As a biographer, Colin Bundy had a long [and fruitful?] relationship with the late Govan Mbeki, a political leader who was one of the leading lights of South Africa’s African National Congress and a father to the country’s ex-President Thabo Mbeki . Correspondence between them stretched back to the days when it was still unfashionable to write letters to the ‘terrorists’ incarcerated on Robben Island.
Granted this is a ‘pocket book’ – whatever that is, but one gets the sense that Mbeki either said very little or Bundy did not ask much.
Is it not the task of the biographer to get into the skin of his subject?
The relationship with his family – especially his sons, one of whom grew up to be the second President of a democratic South Africa – is as fleeting as the ‘pocket book’ is brief.
Other than the endearing ‘Piny’ in reference to his wife Epainette, the reader is left wondering if there was indeed a married couple answering to these names. Perhaps this, and other vignettes left out of the ‘pocket book’ are contained in Learning from Robben Island: The Prison Writings of Govan Mbeki.
If Mbeki was a man of few words, as he so clearly was, the role of the biographer is to make his introvert subject a rambunctious loud mouth.
Bundy does not succeed here.
Bundy forces his target audience to read his offering in almost the same noiseless surroundings as the Mbeki home when the old man wrote his Transkei in The Making and The Peasants’ Revolt.
An accomplished journalist at such titles as Inkundla, Fighting Talk and the Guardian, Bundy’s writing [about Mbeki] is such that there’s not even the clunking of the typewriter!
When Mandela was in jail; Sisulu under house arrest; Tambo in exile – there was Govan Mbeki.
Mbeki did a lot more than spend 23 years and four months in prison. For about two years he was away from the island, giving testimony in other trials involving the ANC. And when he was on the island, he deliberately avoided those who did not belong to the ANC. Before prison, he was fired three times as a teacher for his involvement in politics. But he did not stop teaching when he entered prison. With Neville Alexandra, he is credited as the man who devoted his time in prison to teaching those around him about the work and philosophy of the ANC. He encouraged other political prisoners to study.
With Nelson Mandela, they did not agree on many things. Ahmed Kathrada says lightly that living with the same faces every day, they were bound to get on each other’s nerves once in a while. Mbeki was such an independent thinker that he disagreed strongly with Mandela, the man unanimously chosen to be their leader on the island. Once, around ‘1977 or 1978’, a fellow inmate saw Mandela and Mbeki ‘walking and talking’.
“This was a strange sight to us,” opined the inmate in question, Sonny Venkatrathnam.
But being his own man had always been the way GovanMbeki did things. His toe-to-toe with apartheid prosecutor Percy Yutar is the stuff of legend. On the witness box for about three years, Mbeki frustrated Yutar no end with his cool and calm demeanour.
“I don’t accept that there is any moral guilt attached to my actions,” he told Yutar before he was sentenced to life in prison. When he left prison on 5 November 1987 in a deal secretly negotiated by Mandela, Mbeki stubbornly told the youth who had come to hear him speak that they should continue the fight [against apartheid].
How do you write so ‘quietly’ about a man of letters, a patron-in-chief of a symphony orchestra, a man who loved the music of Count Bassie?
Play him a musical tribute then instead of this shush, whatchamacallit, pocket book!
Goven Mbekil was published in June 2012 by Jacana Media, and is currently available in South Africa, and directly from the publisher.
© makatilemedia 08/2012