Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gevisser & Feinstein in conversation at the Book Fair

The Cape Town International Book Fair that took place in June saw an array of authors talking about their work and some of the problems afflicting our ever-changing society. Of particular interest was a 'conversation' between Mark Gevisser, biographer of President Thabo Mbeki (click for a writer profile and a my review of The Dream Deferred), and Andrew Feinstein, former ANC MP and author of the arms deal expose After the Party.

I recorded and transcribed the session for the purposes of disseminating what was a thoroughly engaging hour of discussion. It was a grueling process and took me quite a while, but I did a little each day and got through it. The end result is quite incisive. You can find the links to my google.doc transcript as well as the audio file on the Internet Archive below:

Each author presented his ideas and then interrogated the views of his counterpart in an informal exchange, with a few questions at the end. The discussion ranged widely from the methodological constraints of writing biography, to the legacy of the arms deal, the prosecution of Zuma, and how the ANC is less a political party than a political family (with all of the passions and failings that families have to endure).

Mark Gevisser

Below are some of the best extracts from both speakers. Gevisser on the deferred dreams of a president and a nation unable to realize its potential:

"I would be lying if I said I could have predicted that Mbeki was going to stand at Polokwane, lose and all the wheels would then come off his legacy and his presidency. No, I didn’t predict that; but I certainly knew that the dream would remain deferred one way or the other, which is why I chose to call my book The Dream Deferred. I think the dream remains deferred for him of being accepted and loved as a leader who has lost the faith of people. Certainly the dream remains deferred for us as South Africans wanting a solution. What I tried to do with the title The Dream Deferred was to say, if you think of dreams that can be won, if you think of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, you’re always going to be disappointed.


It’s what happens in a difficult, deeply divided developing society where there are no easy resolutions, where there is never a kind of victory, conclusion, arrival - there’s just always a road along which we have to travel.

The road happens to be particularly bumpy at the moment and I think the road was always going to be bumpy, whether Mbeki had won or lost at Polokwane. Perhaps it’s a little bit bumpier than I and most of us anticipated but its one particular road that’s never going to be smooth given the society we live in."

Feinstein considered how the arms deal has sullied the ruling party, been investigated inadequately and prosecuted without the proper oversight. His proposed solution is a conditional amnesty for those implicated in corrupt activities in the procurement process, something which has since gained credence among some circles in the ANC (although without the conditional part):
"In terms of the issue of the amnesty, I feel very strongly that ideally what the country requires, because I do feel that the country is in need of almost a moral regeneration, a moral revival and an incredibly good starting point for that would be a concrete instance of an unfettered judicial and expert inquiry into the arms deal and exactly what happened. And that if prosecutions follow from that so be it.

Now the reality is that politically the chances of that happening are virtually zero. So then the option of the amnesty comes up. Now, I feel that what we as South African citizens would require from an amnesty is three crucial things.

  1. The first is that anybody seeking amnesty had to disclose fully their involvement in the arms deal. And that would require that the amnesty process had a very effective investigative dimension to it.
  1. The second would be that any ill-gotten gains would have to be returned to the fiscus.
  1. And the third would need be that anybody who admitted to benefiting inappropriately from the arms deal would have to leave public office if they were in public office now, and would not be able to stand for public office in the future which would obviously undermine the strategy of the new hard line.

Those would be the only conditions as far as I am concerned that would I think will make an amnesty acceptable."

Gevisser often uses the literary allusion of portraying Mbeki as an embodiment of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. His disconnectedness and his refusal to bow to the will of the mob (to quote Coriolanus, "play the man I am") are all features of Mbeki's personality. As the President's biographer, Gevisser talked about his relationship to this very complex man and how as a writer he understood or responded to some of the Mbeki's questionable behaviour:

"I’m often asked about whether I like Thabo Mbeki and if I did like him, do I dislike him now and do I feel betrayed by him or am I hurt by him? And my answer is that from twenty years of being a journalist to write political profiles and work as a biographical journalist even though I’m not a therapist and I’m not a mental health professional I feel like there’s an approach I had to my subjects.

Even if I spend eight years working on him rather than just a week working on him – which is what I was doing when I was doing my Mail & Guardian profiles - is that there is a way that you establish, for want of a better word, “professional empathy”. I do feel that, I don’t hang out with these people, I don’t drink with them, I don’t socialize with them, I don’t sleep with them – I write about them. I reserve strong emotions of love and hate for the people in my personal life. I had to keep on doing that to keep my sanity.

That being said, for the last eight years I’ve had a photograph of Thabo Mbeki on his wedding day, with his beautiful bride and this sort of lovely open handsome smile looking down at me as I sit at my computer. The book came out at the same time as we moved and there was this wonderful feeling of liberation in taking that poster down and deciding not to put it back up again in my new home. There was a feeling of despair once I realized that it was still there and even though he was not there as the poster, I’m still involved with him, I still had to carry on writing about him and his story’s not over. You know I live in this world and I’m not immune to the anger that so many people are feeling towards Thabo Mbeki and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a lot of that anger myself. As a biographer I can’t write about it, but perhaps as a political commentator I can and will.

My anger at his deciding to stand at Polokwane was profound. I thought it hurt his own legacy because I believe there is a lot of that legacy that is worth celebrating and we can talk about that if we want to. I think the way he destroyed his own legacy by deciding to stand against Jacob Zuma in Polokwane and therefore preventing the space for another viable candidate to stand I think it made me very, very cross.

It made me very, very cross that he lied in the Selebi-Pikoli incident. But despite that anger I think one of the things that I’m trying to do - I am conscious as Mbeki’s biographer how we as a society are creating Thabo Mbeki as some sort of lighting rod for all our anger and frustration and feelings of betrayal. Quite frankly I think that is very unhealthy."

Andrew Feinstein

Feinstein's appraisal of Thabo Mbeki's time in office was equally, if not more, scathing. In response to a question about Mbeki's alleged complicity in the arms deal, he gave an indication of the depth of Mbeki's involvement, if not for his personal enrichment then for the benefit of the party he led:

"First of all one has to ask the question: is he complicit? My answer clearly in my book and in the statements that I have made subsequently I would suggest yes.

First as chairperson of the ministers’ subcommittee that made all of the decisions that undermined the procurement process quite fundamentally so landing up with a jet from BAE in the United Kingdom that the Air Force said they would only accept if the politicians forced them to buy it – and that was two and a half times the cost of the jet that they actually wanted to buy and that met their technical needs which the BAE jet, by their own admission, never had.

Secondly, I think he was complicit in the cover up, from destroying the public accounts committee, as a non-partisan body and apex of the accountability process, to engaging in - I believe unconstitutionally - the investigators after excluding Judge Heath and telling them exactly who and what they could and could not investigate in relation to the arms deal. And then I also believe that the he was either directly involved in soliciting money for the ANC or condoning the solicitation of money for the ANC from the successful bidders. Which in effect amounts to saying “If you give us money we will give you these multi-billion dollar contracts.” So using the state coffers to procure reward for you political party.

I also argued in the book that I didn’t think, or I didn’t see any evidence, that Mbeki had personally benefited from the arms deal and I made the case that that wasn’t a motive that interested him. Obviously with the book coming out subsequent to Polokwane there were claims within the national executive committee that possibly he did. This is one of the big un-answered questions that needs to be further explored and investigated."

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