Saturday, January 16, 2010

'The Mind of South Africa'

This book review appeared first in the New York City Tribune on Thursday, August 2, 1990.

Author’s Sweeping Work Opens Gate To Understanding South Africa

The Mind of South Africa, by Allister Sparks, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 424 pp.

The fallout from Nelson Mandela’s triumphal tour of nine North American cities will be with us for some time to come. For better or for worse, Mandela has raised American consciousness about South Africa in a way no South African politician, black or white, has ever been able to do before and it is unlikely anyone will be able to match him in years to come.

The adulation heaped upon Mandela a tickertape parade in New York City, an address before a joint meeting of Congress, stadium rallies that were strange hybrids of rock concerts and papal liturgies overshadowed the message Mandela brought to the United States by several orders of magnitude. The evocations of saintliness one hawker of Mandela mugs and T-shirts said that Mandela “is the closest thing we have to a living saint, except for Mother Teresa” are belied by the man’s friendships with butchers like Castro and Qaddafi.

Nonetheless, Mandela’s supporters tried to immunize him from criticism in two ways: first, by limiting the number of encounters with the press in which difficult questions might be asked and second, by continually focusing attention on Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment in South African jails, always attributing it to his “beliefs” and “anti- apartheid activism,” rather than to the charges of sabotage on which he was actually convicted.

There is no doubt that, if his health holds up, Mandela will be the principal personality in South African politics during the 1990s, a period journalist Allister Sparks characterizes as a “decade of transition,” following up on the 1970s, a decade that “witnessed the death of apartheid ideology” and the 1980s, a decade of “massive black revolt.”

Even though Sparks wrote The Mind of South Africa before South African President F.W. De Klerk had unbanned the African National Congress and freed Mandela and other ANC leaders from prison, he emphasizes Mandela’s importance to the transition.

Sparks asks whether De Klerk has “the will and capacity to lead South Africa through this difficult transition,” answering that De Klerk “is an able man but not a great one.” The great leader, he suggests, is “Mandela, whose public image, and thus his power to act boldly, has grown during his long incarceration to messianic proportions.”

This assessment has surely been proven true, if not in South Africa, then in the United States, where Mandela has been hailed as a statesman without equal in the contemporary world.

Sparks warns that the ANC may be limited in its ability to play the leading role as the government’s interlocutor in the transition to fuller, non-racial democracy. He writes that the government might offer deals that amount to co-optation — that is, constitutional structures that mask the absence of genuine change and that “the ANC may then come under heavy international pressure to accept them and continue its struggle within the political framework established by the government, thereby suffering a serious loss of credibility and the likelihood of being replaced by more radical elements.” Of course, if the ANC does not accept offers that seem conciliatory, “it would look like the unreasonable party and be in danger of losing international support.”

This dilemma is more apparent than real, If the ANC is genuinely committed to a democratic transition through talks rather than armed struggle, it — and the government and other parties as well — should be prepared to sacrifice some prestige and some international support and some credibility among marginal constituents. South Africans alone possess the power to achieve their new society and political system, regardless of the views of outsiders. While fringe elements on both left, and right will doubtless clamor to have some input in the process, it is the broad middle (which now includes, to the surprise of many South Africa watchers, both the ANC and the Nationalists) that must hammer out the details in the long negotiations.

In The Mind of South Africa, Sparks traces the current political turmoil to the very beginnings of European settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, using as a thematic symbol a hedge of bitter almond, planted by Jan van Riebeeck in the 1650s to separate the settlers (civilized white society) from the indigenous San and Khoi peoples (dark-skinned barbarians). Portions of it still exist in Cape Town, a physical reminder of 350 years of racism, discrimination, and intolerance.

Whether De Klerk and Mandela and other South African leaders can succeed in steering the transition from limited to full democracy, without also sparking the Lebanonization of South Africa, remains to be seen. Turmoil in Natal has taken more than 3,500 black lives in the past few years, and the prospect of white-on-white violence looms larger every day, as radical whites opposed to reform threaten to overthrow de Klerk’s government. In that atmosphere, it may not be possible to create a truly democratic form of government that will also promote prosperity, protect individual rights and liberties, and normalize South Africa’s relations with the outside world.

For those seeking a better understanding of South Africa’s vast cultural and political complexities, Allister Sparks’ The Mind of South Africa is a good place to start.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based issues analyst and author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise: The Politics of U.S. Economic Aid in Africa.

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