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A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela | The Nation

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A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela

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In addition to being one of South Africa's most respected political writers--and a correspondent for this magazine--Gevisser has a multifaceted résumé: he's curated museum exhibitions, co-edited a book on gay life in South Africa and made a documentary about a communist theater director who was active in the ANC underground. He is, in other words, very much a fixture of South Africa's white liberal intelligentsia, a group that was morally liberated by the demise of the apartheid system. Now, two decades on, the joy is more tempered. When it was published in South Africa in 2007, Gevisser's book was titled Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.

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There's a lot of South African literature about the white liberal intellectuals' agonies, for the same reason there are so many novels about professors of creative writing. Outraged and ostracized during the apartheid era, the liberals are now dispossessed; they got the country they hoped for, but it still doesn't fully belong to them. Race remains a defining characteristic. None of this is incidental to Gevisser's book, because in his telling, Mbeki is an emblematic figure. He somehow captures the two halves of South Africa's cultural heritage, European and African, within a single contradictory persona.

After the biography first came out, Gevisser writes in the prologue to the American edition--which is less than half the length of the 892-page original--Mbeki sent the author a letter insisting, in his gloating way, on his own inscrutability. "I belong among the uncelebrated unwashed masses," Mbeki wrote, "offering no rich pickings even for the most highly talented mind reader!" But Gevisser, calling on a vast amount of research, is able to assemble a compelling explanation of this most impenetrable persona, centered around what he describes as a "disconnect" within Mbeki's identity.

Gevisser is hardly the first to reach for this notion of disconnect; he writes that it was Mbeki who first used the word, in one of the several interviews the former president granted him for the book. Born in 1942 into the black petite bourgeoisie--his parents were members of a group called the izifundiswa, or "educated ones"--Mbeki was essentially abandoned as a boy by his father, Govan, who gave his life over to the ANC. As a young man, Thabo also joined the banned party, which became his surrogate family. He managed to escape from South Africa to Britain, where he attended Sussex University, then a stronghold of the cosmopolitan British left. He hung around with wayward blue bloods, took to wearing a tweed cap and smoking a pipe and had a succession of white girlfriends. Eventually, Mbeki married a politically appropriate woman, a black South African doctoral student, but he did so with a very English flourish. The ceremony was held in a twelfth-century castle in Surrey.

For the rest of his life, Mbeki would style himself a Shakespeare-quoting Anglophile, and reading Gevisser's book, you get the feeling that he would have been much happier if he had stayed in Britain and become a professor. But that side of his personality never stood a chance--he was Govan Mbeki's son. A legend of the ANC, the elder Mbeki was cold and resolute in his commitment to the movement, qualities that he seems to have passed down. In 1963, when a young Thabo Mbeki was told of his father's arrest, which would ultimately lead to twenty-three years of imprisonment, he is said to have given a bloodless reply: "The revolution produces leaders all the time." Govan's jailing was just one of many Mbeki family tragedies--a brother of Thabo's disappeared under murky circumstances, as did a college-aged son--all of which seem only to have redoubled the family's commitment to the struggle against apartheid. "They believe in politics [more] than real life," the wife of the Mbeki brother who went missing tells Gevisser.

From his university days, Mbeki was groomed for leadership in the ANC, and there was never any question that after graduation he would return to take a place among the leaders of the party, which was then based in Zambia. At the time, the ANC was an armed movement, tightly aligned with the South African Communist Party, backed by the Soviet Union and steeped in liberationist doctrine. Gevisser, who was able to visit the ANC's Zambian headquarters as a reporter in the early 1990s, writes that the atmosphere of exile was "fractious, apprehensive, and suspicious, articulated in a language of shadows and circumlocutions." The big secret--which was actually well-known to the apartheid regime's spies--was that the ANC was a pathetic military organization. It was the professorial Mbeki, never much of a soldier, who boldly argued that he could persuade the ANC's adversary, a nuclear-armed government, to give up without a fight.

Gevisser calls Mbeki "the seducer," and describes all the surreptitious maneuvering behind the apartheid government's shocking decision to release Mandela and open negotiations. Mbeki, along with his trusted ally Jacob Zuma, the intelligence chief of the ANC's military wing, laid the groundwork for the peaceful transition through numerous back-channel meetings. (These encounters were riveting enough to be dramatized in the recent television movie Endgame, produced in Britain and aired here on PBS, with the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering a smoldering performance as Mbeki.) When Mandela won the presidency in 1994, in an election that was more like a coronation, he made Mbeki his principal deputy and day-to-day manager. But the habits that had made Mbeki so successful during the cloak-and-dagger exile era hampered him as a public figure. "Mbeki might have modernized the ANC with extraordinary vigor when it came to ideology and economic policy," Gevisser writes, "but he would hold to the exile's understanding of politics--and the outlawed freedom fighter's experience of intrigue--throughout his years of power."

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