Historical gallop reflected through a distorted prism

Posted on February 10, 2012


South Africa: the first man, the last nation by R W Johnson Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 244pp, £16.99 ISBN 0297646729

(First published in New Statesman, November 22, 2004)

On the dust jacket of this short, readable gallop through South Africa’s history, R W Johnson is described as having been “unable for political reasons to return home to South Africa for many years”. The implication is that he was a South African exile. Yet the British-born Johnson, who was educated in South Africa and Britain, has not in the past made any secret of the fact that he was a visiting lecturer at universities in South Africa even at the height of apartheid. He settled in the country in 1995, having spent most of his adult life in Norwich and Oxford.
Such a misleading blurb would be of little consequence, except that it typifies Johnson’s approach throughout South Africa. Poor research or editing has allowed numerous errors to creep in. Two of the more obvious examples are the labelling of Nepad as the New Programme for Africa’s Development, rather than the New Partnership, and the claim that the apartheid state supported the ANC-aligned Joshua Nkomo in Zimbabwe.
In his preface, Johnson attacks “the Marxist historian” Colin Bundy, now director of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, blaming him for the “demolition” of South Africa’s “only institute for historical research” (at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg). The institute, according to Johnson, had “found itself under fire from the crude new wave of Africanism”. Yet Bundy was not present when the row erupted, and an acclaimed institute for historical research continues to exist to this day at Wits University.
Johnson’s portrayal of the row typifies the style of polemical journalism that has made him notorious in certain quarters. Truth often appears to take second place in his writing, much of which seems calculated to shock and offend. Consider, for example, his snide reference to “a whole new elite proudly parading in new dress and new names”. During apartheid, most black South Africans bore “white” names alongside their given names because their masters and madams found African names too difficult to remember or pronounce. Now, in an assertion of pride and equality, black people are claiming their right to use their given names. Why would anyone object to this?
Several of Johnson’s assertions are likely to provoke anger – for instance, his claim that the former South African president Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela was in effect a lame-duck leader manipulated by his then deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who has since succeeded him. Johnson writes:
Outside the government [Mandela] was a towering figure but within it he had little power. The ANC exiles exercised complete control over his actions and speeches. Had ordinary South Africans known that Mandela was so disempowered that he often wandered out of cabinet meetings long before they ended, they would have been scandalised.
If true, this would indeed be a shocking revelation. But Johnson cites no source for it, and all the (plentiful) evidence suggests he is wrong. It is exactly the sort of rumour that appeals to many of South Africa’s reinvented liberals, who shelter under the party political umbrella of the Democratic Alliance. This group practises a peculiarly South African form of liberalism, whereby the professed ideology is filtered through the distorting prism of race. Many in the DA — and certainly its leader, Tony Leon — hail Johnson as their “merchant of ideas”.
Johnson’s underlying thesis is that there is little to choose between the nationalism of apartheid and that of the present regime. Such a view conflates the contemporary South African ethos with the old authoritarianism. Yet the latter was a form of legislated racism, while the former exists within the framework of an explicitly anti-racist, notably liberal constitution.
There are plenty of other surprising facts and dubious assertions. The businessman and former mineworkers’ union leader Cyril Ramaphosa may be amused to see himself described as a communist. Arthur Chaskalson, president of the constitutional court, may well be offended at the description of his appointment as “truly Orwellian”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu will surely take umbrage at being described as a “master of self-promotion”. And African historians will wince at the apparent confusion between Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole.
In a syrupy epilogue, Johnson equates himself, an historian, with the figures of the soothsayer and magician. This seems appropriate, given that the one deals in mystical prophecy and the other in illusion. History is the loser.

Posted in: Book Reviews