Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC
William Mervin Gumede
(London & New York, Zed Books, 2007), 476 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Saccone, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Vincent College

For decades the African National Congress (ANC) was considered by many in the international community as an organization of terrorists. Over the years, the ANC earned the sympathy of the west and emerged as the ruling party of South Africa producing names like Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma—all of whom became well known players on the world stage. Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC by William Gumede is an attempt to document the rise of the ANC and analyze its impact by focusing on how Thabo Mbeki came to power and the future of the ANC under his lead. In doing so, Gumede shouldered an enormous task by trying to cover the life of Mbeki and the history of the ANC in the same book. At times it seemed the author had forgotten Mbeki as he delved into the details of ANC history; but eventually Gumede would return to Mbeki, skillfully weaving him back into the story.

Thabo Mbeki was sworn in as South Africa’s eleventh president in 1999, following the country’s most famous personality and president, Nelson Mandela. An entire chapter is rightfully devoted to Mbeki’s struggle to be his own man, to “escape the shadow of Mandela” as the author refers to it. Mbeki had none of the credentials of Mandela who, as an anti-apartheid activist, served over 25 years in prison, most of it at Robben Island—the Alcatraz of South Africa—off the southern coast of Cape Town. While Mandela earned his ANC spurs fighting the apartheid government from within, Mbeki lived comfortably in exile in England attending graduate school and refining his political ideology through positions of increasing responsibility within the ANC.

A complicated man, who counts contradictory figures like Marx and Gandhi as heroes, Mbeki was determined to strike a stark contrast with Mandela’s populist style by dressing in expensive western suits while showcasing his refined English mannerisms to woo supporters. He became known for valuing loyalty above competence and as the author noted, “political differences quickly translated into personal vendettas” for the temperamental president. Mbeki plays hardball politics and those who cross him often find themselves sidelined in the ANC and the government.

Tracing this president’s efforts to transform the ANC from a liberation movement to a governing organization, the book documents several of Mbeki’s critical missteps and challenges he faced along the way to remaking the party. One of his most controversial policies involved an unwillingness to acknowledge the depth of the AIDS problem or even the root cause of the deadly ailment. Branded as an AIDS denier, Mbeki and his controversial health minister Manto Msimang, fueled the problem by insisting that AIDS could be treated through alternative natural therapies as opposed to modern drugs, thereby prolonging the developing epidemic and allowing more South Africans to suffer and die from the dreadful disease. His own Deputy President, and later rival, Jacob Zuma, compounded the ignorance of government officials when he testified at his rape trial that after consensual sex with his accuser, he had taken a shower to prevent the transmission of AIDS.

But Mbeki had other problems plaguing his administration and the author covers those in great detail as well. Dealing with the leftover social imbalance of apartheid posed a monumental challenge. While the black majority finally gained control of the government, the preponderance of blacks still lived in abject poverty, with few jobs and even fewer skilled personnel to run the country. At the same time persistent government corruption forced complaints that the previously white minority wealthy class had simply been replaced by a small group of nuevo riche blacks who benefited from the post-apartheid government at the expense of the general population. The Mbeki administration’s struggles with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program highlight this problem in post-apartheid South Africa. That program, designed to economically uplift blacks through a complicated affirmative action plan, has produced less than impressive results.

Finally, Mbeki’s foreign relations policy toward his troubled neighbor in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has drawn strong criticism from the international community. Under Mbeki’s lead, South Africa has been ineffective in dealing with Zimbabwe and Mugabe has disrespected the South African president on occasion revealing an inability of Mbeki to act as a true statesman on the African continent.

In general, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC offers great insight into South African politics. The author boasts an impressive background as a journalist reporting on this subject for many years and he has produced a well-written report on one of the most influential figures in Africa. The depth of the political history is not for the average reader but would be highly useful to the researcher or dedicated history buff. While the inclusion of pictures and maps would have been quite helpful in understanding the players and the setting, I still would recommend this book to those interested in the life of this charismatic and controversial figure. It remains a thoroughly interesting biography of Mbeki as well as a critical study of his party’s rise to power and its future course.