Magazine article The Spectator

South Africa: The First Man, the Last Nation

Magazine article The Spectator

South Africa: The First Man, the Last Nation

Article excerpt

Trenchant but tendentious SOUTH AFRICA: THE FIRST MAN, THE LAST NATION by R. W. Johnson Weidenfeld, £16.99, pp. 241, ISBN 0297646729 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

R. W. Johnson's book purports to be a history of South Africa, from the emergence of humankind to the last nation (whatever that may mean). The pace is necessarily brisk and only seldom falls over its feet in the process, as in the movement of numerous ethnic entities provided with little more than their names. This is a trenchant treatment of the subject. It is also, as it advances into recent territory, increasingly tendentious.

The part played by economic sanctions in the defeat of apartheid was so important that the record of their adoption and deployment requires an informed, accurate recital. In Johnson's account, Chase Manhattan called in a loan to South Africa, and this, virtually coinciding with President Botha's defiant 'Rubicon' speech of 15 August 1985, had a catastrophic effect. 'Ironically,' Johnson remarks, the ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement abroad had 'failed to grasp the crucial nature of credit'; and the Chase Manhattan decision was taken 'not as a result of their lobbying but as a market judgment' on the Botha government.

In fact, far from failing to grasp the crucial nature of credit, the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement understood this from the start. It was among the issues considered at the International Conference on Economic Sanctions against South Africa in 1964. Moreover, the Chase Manhattan decision was nowhere near as momentous as the US Senate vote in August 1986 (84 votes to 14, more than sufficient to override a presidential veto), imposing bans on new investment, loans, airport landing rights and exports of oil.

It was not the market that impelled the Senate, but political pressure, involving the civil rights movement and the Congressional Black Caucus, churches and colleges, mobilised by an essentially moral international campaign to whose development the ANC and Anti-Apartheid Movement were central. And surely this deserves to be celebrated rather than disparaged or denied.

Johnson is similarly selective in his overall treatment of the ANC. He makes much of the dominance exercised by a communist party he castigates as among the most Stalinist anywhere. But the ANC used, far more than it was used by, a communist party connection to facilitate a flow of resources from the Soviet bloc when major Western governments were devoted more to protecting than to confronting the apartheid regime. Even the CIA, in a secret analysis of March 1988, questioned the view of the ANC as communist-dominated and concluded that Oliver Tambo (undisputed and devotedly democratic leader of the ANC) had 'long been subtly curbing and channelling SACP influence'. …

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