How the seeds were sown

Jeremy Gordin reviews "The Last Jacobins of Africa: The ANC and the making of modern South Africa"

The Last Jacobins of Africa: The ANC and the making of modern South Africa (2020) by James Myburgh. Politicsweb Publishing. Kindle edition.

The Jacobins, we recall, were the most radical and vicious of the political groups formed in the wake of the French Revolution – and, led by Maximilien Robespierre, instituted the French Reign of Terror of 1793-4.

During the last two centuries a Jacobin has come to mean someone who believes s/he is the only authentic believer in a particular cause; as historian Jacob Talmon argued, “Jacobin democracy” is “based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics”.

Extrapolating further political scientist David Apter has written that “Modern Jacobins” claim to recognise and pursue a “perfect scheme of things” to regenerate their societies after the humiliations of colonial rule and “to emancipate the citizenry from backwardness and discrimination.” Moreover, “[a]nything that [stands] in the way of the movement towards the attainment of these ultimate goals [is] regarded with impatience and frustration”.

This book was originally a PhD dissertation written at Oxford in 2006 by James Myburgh, and then at the request of Tafelberg publishers was recast as a book. But Tafelberg decided against publication. 

Given the year, this was not surprising: the Jacobins dealt with in the book, now published for the first time, are the ANC and specifically former president Thabo Mbeki; and the example of Jacobine behaviour examined is Mbeki’s appalling and seemingly bizarre conduct regarding HIV/Aids and Virodene, in which Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, current COGTA Minister, also played a major role.

Obviously, then, what has impelled Myburgh into now publishing this book has mainly been the arrival in SA of Covid-19, another virus, the present government’s reaction to the epidemic, and the body politic’s and media’s reading and understanding of this reaction.

But the “overall issue” is larger (if one can say such a thing) than the Covid-19 epidemic. For the epidemic has pushed into the spotlight, even more than previously, all the elements of our predicament, the difficulty being that the general understanding of these seems very shallow.

We find ourselves debating various destructive or unhelpful myths, trying to explain why the liberation movement has gone so clearly wrong and failed to deliver on its promise of a transformed and redeemed South Africa. 

Nelson Mandela is accused by the Fallists of stabbing the revolution in the back, minorities are scapegoated by the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Zuptas, or all blame is placed on Jacob Zuma’s accession to, and tenure in, the government and ANC presidencies.

But as Myburgh remarks in the Preface, “If you wish to understand the origins of South Africa’s current predicament, one needs to study the beginnings of the evils we witness today. This is especially the case as so few noticed them at the time. ...

“Actions taken by the ANC, very soon after coming to power, account for a large proportion of the problems that the country is facing today. This relates especially to the dire quality of most government schooling, the dysfunctionality of the state, and the absence of effective checks and balances on government wrongdoing and the abuse of power (pp.16-17).”

In other words, this book is by no means solely about Mbeki’s handling of HIV/Aids epidemic. As we shall see, Mbeki’s reaction to and handling of the epidemic was, rather, the proof of the pudding Myburgh had unearthed and underlined regarding the “ideology,” the beliefs, underlying and propelling Mbeki’s behaviour.

As Myburgh, looking back, puts it: “What was most inexplicable, though, was ... Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids. In late 1999, a few months after being elected South African President with a resounding democratic mandate, Mbeki embarked upon a project to question and challenge the scientific consensus around the disease.”

This, remarkably, was happening as his government – which, if you think back, was run by him and his acolytes with an iron hand – “persisted in their refusal to allow the provision of anti-retroviral drugs within the public health system for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and as a post-exposure prophylaxis for rape victims” (p.6).

What was it that was driving Mbeki?

In preparing to write his dissertation, Myburgh encountered clear proof that no matter what else the ANC leadership said, did, or was forced to do (by realpolitik, the need to avoid spooking the previous regime and white people, economic exigencies), it resolved to stick to the aims of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). These, broadly speaking, were to achieve state power so that the NDR’s core aim, the “emancipation” of the African majority, could be achieved – and we would all live happily ever after.

I write “broadly speaking” because the aims of NDR mutated to some degree – as a result of the fall of the Russian empire, what was happening in SA, and also as a result of which elements specific leaders, such as Mbeki, opted to emphasize in their readings of the NDR. 

These days this is probably not “news” to anyone – especially after two editions of Anthea Jeffery’s People’s War (which of course acknowledges Myburgh’s “unpublished doctoral thesis”; as Myburgh notes, his research into the NDR “informed the understanding” of the FW de Klerk Foundation and Institute of Race Relations quite a long time ago).

But in the days when Myburgh wrote his dissertation and then prepared it as a book, Myburgh’s study was also not news for a different reason. Or to be specific, it was not welcome news.

