Sunday, September 27, 2020

The death of Thabo Mbeki!

It was always a big name. Back then, when we were children in Selebi-Phikwe it was a big name. At school there were two chubby girls who carried it. One was slightly older and she was a year behind me. She was in my sister’s class. In my class were others from the exile community. There was Stomie Tshabalala, with whom I waged a love-hate relationship for years on end. After the skirmishes of childhood we became friends as teenagers. For eternity. There were others who had gone to school with our brothers. My uncle David had attended the same school. He hung around with the likes of Lulu. I was a small boy back then, but I still remember Lulu as a bear of a man.

Rough in manner, but ebullient in spirit. Then we had the Shabalala brothers. There was Dalindyebo and Phakamile. At different age groups, throughout our existence in that small town, we had our brethren. But the name that reverberated more than any other was Mbeki. The two chubby girls were chosen by fate to bear that name. The elder one was named Motshidisi. The younger, even chubbier girl was called Nobantu. After school we would arrive home, and overhear parents and guardians talk about how Jama had disappeared. I had no clue of the person being talked about. I had never seen him. He was said to be an attorney in town. In the year he disappeared the town was abuzz and for many a day the big local story was his vanishing act. Apparently he just disappeared. But his daughters still came to school. His wife went to work. It was just surreal.

Eavesdropping on adult conversations, albeit whispered, that Jama had vanished, we still saw his kids at school. We were not told why Jama had disappeared and to where he had vanished. As his children, dressed in the gymslips of their school waltzed in the playground, seemingly without a concern in the world, the adults continued to whisper. It was said he had left for Lusaka. The adults said he had left because the Boers were out to kill him. I am sure I caught the tail end of a conversation that said he had left to go and join his brother. Back then, on a weekly basis, after the main news on Radio Botswana, a haunting tune would introduce a broadcast by Radio Freedom, the voice of the African National Congress in exile. Radio Freedom would narrate to us the progress of the liberation struggle from its studios in Lusaka.

It would seem that is where Jama had gone to join his brother. We also heard other stories, again whispered by adults, of how Jama had embezzled some money belonging to his clients, and decided to hot foot it as the police began inquiries. Against the backdrop of the adult whispers, Motshidisi and Nobantu always turned up at school. Chubby, cheerful and cheery, they arrived each morning. So did Dalindyebo and his brother Phakamile. Their father ran the local pharmacy. They were kids we played with but never understood their home language. They were said to be Xhosa. It was all confusing for some of us. For instance, my nemesis Stomie was said to be Zulu. She had big boys for brothers who were feared even by the bullies. There was Arnold. There was Bryan. It was a melting pot, our town, and even included the racists just defeated in their Rhodesia. The nice lady who worked as a nurse at the mine hospital was Sotho. She was the mother of the two chubby girls.

There was a sizeable Sotho community in the town. They tended to be merchants. There was the shop owned by Ntate Mphanya. There was another general dealer owned by Ntate Khasu, the father of a girl called Mothephane. Both men would go on to become minister and legislator, respectively when the BCP took power. It was rumoured no one could dare steal from any of the Basotho shops.

There was an urban legend that said if you ever as so much whistled in their shops, bad tidings would befall the miscreant. I had two childhood friends. There was Sipho, the fellow with whom I wrote my first book whose manuscript we promptly lost. Then later came a boy who introduced me to the beauty of boxing. I never boxed in my life. But after watching my first fight I became an aficionado of the sport. My friend went on to play goalkeeper for my all time favourite football team, the mighty Nico United. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years back.

However, memories of him still remain in the form of his siblings with whom I maintain a solid friendship. The Sotho community was from the mother country. They were Basotholand Congress Party supporters who had fled the tyranny of Leabua Jonathan. The mother of the chubby girls was also from Lesotho. But her situation was more complex. She was also married to the brother of the man who ran Radio Freedom which cackled into our consciousness weekly after the Radio Botswana news. Last week, the man who ran Radio Freedom was forced to fall on his sword after a glorious life of sacrifice and dedication to a movement he had served without fail for 52 years.

Thabo Mbeki is an uncle of the two chubby girls whose father disappeared all those years ago; the kids who always showed up at school everyday even as their father had vanished. It was only in later years that the full story of the father of the chubby girls emerged. It took Mark Gevisser eight years to complete his epic work, Thabo Mbeki: A Dream Deferred. The book came out on the eve of the Polokwane conference where Thabo met his Waterloo at the hands of his enemies in the party. As far as biographies go, few come close to the quality of this book on the life and times of the uncle of the chubby girls. For the first time, the complete story of Jama Mbeki is told. At Chapter 29, the author finally explains why they came to school everyday and carried on as normal . Apparently, Jama disappeared a day before his court appearance on fraud and murder charges. The prosecution accused him of stealing P 15 200 belonging to his clients. He was also accused of involvement in the murder of a South African refugee in what seemed like factional feuding. Like his siblings, Jama was born in Mbewuleni.

However, at the age of 10 he was sent to Lesotho to stay with his aunt and for his entire life he considered himself a Mosotho rather than South African. When he eventually settled in Botswana, it was not as part of the South African liberation groups, but the Lesotho community of BCP exiles. When he decided to skip bail, and leave Selebi-Phikwe, he told his wife they would be reunited in a liberated Lesotho. That was in 1982. Now with the benefit of this piece of history, I wonder if the daughters were let in on this family secret. When they returned from school and did not see their father, were they told the reason for his disappearance? Kids can be cruel. I am sure there were playground jibes about their father from children who had heard their parents discussing the Jama issue. Gevisser reveals that years later, after painstaking investigation, it was discovered that Jama was murdered by Lesotho authorities. The father of the chubby kids was dead. Now their uncle is also dead.

