Saturday, August 1, 2009



By Douglas Foster
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ever since 1994, when blacks were allowed to vote in a national election in South Africa for the first time, the country has served as a kind of Rorschach test for outside observers. It is either an exceptional land where a "miracle" took place because of the "magic" of Nelson Mandela's leadership, or a dystopia of AIDS, violent crime and xenophobia. The drawback in tagging someone else's country as inspiration for singing either "Kumbaya" or a pessimistic dirge is neglecting the real people -- full of deferred hopes and partly realized dreams -- who live there.

Alec Russell's sweeping, up-to-date account, based on two extended stints in South Africa, seeks to make sense of the contradictions. The world news editor at the Financial Times, Russell offers an acute look at the remarkable period when apartheid unraveled and a new political system under the African National Congress (ANC) took shape. Based on his reporting from 1990 to 1994 and another 18-month stay beginning in 2007, Russell reconstructs 15 years in the life of this emerging, still-fragile democracy. In the process, he goes a long way toward explaining how the country drifted from the reconciliatory rhetoric of Nelson Mandela through the cooler realism of Thabo Mbeki to the rank populism of Jacob Zuma. Zuma stepped up as the next president of the republic in early May. (His favorite struggle song, "Awuleth' Umshini Wami," literally "Bring Me My Machine Gun," provides Russell's title.)

Russell had remarkable access to many elite players (Mbeki enjoyed reading his newspaper), but he doesn't fall prey to the temptation to make this an insider's account. He traveled widely, and he successfully depicts the effects of large political and economic forces on ordinary people. The voices of policymakers and thinkers thread through the narrative, but so do his far-flung interviews with miners, rural schoolteachers, white and black farmers, traditional rural leaders and upwardly mobile black professionals. His grasp of economics in developing countries, particularly the effects of apartheid-era patterns of land ownership and wealth, anchor the story.

The political liberation achieved in South Africa in 1994 hasn't led to an equivalent breakthrough in material security for the mostly poor, mostly black supporters of the ANC. This key failure set the stage for the toppling of Mbeki and the rise of Zuma. Blacks had been largely shut out of the economy under the extreme form of racial segregation known as apartheid, and Mbeki's effort to disentangle color and class yielded only mixed results. Russell grasps the enormousness of the task. He writes: "That is the principal hope for South Africa: that the poison of apartheid can be steadily diluted as the years pass and that, after a period of dutiful arms-length cooperation, future generations can somehow grow up free of the prejudices that have so long divided the country."

With Zuma's presidency, the country enters a critical period in its progress toward realizing the nonracial, nonsexist, egalitarian society Mandela once envisioned. But, in an uncharacteristic lapse, Russell fails to give Zuma his due. He portrays the country's fourth black president largely as an unprincipled stick figure. Zuma may be partly to blame because, as I discovered myself, he often dodges interviews and is a master of the opaque answer. Whatever the cause, the portrait that emerges weakens Russell's analysis of one of the country's key politicians. Zuma comes across as a rather genial but vapid character, even though he was a liberation hero, served as chief of intelligence of the ANC, worked in tandem with Mbeki for several decades, fought back successfully against criminal charges of corruption and rape, and went on to vanquish his onetime friend, a masterfully brainy inside player, in a head-to-head contest for control of the ANC.

Russell tags Zuma as "an authentic African leader," whatever that is (Leopold Senghor of Senegal? Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria? King Mswati III of Swaziland?), and he slips into cartoonish prose. "He appears more comfortable sitting with clansmen in his home village in rural Zululand, telling stories and passing around a vat of sorghum beer, than discussing policy," Russell writes, even though Zuma famously never drinks and can rattle on at the slightest provocation and at great length about the minutiae of the ANC's poverty-alleviation plans and "collective leadership."

"Bring Me My Machine Gun" is nonetheless a compelling, bracing chronicle of the 15-year campaign to make the promise of 1994 a reality. Now the country heads into its defining moment post-transition and post-Mbeki amid a global recession that will test emerging democracies such as this one. Since South Africa has the largest economy on the continent and serves as an intellectual and cultural powerhouse in Africa, Russell's timely book makes vividly clear that many hopes, both for political freedom and social justice, still hang in the balance.

Douglas Foster is an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.