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Fit to Govern: the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki [Review]

Percy Ngonyama | 13.07.2007 10:42 | Analysis | History | Social Struggles | London

The latest book on Thabo Mbeki ' Fit to Govern: the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki' by Ronald Suresh Roberts is denialist propaganda that should be countered by all progressive forces with the same amount of zeal and vigour as that expressed by its chief proponents.

Fit to Govern: the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki [Review]

by: Percy Ngonyama

Friday, 13 July 2007

On the Broederbond-style decision of the bureaucrats at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) not to broadcast what has become popularly known as “the film the SABC does not want you to see”- Mbeki Unauthorised! , International Federation of Journalists General Secretary, Aidan White commented in May 2006, “The public have been denied the opportunity to see an independent and professional portrait of their president and denied the opportunity to make up their own minds.” A year later, the public broadcaster continues its ‘hide and seek’; and is never short of excuses why the documentary cannot be aired.

In the backdrop of such methods of censorship, reminiscent of the apartheid-era; and well orchestrated manoeuvres to prevent; and limit independent public discourse and analysis on the personality and policies of the country’s Head of State, the debate that has been elicited by Ronald Suresh Roberts’ much-talked about Fit to Govern: the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, which he describes as a “Book about President Thabo Mbeki and his intellectual traditions”, should be applauded. Much like William Mervin Gumede’s 2005 Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC’ , and Patrick Bond’s Talk Left Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms (2004), the book, in spite of the avowedly pro-government/Mbeki stance, has helped fuel the extremely essential public, media and scholarly discussion on ‘South Africa’s number one citizen’, his government’s policies and presidency in general.

However, there are some serious shortcomings with the book. While Roberts insists that his book is a genuine portrayal of the often ‘misunderstood’ Mbeki, in addition to the many deliberate omissions and silences, it is largely premised on the widespread misperception that Mbeki is an ‘anti-imperial’ ‘Africanist’ victim of the white owned ‘illiberal’ press and white supremacists that, annoyingly, continue in the age old racist tradition to question the ‘native’s ability’ to govern, and perform other tasks of authority. This, and the shrewd, in the context of South Africa’s recent history of institutionalised racism, Mugabe-style tactic, very adored by Mbeki and his many hangers on and sycophants in the government and at Luthuli House, of dismissing critics of the government and of Mbeki as ‘racist’, or as agents of imperialists/neo-colonialists, are the author’s main points of departure.

Furthermore, the failure to fully comprehend the contradictory and hypocritical nature of Mbeki has robbed the author of the opportunity to understand some of the main reasons Mbeki appears to be ‘enigmatic’, a charge Roberts vehemently refutes. “Mbeki is no ‘Enigma.’ People who call him that are using mysticism to evade important debates.” Roberts tries very hard to deny that Mbeki is an Aids denialist/dissident, and that his ‘silent diplomacy’ on Zimbabwe has been ineffective. “Thabo Mbeki”, he contests, “is not now, nor has he ever been, an AIDS dissident.” But Mbeki has been quoted as saying “Personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of Aids”, consequently denying knowing Parks Mankahlana, and Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose children died as a result of the pandemic. He has also questioned if it makes sense to conclude that a ‘virus can cause a syndrome.’ It is such extraordinary statements that have made him famous, the world-over, for all the wrong reasons.

Roberts protests that, amongst other things, Mbeki’s ‘anti racism’ messages are often misinterpreted as ‘obsession with race.’ However, the evidence, provided in the form of speeches and writings to corroborate this claim, proves the contrary: a president highly obsessed with race. There are quite a few other similar instances in the book where Roberts, unwittingly, provides one with the ammunition with which to “kick his Mbeki’s ass licking ass.” Mbeki’s tactic of ‘hiding behind the shield of racism’, through the shrewd use of sensitive terms, such as ‘Nigger’ and ‘Kaffir’ in his writings, a method Roberts also employs, to demonstrate the extent of ‘the scourge of racism within our society’, is, as in the case of psychopathic Mugabe, solely intended to divert people’s attention from the real issues affecting this country, and the sad reality that Mbeki’s African National Congress (ANC) has sold out by adopting neo-liberalism, which, ironically has impacted negatively on the lives of poor black people. It is mainly for such reasons that Roberts’ latest contribution towards ‘pro-Mbeki’ propaganda, characterised by his vast ignorance of what James Petras calls the ‘The Imperial System: Hierarchy, Networks and Clients’, and South Africa and Mbeki’s collusion in this system, to the detriment of the natives of the world, formulated with full cooperation of the presidency, should be countered with the same amount of zeal and enthusiasm as that expressed by its proponents. Attempting to deny that South Africa is a neo-liberal state amounts to the worst kind of denialism. Rather let us debate some of the ‘justifications’ provided for the neo-liberal ‘development’ path the ANC has taken.

