Don Makatile

Don Makatile

In pedagogy, especially in the lower ranks of public schooling, most teachers aspire to be principals.

The same situation is found in the world of journalism, peculiarly the print side of the craft - practitioners harbour the burning ambition to write books.

Exceptions to this rule, if there are any, are either inveterate failures or suffer a far worse affliction.

Man of words Mark Gevisser, better known for his highly readable profiles in the Mail & Guardian, has a book out, a tome that took him the better part of eight years to research and write.

The Dream Deferred, his 892-page biography on President Thabo Mbeki, is in the clichéd language of book critics . riveting, gripping.

Anything more masterful about the beleaguered ANC man, Govan Mbeki's oldest son, is still in the writer's head. This brings to mind the rantings of one Ronald Suresh Roberts, author of yet another book on the First Citizen - Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki.

In an earlier correspondence to yours truly, Roberts had claimed, among other things: ". At that point I wrote to the President asking him to go beyond the mere granting of time with him and instead to invest additional time and effort in commenting in detail on my work. This he agreed to do, which he never did in Gevisser's case, which is why my book in its final written form is more authoritative of the President's views than is Gevisser's book."

Go figure!

Of Mbeki, Gevisser says he's had "nearly twenty hours of one-on-one interview time with him, over seven sessions, between 1999 and 2007".

This was all in an attempt to answer the question: "Who is this Thabo Mbeki?"

His choice of subject was motivated by his own fascination with this enigma, Gevisser says, and after reading Colin Bundy's The Rise and Fall of the African Peasantry, which details the plight of the black elite, something the Mbekis epitomise, he started bombarding the then deputy president with requests to do the book.

"It seemed like a challenge. I was attracted by his intellect and the particular role he played in exile."

The Mbekis were immensely wealthy, Gevisser found, and owned land in the true title deed sense of the word "long before even the privileged whites".

Thanks to the country's repressive laws, they lost it all, says the writer, who owns up to a love for lifestyle and biography journalism.

Given his time with Mbeki, did he get the sense that the president was haughty, above the common man?

"Aloof, haughty" are the words most commonly used. But the word he uses is disconnected. "He has a hard time connecting his political ideas with flesh and blood. He looks at South Africa and he sees groups/units rather than actual physical beings.

"It is hard for him to mix with the people; ordinary interaction is hard for him. I don't think he's managed that and he's paid the price."

But is he aloof?

Gevisser refers to an SABC TV interview Mbeki did with the public broadcaster's political editor, Abbey Makoe, in which he was asked the same question.

"He said he's not and that for me says he is. A person who is not aloof will ask why people think so about him."

Gevisser says he doesn't think Mbeki has proven himself to be a responsive leader, likening him to Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Gevisser, who like Mbeki is well read, quotes Coriolanus saying: "I play the man I am."

Mbeki "struggles to find the balance between playing the man and giving people what they want".

Popular sentiment among those who went to Polokwane to unseat Mbeki was that they were tired of a president who spoke to them once a week through the Internet!

A few days after the Polokwane conference, the president's own mother said in an interview with the Sunday Times: "What I've noticed throughout the years is that his level of intelligence is above average. As a result ordinary people are unable to reach up to him. And I'm not saying this because he is my son.

"This creates problems because when he starts fixing things in a certain way, some people tend to think that he does not care about their views. But it's all because people cannot reach up to him, and he won't come down to them."

So then, the question remains unanswered, and the Sussex economics graduate remains a puzzle.

Gevisser says in the introduction to his book: "My starting point is that no biographer can be omniscient, and that the only person who can 'know' Thabo Mbeki's story is Thabo Mbeki himself. What I do, rather, is present you with a narrative made up of the shards and fragments I have collected along my journey; with the perspectives of friends, comrades, relatives and contemporaries who know my subject far better than I ever could."

And dig Gevisser does, travelling the world to wherever Mbeki had been; Moscow, Sussex, London, Lusaka.

From these voyages he brings Mbeki up-close-and-personal. He writes stuff about the 65-year-old that his "disconnectedness" is likely not to have allowed into print had Gevisser not probed.

The disappearance, and assumed death, of his only child Kwanda and the pain of Olive Mpahlwa, Mbeki's first love, beseeching the TRC, to no avail, for answers to her son's whereabouts.

Gevisser writes further about Mbeki's white girlfriends, Philippa Ingram and Ann Nicholson, who he could not marry preferring to take to the altar "the right woman", Zanele Dlamini, nearly four years her husband's senior.

He brings to us Mbeki as we've never suspected he is - a jazz lover, a gumboot dancer of note in his youth, a normal human being with conventional vices such as whisky and pipe tobacco.

He's just human, flesh and blood.

His mother came to her son's defence when she wrote in the Sunday Times : "The spirit and the venerable aims of the ANC have been thrown to the wind. The bones of our former leaders, John Langalibalele Dube, Chief Albert Luthuli, AB Xuma, Walter Sisulu and the many other comrades who lost their lives in the struggle, must be shaking in their graves.

"And South Africa today is on the verge of a mighty upheaval that, if left unchecked, might set back all the gains our fledgling democracy has hitherto achieved on all fronts.

"The main horror is the attitude towards the Presidency. A section of the public is bent on destroying the respectability of the office and besmirches the President's name with all the vitriol usually reserved for enemies of the ANC. Recently, a T-shirt with the image of the President was burnt - with accompanying insults being made towards his mother."

Gevisser, who says Mbeki could have avoided the embarrassment of Polokwane by continuing to project the image of Africa as modern, and not seek a third term, says the last he heard from Mbeki was when he presented him with a copy of the book. "He just said he looked forward to reading it."

Asked what Mbeki thought of the book, presidential spokesman Mukoni Ratshitanga could only say: "I'm not aware of any views he's expressed".

But given the high-end quality of the work, it wouldn't be preposterous to assume that even the pedantic Mbeki, himself a writer of some fine repute, is satisfied!

A woman who'd just bought a copy in Melville, where we met with Gevisser, told the author she had read the serialised version in a newspaper. "It is so illuminating," she said.

Gevisser, the eldest of three boys born to Hedda and David Gevisser, lives a childless but contented life with his gay lover of 17 years, Dhianaraj Chetty.

After the outdoors and scrabble, he reads - no, his word is devours - from Richard Ford, Virginia Woolf, Janet Malcolm, Frantz Fanon, Edmund Wilson to the New York Review of Books.

So like Mbeki!