South Africa: The Fire This Time?

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela; drawing by David Levine


In South Africa today, President F.W. de Klerk has disavowed apartheid and claims to be seeking a democratic solution; and Nelson Mandela, the effective leader of the African National Congress, has now agreed to negotiate with him. Allister Sparks’s The Mind of South Africa is a splendid guide to the new situation in which both leaders find themselves. As a South African journalist and a former editor of Johannesburg’s morning newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, which ceased publication in 1985, Sparks writes with close knowledge of the workings of apartheid. The first part of The Mind of South Africa deals with South African history down to 1948; the rest, more than half of the book, describes the apartheid era, about which he draws on his own experience. South Africa, he believes, is in transition to a better future, and later in this article, I shall discuss his conclusion in the light of my visit, during the last two weeks of March, to the southern Transvaal, Kwazulu, and Natal.

Sparks’s interesting account of the two forces that confront each other in South Africa today, Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism, follows the lines of interpretation of most liberal South African historians, although many passages in his book are impressionistic rather than grounded in specific evidence, and, in continually emphasizing the contemporary significance of the past, he takes liberties that professional historians are loath to do.

He begins his book with a well-informed and warmly sympathetic account of the precolonial culture of black South Africans in which he tries to rebut the stereotyped views that prevail among many whites:

From the beginning, whites saw only those surface manifestations of African culture and the African mind that conficted with their own concepts of approved social behaviour. What they failed to see, because they were not disposed to get close enough to do so, was the complexity and subtle texture of traditional African social organization, the restraints on the exercise of chiefly power, the elements of grass-roots democracy, the balance between communal, family, and individual rights, and the pervasive spirit of mutual obligation and respect, the spirit of ubuntu [humaneness].

This somewhat idyllic picture is offset by Sparks’s accounts of ethnic violence by African people such as the Zulus, during the nineteenth century.

Sparks shows how the Afrikaners, whose National Party has ruled South Africa since 1948, inherited the Protestant sense of racial superiority which prevailed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It was carried to South Africa by the settlers who came with the Dutch East India Company (its supply station was set up at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652). There, they became “a white tribe of Africa…but they continued to refuse any identification with those black tribes.” In South Africa, this sense of superiority

was reinforced when they found themselves among people they considered dark, sinister, heathen, shiftless,…

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