South Africa’s recent elections were preceded by a flurry of new books about the country and its dramatic political life. We profile three – all well worth reading.
‘You know,’ a former inmate of Robben Island tells Andrew Feinstein in After the Party (Verso, ISBN 13 978 1 844467 356 8) ‘many years on the Island couldn’t break me, but I think Thabo’s ANC might.’ In this fluent and gripping memoir, Feinstein relates how he came to be an MP for the African National Congress – and how he was forced to resign from it. His sin: diligently investigating the payment of up to $200 million in bribes in a $7 billion dodgy arms deal involving ANC top brass.
Feinstein shows how the ANC lost its moral compass under the scheming, pompous, autocratic Thabo Mbeki. As a political insider, Feinstein gives a fascinating account of events that have baffled outsiders. The ‘dead hand of denialism’ that shaped Mbeki’s disastrous HIV/AIDS policy, for example, or Mbeki’s mulish support for an increasingly tyrannical Robert Mugabe – both policies that cost thousands of lives. And, of course, there are the millions of public money wasted on military hardware the country didn’t need. Free-market ideology and bribe-happy Western defence manufacturers provide the global context for this corruption. And, not surprisingly, Britain’s shameless BAE Systems is once again in the frame.
Though currently living in exile, Feinstein has not given up hope. He believes there are still some good people in the ANC (and outside it). He does not count the new President Jacob Zuma – who still has fraud and corruption charges hanging over him – among them.
Eminent Cape Town historian and journalist RW Johnson, author of the 646-page South Africa’s Brave New World, (Allen Lane, 978 0 713 99538 1), seems rather less hopeful. He too sees Mbeki as a disaster and Zuma as no better. But unlike Feinstein, he reserves some criticism for Nelson Mandela too. With unflinching honesty, Johnson reminds us that, however much we want to believe it, real radical change is extremely hard to achieve. Four hundred years of colonization cannot be reversed in fifteen. Apartheid’s septic legacy of inequality, of educational, political and economic privation, keeps seeping through.
Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (Vintage ISBN 978 0-099-52419 9) was published a few months before the election wave. But for a close-up view of the rural, unemployed South Africa that the political élite prefers to ignore, this sensitive, precisely observed book is quite remarkable. Part reportage, part travelogue, part biography of place, it tells the story of a young man who does not want to be tested for HIV. His reasons are as complex and thought-provoking as the country itself.