South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki kicked off 2016 by publishing a series of online essays designed to rectify what he views as serious errors in the country’s modern historiography.
He claims that many recent works on modern South African politics have been uncritically accepted as “authoritative and definitive”, despite the fact that they were produced by observers rather than participants. These observers, he argues, have their “their own political and ideological mindsets”.
Mbeki’s critique of South African historiography, and his concomitant attempt to correct this body of work, has set off a significant public discussion.
Most of the responses to his posts have challenged the substance of his commentary.
Others have speculated on his motivation for wading in to public debate on some of the controversial episodes of his presidency.
Like all leaders who write about their political careers, Mbeki is seeking to shape his legacy, justify his past actions, and remedy what he believes are important misunderstandings about his time in government.
Yet something has been missed in the uproar over the contentious content of his posts: the important historical contribution the insights and recollections of such a key decision-maker lends to our understanding of his presidency.
What role did character play?
The central focus of Mbeki’s posts thus far has been an effort to correct the view that his alleged personal flaws account for some of the policy decisions taken during his tenure. He has addressed, among other issues, the accusation that his “aloof” nature caused him to become out of touch with the country he led. As Mbeki puts it: “Some of this writing [South African contemporary history] has sought to define my character as I served as President of the ANC and the Republic, and argued that this characterisation helps to explain various developments during this period.”
This is a sophisticated critique of the current historiography. Mbeki claims that the main factor observers use to explain outcomes during his presidency is his character. And, because he believes their understanding of his character is faulty, the associated explanations are inaccurate.
Mbeki’s objective is therefore twofold. He seeks to defend and correctly portray his character, and, by doing so, contribute to a more accurate understanding of South African history. The question that has animated many in South Africa for the last few weeks is: should he be believed?
This is not a simple question. Mbeki’s posts, a series of vignettes on the key events and issues of his presidency, amount to a collection of miniature memoirs. And, as a data point for historians and informed citizens, memoirs come with advantages and disadvantages.
Because memoirs are by their nature public (as compared to private government documents not intended for the light of day), they are limited in important ways.
When addressing a public audience political figures think carefully about how their work will be perceived. This leads to self-censorship in which certain issues and ideas are emphasised and others omitted. This is done to craft a narrative that will elicit the reaction the writer hopes for.
On some occasions, future political calculations can shape the memoir’s content. For example, while Hilary Clinton’s recently published memoir, Hard Choices, is a helpful account of her time serving as the American Secretary of State, the hard choices as to which events to emphasise and which to downplay were likely made easier by her presidential aspirations. In addition, memoirs are memories of events, and memories can become faded or faulty over time casting their reliability into some doubt.
Despite these drawbacks, memoirs are a vital source of information because crucial policy decisions are frequently made in the company of only a few key individuals with little or no paper trail in their wake. Mbeki is one such key individual.
Undoubtedly his view, like all those involved in policy making, is marred to some extent by biases and blind spots. But, it is also enhanced by unique insights and deep personal knowledge of how events played out.
Why the debates are important
A second reason to welcome Mbeki’s posts is the valuable public debates they have sparked. The responses by the SA Communist Party’s Jeremy Cronin, editor Ray Hartley, Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser and African National Congress veteran Mathews Phosa among others are proof of the important discussions prompted by Mbeki’s posts. Any future historian of South Africa ignores Mbeki’s letters and the ripostes they have generated at their peril.
The value of the former President’s essays makes the criticism of his decision to reflect on his time in office concerning. Thus far, Mbeki has been lampooned by photo shopping his visage onto pictures of the new Star War’s villain, Kylo Ren, and a sheriff from the American West. The Mail and Guardian ran an editorial entitled, “Please, Put a lid on it, Mbeki.”
Another article by the respected journalist Mondli Makhanya argued that Mbeki ought to “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”.
It is fair, and in fact desirable, that critics dissect the substance of Mbeki’s posts. But it is worrying that some in the media have indicated that his input on South Africa’s modern history is unwelcome.
Because memoirs are intended for public consumption, often self-serving, and sometimes drafted long after the historical event they relate, they are an inherently problematic source.
All this should prompt readers to examine them with circumspection. But a fair-minded assessment of these sources also reveals their value. Memoirs are first-hand accounts of critical events by those who moved history. As the Mail & Guardian’s Shaun de Waal wrote last year in his review of South Africa’s historiography: “We need more fresh looks at what we assume to be true about our past.”
Mbeki’s missives provide such a fresh look by a real insider, and thus constitute a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about South Africa’s history.