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.

Sparks became a newspaper reporter shortly after the National Party came to power, and his account of the apartheid era is enriched by a lifetime’s accumulation of insight and anecdote. His writing, often dense and theoretical, comes alive when he describes sights he has seen at first-hand – a Parliamentary debate here, a political trial there, and on one occasion, a visit to a farm festival where back-country Boers courted alcoholic oblivion on a bootleg liquor called mampoer. This is one of the few light moments in Sparks’s otherwise grim account of the Afrikaners’ attempt to turn South Africa into a whites-only country. To this end, more than three million people were removed from ‘black spots’ inside ‘white’ South Africa and dumped in the already overcrowded Homelands, and another eighteen million arrested for contravening the pass laws. Black resistance was summarily crushed, as at Sharpeville in 1960, and in Soweto in 1976. This was one of the 20th century’s most insane social-engineering projects, and like all the others, it failed: no force on earth was capable of slowing the growth of the black population or reversing its flow into the cities. After thirty years of cold-blooded experimentation, white South Africa was blacker than ever, and all Boers save the most blind were beginning to loose faith in their mission.

Capitalism had done by now its ‘corroding, corrupting work’, transforming the Afrikaner underclass of yore into a comfortable urban bourgeoisie, increasingly uninterested in the Voortrekker myths that were supposed to light its way. Blacks had changed too, becoming more radical, fired up with a spirit of no compromise. In the late Seventies, cracks began to appear in the Afrikaner monolith and the era of adaption began, presided over by Prime Minister P. W. Botha.

Sparks is reluctant to grant Botha the status of a reformer, preferring to call his policies a mere ‘reformulation’ of the existing apartheid order. A former Minister of Defence, Botha turned his back on the civilian establishment and drew his generals, spies and counter-insurgency specialists into the innermost circle of power. These ‘securocrats’ were diabolical real-politicians, far more sophisticated than the crude racists of the Forties and Fifties. Again, Sparks pauses to peer into their minds, and finds several new ingredients in the traditional Boer ideological brew, contributed by French and American warrior-philosophers who believed that the true aim of war was the ‘psychological disintegration’ of the foe. They argued, on the basis of experience in Algeria and Vietnam, that the only way to defeat an insurgency was to emulate the insurgents – to inflict holy terror on obstructive groups and individuals, while simultaneously trying to woo the populace at large to the Government’s side. With this aim in mind, Botha scrapped petty segregation, legalised trade unions, and granted a vote of sorts to Indians and Coloured people. Such reforms were intended to dilute black anger and shore up the white state. Instead, they precipitated the convulsive uprising of 1984-86.

Sparks’s account of that near-civil war is richly leavened with tales of his own experiences on the frontline – teargassings, stonings, nightmarish confrontations between black youths and riot policemen, and always funerals, more heartbreaking funerals. As the rebellion intensified, some townships became virtual liberated zones, ruled by People’s Courts and Street Committees. In response, the Botha Government abandoned its reformist posture and resorted to determined repression, killing at least fifteen hundred opposition activists in the space of three years and detaining 30,000 more. It was ‘the longest, most intensive uprising in South Africa’s history’, says Sparks, but it ended in stalemate. The white state survived, but so did the black spirit of no compromise, and South Africa was left teetering in a state of ‘violent equilibrium’.

Sparks is convinced, however, that sheer force of numbers and growing militancy will soon carry the blacks to victory. ‘No ideology on earth,’ he says, ‘no politician, no guns, no army, no regional superpower strategy, can stem this tide.’ He concludes that South Africa has entered its time of transition, and will become a ‘non-racial democracy’ before the century turns.

The jacket copy describes The Mind of South Africa as a ‘magisterial’ history, and indeed it is – in its scope, its incantatory prose, and in the remorseless lucidity of its judgments of the actions of white men. Every lie spoken by a white person is shredded, every white cruelty recounted, every self-serving rationalisation exposed. This is the book’s great strength, and its greatest weakness, too, for Mr Sparks is so intent upon demonising the apartheid state and demolishing its myths that he comes close to erecting a new edifice of myth in their place.

The tone is set in the book’s opening pages, which offer a lyrical description of South Africa as it was before the white man came. The indigenous African societies were ‘more democratic’ than their 15th-century European counterparts, says Sparks – and more respectful of ‘human values and human worth’. Unlike the Boers, the Africans co-existed more or less peacefully with their Bushman neighbours. (This is Sparks’s view: the Yale historian, Leonard Thompson, notes that the Xhosa regarded Bushmen as ‘vermin’ and says that the relationship between the two populations ‘often degenerated into endemic warfare’.[*]) Witch hunts were ‘an integral and comprehensible feature of society’, and savage only in the eyes of benighted whites. The Africans were actually ‘a profoundly spiritual people’, imbued with the spirit of ubuntu, an ur-socialist value-system that encouraged sharing, mutual respect and the subordination of selfish interests to the common good.

In Sparks’s view, the spirit of ubuntu has survived the centuries, and permeates African culture to this day. In spite of all they have suffered, he says, black South Africans remain warm, exuberant, caring, conciliatory, ‘gracious and unexpected teachers of cultural wisdom and moral integrity’. Even the notoriously bellicose Winnie Mandela is portrayed here as a tolerant and compassionate creature, and a ‘devout Anglican’ to boot. One scans this book in vain for exceptions. Indeed, one closes it feeling that Africans are innately virtuous, incapable of cruelty and violence unless driven to it by whites.

