South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation, by RW Johnson

History of reconciliation ends on sour note
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The Independent Culture

South Africa is likely to remain subject to differing interpretations of its complex and violent history. Despite the advances that democratic rule has brought, South Africans rarely find it easy to agree on the principles that can keep their common spirit alive. This is, not least, because the cold facts of history were deliberately distorted by the former Afrikaner rulers as part of the systematic denial of majority rights.

South Africa is likely to remain subject to differing interpretations of its complex and violent history. Despite the advances that democratic rule has brought, South Africans rarely find it easy to agree on the principles that can keep their common spirit alive. This is, not least, because the cold facts of history were deliberately distorted by the former Afrikaner rulers as part of the systematic denial of majority rights.

For Bill Johnson, a maverick academic-turned-journalist who returned to the country after the installation of Mandela's government in 1994, South Africa's history has to be seen as an amalgam of all its developments and migrations. After tracing the wars, displacements and enslavements, Johnson asserts that the foundations of the modern Republic lay in the discovery of huge mineral wealth. He notes that, if it had not been for the diamonds and gold, Britain would certainly not have thought it worthwhile, in the closing years of the 19th century, to send nearly half a million troops to wrest the Transvaal and Orange Free State from the independent-minded descendants of the voortrekkers.

The human cost of the Boer War was at least 35,000 Boer lives, 22,000 imperial troops and 14,000 Africans but, says Johnson, this war "resulted in the country's lasting unification".

Covering a vast time frame, from earliest man to multiparty politics, in a mere 230 pages, this is history written at a breakneck pace. Yet Johnson manages to sustain a remarkably even hand in tracing the key determinants of South Africa's 20th-century history, and especially the machinations that brought about the doomed ideology of apartheid, and finally the irresistible rise of the African National Congress (ANC).

For the most part, Johnson's judgements are extremely astute. But then, having wooed his audience with his ability to keep the story moving, Johnson reverts in the final chapter to his anti-ANC rhetoric, which has proved so contentious over the past 10 years. He conflates his historian's observations about weaknesses in the constitution with his journalistic agenda, expressing views that the South African media find unhelpful or simply offensive.

The targets are predictable: President Thabo Mbeki's reluctance to confront the threat of HIV/Aids; his encouragement of Mugabe's Zimbabwe; the government's passion for black economic empowerment, causing the rise of a small class of black super-rich amid a general worsening of inequality. But where Johnson goes over the top is in his characterisation of Mbeki's South Africa as unsustainable and doomed to decline. This is an inexplicably sour note on which to end an otherwise positive story of hope and reconciliation.

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