Most leading pundits (including some we might still consider to be impressive ones) were militating against almost any negative view of the ANC and especially Mbeki. Discussion of how the NDR might be being played out and pursued was not what anyone wanted to hear. The prevalent argument was, simply, that the ANC, notwithstanding many hitches, had shown itself to be full of fine-meaning people interested in reconciliation, peace and democracy.

But Myburgh’s analysis of the aetiology of ANC ideology and its development and implementation suggested that things weren’t quite quite so hunky-dory.

Besides this, one important qualification. As Myburgh developed his analysis of Mbeki and the NDR, it became apparent that Mbeki was less keen on (what I’ll broadly call) a Marxist interpretation of life than on an African nationalist one. This emphasis – also covered by NDR thinking (‘Colonialism of a Special Type,” CST) – basically held that everything that had gone wrong for the people of SA was the fault of colonialism and apartheid. And Mbeki clearly took a Jacobin stance on this.

But then along came HIV/Aids. This was, to put it mildly, ideologically awkward for Mbeki, the ANC he was directing, and the African nationalist agenda. “HIV/Aids did not fit easily into the African nationalist paradigm, which saw all the woes of the black majority as a product of colonialism and apartheid. HIV/Aids was a sexually transmitted disease and the South African epidemic largely post-dated apartheid” (p.169).

Thus started Mbeki’s attempt to gainsay the science, to become a denialist and to initiate what became one of the most shameful periods in modern SA history, which saw Mbeki’s resort to the argument that AIDS was mainly caused by poverty (something caused by colonialism), rather than a single virus.

And Mbeki’s policies and behaviour, let us note, caused direct harm to the real interests of black Africans (as did his attitude at the time to what was being done in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF). This book reveals – full chapter and verse – the story of the disaster of Mbeki’s handling of the HIV/Aids epidemic, including Virodene. Consider just the following, relating to events in 1997, from page 177:

“Despite these setbacks the Virodene researchers retained the support of both [health] minister [Nkosazana Dlamini] Zuma and Deputy President Mbeki. Behind the scenes, [NDZ] also attempted to pressure Professor Folb [of the MCC, Medicines Control Council] into lifting the ban on Virodene. As Folb described it, ‘She had been asking me and cajoling me and threatening me.

And she was saying that here was a chance to cure Aids, and I – because she kept on refusing to accept that this was a management committee decision [of the MCC] – she was telling me that I was playing God … that I had no right to stop a cure for Aids when people were suffering, and so on.’ Since she was not making progress with [Folb] she asked him to speak to the deputy president. ‘I saw myself,” Folb said, ‘as being brought by the teacher to the headmaster’.”

At the meeting at Mbeki’s residence in Cape Town in August, Folb explained the scientific reasons for the MCC’s decision. He found Mbeki both tremendously charming and apparently open-minded. By the end of the meeting he thought that Mbeki has been persuaded. He [Mbeki] ‘expressed himself as having come to the conclusion that I had been entirely reasonable, fair-minded, objective, scientific. And I thought it was all over’.”

But it was, of course, not. Skullduggery, notably surreptitious ANC investment into Virodene to the tune of R65-million, and Mbeki’s “mania” continued. I won’t, by revealing more, deprive readers of the opportunity of reading the rest of this tale – though no fun tale it was.

“For the ANC, the value of transcendent importance was loyalty to the goals of national liberation and this, in turn, resulted in the elevation of ‘political leadership’ over technical expertise in every institution of state. The smashing of the MCC in March 1998 was a product of the conceit that the leadership of the vanguard party had both the ability and the right to decide upon all matters, including those of scientific fact.

“At some point the ANC acquired a stake in Virodene and with this ideological considerations and more self-interested ones would merge – something which would contaminate the subsequent response to the epidemic” (218-19).

In many ways, Myburgh writes, Mbeki was a cautious, hard-nosed, politician. But when it came to the issue of HIV/Aids and Mbeki’s notions of African nationalism, Mbeki simply lost the plot.

So here, laid out in this book, is the full story of the HIV/Aids calamity and what drove Mbeki. Does it matter?

Yes. For, as I began by saying, not only do we see in this story the seeds of much, if not most, of what we now face in SA, but, more specifically, as we saw from some of the early commentary on the ANC government’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic, there is precious little current knowledge of the Virodene Affair – which should have permanently disqualified NDZ from public office.

It could be said that Ramaphosa’ s government has in the main been far more grown up in its reaction to Covid-19. But, startlingly, some elements of its behaviour have not been too far removed from those described in this book – especially the giant contempt its leaders have evinced towards ordinary South Africans and the damage that has been done to ordinary people as well.

Things change, but some remain the same. A truly remarkable book that everyone should read.

The book is available in e-book format only from Amazon.com here, on Amazon Germany here, Amazon Australia here and on Amazon UK here. It can be read on any smartphone or tablet with the Kindle app.