A History of South Africa
by Leonard Thompson
Yale University Press, 288 pp., $29.95
The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress
by Heidi Holland
George Braziller, 256 pp., $10.95 (paper)
South Africa Belongs to Us: A History of the ANC
by Francis Meli
Indiana University Press, 368 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Apartheid’s Rebels: Inside South Africa’s Hidden War
by Stephen M. Davis
Yale University Press, 238 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Higher Than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela
by Fatima Meer
Harper and Row, 428 pp., $19.95
In Nelson Mandela’s speech in Cape Town immediately after his release from prison in February was the key statement, “I am a disciplined member of the ANC.” His constant use of the imperial “we” in the public addresses and statements that he made during his recent US tour did not mean that he has an inflated sense of himself but that he was speaking for the African National Congress. Some American commentators and interviewers did not seem to understand this. Their questions and comments seemed to assume that he could have, or should have, deviated from well-established ANC positions on such matters as the use of force, sanctions, support of the PLO, and friendship for Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddhafi.
There is no reason to believe that his own thinking differs in any significant way from that of the organization he represents, but it is helpful to remember that he lacks the maneuverability of a constituted head of state. He cannot negotiate with the freedom of George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, or F. W. de Klerk; for, in his view, everything he does and says must be cleared with the collective leadership of an organization that he has never formally headed and over which he had only limited influence during his twenty-seven years in prison. Mandela’s personal attitudes and qualities are likely to prove important in the long run, but for the moment those who wish to understand the direction of black politics in South Africa would be well-advised to learn as much as possible about the nature and objectives of the ANC. Mandela’s recent utterances are more useful for what they tell us about the movement than for what they reveal about the man.
The African National Congress is the oldest liberation movement in black Africa. Founded in 1912, only three years after the founding of the NAACP signaled the birth of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, it has changed much over the years but it has also retained some of its original characteristics.
One can gain considerable insight into the origins and evolution of the ANC from Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa—an admirable synthesis that makes the black experience central to South African history. Thompson begins at the very beginning, with the precolonial African societies of what is now South Africa. Drawing on the work of anthropologists and archeologists, he provides a subtle and nuanced view of “traditional” African life which undermines any impression that it was simple or static. He then recounts the struggle for the possession of South Africa between the white settlers who first landed at Cape Town in 1652 and the various indigenous peoples—a contest that lasted nearly 250 years, or almost as long as it took to subjugate all of the Indian tribes of the United States.
Unlike the native Americans, however, the most important segment of the preconquest South African population—the Bantu-speaking farmers—did not suffer a disastrous loss of …