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THABO MBEKI AND THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF THE ANC (article first published : 2005-05-15)

Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is an imposing and enlightening book, disclosing as it does what went on, and goes on, behind the scenes in the governing of South Africa and the rise of Thabo Mbeki to power.

It has been described as controversial, critical and challenging. I think this view says more about South Africa than it does about the book. Britain has just had a general election in which the three main political leaders were described at various times as a liar, a drunk and the descendant of a vampire, and nobody seems to have been particularly excited about it. By comparison, President Mbeki is treated respectfully and cautiously in this book

But there is criticism alright, especially on the familiar issues of AIDS and Zimbabwe and on the president’s well-known antipathy to those who disagree with him. And there is a wealth of information about the functioning of the ANC in the past and present.

The author, William Mervin Gumede, has an impressive background as a financial journalist and this is reflected in the highly competent presentation of his material, especially on the economic issues facing South Africa. He is a committed ANC man. There is not much space here for the Democratic Alliance, which is dismissed contemptuously as a white opposition party, or the IFP or other parties. Well, this is a book about the ANC, not about them, and it will no doubt become prescribed reading for all politicians and commentators who want to try to understand the “soul’ of the ANC.

The author describes the ANC as “a party with more liberal values than the Democratic Alliance”, a view which will probably surprise most people who voted for the DA and may surprise many who voted for the ANC.

This is a political book, not a personal one. President Mbeki is an enigmatic figure. We all know from television that he dresses well in the western style, speaks excellent English, and likes to quote Shakespeare. Aside from this, the book tells us virtually nothing about his lifestyle, his home, his family, his preferences in food and drink, his pastimes, his holidays, his executive jet. Mrs Mbeki is mentioned briefly twice, and we learn that her sister Edith “became the wife of an English aristocrat, Wilfred Grenville-Grey”.

We are given a tantalising glimpse of the president “alone at night, smoking his trademark pipe and sipping his beloved cognac, tapping away at his computer keyboard”, but little more. Perhaps a future biographer will look more deeply into the personal background of a politician who, whether we like him or not, has become a significant figure in Africa and the world.

This is an absorbing book, not least in its final chapter, which discusses “the battle for succession”. These are early days to consider who will inherit the mantle of the presidency but Mr Gumede lists a large number of possible candidates. These include Cyril Ramaphosa (in spite of his disclaimer that he is “having too much fun now” --- equals making money), Tokyo Sexwale, Jacob Zuma, Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa, Tito Mboweni, Saki Macozoma and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

A dark horse is Joel Netshitenzhe, presidential spokesman and apparently a substantial power behind the scenes. We shall see.

Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is published by Zebra and retails at R199,95. - Michael Green




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