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Book Excerpt: Fit to Govern by Ronald Suresh Roberts

“Instead of soul-searching, enigma-breaking or biography”, writes Ronald Suresh Roberts of his controversial new book, Fit to Govern: the Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, “call this book a displacement of certain fictions – an engagement with many of the myths and invidious discourses that have piled themselves high around [President Thabo] Mbeki.”

Given the hurly burly that Roberts’ book has stirred up since publication, BOOK SA is pleased to bring this excerpt to readers, who might otherwise be too timid to be seen flipping through such a polarizing text in public. (The book is currently available exclusively at CNA, but will be in other bookshops later this year.)

In choosing which section to excerpt, we’ve been steered by RSR himself, who was put in touch via his publisher, STE. His book treats HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe and Charlize Theron, among other topics that have become associated with President Mbeki, but he singled out a few pages in Chapter 10, ‘Massa day done’ – Mbeki’s New Black Critics, as especially salient in relation to the book’s reception.

Roberts wrote to BOOK SA, “Eusubius McKaiser and [Mondli] Makhanya [dealt with on pages 256 to 258, roughly]… have been widely mischaracterised and trivialised: reduced to the mere epithet of ‘colonial creatures’, whereas I was making a point about economic dependence and the cultural co-option of ‘affirmative action babies’.”

What’s he talking about? Find out below. Here’s the excerpt:

(Note: BOOK SA doesn’t have a “Displacement of Fiction” category, so we’re sticking with Biography.)

* * * * * * * *

From Fit to Govern’s Chatper 10, ‘Massa day done’ – Mbeki’s New Black Critics

In speaking of the ‘educated native’ Mbeki was not choosing his terms casually. The ‘educated native’ was a very particular colonial ideal, as articulated for instance by WGA Mears in a book called Western Civilisation and the Natives of South Africa (1934). On the subject of ‘The Educated Native in Bantu Communal Life’, Mears’s essay recommended a course of overseas study for the native, because of the great variety of experience and ‘wonderful developing influence’ this tended to have. Mears explained:

As one overseas educated native said in addressing a native audience: ‘When I look upwards I see far above me the white people. Then when I look downwards, I see you far below me. Some of you must struggle upwards so that I may have company and not be left alone.’

Such a native is indeed an ideal creature from a colonial standpoint. He knows his place. He has what schoolmasters used to call ‘good deportment.’ Barney Mthombothi, patriarch of the Financial Mail, felt that he detected bad deportment in Mbeki’s internet letters: ‘the anger of his language is striking. It is the language of the street. Its tone, its timbre, comes across as that of an angry demonstrator hollering at some illusive [sic] power.’ When the upside-down black intelligentsia call for Mbeki to smile and speak nicely in this way, what they want is for him to play the proverbial educated native.

Above all, the properly educated native must drop all uncouth talk about race. Thus the illiberal Business Day editor, Tim Cohen, dismissed an essay by a young black and Oxford-trained philosopher, Eusubius McKaiser, in a fascinating exchange of e-mails between April 4th and 6th 2006:

Now you say loads of people loved your article [on the Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi].Well fine.I’m sure they did.I’m sure there are no shortage of outlets in South Africa which would be happy, no exultant, to publish articles in SA about race. It is, as they say, a no brainer. But to me this is not journalism, its ranting into receptive void . . .

McKaiser protested:

I must disagree with your comment that ‘Tsotsi’ is about redemption and not race. I have two problems with this remark. First, I do not think it is appropriate for the editor to tell a writer what the correct aesthetic response to a movie is and to make publication contingent on him ‘seeing’ that it is about X and not Y. Your reading of the film gives you a wonderful opportunity to write a column piece in which you juxtapose your reading of the film with mine. Indeed, our readers could only benefit from such sincere a[e]sthetic disagreement. … [ellipsis added] So, in principle, I am not comfortable with pretending to see the film as primarily being about redemption when that in fact belies my actual response … you must respect a contrary reading of the film. Second, if there are right and wrong responses to ‘Tsotsi’, I think, with deep respect, that it is wrong to imagine that it is a race-less film about a raceless central character’s path to redemption. As a black viewer especially, the movie screams to me about the condition of black poverty … I could not put my name on a piece of analysis that reads this wonderful film in any other way.

