The Thabo Mbeki I Know, reviewed by Toyin Falola

Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu and Miranda Strydom, eds., The Thabo Mbeki I Know.

Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2016

Reviewed by

Toyin Falola

Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities


University Distinguished Teaching Professor

The University of Texas at Austin

Past President, African Studies Association

President, Consortium of Pan-African University Press

This is a feast, a wonderful collection of impressive testimonies on Thabo Mbeki, the second post-Apartheid president of South Africa (1999-2008). The eulogies of firsthand encounters pour out like a heavy rain, creating new streams that cumulate into a large body of river. The river ends in the delta of Mbeki knowledge: erudite, accessible, glorious, resplendent, and gorgeous. I will endorse this volume as the best introduction to date, to the life and career of a great man, a brilliant illustration of his abilities, another affirmation of his intellectual capacity to challenge and engage us, even to stimulate our imagination and even to somehow perplex us.

This book is the product of difficult and diligent work, made possible by the intellect, commitment, and generosity of two distinguished professionals: the historian Professor Sifiso Ndlovu, already well known for quality research on modern Africa; and the competent and talented Miranda Strydom, a long-standing journalist and broadcaster.  The strength of the duo is reflected in the remarkable gathering together of voices in the book. Indeed, the  biography of the contributors at the end is distinguished. Ndlovu and Strydom set out on an uncharted path and reached an excellent outcome, guided by positive goals, the pursuit of the politics of inclusiveness, and astute analysis of the power of Africans to reimagine themselves within the paradigms of transformation that they shape and control.

This formidable collection expands our collective heritage in the value of orality, demonstrating the need to strengthen and support the South African Democracy Education Trust’s Oral History Project.

My education on Mbeki has now become encyclopedic. Indeed, for the first time since I have been following his career since the 1980s, I see the various dimensions of the man, his entire oeuvre, and lifework in politics and other endeavors, but more so the center of gravity in which they all cohere. I now understand more clearly the core of his thinking, the trajectory of his vision, the sober assessment of his private life, the rejection of Western domination and apartheid, the salutary impact of his Africanity, the affirmative value of his clarion call for an African renaissance, and the redemptive reclamation of our past.

The cat has been let out of the bag! The secrets of a successful life are now in the open. The political realities that shaped his life are now in bold print; the politics that he created to shape the lives of others is now permanently encoded in our memory. I see the politics of exile, and the redemption from that exile based on a pathway to practical politics. If you read between the lines, you will now understand ideas relating to change, the economics of violence, productive conflicts between hegemonic power and subdued subjectivities, the agency derived through the collision of an overbearing state with resisting individuals, the model of democracy that works, the structural reasons for the failures of policy, and the merger of fortuna and virtù in people and institutions.

The cast of voices ranges widely: family, friends and acquaintances from near and far, staff, journalists, six African heads of state, members of government and the cabinet, advisers, ambassadors, and scholars. All speak their minds, bringing out the best qualities in Mbeki. The voices are gentle and honest, engagingly celebratory but avoiding cult language. The candor is sincere, and the revelations are truly stunning.

Mbeki’s life is defined by politics: anti-apartheid struggles, managing the free South Africa, pan-Africanism, and African liberation. He is praised for his great initiatives as in the case of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, demands for respect for Africa and Africans, and a commitment to the progress of black men and women, wherever they may live. Mbeki is a true modernizer, one who imagines the blending of a democratic political pact with the quest for economic transformation. The modernist agenda is part of the conceptual universe of Mbeki’s political thought. The pursuit of change inevitably reminds us of strains and anxieties, worries and doubts, and in this contradictory dialogue, Mbeki is not an isolated figure but part of our transitional moments.

The book speaks to character, with many attesting to his courage, empathy, hard work, and dedication to the development of South Africa. There is a sacramental Catholicity in the form of a community spirit and bonding. The traits presented and praised in various references are those of integrity. There is  durability in these traits, as those who met him early in his career and those who worked with him at the peak of his political career are consistently united in  highlighting his emphasis on purposeful work.

There is the human side, as contributors speak of his forty-year marriage with Zanele, and his feminist credentials. I learnt for the first time that he is a singer, jazz lover, and that he can play the piano! His close friends speak of his gentle demeanor, his ability to give great speeches, and his friendship with many people. The statements on his relationships address a larger issue of humanity, the quality of tendering to others, and the cultivation of a human nature whose holistic experience is urbane, humane, and nurturing.

Most careers have an embarrassing moment. That of the resignation of Mbeki on September 21, 2008, seven months before the end his second term in office, was one such moment, but as those close to him have reported here, he handled it with calm and dignity. He fell and rose immediately afterwards, serving to work on peace missions, and producing in 2015 the much-praised document on illicit financial flows from Africa. His departure from the office of the president shifted the paradigm from an agenda focused on South Africa as a country to that of the entire African continent, using the time to mediate in so many conflicts such as in the Sudan, Ivory Coast, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

His life revolves around leadership, with glowing tributes paid by former presidents. Olusegun Obasanjo attests to his “loads of confidence” while providing a prophecy for his future:

At present he is continuing his assignments in the African continent and there is always work for all of us to do for Africa until we breathe our last. Mbeki is working very hard for the continent to become a better place for all and it is admirable of him to do so. He should continue to do it until he either becomes too old and feeble to be able to do it or until God calls him unto His bosom. But until then, we shall all continue to serve our local communities, Africa and humanity. I know Thabo shares my views in this respect. God bless him.

There is a vision that holds everything together: to be the best Mbeki could be as a South African leader, and to lead Africa forward. On the latter, he associated with the idea of the African Renaissance, working for the ideals and values that will produce a rebirth. This renaissance idea will outlive him, and will definitely be part of his legacy. “What you do is your history,” so declares Leonard Sweet. This book has recorded what Mbeki has done with his life, his history. But “what you set in motion is your legacy”. Faith in “Africa rising” is his legacy: this is a belief, the faith in us all, and this is what he is bequeathing to us, “leaving something in people.”

This is a long book of over five hundred pages. I am sure this will be just one of the over five hundred reviews that will follow. As I yield my space to others, I must praise this endeavor and recommend it to all Africans and the friends of Africa to read. The positive portrait of Mbeki is the positive face of Africa. His respect for the people’s ambition to participate in politics is a signal that we have to consolidate our democracy; and his love for his wife is a family model to uphold. His views of the future of South Africa are cautious, but these are neither pessimistic nor utopian. Here is a life to be emulated—and all Africans do have an irresistible compendium volume to enjoy—; and to proudly display an inexhaustible source of ideas for vibrant conversations on South Africa, Africa, and the World. Let the conversations begin!

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