Methodologically, the book’s credibility is put under serious doubt. In the narrative, Roberts repeatedly quotes Mbeki to back up claims that are made about the very Mbeki. To emphasise the presumed ‘anti imperialist’, ‘pro poor’, nature of Mbeki, mainly his ‘words’, in the form of speeches and writings, including his weekly online letters, and not his ‘actions’, are used as proof. Mainly because Mbeki’s ‘words’ are continuously refuted by his ‘actions’, as a result, the narrative is also as contradictory and smacks of hypocrisy as its subject matter. The abundant corporate funding, including a significant grant from ABSA Bank, does not only remain a huge controversy, but also raises some serious questions. ABSA bank is now part of Barclays Group. Barclays Bank’s financial gains from injustices, widely gone unpunished, that have befallen the natives of Africa, from slavery to apartheid, are well documented. Together with other multinational corporations, the bank is currently facing a law suite in the United States Court of Appeal by the ‘native’ victims of apartheid. Not only does the self styled ‘native mouthpiece’ see nothing wrong with this, but he also omits from the narrative that the neo-liberal government of Thabo Mbeki, the supposed ‘Native’ ‘spokesperson’, is thwarting these justified attempts at long denied justice on grounds that they are detrimental to foreign investment. This signals a U-turn from the ANC’s statement made in 1989 following foreign banks’ rescue of the apartheid regime during the ‘debt moratorium crisis’ of the 1980s. “When the time comes”, said the ANC in a statement in the Cape Times, “the South African people will not be unmindful of the role of banks in making profit out of the misery of our people.” It is due to such abrupt departures from statements made during the struggle, that most progressive people now see the ANC as having ‘sold out.’

Yes, such clear collaboration with imperial forces does not only smack of ‘compradorist’ behaviour, much despised by critics of ‘nationalist’ petty bourgeois politicians, including Frantz Fanon, but also acts to dispute Roberts’ claims that Mbeki is ‘anti imperialist.’ Strangely, Roberts, whether ignorantly or intentionally with the aim to further confuse the unsuspecting public, describes Mbeki as Fanonist in his orientation; and selectively uses Fanon’s ‘anti colonial/anti imperialist’ writings to support his claims. However, the reality is that further reading of Fanon vividly reveals his strong views and dislike of the bourgeoisie and the comprador bourgeoisie whom he, correctly, identifies as the enemy of the peasants and other marginalised groups.

“In spite of his frequently honest conduct”, says Fanon of the likes of Mbeki in ‘The Wretched of the Earth: The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’, “the leader as seen objectively is the fierce defender of these interests, today combined, of the national bourgeoisie and the ex-colonial companies.” “During the struggle for liberation”, Fanon continues, “the leader awakened the people and promised them a forward march, heroic and unmitigated. Today, he uses every means to put them to sleep, and three or four times a year asks them to remember the colonial period and to look back on the long way they have come since then.” This is precisely what has characterised Mbeki’s presidency. During ‘national events’ the public is forever reminded of life during apartheid and colonialism. Those who complain of the ongoing injustice in the ‘new South Africa’ are quickly dismissed as apartheid sympathisers. To a very large extent, Roberts book also seeks to perpetuate this new ‘defence mechanism.’