McKaiser resisted Cohen’s invitation to sell out: ‘My objective is not to get published at all cost … [ellipsis added] I was hoping that I have found that home with Business Day. I hope I am not wrong.But I would be happy to shop around if our vision for raising the stakes in social and political discourse diverge too much … [ellipsis added] I hope we can have a meeting of minds.’ The essay was never published.

A dismayed McKasier sent me the e-mails:

Ronald, does this email not make you cringe? Two things stand out: one, the attempt to block accountability for his viewpoints by labelling them as based in more than 30 years of “experience” as if that confers automatic soundness on any view… and two, the offensive line ‘ranting into receptive void’ … my good god, if anything we do not have ENOUGH intelligent race discourse in South Africa … but I should not be surprised that a white editor deems such discourse pointless. it leaves me cold.

Just as white Rhodesians seek redemption through the trope of “Mugabeki” and the suggestion that racism is not the only evil in the world, so too the most prominent black voices demanding good deportment and a non-angry posture from Mbeki, are in truth, battling their own demons. To understand why Mondli Makhanya so ceaselessly refers to Mbeki as “angry” while posturing himself and the newspaper as sane and gregarious, it helps to start with a piece that Makhanya wrote in the Weekly Mail (as the Mail & Guardian then was) in May 1991:‘My life as a comrade – A rare glimpse into the angry mind of a township warrior who fought and looted.’ According to Anton Harber, Makhanya’s educator, this essay was ‘gritty, first-hand reporting that took you deep into the trenches of KwaZulu Natal, sparing the reader none of the gore and brutality.’

Under a pseudonym, Oscar Gumede, Makhanya told how he personally revelled in violence:‘As a warrior in Natal’s bloody township war, I saw people butchered and hacked to pieces. I witnessed a wounded man being burnt to death and was party to the burning of homes. … Nauseating as it all was, I was proud to be part of it.’ Proud? Of what, precisely, was Makhanya proud to be part? Makhanya described his activities on 2 February, 1990, the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison:

There was an exchange of gunfire until the impis started retreating because they were running out of ammunition. Before long we triumphantly entered Richmond Farm (an Inkatha stronghold) … The first few shacks went up in flames, but not before the young lions had helped themselves to radios and other valuables left behind by the fleeing shackdwellers. I had by now acquired a litre of methylated spirits and concentrated on burning shacks, while other comrades finished off wounded Inkatha warriors. One manwas literally chopped beyond recognition. His eyes were gouged out and his genitals cut off, while I looked on. An elderly man, seeing the bloodthirsty mob running towards him, cried haplessly: ‘Forgive me, my children, please forgive me.’ ‘Since when are we your children?’ came the unsympathetic replies as bushknives and axes descended on the man, who was writhing on the ground with blood gushing from all over his body.

The most obvious irony is that an unrepentant brute should seek to serve as tutor in civility to a President who neither committed nor contemplated such wanton revelry in violence. Why did Makhanya not take his conduct to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Why has he not at least apologised? Because he was, as he says, proud of this brutality. Contrast that attitude with the ANC. The manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe which inaugurated the armed struggle, is acknowledged by the ANC’s most unremitting detractors, such as Howard Barrell who preceded Makhanya as editor of the Mail and Guardian, to be ‘one of the most eloquent assertions of revolutionary morality in the period after the Second World War.’ The ANC were, in Tambo’s famous formulation, reluctant revolutionaries.

