For those contemplating a first journey into the murky world of South African politics, there can be few better guides than Andrew Feinstein. This book by the lawyerly figure who would come to be known as the ANC's "Mr Clean" in its first post-apartheid governments charts a giddy ascent from political newcomer to euphoric MP and on to disillusioned critic and exile.
It is precisely his ignorance and enthusiasm at the outset of After the Party that makes him an invaluable guide. A white Capetonian of mixed origin, Feisntein enters the political orbit of the African National Congress fairly late in the day, something he makes no effort to deny.
His first encounters with stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement, from Mac Maharaj to Nelson Mandela, retain much of what must have been his initial excitement. They give an emotional grounding to the text which helps to explain his almost stubborn naivete as to his new colleagues' motives further down the line.
Unlike other recent offerings on the same period from South Africa, such as Marc Gevisser's academic study of Thabo Mbeki and Tony Leon's unbearably long autobiography, this book is neither the work of a clinical outsider nor a self-glorifying political memoir. It has more in common with Michela Wrong's excellent It's Our Turn to Eat. Like her hero, the Kenyan whisteblower John Githongo, Feinstein begins his political career from stage left and in awe of his new colleagues.
Central to the book and much of the political infighting that has tarnished the Rainbow Nation since 1998 is the infamous arms deal. South Africa's decision to spend large amounts of badly needed money on military hardware that met no definable national security threat was the clearest indication that politics post-apartheid would be business as usual. As the ranking ANC member on parliament's Public Accounts Committee, the author was handed the immense burden of investigating claims that a multi-billion Rand arms deal was engineered to enrich politicians and their business allies while defrauding the taxpayer.
One criticism that can be made of the book is that it takes too long to get to the arms deal, where personal and political dramas are at their most intense. This is unlikely to worry the general reader, who will appreciate the slower introduction of a large cast of characters and an examination of the dangerous and paranoid handling of the Aids crisis by President Mbeki.
The balancing act that the author attempts between a personal narrative and a political journey is already strained by the sheer weight of developments in the latter. Those seeking answers to the question of what a Jacob Zuma presidency will look like are unlikely to find encouragement here. Feinstein portrays him as likeable and approachable initially, but ultimately as a creature of a deeply flawed ANC in which cronyism flourishes. Rather than condemning the man who will be South Africa's new president, the book presents the ANC itself as the problem.
As we begin an 18-month span from the elections to the end of the 2010 World Cup, in which the progress of South Africa will be pronounced upon time and again, After the Party will be among the most sympathetic portraits of its decline and fall. Post-liberation Africa, like post-Communist Eastern Europe, is littered with the failures of great heroes of the struggle, who proved at best to be flawed leaders and in the worst cases to be positively venal.
Feinstein quotes Vaclav Havel on the effects of privilege and power, and the point where public service is forgotten. In the case of South Africa, he writes, "Sadly, many in the ANC appear to have passed this moment with barely a flicker of recognition."
Daniel Howden is Africa correspondent of 'The Independent'
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