The “Mbeki Turn” in Gordimer Studies.

By Ronald Suresh Roberts

August 30, 2019

A sudden and rather strange outbreak of duelling between the legacies of the late Nadine Gordimer and very much alive Thabo Mbeki is worth decoding for what it reveals about ongoing shifts of power as native intelligence within local-to global discourses of literature and politics, spheres that each ought to be properly semi-autonomous from the other.  Why are they now being blurred?

This blurry duel has been set off by an incestuous constellation of recent academic writing, among players who mysteriously cross-reference each other and who are apparently determined to conscript Gordimer within anti-Mbeki legacy battles, especially on HIV AIDS policy.  They are incidentally dispersing and damaging Gordimer’s literary core currency, which has accordingly declined precipitously since her death in 2014 (See” Rebel, Radical, Relic? Nadine Gordimer is Out of Fashion – we must keep reading her” London Guardian, 31 July 2019).

Julius Malema and the slew of politicians who positioned Mbeki as a ”dead snake” during and after the tsunami of Polokwane have, of course, long since repented.  Less noticed is how far the cultural tide has also turned, so that a massive fightback (and unintended tribute) is presently underway to bury yet again the snake once thought dead within distinctly cultural arenas of epistemic power.  They are, in a sense, the cultural outriders of Jeremy Cronin’s peculiar detour out towards his old factional wars with Mbeki during what ought to have been the auspicious occasion of the 98th Annual Founding Lecture of the South African Communist Party.  While Cronin’s effort is largely self-refuting, the less visible work of these cultural outriders merits a degree of detailed attention.  

The University of Cape Town academic, Hedley Twidle, a middle-manager within the outgoing epistemic regime of pure whiteness, has produced an anxious work, “Experiments With Truth: Narrative non-fiction and the coming of democracy in South Africa” that is in many ways a centre-piece of this Gordimer-Mbeki pseudo-duel.  Twidle returns obsessively to Mbeki and Gordimer, and also to me as their duel interpreter.  But by the time his book is done, not only has he himself demonstrated the revival of the arguments in Fit to Govern, which he had set out to bury.  He has also distinctly—and more surprisingly–begun burial rites in respect of those figures of the epistemic ancien regime (notably Mark Gevisser and Jonny Steinberg) of whom it has previously been his and the establishment’s habit to offer only enraptured praise.  

This is not the place to unpack in full all the implications of Twidle’s highly symptomatic text, nor of the crisis of which it is a symptom.  For the moment, I highlight only the existence and function of the “Mbeki Turn” in Gordimer Studies.  The turn originates with Twidle’s excavation  of what he calls a “provocatively cross-wired comparison”, in which I was quoted in the New York Times Book Review almost fifteen years ago, commenting upon the divergent fates of Fit to Govern (Mbeki) and No Cold Kitchen (Gordimer) from the standpoint of attempted interventions by my subjects in my properly autonomous work:

“My experience with Gordimer is that she acted in relation to the manuscript like the stereotype of Thabo Mbeki, an autocratic control freak. He’s acted in the last two years like the stereotype of Nadine Gordimer, a champion of intellectual liberty”

The observation that Mbeki has championed intellectual liberty is obvious and is implicitly validated within Twidle’s own text, which evidences the starkly divergent approaches that Mark Gevisser and I took towards Mbeki, who co-operated with us both and intervened with neither.   

The observation is even more obvious to such journalistic doyennes of the ancien regime as Ferial Haffajee, who cannot even attend press conference today without fear, but who physically attended the launch of Fit to Govern on the very day that she published a cartoon of the head of yours truly up the Presidential rear-end, publishing my riposte the following week: this proves I had unprecedented access.  At the launch on the day, Haffajee found herself not only unmolested, but actively name-checked and celebrated by Mbeki’s then spokesperson as one of the few establishment journalists prepared to resist the illiberal censorship siren-calls of such pseudo-champions of free speech as Anton Harber, one of her predecessors as Mail & Guardian editor. 

Meanwhile, on the Gordimer side of the free speech equation, Twidle does not seem as yet fully to have grasped the many ways in which his own text deepens the Gordimer side of the cross-wired comparison.  Twidle originally published his error-prone analysis of my work in a U.S. journal, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, which withdrew the piece and republished a corrected version alongside a detailed two-page errata and my brief reply.  The story Twidle’s many errors could readily furnish an essay in itself, but the moment most relevant for his preoccupation with the Mbeki-Gordimer free speech thematic arrives where Twidle himself finds that he must correct his own previously published assumption that Gordimer never sought to censor my text through legal threats:

“I had at first assumed that this option [copyright suppression through litigation] was not exercised by Gordimer or her lawyers, given that [No Cold Kitchen] is laden with quotations from both her published and unpublished writing.  Yet in an extensive personal correspondence with me, Roberts explained that Gordimer’s lawyer’s did raise the supposed copyright prohibition ‘in a formal and threatening demand letter, but were rebuffed by my own publisher’s lawyers, who emphasised that Gordimer in reality had no such option, because of the clear terms of the contract between us . . .” (Twidle, Experiments, 105).

