South Africa

Fading Colors

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Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa, by Patti Waldmeir, New York: W.W. Norton, 303 pages, $27.50

In the year leading up to F.W. de Klerk's declaration on February 2, 1990, legalizing the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress and freeing Nelson Mandela, socialism in South Africa looked forward to a bright future.

Never mind that apartheid's strongest supporters–from its implementation in 1948 onward–were found not among wealthy English-speaking capitalists but among poor and unskilled Afrikaners who felt their jobs were threatened by Africans and mixed-race "coloureds." Never mind that the sharpest broadsides issued against the National Party's increasing racial authoritarianism in the 1960s and '70s came not from black militants but from a grandmotherly Jewish lady, Helen Suzman, whose avowedly free-market political base resided in Johannesburg's wealthy northern suburbs. Never mind that in the tumultuous 1980s, among the first landlords to skirt segregation laws weren't shadowy fly-by-night real estate brokers, but the Anglo-American Corporation, a conglomerate with the dominant position in the country's principal stock exchange.

The perception that capitalism was in cahoots with apartheid made it seem as though South Africa's "mass democratic movement" of the late 1980s was in the vanguard of the (communist) revolution. The governing National Party fed this fear, taking out full-page newspaper ads declaring that "Free Enterprise is Working" in 1989, a time when Africans, coloureds, and Indians still could not legally buy property in most of their country.

Yet while conventional political labels like liberal and conservative have always seemed anomalous in South Africa, the events of the past decade have decisively settled a once-open question: Were racial or class divisions at the heart of the country's dilemmas?

In her book Anatomy of a Miracle, journalist Patti Waldmeir shows that apartheid was indeed a misunderstanding between races. Africans and Afrikaners were not really so different. Each desired freedom and prosperity. When blacks and whites would finally sit down and negotiate their differences on equal terms, it could be done without dire and tragic repercussions.

Traditionally, South Africa's classical liberal historians saw racial animus as the root cause of the dilemma in which the ruling white minority found itself in February 1990. Radical historians saw white capital holders as the chief villains, creating disparities in wealth between rich and poor. The fact that a relatively free economy and multi-party democracy exist within the post-apartheid state unmasks the error of viewing South African history through the lens of class struggle.

Yet when Nelson Mandela walked free from the grounds of the Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990, and delivered his first public speech in more than 27 years, he embodied the threadbare mantras of socialism. Filled with incendiary language, talk of intensifying the armed struggle, and ringing defenses of the South African Communist Party, Mandela's speech pegged him as the revolutionary that the government had tried to depict him as for decades.

First impressions can be deceptive, however, as Waldmeir notes in her reporting on this incident. The next morning, Mandela appeared to reporters at the garden of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"The ANC is very much concerned to address the question of the concerns of whites," she quotes Mandela as saying. "They insist on structural guarantees to ensure that…majority rule does not result in the domination of whites by blacks. We understand that fear. The whites are our fellow South Africans. We want them to feel safe."

While some would argue that South Africa's new constitution does not prevent majority domination and that whites do not feel safe in a country where the rate of crime against whites is drawing closer to the rate of crime against blacks, the "miracle" that Waldmeir describes is not an occasion for churlishness or cynicism. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Anatomy of a Miracle is that the author gives credit to each of the parties involved without telling the story of the new South Africa as a fairy tale. An American reporter for London's Financial Times in both Zambia and South Africa, Waldmeir writes this history without straining the reader's patience or credulity.

And notwithstanding the rediscovery of common interests by all South Africans, the events leading to the peaceful transfer of power from the National Party to the African National Congress are remarkable on both ends of the transition. Waldmeir was beaten to the punch by two books whose authors were somewhat closer to the events at hand, former Rand Daily Mail editor Alisdair Sparks's 1995 Tomorrow Is Another Country (a sequel to his excellent 1990 history, The Mind of South Africa) and Nelson Mandela's own 1994 Long Walk to Freedom. Waldmeir puts a new spin on many of the choicest anecdotes from these two books and insists on looking at the sometimes not-so-pure motivations of Mandela, de Klerk, and other players.

In spite of a relentlessly fascinating subject that keeps the reader pressing forward to know more, Anatomy of a Miracle struggles at first to find its footing. Attempting to tell us something about F.W. de Klerk and his role in presiding over apartheid's demise, Waldmeir sketches two scenes in which military airplanes play the starring role. One is a celebration of Republic Day in 1966, on the anniversary of South Africa's independence from Britain and at a time when the Afrikaner seemed invincible. The other, on May 10, 1994, marks the moment that the vanguard of the country's air force tipped its wings to their new commander, Nelson Mandela, with deputy president F.W. de Klerk at his side.

These illustrations, meant as teasers, are more of a distraction. With it comes Waldmeir's annoying habit of inserting herself into her story–to ask a question here, to tell about her sleepover at a black family's "matchbox house" in Soweto there–as if to prove her bona fides. Mercifully, these interjections are confined to small chapters between installments of the book's central drama, the negotiations between the National Party and the African National Congress.

It is a story that Waldmeir tells well. Through a progression of chapters that logically unfold, she centers the reader's attention on the major events and struggles leading up to the peaceful transition of power. Each is so gradual and such a natural extension of previous developments that one can easily forget just how remarkable were these 10 years for resolving the fundamental problem of race-based government in South Africa.

Perhaps the ease with which a new South Africa could be born was obscured by the National Party's own censorial policies. Ever since the ANC was banned in the 1960s, the public was denied the opportunity to understand its views. The ANC's tactical alliance with the Communist Party was blown out of proportion by government propagandists and by the Suppression of Communism Act, which made it a crime to advocate any doctrine that promoted "political, industrial, social or economic change within the Union by the promotion of disturbance or disorder."