Making William Gumede’s book, described by Roberts as “an assault upon Mbeki”, more interesting was that, unlike Fit to Govern; it dared expose Mbeki’s paranoia, manipulative attitude, and the embarrassing ‘unknown’ side of South Africa’s Commander-in-Chief, some of the things that the bosses at the SABC, with the approval of the presidency, want to conceal from the public, particularly, in the months leading up to the ANC’s national conference in Limpopo where Mbeki is expected to contest the position of president. While labelling Gumede an ‘unpatriotic’ “national embarrassment”, Roberts conveniently ignores to deal with the ‘controversial’ circumstances, beautifully analysed by Gumede, surrounding “Mbeki’s Path to Power.”

Throughout the book, the extremely racist Cecil John Rhodes, and his role in the British Empire’s ‘bloody’ colonial project in Southern Africa are mentioned. To demonstrate that white stereotypes about the ‘Native’s ability to govern’ have a long history, Rhodes is quoted as saying “There are those who wish to endow the native at once with the privileges it has taken the European eighteen hundred years to acquire [but] the natives is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise.” That the name of Rhodes is now used alongside that of Nelson Mandela in what is known as ‘The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’ has been omitted. How about the fact that, in what is a perfect example of nationalist rulers ‘walking straight into the shoes of former colonisers/oppressors’; one of Mbeki’s official residence, in Rodebosch, once belonged to Rhodes?

Moreover, determined to achieve the ambitious 6% annual growth rate between 2010 and 2014, as part of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (asgiSA), in what smacks of sub-imperialism, the Mbeki led government has paved the way for the likes of De Beers, now with a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) element, a mining company founded by Rhodes on the back of the sweat and blood of native mineworkers, and other corporations, to export their exploitation of cheap ‘native labour’ to other parts of the continent. With Mbeki’s own admission, it is the corporates, many of whom openly conducted business with the apartheid regime, to the detriment of the black majority, that have benefited handsomely from the past thirteen years of ‘democracy.’

How is this possible under a government led by a supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ intelligent native? Is it also naïve to ask if Mbeki is such a ‘champion’ for native rights and well being, as Roberts wants us to believe, why is it that he saw nothing wrong with recently being awarded a knighthood by the British Empire, an institution whose well documented crimes against the natives of Africa is well documented? Is South Africa’s loyalty to neo-colonial institutions such as the British Commonwealth not a sign of endorsement of the very ‘Mother-child’ relationship between colonisers and the formerly colonised that Roberts speak so strongly about in the chapter entitled ‘Mother country’? This exposes the same kind of double standards as those displayed by Robert Mugabe. To many black people, he is this ‘anti-imperial’ ‘Africanist’ who has finally managed to ‘teach the white man a lesson’. Strangely, however, in the midst of his anti imperial/British rhetoric, he boasts a knighthood bestowed on him in 1994 during his ‘happier times’ with the British Crown.

So, when Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya who, together with others, is severely vilified in ‘Massa day done’: Mbeki’s new black critics’, is labelled a “colonial creature” by Roberts, perhaps the question should be who is more deserving of this description? Whose actions between Mondli and Mbeki have done more to advance neo-colonialism and the interests of foreign capital? After all, as the old saying goes ‘Actions speak louder than words.” The persistent ‘dissing’ of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is strange, given Mbeki’s not so easy to conceal staunch belief in Thatcherite economic policies, characterised by the commodification of every aspect of people’s life accompanied by austerity measures. And since Roberts admits to have read John Pilger’s ‘Apartheid Did not Die’ which appears in Freedom Next Time, he should be aware that at the unveiling of the ‘non-negotiable’ market friendly Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macro-economic programme, his ‘hero’ defiantly declared to critics “Just call me a Thatcherite.”

