Many lessons can be drawn from the extraordinary transformation that South Africa has undergone over the past 50 years and more. Without being soft-headed about it, one may say that the most hopeful of these lessons derives from the example offered to his fellow-citizens by Nelson Mandela, the first black president to rule over the country. Condemned to prison under arduous conditions because of his leadership of the armed resistance to the apartheid policies of the Afrikaner Nationalist government, Mandela never ceased to work for the radical reconstruction of the social and political life of the country.
Shaking off his indebtedness to the largely white leadership of the Communist Party of South Africa, while at the same time steadfastly refusing to respond to the bribes and threats dangled before him by his jailers, Mandela emerged after 27 years of imprisonment to win an overwhelming victory in the country’s first genuinely democratic elections. What is more, after holding office as the country’s president for the following five years, he then resigned at his own wish from that position – which is more than can be said of most other ageing politicians.
Not, of course, that all is now sweetness and light in the new South Africa. Poverty is widespread, the country is scourged by the malignance of violent crime and financial corruption exercises a sway of its own over many areas of civic life. Nevertheless, if one compares the condition of the country today with the years of apartheid, when the Nationalists pursued their mad dream of ruling forever over a society of docile blacks safely confined by law to their “own areas”, and yet available at all times to work for minimum wages at the command of their white masters, one can only marvel at the changes that have taken place. To read this autobiography by the Afrikaner novelist André Brink is to be sharply reminded of just how much taken for granted – by most English-speaking South Africans, as well as Afrikaners – were the vile means used by the whites to “keep the Kaffirs in their place”, as the hideously commonplace phrase went in those days.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the most interesting parts of Brink’s new book are precisely those in which he writes about his initial, unfocused attempts, first as a boy and then as a young man, to find a path of his own out of the ways of living and thinking – at once brutal and fearful – that had become characteristic of the beleaguered national group to which he himself belonged. For it had always been an ironic aspect of Afrikaner history that they too had invariably felt entitled to look on themselves as victims. From the beginning of the settlement of the Cape by the Dutch, they had struggled to establish their mastery over the indigenous black majority, whom they had eventually defeated. Then they had had to fight against the might of imperial Britain to which-both before and after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902)-they eventually found themselves subordinate. Victimhood, in other words, was an indefeasible part of their legacy too.
How, in the later years of the 20th century, was one to make sense of such a predicament? Where was a sensitive and bookish young man to find a footing of his own? Basically, as Brink says of his return to South Africa after a long absence abroad, “I did not want to be here” (his italics). He yearned instead for the freedom he had enjoyed in Europe, rather than for a renewed immersion in the bleak, constricted politics of his homeland. In consequence he was to find his companions chiefly among fellow-dissidents – Afrikaners, English-speakers, “Cape Coloureds”, blacks – all of them living in the same kind of no-man’s-land as himself. And all, in due course, coming under severe pressure from the increasingly baffled (yet always threatening and violent) state machinery. Brink himself was never jailed, but many of his friends were, and a variety of unsuccessful dirty tricks were played out by the authorities against himself and his companions. However, by then it was becoming increasingly clear, even to the leaders of the nationalist government, that their claim to be regarded and hence fostered from abroad, as a bastion of “white civilisation” roused nothing but scorn from the world outside.
It has to be said that the interest to be got out of Brink’s memoir declines rapidly once this stage in his own history, and his country’s history, has been surpassed. From then on, his book becomes a somewhat boastful rigmarole of love affairs in various countries, accounts of the success enjoyed by some of his novels, descriptions of drunken writers’ gatherings and so on. I would have preferred to have learned more about his childhood in the harsh uplands of the Orange Free State, and of his experiences as a teacher of English literature at Rhodes University: an institution solemnly named after Cecil John Rhodes, who was the greatest of the British empire-builders of his time and (in his own fashion) as mad as any of the other claimants to the sub-continent.