The Last Afrikaner Leaders

Hermann Giliomee

(Tafelberg, R350)

In this significant study, Hermann Giliomee provides spell-binding insights into the last Afrikaner leaders’ vain attempts to square the circle by trying to find a way of sharing power without losing control.

Hendrik Verwoerd was so convinced that he was right and so charismatic in convincing his party of the rightness of his policies that he was in no danger of losing control. The caricature of the fanatic is a well-established one.

What the author successfully addresses is a recontextualisation of the politician in terms of his flawed presuppositions regarding the carrying capacity of the homelands, historical claims to the land and the projected growth of the black “nations”.

Prescinding from Afrikaner experience, he expected his policies to ignite ethnic enthusiasm, while at the same time sharing in the prevalent disillusionment with the fruits of African independence.

His successor, John Vorster, clung to the homelands policy long after it was questioned to the point of being discredited. Bogged down by discord in Afrikaner ranks, he was incapable of finding any way out of the apartheid impasse.

PW Botha’s role in initiating controlled but meaningful reform has not achieved the recognition it deserves. This is because he obscured his positive moves by displays of irascibility, bluster and obfuscation.

Most notoriously, his Rubicon speech, which was authoritatively predicted would announce dramatic advance, was such a public relations disaster that the author inclines to the view that the president’s volte face was as a result of a stroke which was kept secret.

Although Van Zyl Slabbert was sharply opposed to the government and its apartheid policy, he was a highly influential Afrikaner leader who had the potential to play a key role in any democratic transition.

He initiated talks with the ANC leaders in exile and was overwhelmed by their charm offensive but concerned by their intolerant “democratic centralism”. In later years he was to ruefully concede that he may have played the role of the “useful idiot”.

The chapters on the negotiated settlement launched by FW de Klerk raise the possibility that Slabbert was not the only one. The South African government was in such bad odour internationally, the economy was in such dire straits and the National Party had so comprehensively lost faith in apartheid that the government negotiators made concession after concession in their efforts to keep the ANC at the conference table.

In the end, they staked everything on a constitutional state with an independent judiciary.

Current developments suggest that the ANC, which used the moral high ground it enjoyed to drown out all voices but its own – and whose resort to rolling mass action tipped the power balance – may have negotiated in bad faith, seeing the acceptance of the final accord merely as a bridgehead for a radical “democratic revolution”.

If this is an emotional over-reaction to what is happening in South Africa at the moment, it is not a fault that must be ascribed to Giliomee, whose presentation of the historical evidence never deviates from the scholarly norm of rational discourse. He draws on primary sources and personal interviews and offers a coherent account of the way in which the interplay of historical contingency and human agency affected the course of events. The range of knowledge displayed is impressive; the tone is dispassionate; the style is lucid and engaging; and the insights are stimulating.

I read the book almost at a sitting and many other interested readers will do so too.