While Roberts disputes valid claims that Mbeki and his government’s policies are ‘pro-market’, hence ‘anti-poor’, it is not so hard to see that Mbeki, who, in accordance with his overall ‘Talk left Walk Right’ attitude continues claiming his government’s fictional commitment to the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Programme, has become nothing but an ‘errand boy’ for those who own the means of production. On behalf of the rich, ironically, mainly white, Mbeki travels the world-over, at the expense of the taxpayer, looking for new markets to sell the surplus produced at a huge expense to exploited, mainly ‘native’ workers. By concurring with the ANC’s National Executive Committee Discussion document, addressed to the left within the Tripartite Alliance, published in Umrabulo of May 2000 that “The democratic state therefore represents neither the dictatorship of the proletariat, nor the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, Roberts, like the now bourgeoisified leadership of the ANC, displays his equally serious misreading of the current South African situation, and ignorance of Marxist interpretations, which he purports to have a command of. According to Marx, a bourgeois state, such as South Africa, “being a system of class rule, amounts to a [permanent] dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Many of Mbeki’s statements, from during the times of exile in the petty bourgeois surroundings of London, to his weekly online letters, are quoted to demonstrate his hatred of racism. Of particular interest is his March 16-23, posted on the eve of Human Rights Day on the ANC website, entitled ‘Freedom from racism- a fundamental human rights’ in which he shrewdly uses the exceptionally sensitive ‘K’ word to make his claims about racism being South Africa’s ‘number one enemy’, and an obstacle to people accessing their human rights. While most poor people might not be aware, but the main reason they are denied their Constitutionally guaranteed human rights is because of the hegemonic neo-liberal capitalist system of Mbeki’s government.

By crying racism, are Mbeki, and his praise singers, including Roberts, suggesting that the hundreds of poor black students financially excluded from tertiary institutions, year in and year out, suffer such fate because of the colour of their skin? Are the many people who have had their water, electrify and other services terminated because of non-affordability victims of the scourge of the “demon” of racism that “permeates so much of the fabric of our society”? Is it the evil spirit of racism which Mbeki feels “must be exorcised” that has seen more than 40 percent- using the broad definition of unemployment- very high compared to other medium income economies- of the country’s economically active go without jobs?

Since it is doubtful that Mbeki has, personally, suffered serious racism in recent times, clearly, his statements on racism are intended to further ‘divide and rule’ the masses, and confuse them on their real enemy: the ruling class, the real enemy of the people since the emergence of class societies. South Africans, black and white, need to wake up to the new kind of ‘apartheid’, perpetuated by Mbeki’s conservative economic policies, engulfing this country which, unlike in the past, is not based on race, but class. Roberts’ book may deny it, but Mbeki, by occupying a prominent position in the ranks of the international ruling class, responsible for all the suffering of the poor and wars, including, the Iraqi war which Roberts widely makes reference to in, amongst other things, arguing against alleged proponents of ‘regime change’ in Zimbabwe, is just as culpable.

He makes very valid assertions, nonetheless, regarding the many contradictions within the ‘international community’ on the Zimbabwe issue. Very true, while not condoning Mugabe’s ‘crimes’ against humanity, they look like ‘child’s play’ when compared to what Bush and Dick Cheney’s oil war is doing to innocent Iraqis. However, it is grossly misleading to equate criticism of the government and Mbeki’s so-called ‘quite diplomacy’ policy on Zimbabwe to calls for ‘regime change’: George Bush/Tony Blair style. A large majority of South Africans has been insulted by peculiar statements, such as “there are no human rights abuses in Zimbabwe” attributed to our politicians, and collusion, at the expense of the taxpayer, in Mugabe’s ‘election thievery’ by certifying ‘ as ‘legitimate’ and ‘free and fair’ elections that certainly do not qualify as such. It is ‘pure lies’ to argue, as Mugabe himself continues to, that all those that slam his government are either racist, imperialists, if white, or agents of imperialists, if black, determined to undermine a ‘native freedom fighter’, simply because, it is mainly black people that are facing starvation and suffering in Zimbabwe. It is also very naïve not to realise that Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ programme, identified, wrongly so, by Roberts, as what has triggered Zimbabwe’s socio-economic woes, is an attempt to obscure people’s view away from the patronage, corruption, nepotism, cronyism that have been the major characteristics of Zanu PF’s rule for the past twenty seven years, the root cause for most of the economic problems currently affecting that country north of the Limpopo.