In metaphorical terms, Thabo is dead, assassinated by his comrades. As we mourn the death of this great man, we cannot disguise the fact that many are celebrating his downfall. But very few of them can match his record of impeccable public service, sacrifice and dedication to duty. Sometime in the future the palace plotters will look back in shame, and rue the day they contrived to humiliate and destroy Thabo. Truth be said, the man was not without flaws. Show us any leader without any. For instance, his position on HIV/AIDS was ridiculous. I do not think Thabo was motivated by malice and ignorance. His dogged resistance to conventional science was borne from the inquisitive mind that had always interrogated everything right from the day, when tending the family store, he started reading all those books collected by his father.

The argument that Thabo’s curious stance on this grave matter ultimately led to his downfall is weak. Even at the height of the HIV/AIDS wars, it was Thabo who led the African National Congress to its biggest ever electoral victory in 2004. The same goes for Zimbabwe. I associate myself with those who contend that the suffering and misery of the people of that country would long have been resolved had Thabo adopted a much more vigorous posture against Robert Mugabe. Even then he did finally deliver. But it cannot be the reason for his removal. These are views propagated by a mainly white liberal establishment that has never been comfortable with a thinking black man whose level of sophistication they can only marvel at, but who paradoxically, resists being co-opted into their worldview.

They did not like affirmative action and policies such as BEE. They were uncomfortable with the home truth that the country comprised of two nations, of black and white. How dare he spoil the notion of the rainbow nation. His incisive analysis pierced through such fallacies. Charges that Thabo was aloof beggar belief. How was he supposed to display his affinity with the masses? Again this cannot be true. Mbeki introduced the concept of imbizos or what we would refer to as kgotla meetings where he took the government to the people. For those who could not stand in the blazing sun shoulder to shoulder with the great unwashed, he wrote an online letter every week to appraise them on the work of his government. Show us a president who has ever gone to such lengths to communicate with his constituency. Even Mandela, much venerated by the white community, never bothered. He was content to attend pop festivals, meet American celebrities and attend rugby matches.

Thabo understood that the job of transforming the country went beyond public relations antics. That is why under him South Africa created the largest welfare state on the continent. Today there are 2.2 million state pensioners, 1.4 million disabled and 8.2 million children on the welfare system. The social welfare budget has increased from R25 billion in 1994 to the current R105 billion, taking up 16% of the national budget. As some of us have always argued, welfarist polices are the best way of lifting people out of poverty. Millions of people have access to potable water, electricity and basic housing. It is an irony that for a man who has done so much for the poor, his most vitriolic critics are leftists.

Their rhetoric and the facts on the ground are poles apart. One cannot but conclude that their antipathy to Thabo is about something else because his track record shows his commitment to the poor. In mourning Thabo, we are also minded that when he entered the downward slope, very few came to his assistance. As he was subjected to gratuitous insults and abuse, I do not recall any of the BEE millionaires and billionaires coming to his rescue. Controversial as it is, the BEE policy that sought to right the economic wrongs of the past made many black people wealthy. We need to look beyond the usual suspects who are involved in multi-billion rand deals. There are many previously poor entrepreneurs who have graduated to middle class status on account of the policy. I have an acquaintance who is one such beneficiary. As the insults escalated, I asked him what he and his ilk were doing to protect their benefactor. Nothing. They were too busy feeding at the trough. The wealth accumulated by the new black elite also compels us to look at the personal ethics of Thabo. Even his worst critics cannot say he was corrupt or was ever driven by the desire to accumulate for himself.

Like all the great intellectuals, he was happy with his books and doing his work. He viewed with disdain the scramble at the trough. On the other hand, among those who removed him is a veritable gallery of the corrupt, the greedy and the embittered. And that brings us to the sole reason for the palace coup. Thabo has always wanted to run the country according to the standards of the First World. He did not countenance corruption. He espoused the ethics and a value system that have never been synonymous with Africa. This was heresy to those who still hanker for the old Africa where political office was a licence to loot state resources, and in which the personal conduct of those in power is not circumscribed. In simple terms, the death of Thabo represents a triumph for the old order of doing things. It is a denunciation of the ideals he believed were necessary for Africa to achieve progress. His defeat is a defeat for us all who cherish good governance, abhor corruption, demand justice and swear by the rule of law.

Responding to every count on the charge sheet in the trial of this formidable man would take forever. Many of the charges are baseless. We all know why they wanted him out so desperately he could not even be afforded the decency to complete the remaining six months of office. In this time of darkness, we can only ask; were his crimes so heinous he could not be allowed any grace?

Thabo Mbeki is now gone. But even in his last hour during his address to the nation, he maintained the dignity, poise and self control that have been the hallmark of his persona. In the days following the decision to recall him, some of us wanted him to resist and fight back.

But with hindsight, he made the right decision to walk into the sunset. A fight would have been bloody and given the howlers another opportunity for abuse. It would have left him diminished. The bitch was on heat. Ultimately no one will deny him his legacy, and history will accurately record his service to his people and to the African cause. Those of us mourning the manner of Thabo’s demise are consoled by the fact that his father, Govan and his adopted parents, Adelaide and Oliver Tambo, are not witnesses to the desecration of their creation. Goodbye Thabo.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.