The Astounding Reality.

The Creator has lately engaged on an unpleasant but vital task. The trouble is that one puts off such matters. One thinks “Oh, but this will be foul. Why me? Why now? Why not next year?”
Yet what is needed is always clarity — the clarity of the glass of tonic which the Creator’s current incarnation just absorbed to fend off a hangover. Looking down into the frothing crystal, the Creator gained resolve. So lucid, so boisterous. (Why did Philip Larkin, in his splendid description of making a gin and tonic, talk about the can “voiding” tonic into the glass — did he think about shit every hour of the day, or something?)
So this gave the Creator’s current incarnation the physical capacity to write about William Mervyn Gumede.
That book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC , has been sitting on the Creator’s bookstack for a couple of years. It’s very large. It’s notoriously plagiarised to a substantial extent. But it’s also a sort of Bible for South African crazies. Every political writer who has ever generated anything imbecilic has, sooner or later, praised Gumede. On the other hand, one rarely finds it being cited, in much the same way that most Christian religious fanatics appear incapable of reading vast chunks of the Bible and instead focus on those murderous, racist or sexist elements which they have heard about and which suit their psychoses.
So, yesterday, the Creator dipped into the work. Perhaps one should begin by explaining what the book is. It’s a presentation of the thesis that everything which has gone wrong in South Africa between 1989 and 2006 was Thabo Mbeki’s fault. Mbeki, being all but omnipotent, was able to make everything bad. Where he couldn’t do it himself, he corrupted others into doing the dirty work. Much of what a normal person might have considered good (restructuring the ANC, restructuring the economy) is transmogrified into badness by Gumede’s diktat .
It’s a mildly interesting but hardly unfamiliar thesis. It is a thesis which has been presented very frequently down the decades, sometimes from within the ANC or the Tripartite Alliance, sometimes (up until recently, more often) from within anti-ANC political bodies in and out of South Africa. It is the standard journalistic model of South African politics, which is why it appeals to crazies.
The obvious problem with this is that one needs to simultaneously show that things would have turned out very differently with the right people in charge. This is extremely difficult to demonstrate, because South Africa faced some tough problems during this period and those problems could easily have led to serious crises. In each of those cases one would have to show that there was a credible alternative which was considered and rejected by Mbeki and/or his allies. That could account for the fatness of the book, but it does not, for Gumede nowhere does this.
One must return to the title for guidance as to how Gumede gets away with this bizarre claim. The answer is, apparently, that the ANC had a “soul”, which was the good thing about it which led it to do the right thing, infallibly. However, Mbeki battled for the soul of the ANC and eventually won it. Now the ANC has no soul (or at least didn’t, while Mbeki was in charge) and therefore everything had to have gone wrong.
The first thing to notice about this is that, even on the evidence presented by Gumede, this is arrant balderdash. The ANC did not have a soul. Nor did it have a single political tradition which could be presented metaphorically as a soul. It had, instead, a variety of political traditions, most of which — the bourgeois tradition which dominated it until the 1940s, or the Stalinist tradition of the SACP, or the Africanist tradition which eventually formed the PAC — are remarkably unhealthy. The bulk of these traditions may be summed up as “Money and power for me!”. The traditions differing largely in tactics, where the bourgeois tradition wanted no change, the Stalinist tradition wanted a dictatorship in the name of the workers, and the Africanist tradition wanted a dictatorship in the name of the blacks. The latter two dictatorships were convenient devices for channelling national wealth into the pockets of a new ruling class which would replace the old, whereas the bourgeois tradition just wanted to seamlessly merge with the old ruling class.
So the “soul of the ANC” stank overall, albeit that there were some favourable elements within it which did not stink quite so badly.
The second thing to notice is the terminology. Who battles for a soul? The answer, surely, must be angels and demons. Ergo, Gumede’s choice of phraseology automatically demonises Mbeki, which is not unusual and not necessarily unjustifiable (demonising political leaders is often a good thing). However, it declares Mbeki’s opponents to be angels — which is almost always a bad thing, and particularly when the people declared to be angels are not only politicians (hence not angels by definition) but unusually sleazy and dishonest politicians, at that. Also, of course, the implication is that anyone opposing Mbeki is admitted to the angel band, come and around us stand, bear us away on thy snow-white wings to mine immortal home (which under present circumstances could be either the poorhouse or the concentration camp).
