A frustrating read

2008-10-02 08:05

This book promises more than it delivers. Author Jan Heunis, a high-flying lawyer who was chief state legal adviser, resigned in 1987 over the behaviour of President P.W. Botha, but later worked as adviser to the government at the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum. He had a bird's-eye view of the crumbling apartheid state and has a critical and independent mind. However, he relates little that contributes to greater understanding of that fascinating period.

The underlying purpose of the book is a tribute to Heunis's father, Chris, the verlig National Party politician, who resigned in 1989 as Minister of Constitutional Development but said nothing publicly about politics over the next 17 years leading up to his death.

This laudable aim reflects well on the author. His opinions on NP politicians are searing - Botha himself, Kobie Coetsee, Hernus Kriel and other reactionaries made the negotiated transition to a democratic South Africa as difficult as possible. They were unpleasant people who, according to Heunis, had too much to drink too often. But this we knew already.

Heunis was involved in the early, secret stages of negotiations with Nelson Mandela, observed powerful figures during the eighties states of emergency, and was a key figure in setting up the Transitional Executive Council in 1994. But only the barest details are revealed. The brightest spot in this frustrating book is Heunis's vivid inside account of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging siege of the World Trade Centre in 1993 that he reckons could have sparked civil war.

This sort of insightful writing applied to other events would have made a very good book. When he does write it, Heunis should make sure he is better served by his translator and editor.

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