Who’ll take Pretoria?

Rian Malan

  • The Mind of South Africa by Allister Sparks
    Heinemann, 424 pp, £16.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 434 75266 5

Allister Sparks is one of South Africa’s best-known journalists, a former editor of the liberal Rand Daily Mail and Johannesburg correspondent of the Observer and Washington Post. As a young man, he spent a year in the United States, where he read The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash’s classic study of the Dixie state of mind. The book made a profound impression. Almost three decades later, Sparks set out to write a similar psycho-history of his own country.

The Mind of South Africa is an extremely ambitious blend of personal memoir, ideological polemic and orthodox history. It opens in 15th-century South Africa, closes in Johannesburg in 1989, and covers all that transpired in between. This is well-trodden ground, but Sparks tackles it from a philosophical angle, paying close attention to the thought that preceded the deed. In his hands, South African history is transformed from a matter of wars and riots into a momentous clash of ideas, emerging from cultures with divergent spiritual and social values. The first is the spirit of African communalism, rooted in tribal tradition but enduring into the modern age. The second is the ethos of industrial capitalism, associated largely with English-speaking settlers and mining barons. And the third is the narrow, paranoid ethnocentrism of the Afrikaners, which found its ultimate expression in the civil religion called apartheid.

Afrikaners are the villains of Sparks’s book, and he is disrespectful of the myths they have created to explain and justify themselves. The rugged Calvinist frontiersmen who populate South African schoolbooks are portrayed here as an ignoble rabble, lazy, isolated, ignorant and incorrigibly cruel in their dealings with dark-skinned people. They were ‘the simplest and most backward fragment of Western civilisation in modern times’, and apparently determined to stay that way. When the British colonial authorities tried to tame them in the name of the Enlightenment, they loaded their wagons and trekked deeper into the interior, searching for a place where they might continue to live in the manner accustomed – ‘a semi-literate peasantry with the status of landed gentry’, lording it over the blacks.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 put an end to this idyll, robbing the Boers of their independence and their control of the Tranvaal’s gold. In the aftermath, an Afrikaner underclass came into being, desperately poor, often landless, stricken by fantasies of paradise lost. These poor whites were laid almost as low as the ‘kaffirs’ they feared and despised, and were soon rendered lower still by drought and depression. In the Thirties, they began to listen with increasing eagerness to the apostles of a new Afrikaner nationalism – to men like the sociologist Geoff Cronje, ‘apartheid’s Marx’, and the psychologist Hendrik Verwoerd, who was later to put many of Cronje’s totalitarian theories into practice.

Sparks studies these radical intellectuals closely and finds them ‘hard-eyed, steely-minded extremists’, their brains brimming with noxious ideologies. One ingredient of the brew was a robust racism, obscured to some extent by frequent invocation of the Calvinist notion that ‘God willed the diversity of peoples.’ Another was hatred of the imperial British, and the third was Hitlerism. The Afrikaners, says Sparks, responded to the vision Hitler conjured up ‘of a conservative revolution that would recapture an idealised past in an imaginary future ... a revolution that seemed capable of achieving spectacular results in an incredibly short time. And, moreover, a revolution that pushed so many of Afrikanerdom’s own emotional buttons, one that was nationalist and anti-capitalist, that hated Communism and liberalism and sickly humanism, that understood the meaning of the word volk and the importance of “blood” and “race”, which exhorted its people to “think with your blood” and expounded the creed of Blut und Boden, blood and soil.’ Apartheid and Nazism belong to different orders of evil, as Sparks readily acknowledges. He argues, however, that some extremely influential members of the National Party succumbed to a ‘vicarious intoxication’ with Nazi ideals, and carried them into the heart of government in 1948.

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[*] A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson. Yale, 288 pp., £19.95, 28 June, 0 300 04815 7.