- The Last Afrikaner Leaders: a supreme test of power by Hermann Giliomee, and: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid by Willie Esterhuyse, and: Lost in Transformation: South Africa's search for a new future since 1986 by Sampie Terreblanche
The set of books under review here are all accounts of recent political history and with an emphasis on the transition from National Party to ANC rule by former University of Stellenbosch professors. Of these the most ambitious and lengthy is by Giliomee. Giliomee, who actually spent years at the University of Cape Town where he was perhaps better appreciated at the time than at Stellenbosch, has become a prolific and important columnist and writer on South African politics and political history. His new book attempts to cover the whole rise and fall of apartheid but with a particular angle through the assessment of four top Nat leaders plus van Zyl Slabbert who led the Progressive Federal Party through part of the 1980s.
It is questionable how much individuals can influence the direction of social and political change but Giliomee provides a shrewd and thoughtful commentary on political strategy and tactics. In practice, the prime ministers and presidents functioned within a very distinct social system and had to keep their eyes on a particular blinkered electorate; their ability to manoeuvre, and they certainly at the least did more than just reflect the prejudices of that [End Page 309] electorate, was limited and became more so with time. The book is focussed on the big questions pertaining to the social and political system; there is virtually nothing on the private lives of the leaders once their origins are mentioned.
Giliomee has delved intensively into what practitioners tend to call 'contemporary history'. He makes use of some official publications, memoirs (which are becoming very extensive on the Afrikaner side), available primary material collected by others and an impressive range of interviews with virtually everyone who plays a key part in the book and is still alive. It may be that Giliomee is insufficiently critical in repeating the opinions and memories of some participants; he is certainly too trusting in the value of opinion polls. Moreover, it should be noted that the only individual on the ANC side interviewed or cited at any length is Joe Slovo. Yet while Giliomee does not entirely disguise his strong distaste for the ANC and most of its works, his assessment of their strategy and tactics, despite the qualifications raised above, seems convincing. For instance, he provides a plausible portrait of Mandela as a political actor independent from the usual hagiographic portraits.
Looking at the book in more detail, the first chapters focus on Verwoerd and Vorster. Despite his 'outward policy' which in the end went nowhere very interesting, Vorster these days gets a pretty bad press and he is not rescued here. Pragmatic, inconsistent and unable to formulate a bigger picture, he is obviously contrasted with Verwoerd. If Verwoerd was only too able and ready to provide calmly and repeatedly a full blueprint of the apartheid dream, Giliomee's attempt to rescue him from obloquy is very unconvincing. Verwoerd's ideas changed somewhat with circumstances from time to time but he was stuck in his racial paradigm and the changes followed logically from pursuing it, an 'ideologue with dogmatic confidence' as Slabbert wrote of him (211). Here was a man who even shortly before his assassination could not bring himself to attend a lunch in person with a black man in the person of the new premier of Lesotho in 1966 as is here related. Verwoerd made a not unfavourable impression on foreigners at times but then his was the only show in town. His commitment to racial separation and white dominance was unbending and almost mindless, as far as even Giliomee's evidence suggests, albeit he did seem an impressive intellectual...