Just two chapters into Ronald Suresh Roberts’s book about Thabo Mbeki and I’m already seething. I guess what pisses me off most is the fact that Mr Roberts sets as his standard for measuring ‘native intelligence’, the very white society that he wants us to believe he (and the President) have surpassed intellectually. As a start to showing just how little of ‘an enigma’ Thabo Mbeki is, Mr Roberts spends much time, in the opening chapter, describing Mbeki’s walk about the Afrikaans suburbs of Pretoria one afternoon, handing out ANC election pamphlets, engaging with ‘Pretoria’s Afrikaners’ about their daily lives. Mr Roberts points out that Afrikaners saw Mbeki as ‘ordinary’ and ‘humble’ that day, and that Mbeki was ‘moved’ by ‘how far so many whites are from discontent’. It is an attempt by Mr Roberts at making seem natural an Mbeki who is friendly, approachable, caring, and likeable, supportive of reconciliation and the well-being of all South Africans. Different from the enigmatic image of the President that Mr Roberts accuses the mainstream media of creating – that of the cold, distant, serious, unapproachable and un-Mandela-like man.
Making Mr Roberts’s day, and becoming the hook for the chapter, is a spur-of-the-moment decision by Mbeki to invite a woman he meets on the streets to join him that evening in a meeting he’s to have with Charlize Theron. The woman and two of her friends are quickly bundled into a car and whisked off, with Mbeki, to the gathering with the star. Mr Roberts clearly chooses this example to try to endear us to an Mbeki who can also be spontaneous and frivolous, able to connect with the desires of ‘ordinary people’. But what starts out as an attempt by Mr Roberts to prove that Mbeki can be just like Mandela soon becomes a celebration of Charlize Theron, Mbeki’s character being seen to shine through in the ways in which he interacts with ‘South Africa’s star’. And this is where it gets a little puzzling for me. Remarking on Theron’s comments to Mbeki that winning the Oscar was ‘a kind of farewell to monsters’ for her, Mr Roberts writes, “Theron’s farewell to monsters reads nicely as a break with the long tradition that Jean-Paul Sartre highlighted in his famous preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth: ‘the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.’ Theron was hardly man, or monster, nor was she creating any. She was confidently African, sharing her talents, out in the world.” And when Theron responds to Mbeki that she’s been in America for ten years, Mr Roberts waxes on, “There it was: the maestro moment. Almost to the day, Theron’s entire career was very precisely twinned with the new South Africa’s freedom. She had made herself part of a free country’s offering to the world. The April 1994 liberation vote was also her own liberation from the Zola Budd drag-down factor that had blighted the careers of apartheid South Africa’s whites for decades.” Mr Roberts then records, with awe, the gesture reserved for heads of state that Mbeki then confers on Theron – he walks her to her car! It is in this act that we are supposed to feel this ‘other side’ to Mbeki. Mbeki’s reaction to Theron’s Oscar success is later quoted by Mr Roberts – “Ms Theron, in her own personal life, represents a grand metaphor of South Africa’s move from agony to achievement.”
I’m not sure. Is the President’s ‘native intelligence’ really to be apprehended in his celebration of the ‘spirit of African rebirth’ in Charlize Theron??? [The opening chapter is titled ‘A Kind Of Farewell To Monsters’: Mbeki’s Africanism And Charlize Theron’.] Or was this just a photo opportunity for the President to show the hated media a different side? And why would Mr Roberts choose this example through which to illustrate the President’s ‘other side’?
Friends in Orange Farm remember the President differently when it comes to photo opportunities. A couple of years ago, residents of Orange Farm packed their stadium to listen to Mbeki speak. There was also the promise of people being given title deeds. People waited. The President didn’t ever arrive. On the news that night, he was shown visiting the home of one pensioner in Orange Farm, handing over a title deed. Other residents are still waiting for their title deeds. Residents say that it was the only title deed handed out that day.
And I guess this is what it comes down to. In setting himself up to prove the mainstream media and ‘illiberal society’ (largely white society) wrong about its perceptions of Mbeki, and the organised left wrong in general, Mr Roberts completely ignores the voices and critiques of many South Africans that have been silenced, erased, ignored, exploited and/or misrepresented in and by the mainstream media and by government and the ANC. He also ignores the fact that many among these voices chose not to vote in the last elections. Those who see Mbeki as responsible for their water and electricity cut-offs, their evictions, the introduction of prepaid meters, the broken promises of the ANC… While Mr Roberts celebrates the ANC and Mbeki being voted back into office in the last elections, he spends no time looking at drops in the numbers of people voting. Or the rise in the number of protests demanding proper service delivery. In fact, he spends little time backing up any of the sweeping claims he makes throughout these first chapters. Skimming through the rest of the book very quickly, he seems to address some of these concerns only through his rebuttals of the critiques of Mbeki that he finds in the writings of white intellectuals and activists of the ‘anti-globalisation movement’, such as Naomi Klein and Patrick Bond. Nowhere in Mr Roberts’s writings do we find the voices of Black intellectuals from movements who have, in struggle and in writing, criticised Mbeki for the policies that he has championed, which undoubtedly contribute to the kind of person he is seen as. Voices which have also been silenced and misrepresented in and by the mainstream media. Perhaps it is because these voices are not ‘refined enough’ even for ‘the native intellect’ to consider.
It would seem that Mr Roberts, so completely enamoured by the values and measures of ‘intelligence’ celebrated by those he critiques, cannot escape the need to prove that he (and President Mbeki) are ‘just as good’, ‘if not better’ than those who preach that ‘the natives’ are not ‘fit to govern’, at exactly what they do. It would seem as if Mr Roberts has something of what the few Black intellectuals he quotes so liberally (like Fanon) and those he ignores (like Steve Biko), might call an inferiority complex. So, his book is a response to some of the grand white theorists on race and critics of Mbeki, crafted in the language of the great white writers of the world – Mbeki’s use of poets like Shelley features often in Roberts’s first chapters. The tragedy is that Mr Roberts is selling his book as representative of radical Black intellectual thought in South Africa today. Not only does it speak almost entirely to the interests and fears of white society, but it is a poor intellectual product by any standards. In the end, there is nothing ‘native’ (in a subversive sense) about Mr Roberts’s work. Instead, he cannot escape being ‘the native’ who needs to be affirmed by his master. Having grown so accustomed to the ways of the westerner, he can measure his own self worth only by the standards of the society that has made him ‘a native’ (understood as a category of inferiority in relation to white, colonising society).
Anyway, I hope I make it through the rest of the book. If only to write a proper denouncing of it.