Just how far this concession overturns the very logic of the free-speech heroism narrative within which Twidle nevertheless continues to locate Gordimer appears somehow to be lost upon him.  He appears to believe that this is a concession that may be contained in a footnote, with its implications curtailed there, while his analysis “above the line” continues merrily as before.

A Gordimer-Mbeki Phony War

That the Gordimer and Mbeki legacies are suddenly duelling is more broadly apparent, beyond Twidle, from the recent spate of illiberal scholarship that, like Twidle, stages precisely this rivalry.  By “stages” I mean to say “invents” because, of course, no such rivalry ever in fact existed between the actual historical figures of Nadine Gordimer and Thabo Mbeki. 

Even at the height of the debate over HIV-AIDS policy, Gordimer herself joined Anthony Sampson in the pages of the New York Review of Books defending Mbeki from the opportunistic attacks of the right-winger, RW Johnson (See “President Mbeki’s Career”, NYRB, November 16 2000).  Hence Johnson himself subsequently attacked Gordimer for her refusal to attack Mbeki! And it is only through my own research, fully and frankly published, that Gordimer’s private thoughts on Mbeki emerged, rather incidentally grouping him, along with all blacks, as a group supposedly manifesting “the scar of the victim itching”.  Gordimer also explained (to Edward Said of all people!) that “the hypersensitivity of blacks towards whites is a sadly understandable result of suffering . . . there ae many black people who, in spite of our government’s condemnation of all and any such acts, approve the murder and rape of white farmers and their old wives.”   (see No Cold Kitchen, 592-94). 

The reality of Gordimer’s writing and of my ethical obligation to make full disclosure of it, however awkward, to my readers is, however, no deterrent to the guest editors of a recent “special issue” of the journal African Studies 78:2 (2019).  These guest editors staged the falsehood that “Gordimer was critical of Mbeki” and then remarkably re-staged that fact, itself invented, as my own supposed reason for being critical of Gordimer in my biography of her!  

After I queried this doubly staged concoction with the journal, its evidently split main editorial board reported back, in a faintly agnostic and passive voice, that “we have deliberated at length and remain assured that this is a matter of interpretation which the author has supported.” (Italics added).  Neither the guest editors nor the author have to date supplied any evidence whatsoever that Gordimer was critical” of Mbeki as claimed, let alone that this non-existent criticality in turn “raised tensions” between Gordimer and her biographer, turning my biographical text “toxic”, as the guest-editors chose to assert, again without the slightest proffer of academic or reasoned evidence (See ‘Writing from Johannesburg: Nadine Gordimer in the global anti-apartheid movement’, African Studies 78:2 (2019) and the associated introduction by the guest editors). 

One of the guest editors, Nancy J. Jacobs, is a historian at Brown University, now apparently busy with a “transnational history of African Grey parrots” and who interned within the Political Section of the United States Embassy during the dark days of 1986, in defiance of the ANC’s cultural and economic boycott, implementing instead the Reagan administration’s active support of the Pretoria regime. The other guest editor of this ostensibly African journal issue, Andrew Bank, is a historian at University of the Western Cape since the mid-1990s, for whom the guest editorship was an apparent entrée upon a larger globalised stage.  It is such comprador combinations, conscripting native assistants of all hues in order to decorate antique ideologies with a veneer of “local” credibility, that represent the true toxicity in supposedly postcolonial and post-apartheid discourses of all sorts, now apparently including academic journals. 

This erasure of Gordimer’s aesthetic currency and its displacement by crude political coinage, operates as a kind of doubled violence against Gordimer and her own legacy, disguised as admiration for her.  Why else select the forgotten anti-Mbeki polemicist, William Mervyn Gumede, to deliver something called the 2018 Nadine Gordimer Lecture?  This initiative was itself apparently set afoot by Wits academic David Atwell, a sponsor of the “laager literature” (including the Cambridge History of South African Literature) mentioned in my previous post about VS Naipaul

The Gumede lecture once again vulgarises Gordimer’s literary coin, this time through Gumede’s amateurish policy-developmental vocabulary.  Gumede seriously begins with an account of a party Gordimer threw for his infant child, then incants the word “decolonisation” for approximately an hour, with scant connective tissue or analysis of any kind and especially without discernible relevance to anything Gordimer ever specifically wrote, said or did.   Her actual work is never substantively cited. 