Endless references to the ANC’s parliamentary majority, also beloved by the many arrogant ANC officials, are intended to highlight that the masses, regardless of the many ‘detractors’ which include prominent members of the Global Justice Movement, have not lost faith in the ANC. “At the 2004 victory celebrations at the Sandton Convention Centre, Mbeki specifically pointed out that the voters had rebuffed the so-called ‘social movements’ that had styled themselves as the authentic voice of black mass grievance.” Unsurprisingly, not mentioned in this quote by South Africa’s ‘Denialist-in-Chief’ is the depressing fact that since the first democratic election in 1994, the number of voters, in real terms, has not stopped shrinking (less than 48% of the registered 22 million voters cast their vote in the 2006 local government elections. Of these, less than 11 million voted ANC), and this, together with the many strikes, including the recent protracted public service sector industrial action, and service delivery protests, signal high levels of discontent. And by denying this, our complacent rulers are losing out on the opportunity to find out the root causes of this unhappiness. Should the ANC not be asking why the South African electorate is so disillusioned with the electoral process, only thirteen years since the first democratic election?

It is such denialism, largely informed by neo-liberal economic policies, that has characterised the government’s response to the HIV/AIDS and unemployment time bombs facing this country. There seems to be an absurd believe that by denying the problem, it will go away. Unfortunately, as we have seen with HIV and unemployment, this only stands to compound the crisis. Strangely, in Fit to Govern, while describing all those that have called for the roll out of the life-prolonging Anti drugs (ARVs) as ‘Aids drug fundamentalists’, including the entire Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Zachie Achmat and Edwin Cameroon, who are in cohort with pharmaceutical companies, Roberts, desperately attempts to dispute claims that Mbeki has questioned the link between HIV and Aids. If one considers that the TAC has mainly demanded the import of cheap generic versions of Aids drugs, allegations, also supported by ‘multi vitamin’ proponent Dr. Mathius Rath, that the TAC is nothing but a ‘front’ for the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, are hence nonsensical. And, in view of the TAC’s valuable contribution to the struggle for affordable HIV/AIDS treatment, these spurious allegations should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

While Roberts, personally, is a very nice person with a remarkable sense of humour, Fit to Govern is seriously flawed, theoretically, methodologically and otherwise. Mbeki is no ‘victim’ of the ‘imperialist’ press, on the contrary the corporate owned media is in full agreement, with Mbeki’s pro business/anti poor neo-liberal project. Massive expenditure of public funds in multi-billion dollar mega projects has been sanctioned by the media as good for the ‘booming’ economy. Only an extremely ignorant person or a liar would deny that Mbeki, one of the ruling class’ most trusted ‘lieutenants’, and the media, ruling class property, share a common agenda: preserving the current unjust status quo. As sad as it is, but it would be understandable if the ‘pro Mbeki’ Roberts’s intentions are to mislead. It would be very worrying if his conclusions were made out of ignorance. The intellectual bankruptcy of some of the people in Mbeki’s cabinet acts to corroborate Gumede’s valid assertions, denied by Roberts, of technocratic Mbeki’s preference for sycophantic ‘Yes-Men and Yes-Women.’

In the Preface, he mentions the unrestricted access he had to very senior people in the presidency, but, bizarrely, in the narrative, he hardly makes use of what they think of the ‘Chief’. Instead, mostly, Mbeki’s own writings and statements are used to back up what is stated about him. In view of this, and the many other flaws, it would be justifiable to assume that the entire project was rushed through as a desperate attempt to ‘polish’ Mbeki’s image in the months leading up to the national conference in December. And, yes, as Patrick Bond pointed out to Roberts at a recent Durban launch of the latter’s book hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Graduate School of Business, “Mbeki deserves better, and Suresh can do better.” Certainly, he has not done his ‘homework’ and should, for the next edition, seriously consider interviewing social movements activists and other left (outside the alliance) critics of Mbeki.

On a positive departure note, though, the much-awaited Gumede’s second edition of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is coming out in September this year. Like the first edition, and Roberts’ book, it should be expected to generate just as vigorous a debate. Indeed, in spite of covert operations by the likes of the kowtowing management of the SABC, deepening and broadening the debate around the president and his policies is extremely critical.

***Ngonyama is a full time post-graduate student with the Department of Historical and Internet Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and a Durban based activist. As respondents, together with academic activist, Patrick Bond, Ngonyama recently participated in a public discussion of Fit to Govern hosted by the UKZN’s Graduate School of Business, with the author Ronald Suresh Roberts and former presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo as discussants.

Percy Ngonyama
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