Swans Commentary » swans.com March 24, 2008  



I Write What I Like *
Xolela Mangcu's To The Brink


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Mangcu, Xolela: To The Brink, The State of Democracy in South Africa. Scottsville, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008, ISBN13: 978-1-86914-137-0, 208 pages.


(Swans - March 24, 2008)   There was no denying the fact. The preliminaries of a presidential election in a mature democracy had made me suicidal. To be chosen, the eager candidates said absolutely anything and the contrary. It obscured the principle I'd been assured was the basis of thought. Things couldn't be both ways; they had to be one way or the other. Then every few days the media would blare forth some revelation. Her tears were false. He had once put on a turban. The seventy-one year old warrior had drooled into the cleavage of a lobbyist. The news was supposed to electrify me, but it only blacked me out. Maturity ended in darkness. To save my life I decamped mentally in search of a bright, whippersnapper democracy.

Luck stepped in and dropped a book in my lap, To The Brink, The State Of Democracy In South Africa by Xolela Mangcu. Nothing could be more pristine and immature, I thought. The author's name hadn't even become pronounceable yet. Of course I knew next to nothing about South Africa and would have to weigh up Mangcu's views by the sense I could find in them.

You will wonder as I did: "Who on earth is Xolela Mangcu?" He's an inexhaustible South African journalist who has the nerve, not always found in more mature latitudes, to call himself an intellectual and even a public intellectual. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard and wrote a thesis at Cornell on Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago. But Mangcu's life of study began at Witwatersrand University. His effort to get to Johannesburg in 1983 and join the small group of blacks in attendance at the renowned "Wits" is a saga in its own right. His temperament evidently ruled out accepting second best or retreat into an us-and-them racism. "Wits proved to be a relatively free political space that allowed student leaders to prepare themselves for the leadership roles that would be thrust upon them in the transition to democracy." (Page 31)

Not that Mangcu came to university a barefoot boy. His family was full of teachers, university graduates, and civic notables. He was from a region that had been thoroughly worked over by British colonizers and missionaries. The East Cape's history gave him his guiding concept. Africans had found a new identity by using missionary education to burst its own limits. "Syncretic adaptation," neither total assimilation nor total withdrawal was Africa's way to modernity. It had been the position of the great Steve Biko ("my homeboy," says Mangcu) and the Black Consciousness Movement (chief bugbear to the African National Congress, the ANC). Aimé Césaire had summed it up: "Black political identity was not biological but historical." This principle will serve as a backbone for To The Brink, which is essentially an arraignment of Thabo Mbeki. Mangcu believes the President uses nativism as a form of coercion and that he calls on black solidarity as a cover for his inept and often spiteful decisions.

Mangcu once felt differently. He thought Mandela had been too sparing of white interests, and trusted that Mbeki would change tack when he became president in 1999. The new president, however, soon demanded that black public intellectuals embrace his policies without reserve. If they refused, they were marginalized and branded uncle toms. Under Mbeki, blackness was no longer a social or psychological condition. A black, in Ivor Chipkin's words, became an authentic national subject who owed loyalty to the government simply because it was controlled by other blacks. Authenticity then slipped into a kind of mysticism. Mangcu admits the irony of the situation. He, a Black Consciousness activist, has traded positions with the ANC, which had earlier upheld non-racialist policies.

To Mangcu's mind, Mbeki had taken the path of too many other African revolutionary leaders. Exile cut them off from the general population. Upon their return, often from prestigious institutions abroad, they assumed power as philosopher-kings. As such they insisted on unconditional loyalty and saw alternative ideas as subversive. This scenario played out tragically in Mbeki's approach to AIDS.

The apartheid government claimed that the scourge only infected homosexuals and that it served them right. During the Mandela presidency a huge increase in immigration spread the disease and little was done to combat it. By the time Mbeki assumed office in 1999, 7% of the population was HIV-positive. Then what Mangcu sees as Mbeki's wrongheadedness kicked in. He played down the danger and, instead of consulting and taking advice, insisted that as head of the national family he knew best. Challenged by the scientific community at home and abroad, he hunkered down in what amounted to AIDS denial. He surrounded himself with a gaggle of international cranks and South African yes men.

As the world watched in disbelief, Mbeki became more bullheaded. He claimed AZT was toxic and refused to authorize its use to prevent mother-to-child transmission. His basic position was that the HIV virus did not cause AIDS. Isolated, he brought in the ANC to back up his stand and warned Mandela to keep out of the argument. Next, Mbeki resorted to racism. The whole controversy, he maintained, arose from the stereotypes the world had inflicted on Africans. While their president speculated that the CIA used the disease to reduce the black population of the earth, the South African pandemic became the epicenter of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mangcu doesn't mince words: "In Mbeki's hands racial nationalism, which had been the source of political adaptation and survival for black people for centuries, had become a weapon of defense for a wounded politician bent on salvaging his personal intellectual reputation." (Page 64) Mangcu then proceeds to show how the President's racial nativism contributed to a second Africa catastrophe, the destruction of Zimbabwe.

