The Roelf 'n' Cyril show

TOMORROW IS ANOTHER COUNTRY by Allister Sparks, Heinemann pounds 7.99

NATIONS need myth, South Africa perhaps more than most. Afrikaners and others staked their claims to the land in terms of their own senses of national identity, a process Allister Sparks dissected in The Mind of South Africa. This is a coda to that book, making strong narrative sense of the muddled rush of events and topping it with the happy ending and new beginning we all know. But the death of apartheid is hardening into a creation myth of its own, a myth of unity and common purpose as dangerous as the Calvinist pieties of separation it replaces.

Sparks's myth is this: the "negotiated revolution" was the outcome of contingent friendships and chance meetings. In the central incident of the book, a friend invites the ANC's chief negotiator Cyril Ramaphosa and his opposite number Roelf Meyer fishing. When Meyer embeds a trout hook in his hand, Ramaphosa is the only one who can extract it. Sparks uses this as a ready-made symbol of mutual dependence and co-operation, with redemption coming through pain. In the new myth, the "Roelf and Cyril Show", as their steam-rolling of negotiations came to be known, exemplifies what the country needs: black and white pulling together and forgetting past differences. Nobody lost, nobody won, so nothing really has to change; everything can be fixed by a nod and a wink between good friends over a beer and a barbecue.

This is the version that white South Africa - and the world - desperately wants to believe. It amounts to the declaration of a moral Year Zero: all bets are off, all sins forgiven, we start afresh from here with the burden of guilt lifted at a stroke.

The death of apartheid, in Sparks's book as in the parallel BBC series, comes in three parts. The negotiations got underway in 1985, in the darkest days of the apartheid state. Botha was prepared to talk with Mandela as long as no one knew; Mandela, for his part, reckoned it best to present the ANC with a fait accompli, so he too took pains to keep the talks secret. This left some of his comrades-in-arms in the dark. Govan Mbeki tells Sparks that his "concern was not of a nature to doubt his integrity as a leader", but it still clearly rankles.

Once Mandela was satisfied of the Nationalists' good faith, he told the ANC, in exile in Lusaka, and the nego-tiations widened, with secret service agents lurking in Swiss hotels and parties of businessmen and academics retreating to Somerset estates. The Nationalists dumped the increasingly autocratic and unpredictable Botha and replaced him with the outwardly conservative De Klerk, who led them into hard bargaining. It is worth remembering how grim the outlook seemed at the time.

Formal negotiations stuttered from time to time, but remained on course, buoyed up by the warm personal relationship between Ramaphosa and Meyer. Sparks skimps on this bit of the story, perhaps because the negotiations are more familiar to his South African audience than their cloak-and-dagger prologue, but they are substantively the most important part. The seeds of future problems were sown here as the ANC and the Nationalists stitched their deal together.

Finally, the fumbling intervention of the AWB in the battle for Bophuthatswana, just a month before the elections, frightened the more moderate elements of the white Right back into the fold, and Chief Buthelezi, isolated and cold-shouldered by his former allies in the ANC and his former paymasters in the National Party, grudgingly took Inkatha to the ballot box as well. The world rejoiced and Sparks's "magic day" arrived.

This is history as forged by fantastical dukes in dark corners. But the South African landscape was also recast by the anonymous opponents of apartheid who made the schools and the townships and the factories ungovernable, in a struggle ignored by Sparks, who instead romanticises the ANC's often shambolic guerrillas and diplomats. Ramaphosa, for example, learned his trade representing the mineworkers, not camping in Angola.

Clearly, any replacement of a culture of confrontation with one of conciliation (rather than mere compromise) is healthy. To that extent, the sight of white and black South Africans sitting down daily to plan their country's future helped to prepare and to heal. But it is hard not to feel that there are features of the process of negotiation that hint uncomfortably about the shape of the new South Africa. The secret deals, the exclusion of minor parties and dissenting voices and the maintenance of strong central authority all suggest that, despite the goodwill, tomorrow may not be such another country after all.

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