The end of apartheid has been beneficial to the vast majority of South Africans, and also to the student of South African history. Apartheid can now be considered historically rather than as an existing injustice, and so can be studied more dispassionately than when it was still dominant. Saul Dubow’s history of the apartheid years certainly shows that this can usefully be done.
The structure of the work is firmly chronological, which is good – any other approach would be useless to readers coming to the subject for the first time. Beginning in 1948 with the electoral victory of the National Party, Dubow traces the history of apartheid to its demise, together with the course of black resistance to it. He is especially good on apartheid’s ideological roots in Afrikaner nationalism, which was originally concerned as much with resistance to British imperialism as it was with white supremacy. However, the book also shows that ideology was not always a significant consideration, and often took second place to the purely pragmatic maintenance of white domination. Apartheid was never monolithic: the victory of the Nationalists in 1948 came as a surprise, and they had no “master plan” for apartheid’s implementation. Apartheid’s priorities varied over the years, and the policy was probably most overbearing during the 1958-66 premiership of H. F. Verwoerd.
If apartheid was more protean than is usually thought, black resistance was not a steadily growing force. By 1965 it was, as Dubow says, “smashed and eviscerated”, its leaders exiled or, like Nelson Mandela, imprisoned. It really resurfaced onlyin the 1970s, which saw the Soweto uprising, the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement and the murder of that movement’s most famous representative, Steve Biko, by police. Nor was the African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since 1994, always seen as the natural future ruling group. The Black Consciousness movement and Gatsha Buthelezi’s Zulu nationalist Inkatha group were seen as challengers by the ANC, and fighting between Inkatha and ANC supporters continued right up until 1994.
More attention could perhaps have been given here to the international responses to apartheid. Sanctions and boycotts injured apartheid South Africa economically and may have helped to make apartheid harder to maintain, but, in this account, external factors are seen as less important than internal opposition to apartheid, which is debatable. The significance of the end of the Cold War in apartheid’s death is also a major consideration, and, while the book covers this, it might have done so in a little more depth. At the same time, possibly too much space has been given to white domestic opposition. This came from numerous sources – liberal writers, the parliamentary Progressive Party and the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) – but had little impact. With the exception of very few, such as the Communist leader Joe Slovo, the white opponents of apartheid were ineffectual, and the NUSAS in particular was little more than a social club where the children of the privileged played at being Che Guevara.
These points aside, this work is a first-rate, clearly written account of a bizarre 20th-century political experiment. Apartheid has left a lasting impression on South Africa that will continue to affect it for some years to come, and Dubow’s book is a fine introduction to the study of that experiment.
By Saul Dubow
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £55.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780199550661 and 0678
Published 22 May 2014