Reading South Africa’s state of mind

Tim Cohen

At critical times in South Africa’s political unfolding, the void created by directional uncertainty has been filled with books. In a way, a brief scan of the new books on the shelves of bookshops provides a snapshot view of the current state of any nation.  

I remember, in the early 1990s during South Africa’s transition period, the shelves seemed overflowing with advice, biography and opinion. The biographies, particularly of politicians, were really a kind of vicarious introduction for people who knew each other only vaguely; the new histories set the scene for the battles which would take place in the future over the negotiating table.

Many of the books at that time were scenario planners of some kind or another. One popular book concerned something called the Mont Fleur Scenarios, which used a catchy bird analogy: the Ostrich pretended nothing was wrong, the Lame Duck meant negotiations would continue but unsatisfying slowly; the Icarus succeeded but flew to high too quickly and came crashing down to earth. But Flamingos take off slowly and fly high together; everyone is focused on gradualism and inclusiveness.

South Africa is going through another period of political upheaval, and the changes are once again reflected in the bookshops – especially now at Christmas time as publishers and retailers hope to corner as much of the present buying trade as possible. Except, this time there are some notable differences. One of the most obvious is that there is a whole new category of books: memoirs and quasi-memoirs. Many of the old bulls of the previous era seem keen to make a stab at posterity.

This charge is led by Mark Gevisser’s Thabo Mbeki: the Dream Deferred, an extraordinary book about former president Thabo Mbeki which took a mammoth nine years to research and write. The book is extraordinary not so much for what it says about Mbeki’s recent history, but more for the background and history of the Mbeki family, which is beautifully recorded with painstaking and intimate detail. All this history is oddly revealing about what would become the former president’s vaulting ambitions and curious blind spots.

In this category, a book about finance minister Trevor Manuel by former journalist Pippa Green called Choice, not Fate has just been published, and several others on other leading characters of the transition are in the works.

Personally, I found one of the best in this category to be Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, which was an odd kind of joint writing project between the ostensible author Pardraig O’Malley and former underground operative and one-time transport minister Mac Maharaj. The book was so absorbing because it is focused on the life of an extraordinary character whose successes and failures provided an oblique view on South Africa’s recent history.

Maharaj was nothing if not hot-headed. He actually resigned from the African National Congress (ANC) several times, only to rejoin it again to ultimately become a key negotiator and successful and practical minister. The stories of his torture and making keys for his Robben Island cell are among the most terrifying, inspiring and heart-warming of all “struggle” stories.

One the other side of the aisle, former leader of the opposition Tony Leon’s autobiography On the Contrary has been the surprise hit of the latest batch of writing on South Africa’s recent past. The personalities of Leon and Mbeki are so absolutely chalk and cheese, so much so that they were totally unable to bridge their political differences, not that they tried very hard.

Leon’s history as a politician was marked by moments of vigorous fury and deep sarcasm which many in the ANC interpreted as a kind of suppressed racism. Mbeki, who cherishes civility, treated Leon with outright contempt, and Leon was often criticised for contributing to this poor relationship.

But his book is even-handed, thoughtful and insightful. Although his tone was almost unbearably sharp while he was in office, with the benefit of hindsight it’s obvious how often his immediate judgements in fact turned out to be correct.

There are also some revealing kiss-and-tell books about government written by insiders, the leading example of which is Andrew Feinstein’s After the Party. No publishing vista would be complete without a book of scandalous revelations, but Feinstein’s book has won plaudits for the passionate defence of democracy which underlies the critique.

Some of what you might call old era books are still being published, notably a wonderful book by lawyer Peter Harris called In a Different Time about an old treason trial that took place in a town called Delmas.

Another book that seems a bit like a through-back to the transition era scenario books is an interesting co-authored book by former secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers  James Motlatsi and former chief executive of gold company AngloGold Ashanti. The book is called Do It and is interesting not only because it merges the ideas of two notable characters, but also because it extends beyond big economic issues into the personal and has suggestions on how people should live their lives. Oprah beware!

One big difference between the current publishing splurge and the early 1990s is the number of books that focus not on the big picture, but on sub-issues, particularly focusing on the most complex and difficult social issues. The most obvious are books on HIV/Aids, such as Three-Letter Plague by Jonny Steinberg, and crime, such as A Country at War with Itself by Antony Altbekker.

This new focus on specific topics rather than generalities reflects a progression of sorts toward a greater focus on some of the more intractable issues of governance. The theoretical has become practical.

Those elegant flamingos all flying in unison look less like a the most preferred scenario than like oddly coloured, strangely shaped bird-like creatures. They are generally doing what they are supposed to be doing, but sleek swallows they are not.  Yet, neither is their much evidence of ostriches and Icari either, so perhaps a page as been turned on the era of simplistic and slightly patronising scenarios.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to Business Day and the Weekender, where he worked for most of his career, and financial website Moneyweb where he writes on business and corporate activity for an associate site called Dealweb. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.