A really good assessment of South Africa during years of Mbeki’s presidency (starts with transition from Mandela, ends with rise of Zuma). Uses a wealth of interviews, anecdotes, and historical perspective to cover all key areas of the society - the party, the violence, failure to deliver, Afrikaners, AIDS, BEE, Zimbabwe and more.
It had its slow moments, specially in the beginning, and a tiny bit of (Western?) proselytising, but they are rare.

Exile vs inzile culture

The exiles were known for their close-knit conspiratorial ways, the secretive habits of exiled revolutionaries across the ages. The inziles had a tradition of participative democracy in which everyone should have his or her say.

There was a big difference between the exiles’ culture of ‘taking orders’ and the inziles’ culture of ‘sitting around and debating.’ You operate differently. You relate to comrades in a different way. Your styles are different.

The party above the leader

Mbeki’s bid for a third term as ANC leader had risked turning South Africa into Zimbabwe with Mbeki playing the malign role of Mugabe, he said. ‘We were saying we could not be Zimbabwe. No, no, not here—in South Africa, we are better than that. Thabo should have listened to us. But he did not. He thought he knew best. Now the ANC has taken back control of the party.’

Such disdain for a head of government and party would not be surprising in mature democracies. But in South Africa, coming just thirteen years after liberation, it was astounding. A colossus had been toppled. Pallo Jordan, one of the party’s most respected thinkers, argues that such irreverence was very much in the party’s tradition. It had always been a broad church and could be relied on to maintain a rebellious spirit, he said.

‘From the day I walked in the doors of the ANC in the late fifties, we were arguing, and we are still arguing today over everything under the sun. People in the ANC are—well, it’s not that they are fractious, but they don’t put up with a lot of crap. They had to be stand-up people all those years to be in the ANC.’

A legacy of the apartheid: the brutalisation of youth

The phenomenon, which became known as ‘necklacing’, entailed throwing a rubber tyre filled with petrol around someone’s chest and arms, and then setting it alight. Its emergence had marked the time when South Africa’s good versus evil narrative lost its stark simplicity. Images of mobs dancing around their blazing victims sent a chill through more sober leaders of the ANC as they realised the extent to which apartheid and the battle against it had brutalised the country’s youth. The return of the necklace to the country’s news bulletins in 2008 marked another turning point for South Africa.

The necklace reflected not just the failure of South Africa to escape the brutality of the past but also more broadly its failure to overcome the inequalities of the apartheid era.

From a rich country for 15%, and poor country for 85%, to a developing country for the 100%:

His closing remark went to the heart of one of South Africa’s most acute dilemmas. As the joy of liberation dissipated, the country had had to come to terms with the realisation that it was just another middle-income country with a host of pressing problems and that it could expect no special favours from the outside world.

Under apartheid about 80 per cent of the budget was directed to about 15 per cent of the population. That ensured that many in the minority had a lifestyle to compare with the most affluent countries in the world. But as Manuel appreciated, wealthy as South Africa was in comparison with other sub-Saharan African countries, whatever the government did, the inequalities could not be evened out. Rather, South Africans had to tailor their expectations of the state to the realities of a developing country.

Service delivery deficit & rewarding posts based on struggle contribution not ability

Clearing out too many of the old public servants had left a deficit of talent. This was compounded by the tendency of the ANC to appoint some officials on the basis of struggle credentials rather than merit, an approach that affected the highest levels of government.

Cheryl Carolus, the veteran anti-apartheid activist whom Mandela appointed as high commissioner to London, suggested that the time had come to rethink affirmative action. The ANC needed to stop relying on an old boys’ network. It would do much better at ‘service delivery’ if it assessed people according to their talents, she said. ‘We need to think of what people are best at doing.’

Debating vs deciding

The crisis reflected a particular weakness in the ANC’s style of government: it was rather better at discussing policy than implementing it. AIDS activists became wearily accustomed to reading well-worded policy papers on health whose policies were never implemented.

Renier Schoeman, a former National Party minister, spent two years witnessing the ANC’s inner workings when he served in Mandela’s government of national unity after the 1994 election. He concluded that the quality of the discussion was far superior to the debates in the National Party cabinet meetings, but that the National Party had been better at reaching a conclusion. Often in ANC meetings there would be long debates that ended without a decision, he said. The danger, he concluded was that ‘you end up with the process being king, and you lose sight of the goal.’

Trevor Manuel on managing the economy (at end of his tenure)

Ricardo Haussman, a prominent Harvard economist, had told him to think of his job as conducting an orchestra.
‘What the macro (me: economic policies) does is to provide the beat. It is just there as the percussion. To listen to just the percussion is not very pleasant. You need symphony. You take the percussion out of the symphony, you can’t maintain the necessary rhythm … You need two hands.’

