Somewhat weighty history of apartheid

2010-07-21 00:00


The Rise and Fall of Apartheid

David Welsh

Jonathan Ball

HERE is another magisterial survey of recent South African history from an eminent academic. David Welsh has written an even-handed account from a conservative-liberal standpoint.

Like a persistent hangover, the myth of the political miracle pervades South Africa’s transition to democracy. Welsh’s history shows that it was longer (negotiations effectively began in the mid eighties) and more complex than generally accepted. He avoids the mistake of seeing Afrikanerdom as monolithic and gives due consideration to the Sestigers, Vrye Weekblad and even Pieter-Dirk Uys, as well as to the impact of influx control and ­labour reforms (Riekert and Wiehahn), and the influence of the Broederbond and the intelligence services. He makes the interesting point that the tricameral parliament accelerated the downfall of apartheid, while emphasising the crucial role of the ­labour movement and the civics.

On business and apartheid he takes the view that segregation and cheap labour, which had served agriculture and mining well, restricted growth in the increasingly important manufacturing and service sectors. Indeed, apartheid undermined the modern South African economy. Within its aim of thwarting black urbanisation, it contained the seeds of its own ­destruction.

Welsh lays great stress on the relationship between F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. They needed each other if South Africa was not to ­become a failed state — hard-headed realism drove negotiations through near disaster and apparent stalemate. At times Welsh comes perilously close to being a De Klerk’s apologist. But he justifiably demolishes another myth — the notion that a military ­victory over the apartheid state was ever possible.

Welsh surprisingly glosses over the impact of white liberal opposition. And controversially he accepts Louis Harms’s finding that state death squads were operating without highest-level authority. In fact, he tends to brush aside the violence of all the main parties involved as beyond the control of leaders. Like many commentators, he errs in believing that the United Democratic Front (UDF) was banned (it was in fact restricted).

The downside of this book is its ­interminable length. A great deal of the content is published elsewhere and this raises the question why so many books these days are the size of doorstops. Why are publishers so indulgent towards their authors? One is left wondering whether a shorter contribution presenting Welsh’s ­historical overview without going into so much detail would not have made a greater impact.

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