It would, for instance, be fascinating to hear how Gordimer might be re-purposed for declonisation in 2019, having prematurely announced as she did in 1994 that the end of apartheid was, in and of itself, simultaneously the end of the “last reel” of decolonisation?  Gumede seems blissfully unaware that anti-colonial critique is an area where JM Coetzee has long been undeniably more salient than Gordimer (See No Cold Kitchen, 524-28).  Gordimer’s voice was, for example, entirely silent during the run-up to the Iraq war while Mbeki led global anti-war diplomacy—and Gordimer was incoherent on the War afterwards, when she belatedly joined the chorus that was critical of the aftermath, more than of the invasion itself—to say nothing of her controversial and widely condemned travel to Israel for participation in ”Israel at Sixty” anniversary celebrations in 2008.

Gumede might well wish to contest some or all of this (generously assuming he is at all aware of any of it), but—on the evidence of his Lecture–he is simply ill-equipped to engage any of the detail.  

When Attwell’s academic progeny, Twidle, steps forth in Experiments with Truth (2019) it is to reference yet again the figure of Mbeki as the reason for the ultimate failure of my Gordimer biography, which Twidle otherwise highly praised as “an exemplary model . . . of the fullness of the biographical project.”   Meanwhile Twidle just last month placed himself forward as the London Guardian’s native informant to say that Gordimer “is barely read in South Africa today”: “Rebel, radical, relic? Nadine Gordimer is out of fashion” (31 July 2019)

While this concerted academic putsch demonstrates a Gordimer conscripted by others for reasons politically ulterior to her own literary legacy, the central case of this abduction remains the AIDS drug lobby, towards which I therefore now turn.

Fading Epistemic Power of the AIDS Drug Lobby

Consider now Twidle’s own treatment of the AIDS issue in his Experiments: first, in his powerful comprador-intellectual mode, wherein he seeks to revel in and as the voice of the silencers, he confidently announces that my treatment of Mbeki in Fit to Govern “effectively destroyed this writer’s reputation in South Africa.” (Twidle, 100).  And yet the surface-confidence of the assertion paradoxically marks its own very visible panic, for Twidle is generally a far more self-reflexive, less dogmatic, writer than that.  This stark and even incomprehensible assertion (what literally does it even mean?  writer’s reputation among whom?) is easily the single most pseudo-definitive and dogmatic moment in this otherwise analytically skittish and temperamentally indecisive book.  No such assertion, for instance, appears in the academic essay that preceded the book chapter in the U.S. journal, Biography.  It is added now as red meat thrown in to please and distract illiberal and parochial South African book-circus crowds. 

It therefore comes as no surprise to find that Twidle’s own text, before long, unravels its own dogmatic dismissal of Fit to Govern, as he finds himself forced to announce the resurrection of what he had previously so confidently buried. Fit to Govern’ s Lazarus moment arrives at page 125 where Twidle feels constrained to reference Mahmood Mamdani’ s summary of arguments that I in fact pioneered precisely in Fit to Govern: Mbeki’s “handling of the Zimbabwe and the HIV/AIDS crises were arguably this president’s great successes.”  Look no further than the jacket copy: “Fit to Govern examines difficult issues (e.g., Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS, neo-colonialism) that have faced President Thabo Mbeki and casts fresh light on Mbeki’s logic.”  Twidle is standing in that light, even while announcing its supposed eclipse.     

In a clear-cut case of ethical and academic dereliction, Twidle shows no evidence of ever having read the arguments in Fit to Govern (the book itself is negligently omitted from his bibliography, in desperate defiance of applicable academic protocols).  In an apparent leap of faith he hopes or assumes that future readers will emulate his negligence as they trace the intellectual genealogy, and test the logic, of Mamdani’ s assertions, which Twidle himself already finds he cannot ignore, but must instead seek to mystify as “nostalgia” and even to misdescribe as “revisionist.” 

An argument that is “revisionist” is not one that has already and very conspicuously been made (in Fit to Govern), and thereafter unsuccessfully buried by Twidle’s illiberal coterie.  What has today been revised is not those arguments themselves, which have always existed, but only the Twidle coterie’s stamina and especially its decreasing capacity to silence. Hence the paradoxically noisy (hence self-defeating) new wave of strenuous silencing, by means of a manufactured Mbeki-Gordimer phony war, one that is already backfiring.

