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Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred

5 minute read

In 1997, Thabo Mbeki, then 54, succeeded Nelson Mandela as leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Two years later, he followed Mandela again when he was elected in a landslide as President of South Africa. Barring an upset, however, these are Mbeki’s last days as leader of the party that defined South Africa’s liberation struggle. The ANC will elect its next President later this month at a party congress, and Mbeki’s party deputy and bitter rival Jacob Zuma has already established a crushing lead over the incumbent. Mbeki will continue as South Africa’s President until 2009, when the constitution demands he relinquish that post too. Yet even as they prepare for his long goodbye, few South Africans could tell you much about who Mbeki is or what has motivated his now fading political career.

Mark Gevisser’s 935-page biography, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, addresses that mystery with comprehensive authority. Gevisser, a South African journalist, began researching his subject in 1999 and has consulted hundreds of Mbeki’s friends and acquaintances, studied thousands of documents and interviewed the President himself six times. His book traces Mbeki’s life from his birth in 1942 as the son of communist pioneers in the Transkei, through his 28 years in exile in London and Moscow, to his two terms in office. It also illuminates the strange mix of economic liberalism and headstrong ideology that permeates the leadership of postapartheid South Africa.

To his critics, Mbeki is aloof, arrogant and prickly. Gevisser does not dispute that judgment, but he says those traits are grounded in conviction and circumstance. “If Mbeki has been driven by one overarching dream, it is that of self-determination,” writes Gevisser. It began, he thinks, with Mbeki’s embrace of exile as a new beginning. “Of all Thabo Mbeki’s friends from exile I met during the research for this book not one recalled him, ever, talking about his childhood, or even mentioning the place of his birth,” says Gevisser.

The President is an intellectual dissident with a lifelong habit of fighting against the majority view. That drove him to persuade the ANC to talk to apartheid’s rulers, not just fight them. And it led him to steer the ANC away from its Marxist faith and toward the free market. But that same contrarian instinct is also behind the positions for which he has been most harshly criticized: his refusal to condemn Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and his skepticism, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, that hiv is the principal cause of aids. Granted, his behind-the-scenes diplomacy has shown some success in forging a compromise between Mugabe and the opposition. Mbeki also has a point that some foreign activists assume a patrician, even racist, tone toward Africa’s aids problem, and that factors such as poverty also contribute to the spread of the disease. But independent-minded stubbornness can look like callousness when millions of lives are at stake. Mbeki compounded his image problem, Gevisser argues, by not using the media effectively; his opponents’ ability to get their positions across persuaded Mbeki there was a conspiracy against him, Gevisser writes, and encouraged him to fester in an “increasingly sullen and irascible isolation.”

In Gevisser’s treatment, Mbeki emerges as a tragic figure. The book’s title refers to a Langston Hughes poem that Mbeki, warning of growing popular anger at persistent inequalities in postapartheid South Africa, quoted before Parliament in 1998: “What happens to a dream deferred? It explodes.” But Mbeki has been unable to bridge the divide, and that failure has bolstered support for the earthy populist Zuma.

Gevisser documents how Mbeki’s personal dreams are on hold too. The South Africa he returned to never matched the hopes he had nourished in exile. After so many years in Europe spent sublimating his life to the struggle, Gevisser writes, Mbeki felt a “disconnect” to his homeland once he arrived there. And he soon realized he would be forever in Mandela’s shadow. For Mbeki, faced with crises of Zulu-ANC violence, crime, aids and poverty, the homecoming triumph never happened.

In a 1969 letter, Mbeki describes his admiration for the central character in his favorite Shakespeare play, Coriolanus, who set out, as he wrote, with “truthfulness, courage, self-sacrifice, absence of self-seeking, brotherliness, heroism, optimism.” Mbeki aspired to the same qualities, to be a “person who does good, and does it honestly,” he tells Gevisser. But Coriolanus is a tragedy. The hero becomes a vainglorious despot. Mbeki is no Coriolanus, but as his paranoia and isolation reached new heights last year, Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, warned the country may be “drifting toward dictatorship.” For Mbeki, stopping Zuma, whom he had come to view as wholly unfit for office, seemed to become the end to justify all means. “The possibility of a Zuma presidency was a scenario far worse than a dream deferred,” writes Gevisser. “It would be, in effect, a dream shattered.” That may or may not be true for South Africa. In all likelihood, it will soon be true for Mbeki.

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