The chief foreign policy challenge to the present South African government has been Zimbabwe. Mangcu holds that Mbeki simply stood by and allowed Robert Mugabe to bring his country to ruin and flood South Africa with refugees. When told that this influx had created acute social problems, Mbeki quipped arrogantly that his countrymen would have to get used to the migrants. He explained that his diplomacy behind the scenes would eventually bring Robert Mugabe back to reason. While the world waited for South Africa to take a strong stance, Mbeki hemmed and hawed. Mugabe's aim was patently never to end his twenty-seven-year dictatorship. If it meant reducing Zimbabweans to starvation and shooting down the opposition, so be it. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka called Mugabe quite simply "a monster."

The origin of Mbeki's passivity was in the liberation struggle of decades before. It had made Mugabe a cult figure for black people around the world. Mbeki had been involved in a similar struggle and also looked to it for his present political strength. That the young hero Mugabe had become a dangerous criminal at eighty-four was a contradiction Mbeki could not accept, if only out of prudence for his own political future. He had after all chosen to play the same nativist game of explaining all setbacks and justifying every suppression by the peril of colonialist conspiracy. In fact Mugabe's land grabs profited only his cronies and never offended his financial backers, Longro and the Anglo American Corporation, who were huge landowners.

Mbeki's racial politics inevitably came to the ANC, which critics like Blade Nzimande charged was being "presidentialized." Jeremy Cronin, a white member of the ANC executive and a veteran secretary of the Communist Party complained of the growing intolerance within the organization. For Mangcu this recalled what Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West had reported from America where black leaders had invoked racial solidarity to mask their mistaken policy choices. Mangcu was again struck by the reversal of the situation of his youth: "The Black Consciousness in which I was reared never required that I look the other way when those who look like me commit murderous acts against their own people." (Page 78)

After treating Mbeki's failures with AIDS and Zimbabwe, Mangcu moves on to consider the corruption that has marked the government. American readers will be surprised that he introduces the subject with a word on Richard J. Daley's Democratic political machine of Chicago that operated from 1955 to 1976. Corruption came to South Africa in a big way with an arms deal worth ten billion rand whose aim seemed to be less national defense than a chance for kickbacks and bribes.

In the subsequent enquiries, Mbeki proved inconsistent. ANC members were largely implicated in illegalities surrounding the deal, but their president was selective in the prosecutions he encouraged. In other words, he made justice subservient to his political project. Thus Deputy President Jacob Zuma, a political rival, was spared neither a corruption nor a rape trial. Mangcu saw this as a move to prevent Zuma, a strong and popular figure, from replacing Mbeki as head of the ANC.

Here ambiguity enters Mangcu's analysis along with the topicality that makes his book particularly valuable. He will follow the contest between Mbeki and Zuma right up to the ANC presidential election of December 2007 when Zuma unseated Mbeki. Then, before the month was out, the state of which Mbeki was president served Zuma with an indictment to stand trial in the High Court on eighteen counts of corruption, money laundering, racketeering and fraud.

It's in his speculations on Zuma's future that the author is ambiguous. Apparently Zuma might benefit from a mistrial and find the way open for him to contest the presidential election of South Africa in 2009. Mangcu insists that he desires neither Mbeki nor Zuma as president, but would prefer the latter if forced to choose between them. At this point the non-South African reader has to believe that there is an unspoken web of thinking here that he doesn't know about.

Mbeki may have been lethally wrong on AIDS. But in his trial for rape Zuma actually told the court that he ran no risk of infection after sex with an HIV carrier because he "took a shower afterward." Moreover, as a cabinet member, Zuma offered no objection to the kid-glove treatment of "Uncle Bob" Mugabe. His demagogic recourse to racial solidarity has never been any less quick than Mbeki's. While Zuma may well escape punishment at the hands of justice, no court has ever indicted Mbeki for anything at all. Is not Mangcu following too closely the example of Chicago, whose politics he scrutinized so well? Isn't he too readily settling for the lesser of two evils? In a word, hasn't he and his country matured all too rapidly?

While we ponder our answers, we have to thank Xolela Mangcu for giving us a frank and vivid glimpse into the civic life of South Africa. He does so with the zest of a born writer. Notwithstanding his foreseeing of such criticism in his introduction, the thrust of the book would have been more forceful had he taken the time to meld his newspaper columns, which he often reprints verbatim, into the main stream of his narrative. Again, the many quotations from a variety of scholars can be a distraction from the events and mechanisms he portrays. Infinitely more important, however, is the fact that he has managed to reduce our deficit of knowledge about his awe-inspiring country.


*  Steve Biko, born in 1946, became active in anti-Apartheid politics and black student and worker groups. "Banned" by the government in 1973, he was detained several times under anti-terrorism legislation and died in 1977 after being brutalized by interrogators. Biko's book I Write What I Like: Selected Writings first appeared in 1979.  (back)


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Published March 10, 2008