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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Book Excerpt

Thabo MbekiA leap through time with Thabo Mbeki

From Thabo Mbeki: The dream deferred

It was Mbeki himself who gave me the word ‘disconnected’ to describe his (to all intents and purposes) parentless childhood, and then his itinerant adult life. Now I wondered, after our time together, whether it was not a condition still very much alive in him

It was August 2000, just over a year after Thabo Mbeki became President, and I was sitting with him in a downstairs reception room of Mahlamba Ndlopfu, his official residence in Pretoria.

It was a Saturday and he was dressed casually — slacks, a cardigan buttoned over a polo shirt, a well-gnawed pipe in his mouth. But bloodshot eyes betrayed his exhaustion. He had burst out of Mandela’s shadow and into international recognition, not only as the liberating philosopher king who was beginning to make post- apartheid South Africa work, and as the first African leader since the uhuru generation to have a visionary plan for African development, but also as the putative defender of a loathsome tyrant to the north, and as an “Aids-denialist” crank.

Over the past year I had watched the South African presidency become more logical, more substantive and more hands-on than it had been during the rousing but scattershot Mandela era. But I had also watched it contract to a point where it had become nitpicky rather than all- embracing, introverted rather than communicative, too often mistrusting and not often enough inspiring. I had watched Mbeki withdraw from the unexpected but highly effective expansiveness of his election campaign into an increasingly sullen and irascible isolation.

The expectations were high, then, as I sat opposite him now, and watched him carve a space for us, with his pipe-smoking paraphernalia, out of the official-residence nowhereland that would be his home for the next decade. The perpetual scraping and tapping kept his restless hands occupied, freeing his mind to work, as he conjured with pipe smoke the illusion of home, an intimate study in which we might comfortably sit. We talked about the “disconnection” — his word — of his childhood, and about the way his African renaissance ideology was powered, at least in part, by his need to reconnect with his roots. We talked about race and transformation, about the difficulties of governance, about his history in exile. And we talked, for over two hours, about Aids. I was impressed at his grasp of detail: his recall of information is almost as astonishing as his stamina. Mbeki’s seductive capacity in one-on-one meetings is legendary, but I felt neither seduced nor charmed by him — and had no sense that he had set out to do either. This was a job, and he worked.

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