Review: The Mind of South Africa by Allister Sparks Print E-mail

SparksTheMindofSouthAfrica(San Diego Union-Tribune June 29, 1990)

The Psychology of Oppression

The history of South Africa fascinates Americans for good reason.

We see our own checkered past in theirs: colonization, slavery, a civil war fought over who should govern the "savages," and a capitalist-industrial revolution bringing mass immigration and exploitation. Black Americans need no reminders of the legacy of racial division: educational opportunities far below the national average and disproportionate rates for crime, drug addiction, homicide and infant death. But with apartheid, the 1948 law enforcing total racial segregation, modern similarities between the U.S. and South Africa end.

Articulating apartheid's uniqueness, Steve Biko, a leader in the Black Consciousness movement, said it best in one of his rallying cries: "I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people." That "settler minority," of course, is the Dutch—the Afrikaners.

They colonized South Africa in the 1600s and, after a few centuries of fighting with the equally suppressive British, became overseers of a homeland that includes Afrikaners, "Coloureds," Indians, English and blacks, the last group comprising over 80 percent of the population.

The government categorizes rights according to heritage; the irony is that after so many years of internecine strife they are all South African. It is the Afrikaner mind which Allister Sparks' superb political history tries to decipher.

An English descendant, traditionally liberal, Sparks does his homework by examining the historical and contemporary Afrikaner-black conflict.

He knows the black Africans' struggle with white rule from 25 years as a journalist, and he feels they deserve our admiration and support because they are the majority, because their cause is just and because they still have the will to forgive their oppressors. Sparks' fascination with the psychology of apartheid provides insight into how oppressors destroy themselves through self-deceit.

This is a mind, he says, that makes an indigenous people "native foreigners," forcing them to carry passes, restricting them to bantus or reservations without political rights or representation.

And it is the same mind that then tries to impress world opinion with "a show of democracy and justice." The deception reveals itself "in the paradoxical tokenism of the institutions and procedures (the Afrikaner rulers) maintain: a parliament with Opposition parties, which they bypass with executive decrees and proclamations; independent newspapers that are then shackled with restrictions; courts with independent judges, but laws bypassing them and permitting detention and interrogation and torture without trial." It is, in short, a sick mind, born of an Afrikaner fear of annihilation by the natives, bleeding itself toward spiritual death on the shame produced by the the apartheid-justifying theology of the Dutch Reformed Church. Sparks dramatizes numerous acts of white aggression within this police state. Sparks' moral scrutiny is uncommonly poignant.

He is a muckraker, yet he never reduces events to some left-wing agenda.

Rather, his analysis of apartheid's evil imparts the compassion he feels is necessary to rescue his country from its suicidal corruption.

Read his descriptions of the bloodily suppressed uprisings from 1984-1987, in which more than 3,000 blacks were needlessly killed.

Sparks does not just point a finger; he shows that behind such murder is a system of messianic paranoia that actually compels people to find value in preserving segregation, not because whites are bad per se, but because their government's edicts have cornered them into choosing cruelty over their own perceived extermination.

Us or them. After the 1986 state of emergency banned all public gatherings, funerals were the only means open for blacks to protest.

These spectacles of defiance, often featuring innocent victims of government massacres, Sparks covered firsthand. "The coffins would be there . . . mostly dark brown wood, but if there were children to be buried, and there always seemed to be children, they would be in little white coffins . . . ."Slowly the stadium would fill, twenty thousand, fifty thousand, seventy thousand people, and as it did so the singing would begin, thousands of voices coming together in a surging mass harmony that carried your spirit to the heavens, with every now and then a piercing solo voice rising up to ululate or trace its own melodic line above the mass. "The row of coffins, the pained faces of bereaved relatives, the wonderful freedom songs, the preaching, the harsh slogan shouting, the angry speeches, and the aggressive `toi-toi' dancing of the `comrades' as they jogged around the field chanting a call-and-response theme, all merged under the hot African sun into an evocative blend of faith and revolution." There is hope now for a country that in February freed Nelson Mandela and this month finally lifted the state of emergency.

Reading Sparks' assessment of De Klerk's options, the only sensible one is an Afrikaner commitment to majority rule with minority rights.

If such fairness is achieved, Sparks says, South Africa may rise from ignominy to model power-sharing—the first rainbow-governed country on earth.