This prefigures the whole politics of contemporary South Africa, as reflected in the ruling class which Gumede served, with chilling accuracy, and it’s remarkable that nobody seemed to notice anything of this.
Meanwhile, what about the actual content of the book? Surprisingly, there isn’t tremendously much. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given Gumede’s overdependence upon journalism. When one generates a supposedly academic book but bases it almost entirely upon newspaper articles, one is running a big risk. When the book is on a subject which the newspapers were universally partisan about, the book will be almost certainly worthless except as a mine of disinformation. (Whatever the merits of the Clinton administration, if you wrote a book about Clinton which depended almost exclusively for its sources on the pages of the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard, with occasional excursions into the works of David Bossie and Newt Gingrich, such a book would not tell us much about the merits of the Clinton administration.)
However, Gumede does offer illusive peeps into something else. For instance, at one point he claims that President Mathatir of Malaysia suggested, in 1997, that South Africa should join his country in imposing strict exchange controls to help curb the capital flight and currency speculation which, at the time, was causing the rand to plunge. Gumede says that this was discussed in Cabinet, but that the decision was ultimately dismissed. This is potentially quite important. Reimposing exchange controls might have helped South Africa weather that storm better, as they helped Malaysia. On the other hand, Mathatir’s government was a virtual dictatorship, which meant that the almost universal hostility of Western capital and governments to its policies could be evaded; South Africa was a bit more vulnerable. So this doesn’t mean that the Cabinet was wrong in making that decision, but it raises questions about whether the South African government didn’t have more leeway for making decisions than seemed to be the case —
But there’s one problem here. Gumede does not provide any references at all. There is no way to check whether Gumede’s claim is true or not. (Which is quite important — it is certainly not common knowledge that the issue was raised, whereas Gumede offers references to many other things which are common knowledge, or alternatively, far less interesting.) Again and again, indeed, Gumede makes controversial claims which are completely unsubstantiated by evidence (and where there is substantiation, the substantiation often does not directly support the claims, to put it politely).
When an academic provides important, controversial but unsubstantiated claims, it is tempting to suspect that these claims are fabricated. (The book the Creator is reading is the second edition, so Gumede had plenty of time to set matters straight.) Alternatively, of course, Gumede might have heard these things as stories, or rumours, or gossip, and might have decided to include them in his book because they made good copy. How, after all, could anybody in South Africa sue Gumede for making false declarations about economic or political decisions? It would be necessary to prove that the declarations were false and that someone had been damaged, and even then, the “public interest” defense would apply.
But the problem is that we have no means of knowing whether these rumours that Gumede publishes are valid or not. Some of them seem to have been disproved over time, which suggests that the others might also be invalid but still awaiting actual disproval. Gumede never provides any basis for judging the merits of those of his claims which are unsubstantiated. Nor, indeed, does he provide much basis for assessing the conclusions which he derives, many of which seem to rely more on unsubstantiated claims than on substantiated ones.
For instance, his chapter on AIDS presents a number of pieces of evidence suggesting that Mbeki’s position on AIDS was fairly progressive, as such positions go; certainly better than that of his predecessor. He also presents a large number of accusations that Mbeki was an AIDS denialist. He provides exactly one piece of evidence suggesting that Mbeki was an AIDS denialist (an allegedly hand-delivered letter to the White House, which exists only in the form subsequently released by the White House to the American media — there is no South African copy, which is odd), which evidence contradicts most of Mbeki’s actual public statements on the matter. It seems that Gumede is not a very good judge of evidence or fact.
Of course the AIDS issue is one in which people are rarely honest and so it is a bit much to expect Gumede to be more honest than his contemporaries. However, most dishonest people are careful not to undermine their case as thoroughly as Gumede does here. There is a certain deranged honesty about such behaviour. Deranged because if Gumede cannot actually prove his case in most instances, how is it that he insists on presenting it consistently?
The answer is simple. Gumede knows the answer already. The book is an assemblage of whatever came to hand to prove the answer. The facts, however, are there as ornaments to the substance, no better than icing or silver balls. The substance of the book is the insistence that Mbeki is evil and a demon and corrupts whatever he touches, because he is evil and a demon. Saying that over and over while piously proclaiming one’s intellectual integrity and deep scholarship is what Gumede is paid to do.
By whom?

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