The Afrikaner

Tim du Plessis, a leading Afrikaner journalist, said a few years after the end of white rule that there was a spirit of subservience running through the Afrikaner psyche that would help them to adapt more easily to the new order than white English speakers. ‘Once we Afrikaners can overcome racism and bigotry, we will slip easily into the African way of thinking,’ he said. ‘The Afrikaners are used to defending corruption and bigotry in the old government. They will easily adapt to the inefficiencies of the new.’


As the years passed, many of the old Afrikaner corporations, which were founded by the Nationalists to take on the English speakers, prospered in the new order. With sanctions removed, they were at last able to exploit the market in Africa and elsewhere. Naspers, a media company that originally published conservative Afrikaans newspapers, became something of a corporate pin-up of the new order. It expanded its pay-television service into the rest of Africa and was one of the first South African companies to invest in China. Afrikaner chief executives tended to demur when asked if they regarded themselves as trailblazers for a new breed of post-apartheid Afrikaner businessman. They saw themselves as South Africans, they said, not Afrikaners.

On hearing Bok van Blerk sing his ode to Koos de la Rey, a legendary Boer War general:

The song rolled through the night air with the timbre of a high-veld storm. It is the sort of Old Testament voice that at the end of the nineteenth century might have enthused young Afrikaners to join a commando for a tilt at the ‘khakis’, as the British forces were known by the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War—or that is at least what many in the crowd of Afrikaners listening to it one balmy night in 2007 cleary yearned to dream as they rejoiced in hearing their beloved Afrikaans delivered with such power.

Helen Suzman

The Democratic Party was the successor to Helen Suzman’s original party and the inheritor of her outspoken liberal tradition. In her thirty-six years in Parliament, from 1953 to 1989, she infuriated the Nationalists with her probing questions. On average she asked two hundred questions a year. When accused by a minister of asking questions in Parliament that embarrassed South Africa, she famously replied, ‘It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.’

On life in the suburbs, vs life back home (Soweto for him, Karnal/Bombay for me)

And yet there was a sterility and coolness to his new life that had him pining for Soweto. He had barely exchanged a word with his white neighbour in two years. ‘Soweto is not the most beautiful, but shit, it’s neighbourly. The neighbours will help you to move house. That’s why there’s less chance of being burgled there than here. There’s a trumpet that calls us back.’

—Happy Ntshingila, 35, Founder & CEO of Herbuoys, South Africa’s first black advertising agency

‘You don’t know how tiring it is being at the top. If anything, there isn’t ency [in the townships], but rather you are a role model. We were having an argument all night about what it’s like to be at the top. There were affirmative action products, guys who are worth their salt, and also guys like me, the so-called entrepreneurs. I am driven by the fear of failure. I would not be just failing myself but also black South Africa.’

Legacy of flawed land reform at Catarina Farm:

Soon there would be no peaches left. In the field stretching from the farmhouse to the road, the farmworkers had been harvesting the orchards. They had clearly worked with a metronomic precision. They had started at the farmhouse end and were making their way towards the road. It was a routine that the orchards had seen over several decades. Only these harvesters were using axes, not their fingers. The stumps were at a uniform height of six inches high. One by one the trees were being chopped down for firewood.


If you play the piano, you can use any notes, but you have to use the right notes at the right time, he said. Too many new black farmers were expected to start out without expertise and capital, and their projects ended in failure. The ANC had to swallow its pride and turn to white farmers for help. ‘Ever time a man with expertise retires, it’s as good as a library burned down.’

—Frans Fourie

… a silver-haired Afrikaner in his late-middle age … had a 10 per cent stake in the business. In return he was the de facto farm manager. He had started farming in a remote part of the Free State in the mid-1960s, but in the nineties his warm was running into difficulties because of a drought, and he had welcomed the chance of working for the Charlestown community as an adviser.

Zuma, declaring war on AIDS

‘At another moment in our history, in another context, the liberation movement observed that the time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight,’ he said. ‘That time has now come in our struggle to overcome AIDS. Let us declare now, as we declared then, that we shall not submit.’


And yet at a critical moment in his country’s history he conquered his fear of the unknown and acted in the best interests of his country and not his party—and that marks him out with greatness. Lord Renwick, who was British ambassador at the time of the speech, argues that de Klerk deserved the Nobel Peace Prize twice over for handing over power. ‘The hardest thing in politics is not to receive power but to give it up,’ he said. ‘He changed the history of South Africa.’