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Nostalgia and Anger: the Launch of Mbeki and After: Reflections on the Legacy of Thabo Mbeki (with Video)

Mark Heywood

Mbeki and AfterMark GevisserDaryl GlaserThe launch of the new book on Thabo Mbeki – Mbeki and After: Reflections on the Legacy of Thabo Mbeki, edited by Daryl Glaser – was a tribute to mixed emotions. Although all three of the speakers spoke out strongly against aspects of Mbeki’s presidency, it was also with a keen sense that Mbeki’s shadow is still strongly cast upon us, and the full effects of his decisions are yet to play out to completion. The three speakers: editor Glaser and two contributors, Mark Heywood and Mark Gevisser, all presented quite different perspectives on the man and the politician.

“I was trying to unpack his [AIDS] denialism and looked at his obsession with ‘The Text’… over reality,” opened Glaser. “His habit of trying to get reality to conform to the word. For instance, his statement during the xenophobic attacks [in 2008] that, ‘our current analysis of xenophobic violence must be wrong, because it sends the wrong message to Africa about African solidarity.’ That was just classic Thabo Mbeki.”

“The time elapsed since Mbeki’s presidency,” he added, “gives us the opportunity to reflect both on Mbeki the man and on Mbeki the legacy. The more you learn about Mbeki, the more you realise that Mbeki the man and Mbeki the legacy are very, very difficult to separate.” That legacy, said Glaser, is still very much in evidence in events like the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of Information Act. “It’s that ‘shoot the messenger’ mentality he inculcated in Government, it’s still with us today.”

Gevisser, author of perhaps the most important book on Mbeki to date (The Dream Deferred) spoke about the alternating emotions he – and perhaps many other South Africans – feel towards Mbeki: rage and nostalgia. The complexity of the man and his rule mean that it is not simple to sum up and asses his legacy.

“Since Barack Obama’s humiliation in the US,” he said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between the two [Mbeki and Obama] – or rather, the similarities in how the narratives about them have been constructed: that they are disconnected from their people. Like Mbeki, Barack Obama is also narrated as a great thinker who’s excellent at campaigning but ultimately disconnected from his country. Something about this has made me feel rather nostalgic about Mbeki.”

See more of Gevisser’s speech here:

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Heywood – prominent HIV/AIDS activist at Section 27 (formerly the AIDS Law Project) wrote one of the most overtly critical chapters in the book. “In the book, I point out that Thabo Mbeki is directly responsible for 335 000 preventable deaths,” he said. “It’s difficult to put that in a book when the person in question is not long deceased, not in prison, but is still living amongst us in Johannesburg… I had many pangs of conscience as I wrote that chapter.

“We’re now caught up in the second half of the book’s title: the ‘And After’ part,” he continued. “Caught up in the accusations. The distrust. The assumption that if you dissent – no matter what your track record in democracy, in non-racialism – you’re a threat. Mbeki’s AIDS denialism can’t be isolated from the rest of his government. People seem to dismiss it in that way, implying it was just some strange quirk of his… But the seeds of defiance of the Rule of Law are found in the Mbeki government and not in the scapegoat many people would like: Jacob Zuma. When Mbeki finally capitulated on the HIV/AIDS issue, it was because denialism had become unsustainable. Because of this, [Zuma’s] new government had to create the illusion of openness. But now we see they may find other ways to prevent democracy from working.

“There are other parts of his legacy that still haunt us, too,” Heywood added. “We have that ongoing problem in South Africa with the continued blurring between party and state – and increasingly, between individual and party and state. This started with Mbeki, too… He utilised the full machinery of the state of prevent access to information. The fact that people weren’t literally murdered or beaten to death in prison doesn’t change the fact that the outcomes of his policy were the same as if he had put people in concentration camps. It’s more than the 335 000 preventable deaths: he oversaw the total collapse of the public healthcare system.”

After these strong words by Heywood came an impassioned Q&A session. Gevisser closed on a more positive note: “It must be said, we are also the beneficiaries of many positive legacies from Mbeki. Specifically, the strength of the democracy left behind by Mbeki and his generation: so much of the vision of our democratic ideals comes from him.”

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