This is one of Sparks’s favourite themes, and he returns to it again and again. Shaka Zulu’s genocidal wars against his neighbours were the fault of white men, in that the arrival of tiny bands of trekboers in the interior engendered land hunger and turned Africans against each other. (According to Thompson, this theory ‘cannot be substantiated’.) Whites brought the armed struggle on themselves by suppressing peaceful dissent. Whites are responsible for the civil wars in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique. Bloody conflict among rival black factions is the result of ‘shrewd manipulation’ by the white secret police. Indiscriminate terror bombings and political murders are the work of ‘a generation of black youth so brutalised and desensitised by its encounter with white South Africa’s repressive forces’ as to have lost all sense of the value of life.

Sparks’s sympathy with apartheid’s victims is commendable, but his determination to see through their eyes leads ultimately to blindness. After witnessing the mob-killing of a black soldier in 1985, for instance, he is moved, not to pity for the victim, nor revulsion for his killers, but to further rumination on the evils of the whites: ‘As I stood there watching the blazing body it put me in mind of the burning of the great whore in Revelation who corrupted the earth with her fornication. Was that what this grisly scene was about? The ritual burning of a collaborator who corrupted the black people’s cause by selling his services to the oppressive white system?’

Lest readers draw the wrong conclusion, Sparks hastens to add that the African National Congress and its allies disapprove of such gruesome deeds. He carries a torch for the most mighty of the liberation movements, casting it as an organ of unsurpassable mildness. ‘Although the ANC has been the target of numerous assassinations and attempted assassinations,’ he writes, ‘it has never sought to retaliate in kind.’ Hmm. In truth, the ANC’s military wing has always regarded South African policemen, soldiers and government officials as fair game, and has killed more of them than vice versa in the past five years.

Sparks seems loath to acknowledge such things for fear of spoiling his plot, which requires sympathetic black victims to play opposite murderous Boers. There are no ‘hard-eyed, steely-minded extremists’ in Sparks’s ANC alliance, and certainly no Marxist-Leninists. The South African Communist Party is portrayed here (in three paragraphs) as an organisation of nice people who ran adult literacy classes, defended blacks in political trials and socialised across the colour line.

As for the ANC itself, Sparks goes to extraordinary lengths to render it in terms appealing to fastidious Western palates. Its politics are ‘open, inclusivist, integrationist’, he says, its Freedom Charter an echo of ‘Martin Luther King’s dream’. There is rather more to the ANC than that. It was a blacks-only organisation throughout Dr King’s lifetime, admitting whites as ordinary members only in 1969, and denying them seats on the National Executive until 1985. It was also considerably more leftward than Sparks is willing to concede. In one telling passage, he can barely contain his enthusiasm for constitutional proposals put forward in 1987 by the ANC’s internal wing. They are ‘highly democratic’, he says, ‘almost Grecian in concept’. This is stretching it a bit, considering that the document in question flatly rejected parliamentary democracy in favour of a variant of Leninist ‘democratic’ centralism.

It seems curious that a reporter so determined to root out totalitarian skeletons in the Afrikaner closet should be so fey about the politics of black liberation, but still, one must doff one’s hat to Mr Sparks. At some point in his life, he decided to commit his formidable skills as a journalist and his prestigious correspondentships to exposing the sins of apartheid, and a great many foreigners have apparently been reading him. As I write, ticker-tape is raining down on the streets of Manhattan, where Nelson Mandela has drawn a crowd ten times larger and infinitely more adulatory than any he has drawn at home. A New South Africa has come into being, a place where everything is simple, Mandela is Moses, and the line between good and evil is clearly drawn. It is a wonderful, uplifting place, this country, but it exists largely in the minds of distant beholders, and in the closing pages of Sparks’s book. He is not so naive as to assume that the New South Africa will be easily born, but he can already see it in his mind’s eye – a citadel of ‘racial and national reconciliation’, founded upon the core African values of ‘ubuntu, non-racialism, collectivism and humanism’.

I close my eyes and try to share this vision, but it does not come easily to me. President De Klerk and Nelson Mandela have begun to talk about talks, to be sure, but the process is fragile, threatened by forces barely touched on in this book. White South Africans are gripped by fears that Sparks has not dared to name – fears arising from their ancient paranoia about being defenceless in Africa, a continent where the spirit of ubuntu would appear to be in a chronic state of lapse. The black liberation movements are at bitter odds with one another, with Chief Buthelezi of KwaZulu, and even with white liberals, who remain stigmatised as members of an enemy class. Several of the ANC’s elder statesmen still believe in the tarnished Marxist ideal, and their young shock troops are still waving the red flag, still crying: ‘All youth to battle! All youth to the frontline! Forward to the final victory!’ They imagine that they are about to take Pretoria, but the surging white right wing might yet beat them to it, and wave the Boer Swastika above our collective heads.

What happens next? Who knows. The only certainties I can put my finger on are the ones that lie in this book, and I fear some are unfounded.

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