While himself unrepentant, Makhanya demands repentance of others. ‘Time to eat humble pie,’ Makhanya counselled Mbeki’s Deputy, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, during a public controversy concerning her travel arrangements. She had to apologise: ‘It may be a humiliating thing to do … But this great South African project is not about her and her feelings. It is about future generations and the norms we will establish for them.’ On the final page of his memoir, Makhanya’s colleague, Fred Khumalo, confesses that ‘this book is my own private Truth and Reconciliation Commission.’ Makhanya has not done even that much, seeking expiation entirely through demonisation of Mbeki rather than through introspection and apology.

‘I must admit,’Makhanya wrote,‘that I enjoyed the excitement of battle: the sight of a sea of burning shacks and desperate men running for dear life.I love it all … But I could never do it again.’ Makhanya’s parting assurance that, although he enjoyed it, he could never do it again understandably met with some skepticism from Helmine Leroux, of Doringkloof, whose gasping letter Business Day published: ‘Anton Harber’s article, Street warrior faces different battle (January 23), exposed Mondli Makhanya as a former township warrior who fought and looted. I sincerely hope, for the sake of the readers, that the staff of the Sunday Times will survive their new, fun-loving editor so that they all could live happily ever after.’

Most incredible, however, is the mission-school redemptiveness with which Harber brought these previously unknown facts about Makhanya into the world at the very moment that Makhanya took the top job in South African print journalism, the Sunday Times editorship. Harber put the “independent” Makhanya gently, perhaps even unintentionally, but also unmistakeably, in his place:

He was not fully brutalised in 1991 … I would like to think Makhanya’s success is a result of my stern lectures on the need for critical, independent journalism, but I suspect he learnt more about journalism when he was fighting with homemade weapons in the streets of KwaMashu.

Whatever one may think, and however politely one might sugar-coat it, Harber presents Makhanya as the brute who was brutalised (albeit ‘not fully’), while Harber is the fine assessing sensibility. I am not aware of any introspective writing in which Harber has addressed how apartheid brutalized his own privileged white morals and humanity, in what Fanon called ‘affective ankylosis’ – a hardening of the moral emotions like a stiffening of the joints. Voices as diverse as Doris Lessing and Fred Khumalo have noticed this stiffening, but not Harber or Makhanya. Makhanya is a willing participant in his own moral, political and professional servility.

As Makhanya does his job, at once seeking redemption from his colonial mother figure and falsely presenting a brutal or angry president to his readers every Sunday, he is a firm acolyte of the imperialist tradition: a saved soul of the secular missionaries. Every Sunday brings a new opportunity to reassure the Helmine Lerouxs of this world that the repentant savage has indeed changed and will not return to the cannibal forests like Friday in Coetzee’s Foe. Mbeki then becomes a mere instrument in Makhanya’s private psychodrama and in Makhanya’s ongoing public ritual of repentance.

Nothing better explains the intensity and playground simplicity of Makhanya’s lamentation over the death of David Rattray, the famous KwaZulu Natal tour guide and popular historian: ‘Why the outcry over one white man’s death? I’ll Tell you Why,’ Makhanya preached, exorcising the ghosts that plague Helmine Leroux: ‘We can only hope that the death of the much-loved storyteller of Isandlwana will be the spur for South Africans to scream “Enough!” so loud that it will pierce the armour that cossets the heart of our supreme ruler [Mbeki].’This is re-treaded hysteria of the AIDS-war variety, displaced to a different context. There is greater emotional subtelty in the children’s cartoon Shrek.

* * * * * * * *

Book Details

  • Fit to Govern
    by Ronald Suresh Roberts
    EAN: 9781919855646
    Note: The book is available exclusively through CNA until Fall 2007, whereupon the link directly below will help you find it in online bookstores.
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Gerrie</a>
    July 19th, 2007 @17:00 #

    I'm sure it's brilliant but I don't know what it means. But then again what do I know? I voted for the Soccer Party in 1994.


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