Friday, January 8, 2010

'A History of South Africa' by Leonard Thompson

This review appeared in Volume 1, Number 1, of terra nova (Summer [North] Winter [South] 1991).

Is Past Really Prologue? South Africa’s New Era
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
A History of South Africaby Leonard Thompson. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 288 pp., illustrated, $29.95 cloth.

The apartheid era of South African history has ended and the post-apartheid era has begun. It remains for future historians, however, to assign a date to the point of demarcation.

Was it June 16, 1976, when black students in Soweto rioted over Afrikaans-language instruction in their schools, leaving dozens dead and forcing hundreds of others into exile, many linking up with external anti-apartheid groups like the African National Congress (ANC)?

Was it September 1983, when white voters approved a new constitution calling for a multiracial parliament, simultaneously unleashing unprecedented reform and revitalized unrest and activism among blacks, who remained excluded from the political structures?

Was it August 1989, when F. W. De Klerk replaced an ailing P. W. Botha as president, visibly signifying the start of a new era in white politics?

Was it February 2, 1990, when De Klerk announced the legalization of the long-banned ANC, the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress, revivifying moribund political discussions? Or was it ten days later, February 12, 1990, when Nelson Mandela, more myth than man, was released from prison after serving twenty-seven years of a life sentence for conspiracy to commit sabotage?

Was it June 17, 1991, when the Population Registration Act, the last pillar of apartheid, was repealed by South Africa’s parliament, ending generations of classifying people by their skin color and ethnicity?

As the accelerating pace of the foregoing dates indicates, South African history is moving at a rate undreamed of fifteen years ago. After years— decades—of laconic acceptance of the doomed apartheid system, a groundswell of energy from both the rulers and the ruled has stimulated movement toward fuller democracy. This energy brings in its wake both breathtaking political debate (of a peaceful and intellectual sort) and bloody black-on-black violence, with threats of white-on-white violence looming ever closer.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote his much-discussed article “The End of History” in The National Interest two summers ago, he had in mind mostly the historical struggle between East and West, between Marxist totalitarians and liberal democrats. However, his thesis can also be applied, with modifications, to South African history. There, too, an ultimately unworkable ideology—apartheid—is being discarded. It is unclear, and unfortunately so, whether this ideology will be replaced by liberal democracy or by the discredited Marxist communism now rejected by the people of Eastern Europe. Thus Leonard Thompson’s most recent book, A History of South Africa, could hardly come at a more appropriate time.

Seldom in the history of any country can one observe what has come before and say that it points inexorably to a specific event or set of events that will come. Yet in South Africa’s case, despite backsliding and suffering, despite incompetent and intransigent leaders (both black and white), it has seemed for a long time that apartheid must end and that it must be replaced by a better system. This has not been simply a normative question; the injustices of apartheid were clear from the outset. It has been a pragmatic, practical question as well: the internal contradictions of apartheid, its uncompromising worldview, its non-adaptable interface with demographic and economic realities—all these ensured its demise.

In this book, his second comprehensive history of his native land (the first was the Oxford History of South Africa, published in 1976), Thompson, director of the Yale University Southern African Research Program, traces historical developments from pre-history through the earliest European explorations of the long-isolated subcontinent of southern Africa, and further through the 17th century Dutch settlement and subsequent conquests and colonizations by the British. This colonial era ended in 1910 when the Union of South Africa was formed by an act of the British Parliament.

The next eighty years make up the history of South Africa most familiar to Americans. This is the history that resonates with the American civil rights movement. It is the history that led to intense American involvement in South African affairs, culminating in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s triumphal tour of the United States during the summer of 1990. in which they raised more than $7 million for the ANC.

The Mandela tour and subsequent events would no doubt have surprised Thompson even as he completed his book, which ends on a warily optimistic note. He reports De Kierk’s accession to the presidency, his freeing of ANC leaders who had been imprisoned at the same time as Mandela, and his diplomatic efforts that included trips to Britain, West Germany, Portugal, and Zambia. He casts doubt, however, on De Klerk’s intentions to negotiate a democratic system with his ANC interlocutors. De Klerk, Thompson writes, “intended to maintain white ascendancy in South Africa by using fixed racial categories and group rights.” He ends this sweeping look at the past by asking two questions about the future:

“Was a process starting that would lead to negotiations and the relatively peaceful elimination of racism? Or would the deadlock continue until, some day, revolutionary forces would overwhelm the apartheid state?” Despite continued threats of violence, it appears to most observers that the answer to the second question is, fortunately, no, while the answer to the first is a qualified yes. A process of negotiation has begun, even as it is tainted by unrest and violence. The basic laws that have undergirded the apartheid system—the Land Acts, the Group Areas Act, and the Population Registration Act—have been repealed. Urban areas are in the process of establishing multiracial, regional governments that will end generations of separation, acknowledging the fundamental unity of places like Johannesburg and Soweto.

On the international scene, economic sanctions have begun to be lifted— first the European Community, then even some African nations. De Klerk has started a diplomatic initiative to reinvigorate the African continent through South African involvement with its neighbors. His initiative features four countries as keystones: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. These four, he believes, representing the four points of the compass and the strongest economic powers on the continent, can together bring Africa into the 21st century.

It seems clear—despite the pessimism of so many in the past and the cautious optimism of Leonard Thompson—that a long period of deadlock and isolation has ended; the post-apartheid era has haltingly but manifestly begun.

Mr. Sincere, author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise: The Politics of U.S. Economic Aid in Africa,is Director of African Affairs at IFF and Books Editor of terra nova.

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