The Unfinished Revolution | The Nation


The Unfinished Revolution

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Sparks praises the TRC as placing "the truth on record" and thinks the government's neoliberal market economic line is a good start, but does not go far enough: "South Africa should [not] abandon its GEAR policy or undertake a radical change of course. But some modifications are needed to meet our special circumstances." Just what kind of modifications he has in mind becomes clear in his lament that "unlike other democracies where individuals shuttle between top jobs in government and the private sector, South Africa has no Robert McNamaras or Dick Cheneys or Michael Bloombergs, with experience of both."

About the Author

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is on the faculty of The New School in Manhattan. 

Also by the Author

Although most black South Africans revere Mandela and his party for defeating apartheid, many are realizing that fighting inequality and achieving full citizenship will mean taking on the ANC.

A chronicle of the past ten years of South African headlines, Sparks's book reads at times like a collection of news articles strung together--informative, but not terribly insightful. The book is more provocative when Sparks uses his insider status and access to President Mbeki to shed light on what many perceive as Mbeki's biggest blunders: the government's controversial response (or lack thereof) to the AIDS pandemic and the political crisis in Zimbabwe. The government's stunning refusal to confront the AIDS crisis--particularly Mbeki's stubborn insistence, based on the spurious claims of "AIDS dissidents," that HIV does not cause AIDS--has dominated international coverage of South Africa in recent years. (In a televised address to Parliament in September 2000, Mbeki famously remarked that "a virus cannot cause a syndrome.") Most observers have been baffled by Mbeki's AIDS policy. Why on earth would an educated, highly intelligent and sophisticated politician base his government's AIDS policy on the discredited ideas of a scientific fringe whose work, rumor has it, he encountered while surfing the Internet?

Sparks rejects the theory that, in dealing with the AIDS crisis, Mbeki is a desperate man grasping at straws, depicting him instead as a resolute if misguided leader. He also discounts the idea that Mbeki was asserting African intellectual independence in the face of Western scientific hegemony, pointing out that the fiercest critics of AIDS denialism are the country's senior black scientists and COSATU, whose members are overwhelmingly black. Instead, Sparks emphasizes Mbeki's political naïveté and pride, as well as his "deep-seated anger" that linking Africa with AIDS is about "smear[ing] black people the way homosexuals were demonized when AIDS first appeared in the US." He is on shakier ground when he points to psychological issues, arguing that "it is all wrapped up in [Mbeki's] past, in his experiences as a child of the struggle...whose whole life was controlled and directed and dedicated for him with little thought for his own wishes."

Whatever his motivations, Mbeki was ultimately forced to back down. Following pressure from Mandela and Mbeki's own Cabinet, as well as media and civil society, the government announced in 2002 that it accepted the usefulness of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Two years later, it finally began to make ARVs available through the public sector. Sparks, who sees a silver lining in every South African cloud, might take this to mean that "civil society has shown its effectiveness... against misrule." But again, this triumphal story is misleading. Just this past January (after Sparks's book was published, to be fair), the government announced that it would slash the budget for ARV provision, citing the "ineffectiveness" of the fledgling program. Much of the funding has since been restored in the run-up to elections, but these flip-flops are not reassuring.

Sparks also spoke at length with Mbeki on the crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, a former liberation hero, has led a violent campaign against white farmers and an even more brutal campaign against his black opponents. Sparks rightly chides Mbeki for the South African government's dithering in the face of Mugabe's despotism. Mbeki, who (unlike Mandela) has offered only the mildest of criticisms of Mugabe, an ally during the apartheid years, told Sparks that "the extraordinary preoccupation with what is going on in Zimbabwe in reality has got to do with white fears in South Africa." As Mbeki points out, the far more violent civil wars in Rwanda and Congo have elicited few protests among South African whites. Sparks agrees with Mbeki that many whites are indifferent to black suffering, but he fails to develop the obvious parallel: A racist white minority ruled Zimbabwe for at least a century until it was finally dislodged through the twin pressures of guerrilla war and British-supervised negotiations. The compromises left most of the land in the hands of white farmers. However much one deplores Mugabe's cynical exploitation of the land problem, it is very real, and South Africa has one too. Under apartheid, whites occupied 87 percent of the agricultural land. By the end of 2001, less than 2 percent of land had changed hands between whites and rural, landless blacks. It is a disparity that will haunt the "new South Africa" as long as it remains unresolved, and one that would make it very delicate, at best, for the South African government to appear to be intervening on behalf of white landowners in Zimbabwe.

In the end, Beyond the Miracle is mostly surface analysis. We do not learn about Mbeki's attempts to further continental integration and autonomy through an African Union, or the policy and strategic considerations that probably underlie South Africa's ambiguous response to the unraveling of its northern neighbor's political and economic system. This points to a larger shortcoming of Sparks's approach, which owes more to the tradition of political punditry than of investigative reporting. We get lots of grand events and the pronouncements of politicians, but very little of what was going on behind the scenes. As a consequence, the book reinforces the mainstream accounts of South African history in which the protagonists are black nationalists and white Afrikaners. White English-speakers and big business are on the sidelines, relatively benign onlookers.

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