarks of the petit bourgeoisie: they sent their children on second-class tickets to boarding school, they ate cheese, they "took" the Daily Dispatch. But they also lived in an area where there was no electricity, no telecommunications and no water. Govan Mbeki might have had two degrees, but his wife had to travel several kilometres daily to collect water from the nearest well.

The Mbekis formed part of a powerful network of educated, Christian families. But because of their store and their politics, they lived with the red people in a way that brought a fair amount of opprobrium from their peers, who regarded the amaqaba as pagans, and beyond the pale. And there was another difference: Govan Mbeki devoted himself to peasant activism; he had Marx on his mantelpiece and a photo of Mahatma Gandhi on his wall.

The shop was, literally, a centre of civilisation: a postal agency, it was a place where you would come for advice if you did not understand the world, a place where you would have your letters read and written by the literate Mbeki children.

And so Thabo Mbeki, all of seven or eight, was reading and writing for the adults in his community, privy to the agony and longing communicated between migrant labourers in the cities and the people they left back home. He was by no means the only educated child in rural South Africa who read and wrote letters for illiterate peasants, but he seems to have responded to the task in a particularly profound way.

His father believes it aged him beyond his years.

The young Thabo was introverted, polite and with his nose perpetually in a book. "He didn't have many friends of his age," his mother recalls. "Let me say he was not very communicative. On the reserved side."

She remembers him rushing to the wireless whenever he heard the pips of the radio news. If she asked him what he was listening to, he would reply, "Don't worry, Mommy. You wouldn't understand."

When asked about the roots of his intellect, he went straight back to Mbewuleni: "You see, we grew up with books around the home, and whenever we were together with the parents, discussing, you could say anything. It was allowed."

Olive Mpahlwa, the daughter of Mbewuleni's schoolmaster and the woman who was to bear Thabo a son, was seduced by the family's passion for intellectual activity: "Whenever I was there, you could hear noise and laughter coming from the kitchen. There they would be, together with their mother, and they'd grab me and say, 'Help us! We're struggling over how to analyse this sentence!' And they would be disagreeing, and they would pull me in to take their sides."

What links Thabo Mbeki to his parents and grandparents is not just a missionary zeal and an impulse to progress, but also the notion that work is a form of redemption. For the atheist Mbekis, productivity, really, is their religion. Both in their 80s, Govan and Epainette Mbeki work constantly. She is up at dawn, feeding her chickens, running her store, being the social worker to her community.

Nelson Mandela has often chastised Thabo Mbeki for working too hard. "Life wouldn't be life for them without work," says Olive Mpahlwa of the Mbekis. "They know no other life. I don't mean to say that they hide behind it, but I do see that it's good for them, because it does take them away from every other problem."

Govan Mbeki left Mbewuleni in 1953 because, the family says, of financial difficulties: a tornado wrecked the shop. After teaching for 18 months in Ladysmith, he moved to Port Elizabeth, where he became editor of New Age magazine. After several bannings and detentions, he was arrested at Rivonia in 1963 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 1987.

In an interview in the early '90s with the filmmaker Bridget Thompson, he said: "I never really had time for the children. Not that I didn't like them, not that I didn't love them. But I was doing writing and reading so I didn't have time to be playing about with them. I pushed them to their mother. I do not know how they feel today. Probably they feel that I didn't pay sufficient attention to them as children. I can't blame them if they feel like that."

Such apparent coldness is perhaps less shocking to people who know the Mbekis than to outsiders, because of the productivity ethos within the family.

There is a striking generational symmetry: Thabo was denied a father when he was a little boy because Govan, the writer and journalist, was sequestered in his study at the typewriter; now Govan, living for the past five years in a bungalow next to Thabo's house on the Groote Schuur estate, in Cape Town, cannot gain access to a son who is sequestered in his study at his laptop computer.

But there is no demonstrable resentment from either side about this: if the work is the product of an abstracted love of the people and duty to the people, then it seems, for the Mbekis, to be an acceptable substitute for familial love.

And "family", in true Marxian spirit, is a political as much as a biological designation. The movement is the family. When Govan Mbeki went off, with other members of the internal leadership, in January 1990 to meet his children in Lusaka, he was asked by a reporter at Jan Smuts Airport how he felt about seeing Thabo. "Not much finer than seeing the others," he retorted. "You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade!"

A son is a mere biological appendage; to be called a comrade, on the other hand, is the highest honour.