Hence the number of people who truly understood the evolving views of someone like Nelson Mandela was limited to less than a handful. The masses of apartheid opponents were kept in the dark as much as the majority of apartheid's supporters. Mandela's words and even his countenance were banned–which made it possible, incredibly, for his jailers to take him on tours around Cape Town in the late 1980s to begin to acquaint him with the world from which he had been isolated since 1964.

Waldmeir makes evident not only the extent of the government's contact with ANC leaders in exile but also the relief they felt in learning that the ANC did not fit their own stereotypes. When Seretse Choabe and Thabo Mbeki, two exiled ANC leaders, met with Pieter de Lange, chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond secret society at a 1986 meeting sponsored by the Ford Foundation in New York City, Choabe at first threatened to kill de Lange. Yet after the meeting, as they were preparing to leave, Choabe embraced a startled de Lange and apologized. "He said, `Remember it's our children dying in Soweto,'" de Lange recalls, still moved by the memory of Choabe, now dead. "And I said, `I know that,' and we left."

Indeed, the continual public and secret meetings between ANC leaders and many of the country's most prominent white citizens, both English-speaking and Afrikaner, were a key element in disproving the propaganda about each other that both sides had started to believe. Willie Esterhuyse, an Afrikaner academic recruited by the National Party to meet with ANC officials, said, "Interacting with people like Mbeki made me realize that this country has a pool of leadership which is not defined by a color, the color white or the language Afrikaans."

Those contacts began under P.W. Botha, South Africa's head of state from 1979 to 1989. A cantankerous and disagreeable man, Botha nevertheless lectured his Afrikaner constituents that they must "adapt or die." Botha's decision to press forward with a tricameral parliament (one chamber each for whites, coloureds, and Indians) ultimately led right-wing whites to defect into a Conservative Party, and it enraged blacks who saw his move as an attempt merely to modernize apartheid's nonrepresentative government.

Botha ended the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act, which forbade interracial marriage and sexual relations, and he ameliorated the pass laws, among the sharpest infringements upon blacks' freedom of movement. Waldmeir goes so far as to call Botha a "revolutionary…who prepared the Afrikaner mind for change."

But if he took his people to the Rubicon, he could not build a bridge across. During the build-up to a famous speech in 1985, Botha appeared almost ready to take bolder actions, such as lifting the Group Areas Act and releasing Mandela. But one of this book's great unanswered questions is why, at the last moment, he shrank from the task and used his international audience to hector the West for not giving him proper credit for his reforms.

Credit for South Africa's radical reform must ultimately reside with Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk, who took courage in the fact that the decline of communism in late 1989 also diminished the threat the ANC represented to whites. He began signaling his intentions as early as September 1989, his first month as state president, when he permitted an ANC rally in Cape Town. "We cannot have a democracy without protest marches," he said to his own security forces. De Klerk kept his own counsel when it came time for his maiden speech to the last white parliament–he has refused to reveal his thought processes even to his closest friends–and deliberately downplayed suggestions of change in order to maximize the public relations benefit of his bold move.

Despite the honeymoon-like atmosphere enveloping the National Party and the ANC in the months following the unbanning, problems soon erupted over black violence in the townships. Rumors that white security officials had blackened their faces and fought alongside soldiers of KwaZulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi against ANC-allied forces in the townships poisoned relations between the National Party and the ANC over the next two years.

Waldmeir unravels some of the groundless exaggerations and conspiracy theories that influenced ANC allies and even caused Nelson Mandela to chastise de Klerk for inattention to black deaths. Yet by the time of the country's "darkest hour"–the July and September 1992 massacres at Boipatong and Bisho–the momentum for a negotiated solution forced the National Party and Inkatha supporters to eventually agree to what was essentially an ANC proposal for majority-rule democracy. And an 11th-hour power bid by the white right wing showed them to be a mere shadow of their fierce image.

What Anatomy of a Miracle doesn't do, however, is to suggest that there is more to the changes in South Africa than what politicians (of whatever color) have been able to negotiate. Waldmeir, for instance, puts her finger on the best explanation yet for Buthelezi's erratic and imperious behavior–that he was deprived of love and attention in his royal household. But she doesn't take his demand for federalism seriously. Apartheid's unfortunate (and ultimately unsuccessful) linkage to capitalism has also affected federalism–and it has not escaped so easily. ANC and Communist Party member Joe Slovo, "speaking freely out of exhaustion and drink on the eve of the deal, insisted the new state would be `not remotely a federation….We've managed to give them devolution, without losing control.'"

Buthelezi's ethnic Zulu power base in Kwazulu-Natal gives him a political stake in moving power to the provincial level. But there are those who see a radical decentralization of governmental authority–coupled with a strong bill of rights–as the only way to avoid the ethnic spoils system that has plagued nations with "winner-takes-all" elections. That there might be arguments for federalism on grounds of principle seems to escape Waldmeir's attention.

South Africa's ultimate fate–the fabric of its society, economy, and civic institutions–will rest not with politicians but with individuals making free choices. Apartheid's incompatibility with a free economy and free society was ultimately far more instrumental in bringing it down than were either de Klerk or Mandela, as important as were their respective roles as South Africa's "Abraham Lincoln" and "George Washington." Now that the Afrikan tribe is out of power, they and many other of their South African countrymen are beginning to think beyond politics. One can hardly imagine a more promising development than that.

Drew Clark (drewclark@aol.com) lived in South Africa from 1988-89, where he worked as a reporter for the Weekly Mail Guardian of Johannesburg.