History has been defined as "past politics". That explains why it is so hard to write the history of modern South Africa. It feeds straight into present politics.
David Cameron has just returned from a visit to Nelson Mandela, organised by Lynda Chalker. Lady Chalker, a friend of Mr Mandela's, managed to serve as one of Margaret Thatcher's ministers of overseas development, although she never agreed with her boss's views on the ANC. On the plane back, Mr Cameron wrote a thoughtful article in which he said that Lady Thatcher had been wrong to condemn the ANC as terrorists and to oppose economic sanctions.
Both arguments raise complex questions, especially the terrorism one, which addresses the rights of populations denied the opportunity to change their government by peaceful means. There is no philosophical answer to that problem. If you declare the ANC to be terrorists, why not the French Resistance? But if you assert that every people denied democratic rights is entitled to resort to terrorism, why should that not apply in Saudi Arabia, China, most of black Africa, and in the West Bank?
If philosophy is no guide, we are thrown back on expediency. On those terms, the ANC's record is questionable. As a resistance/terrorist organisation, it was less effective than the French Resistance. The ANC was better at killing its own volunteers, for the most dubious disciplinary reasons, than it was at attacking the South African security forces. ANC representatives used to enjoy talking about the "armed struggle". They were nicknamed "The Strugglers" by a British Embassy fully aware of the need for radical change.
During the Eighties, an ANC delegation in Moscow was trying to enthuse its hosts about its military activities. A senior Russian grew bored. "What armed struggle?" he enquired.
The Russian was right, and there were alternatives, just as there are now in Palestine, where passive resistance would be more effective than intifadas, let alone suicide bombing.
Around 1960, there was a passive resistance campaign in South Africa. But the ANC launched an armed campaign. Brief and feeble, it landed Nelson Mandela in jail and was easily crushed, as were the spirits of almost the entire liberal opposition. Yet a sustained campaign of passive resistance - strikes, peaceful protests, blocking roads - could have put far more pressure on Pretoria than a handful of small bombs did.
No doubt there would have been brutality, but that would have brought international pressure. It would also have played on the Afrikaners' conscience.
It is, of course, an article of faith among the international left that no such organ ever existed; that all Afrikaners were boot-faced, sjambok-wielding thugs. That was nonsense. On the contrary: much of the stubbornness rightly associated with Afrikanerdom arose from the determination of intellectuals to make reality fit their thesis.
Afrikaner governments were full of men with second degrees. Like nearly all the most oppressive forms of government ever devised, from Plato's Republic onwards, apartheid was the progeny of intellectuals. Dr Verwoerd, its ablest exponent, had been a professor of sociology.
In theory, there was nothing cruel about apartheid. It involved dividing South Africa between the various races, who would then live apart. That might have worked, if all South Africans had settled for a pastoral existence. As that was an absurd idea, so was apartheid, which in practice became a hypocritical rationalisation for white power.
From very early on, some Afrikaner intellectuals were uneasily aware of this, including FW de Klerk's elder brother, Wimpie. This helps to explain why the harshest aspects of grand apartheid began to erode even by the late 70s. Anyone who uses "apartheid" as a shorthand for 40 years of South African history is guilty of intellectual laziness.
By the time I first visited South Africa, in 1984, there was almost a consensus among thoughtful Afrikaners. Blacks were entitled to a full ration of human dignity, immediately (the denial of that was the worst aspect of apartheid). They were entitled to equality of economic opportunity, immediately, and to a strong voice in local government.
There should also be a huge programme of black educational uplift. But there was one source of endless agonising: the fear that one man, one vote would condemn South Africa to chaos. Anyone who believes that this was a groundless anxiety ought to examine the history of black Africa since independence.
These Afrikaner agonisings lead us to David Cameron's support for sanctions and to his view of the 1976 Soweto uprising, which he describes as, in the circumstances, "restrained". Both points are debatable. Though sanctions did restrict economic growth, the whites were hardly impoverished - and it was economic growth which exposed the impracticality of the existing system. You cannot run a modern economy while discriminating against the majority of your workforce.
As for Soweto, the riots may have been understandable but that is not true of all their targets. The rioters set out to destroy black schools and intimidate their teachers. This succeeded. A generation of Sowetan kids received hardly any schooling. This helps to explain some of the poverty which Mr Cameron witnessed.
David Cameron was right to salute Nelson Mandela for his nobility of character and generosity of spirit. But Norman Tebbit is also right: "The final initiative for the handover came not from foreigners, but from native South Africans - and Afrikaner South Africans at that." The argument will continue for centuries all over the world, including, let us hope, in a prosperous and peaceful South Africa.Reuse content