To see how far the old discursive powers of the AIDS-drug lobby are a fading, consider how delicately the coterie side-stepped the HIV/AIDS policy issue during its otherwise orgiastic celebrations of retiring Constitutional Court Justice, Edwin Cameron.  The revellers unmistakeably tip-toed around what was by far the most consequential feat of Cameron’s entire public career: his highly personalised, politicised, extra-judicial and polemical engagement, as a sitting judge, with an elected head of state.  This was a polemical war epitomised by, but certainly not limited to, Cameron’s infamous front page article in the Mail and Guardian newspaper headlined “The Dead Hand of Denialism” (April 17 2003). 

One sycophantic speaker after another, during the “special session” of the Constitutional Court that marked Cameron’s retirement, highlighted Cameron’s supposed impact against HIV/AIDS stigma (even though, as Cameron himself concedes, not one single public official in any African country has emulated his histrionic announcements of his own health status). 

What no sycophant was brave enough to broach, however, is that part of Cameron’s legacy—his extra-judicial grandstanding—that remains a real and urgent problem for judicial legitimation in South Africa today.  Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, who led the court in its finding against the Mbeki administration in the TAC case, received not only prompt compliance and continued dignity, but an intimacy of respect from the former President, as I highlight at pages 130-131 of Fit to Govern, which covers Mbeki’s attendance at the 2004 “Inauguration” of the Constitutional Court’s landmark site on Constitutional Hill, many months after the TAC decision.

More than any other figure, and whatever else Cameron may also have done, he is disproportionately responsible for the problematic sense that lingers in the culture today of judges as performers in the raw front-page affray of politics, unmitigated by any properly judicial demeanour. That is part of Cameron’s historical uniqueness, which he seems shy to reclaim.  Like Gordimer’s literary currency, so too was the country’s judicial-cultural capital both captured and squandered in Cameron’s ill-advised excursion into anti-Presidential and extra-judicial politics, an initiative promptly rebuffed by the results of the 2004 general election, which will remain the ANC’s historical high watermark.  

So fraught a legacy is this that the politesse of avoidance could not suffice during the recent retirement celebrations.  Cameron’s extra-judicial and frankly political role had actively to be denied—and by the most prominent political voice to attend the proceedings, my hapless namesake, the Minister of Justice, Ronald Lamola.  Far more interesting, if less spectacular, than Lamola’ s confusion over the precise status (was he dead or alive?) of retired Justice Richard Goldstone, was Lamola’ s active and explicit erasure of Cameron’s extra-judicial attacks on then President Mbeki. Seeking to eclipse this, as if tidying up a thing of shame, Lamola insisted:

“I want to say you did not descend to the politics of the day” (@1:49:10). 

That Lamola “want[s]” to say so clearly does not make it in fact so. Cameron’s own telling of his own personal narrative (in Witness to AIDS and elsewhere) is that he did indeed so descend, into the politics of the day, but for what he used to argue were supposedly justifiable reasons, which he seems conspicuously shy to re-argue in 2019, for rather obvious and now different contemporary reasons.  When University of Cape Town’s Hugh Corder asserts that “Judges can’t get involved in popular political exchanges . . .” he has to be hoping that readers overlook the Cameron performance of old.  .

Ironically, it was not one of the assorted black lawyers who sounded the wry and necessary cautionary note overhanging Cameron’s legacy, but instead one whose own whiteness and self-regard almost rivals Cameron’s own: Jeremy Gauntlett, when he came to consider what Cameron’s legacy was likely to be, invoked the familiar phrase of the Chinese leader who, when asked to sum up the significance of the French Revolution commented, “It is too soon to tell.” (@1:32:45)

But, were I to satirise the Oxbridge after-dinner erudition towards which Gauntlet strains, I might replace his rather shopworn reference to Zhou Enlai with the far fresher, or less remembered, words of Sir Thomas Browne from Religio Medici [the Religion of a Doctor], published in 1643:

          Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth,

          Nor fit to take up the Gauntlet in the cause of Verity.

That, as epitaph, better befits Cameron’s unlamented colonial role in the HIV/AIDS policy debate.  And I, for one, promise to check back, as I have today in the Gordimer case, five or ten years from now, to discover how and whether this epitaph has weathered the intervening gales of history.

Salman Rushdie, himself echoing ancient Chinese wisdom, said of the mullahs in Iran who pronounced an interdiction against his book far more robust than Twidle’s crumbling fatwah against Fit to Govern: “If you sit by the river long enough, the body of your enemy will float by.”

**Roberts is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics.




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