Govan Mbeki reiterated the sentiment to me when I asked him if he was proud of his son. "Of course I'm proud of him," he snapped back, "but I'd be proud of any young man who was president of the ANC. They are all my children." For the Mbekis, pride is not a function of mere biology; it is vested, rather, in what you do in the world; in how you fulfil your mission.

When Thabo Mbeki's closest friend at Sussex University, Derek Gunby, wrote to him after the arrest of his father in 1964, he replied: "Thank you for your sentiments about my father. It was indeed a very hard blow to the ANC" [my emphasis].

Twenty-five years later, when the old man stepped off the plane in Lusaka, Thabo resisted the impulse, displayed by Max Sisulu, of rushing into a long-absent father's arms. He waited patiently at the end of the queue, shook his father's hand, embraced him briefly, and called him "Comrade".

As we shall see, the man who was both Thabo Mbeki's political mentor and surrogate father in exile was Oliver Tambo. But despite his closeness to Tambo, Thabo Mbeki disapproved - after Tambo's stroke in 1989 - of the way the Tambo family was using the ANC name to seek special medical assistance in the West when most comrades had to make do with the facilities in the Soviet Union.

Later, in the '90s, when Olive Mpahlwa, his son's mother, tried to contact him about the disappearance of Kwanda (whom she last had contact with in 1980, when he apparently was on his way into exile), she was disappointed by what she perceived to be his unwillingness to engage in the search for his own flesh and blood.

Though Thabo Mbeki told me he had made efforts to follow up rumours that Kwanda had been variously spotted - in the GDR, in Cuba - he remains convinced that it would have been inappropriate "to broadcast" his family's personal tragedies, because this would have given the impression that his approach to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was motivated by a personal agenda. "And so we decided, whatever hurt there is in the family, we'll handle it ourselves."

How, I asked Govan Mbeki, do he and his family deal with the tragic double loss of the disappearances of Jama (Thabo's younger brother, who appears to have been murdered in Lesotho in 1983) and of Kwanda?

He responded, as Mbekis often do, through literature, which provides them with their emotional language. He could not remember the name or the author of the poem or even the exact lines, but he was clear on the sentiment: "When you go into war, if your comrade in front of you falls off his horse, you must not stop and weep. You jump over him into battle. You learn not to weep."

Is this martial stoicism, passed on to Thabo Mbeki by his father, an adequate explanation for his disavowal of biology? Does this manifest an almost pathological sense of propriety, and of not wanting to claim any favours because of paternity; to make it on your own, the way your father did and your grandfathers before him? Or is it a survival mechanism? How could Govan Mbeki in jail, or Epainette Mbeki alone and struggling in Mbewuleni, or Thabo Mbeki, totally adrift from anything familiar in exile, have done without it? How could any political prisoner or exile do without it?

It is the symptom of a family that sublimated all its emotions into the struggle, into the movement, which, in turn, became the family. Linda Mbeki (a businesswoman in Butterworth) is not Thabo Mbeki's sister as much as Nkosazana Zuma is; Essop and Aziz Pahad are as much his brothers as Moeletsi and Jama Mbeki; Oliver Tambo is far more his father than Govan Mbeki is; and Govan Mbeki far more Chris Hani's father than he is Thabo Mbeki's. And this, perhaps, is as true for Thabo Mbeki as it is for many people who went, young and vulnerable, into exile.

There is a myth about family, about a shared ethos, that permeates the culture of the ANC in exile; a culture that formed Thabo Mbeki as much as anything he learnt at home did.

People in his office who do not come from this exile culture are sometimes frustrated by it, but they have come to accept it. It explains, perhaps, his intense loyalty to people whom others sometimes perceive to be weak and inefficient.

"They just don't have our values" is something you will often hear returned exiles say about others in the ANC who have exhibited ambition or hunger of any kind. What are these values? In a company or an organisation, the values to which you are expected to subscribe are empirical and concrete. In a family, however, they are often mystical, incorporeal, and can thus be deployed, strategically and hegemonically. "The Family" is a source of immense strength, but it can also be a means of control and a receptacle for sublimated emotion.

The ANC is not, its leaders repeatedly point out, a regular political party. It does not always belong in the world of late 20th-century multiparty democracy.

On the one hand, it is forward-looking, progressive and engaged in the quest for modernity; on the other, there is something altogether more arcane, more mystical, about it. Even as Thabo Mbeki has aspirations to make the ANC an efficient, well-oiled machine of the new millennium, his history dictates that he cannot but view it as his family, the family that reared him and that he now has to govern as its new paterfamilias.

With acknowledgements to Mark Gevisser and the Sunday Times.