Growing pains in the colourful country

As I’ve grown older, my enchantment with foreign correspondents has dimmed. When I was a young journalist I wanted to be one, complete with flak jacket and parachute; now I prefer to dig deep into my own country and continent and understand it with as much complexity as I can muster.

So I’ve veered in the past year between boredom and disappointment as I’ve encountered the foreign scribe on Africa and South Africa.

I bought Robert Guest’s The Shackled Continent and gave it away after reading the first chapter, bored by its colonial tone of inevitable chaos. Last month, after eagerly scooping up a copy of Newsweek that featured a cover story on the exodus from South Africa, I drooped at its rehashing of entirely inadequate statistics to substantiate a shouter that didn’t stand up to any of the basic laws of good journalism. It’s too common, this writing that comes from a place of deep stereotype and often lazy analysis, made for African hands and certainly not for those of us who live here.

After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa (Hutchinson) by Alec Russell, world editor of the Financial Times, breaks the mould. It is pacy and well written, but, more vitally, it is rooted in real research among real people.

Moreover, it is authoritative, because Russell draws on interviews with both of South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and also with Jacob Zuma, the man who will be our president by this time next month. Russell was part of the corps of foreign correspondents who worked here as freedom came: he knew our nooks and crannies from the hideaways of right-wing secessionists to the self-defence units of the Vaal townships.

Those corps were the cream of the crop of correspondents because South Africa was a big story; many have gone on to become senior editors, which may explain why, in addition to being an African giant that often loses its way, our country continues to be covered in some detail, if not depth.

Russell paints a potted history of post-apartheid South Africa. I enjoyed how real people dot the text — he is obviously a detailed reporter who knows how to link the big themes to the small people, whom he describes in ways that bring them to life.

So, we have interviews with a Soweto shopper in a vignette about how the mall came to the famous township. In a colourful piece set during a courtside vigil for Jacob Zuma we meet one of the shock troops who have been so instrumental in his journey into power. He returns several times to Koppies, the platteland town with its accompanying township of Kwakwatsi, which he first chronicled as apartheid ended.

It is a microcosm story that tells a tale of small-town racism, affirmative action, the skills deficit and education by visiting and revisiting.

Russell, who has also worked in Eastern Europe, disabuses South Africa of its exceptionalism, showing again and again how our growing pains are par for the messy course.

As he writes in his introduction: “The history of countries throwing off tyrannical regimes tends to follow a pattern. In the immediate aftermath there is euphoria, accompanied by utopian pledges for the future. Then the new rulers find the business of governing more difficult and messier than they could ever have imagined. They also find that it is far harder to overcome their own past than they had appreciated as they plotted their takeover in prison or in exile. It is in this second stage that the true meaning and trajectory of a revolution unfolds.”

The book escorts us to the doorstep of this second stage of transition where we now find ourselves. The country is moving quickly, rendering parts of it historical though he has strived to be current. Read, for example, his description of the disgraced Scorpions chief Leonard McCarthy, whose careless tongue and political malleability ensured that we will never know whether the future president is innocent or guilty of corruption. “McCarthy is a bear of a man, big of body and personality. Yet, like a number of men of his bulk, he moves with a feline grace. There was something of the panther about him.” A revised version may suggest there was something of a snake about him …

Right now, I am soaking up all I can read about Zuma to better understand the man who will lead us.

There are some nuggets from Russell’s various interactions with him (not all of them were interviews), but the final chapters on the split in the ANC and the rise of Zuma feel rushed, unlike the rest of the book, which is a treat and a worthy follow-up to those by Allister Sparks, Patti Waldmeier, William Gumede and Mark Gevisser that have to come to define our age.

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