Maharaj and Jordan's 'Breakthrough' shows an ANC with a glorious future behind it

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FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at a peace signing ceremony during pre-election violence.  (Photo by © Louise Gubb/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)
FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at a peace signing ceremony during pre-election violence. (Photo by © Louise Gubb/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Breakthrough: The Struggles and Secret Talks that Brought Apartheid South Africa to the Negotiating Table by Mac Maharaj and Z Pallo Jordan (Penguin) offers the academic historian and the political science major an account of what happened between 1980 and 1990. This in the process of bringing the antagonists in the South African struggle to the negotiating table.

It covers the first secret contacts between the ANC and the white regime and meetings such as those held between the ANC's Oliver Tambo and a group of British businesspeople in London in 1986.

These meetings allowed for liberation struggle activists to "surround" the Afrikaans business and political sectors in much the same way the National Party government had been trying to outmanoeuvre the liberation movements, unilaterally determining the terms of any changes that were going to happen.

Ahead of one of the 1986 meetings, Tambo asked Michael Young, group chief executive of Consolidated Gold Fields, to "help build a bridge between the ANC and those Afrikaners close to government" as progress was impossible without some form of communication" and (as even some Broederbond members saw it) collaboration.

Being a cross between a textbook and a hagiography, the book says nothing about the roots of today's confused ANC policy, so it feels like it doesn't speak to any immediately relevant and relatable issue for the general reader.

If you've ever wanted Nelson Mandela's memo to PW Botha, the Constitutional Guidelines for a Democratic South Africa and the Harare Declaration in one place, you can use Breakthrough's annexures – or just save the links in this paragraph. Throughout the rest of the book, the authors pull you through the sources (many of which are in the public domain) along a narrative you could have written in your sleep, if you're committed to the political orthodoxy of the triumph of the ANC. Breakthrough preaches to the converted about settled issues; it doesn't do any converting on unexplored topics.

Non-fiction writers generally pick a topic where there's some tension between a widely held belief and the perspective they're introducing, or emphasise orthodoxy if they're already seen as underdogs. In Breakthrough, we're told of the apartheid government's motives, its strategies, and when it was "feeling the heat", but the ANC and MK leaders have no character arcs beyond adapting their responses to the apartheid government's suppressive tactics. In the chapter titled "New Terrain, New Challenges", you see an FW de Klerk who's "winging it", but you already know how the movie ends.

There are few moments when you're "in the room" with the players. "Mandela and De Klerk eyed each other across the table, poker-faced, determined neither by choice of word nor demeanour to allow a glimpse into their thoughts and emotions at this historic event." The rest of the time you're suspended in a liminality between news headlines and letters, notes and speeches, a desert where no relatable characters appear. Unfortunately, politicians use words to tell, not show, because once they've passed their activist days, they're done doing, and they're accustomed to audiences hanging on their every word about what they did way back when.

You can weigh every sentence in this book on a scale, and no word in any sentence will be out of place. But sadly, those sentences don't constitute a message that seeks a place among today's most urgent topics. Cyril Ramaphosa makes a brief appearance as a union leader, then silence. Prime Minister John Vorster's recognition of independent African states is cast as a manipulation tactic to outmanoeuvre the liberation movements. What does that say about today's pan-African relations, or even xenophobia? What dots do the authors want me to connect?

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it emerged that the guerrilla forces of the Wankie Campaign and the Sipolilo Campaign didn't achieve their objective. But they did inspire black people, and even the oppressor to an extent. Yet there was never any doubt that Umkhonto we Sizwe had a backstory. What does it mean for Zimbabwean politics today, or for the Umkhonto we Sizwe Veterans' support of Jacob Zuma, or (if you believe the presidency's website when it says these movements galvanised the student protests of the 1970s and 1980s) for today's dangerous struggles against economic exclusion at tertiary institutions? Is this the generation gap that is spoken of, the one in which ANC elders are out of touch?

Tom Eaton describes Breakthrough's authors as "a former professional gaslighter" and "prominent non-doctor". Granted, Jordan has apologised for his lies to (and not for) the ANC, but neither he nor Maharaj are here to confess so much as to campaign.

- Siya Khumalo is the author of You Have to Be Gay to Know God, published by Kwela Books.

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