History of South Africa 1902 to the Present : Book Review

By Bob Newland

This extensive history is written at a time when the ANC faces the prospect of losing its overall control of Parliament and many municipalities for the first time since the ending of apartheid. It covers the period of the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1902 through to the present. While focussing on South Africa the book widely illustrates the terrible role of colonialism in Southern Africa throughout the 20th Century.  Simpson shows that how the colonial powers worked closely together to continue their dominance of the region. Thankfully, he also provides extensive evidence of the collaboration of the peoples of the colonies in bringing this terrible period of world history to an end.   

Thula Simpson presents a picture of a country ‘Born in War’ with a history dominated by wars and struggle.  He covers the periods of colonialism, segregation, apartheid and majority rule. He takes advantage of access to  recently released archive papers providing a vast wealth of previously unavailable primary sources.

Although the author is a well-respected historian he has chosen an unusual approach whereby the ‘outcasts and dissidents of one period become the prophets and martyrs of the next’. This gives the reader a perspective on history looking back, exploring the views of contemporaries and considering the impact on the future.

The story begins with South Africa’s founders (Britain and the Boers), imperialism, early anti-communism and the links between the Boers and Hitler fascism. It continues with apartheid and the  mass popular campaigns and the armed struggle waged by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) waged against it.  Commenting on the book, Ronnie Kasrils, former Head of Intelligence for MK says: ‘This recent and massive tome identifies [an] extraordinary number of incidents involving MK’.

With the development of the armed struggle, the youth uprising in Soweto in 1976, and growing strikes in key industries, the author shows the extent to which the country became ungovernable.  Joint campaigns with MK and liberation movements in the former colonies surrounding South Africa are well catalogued along with the solidarity role of Cuban troops culminating in the victory over the South African Defence Force in Cuito Cuanavale in Angola.

Following this we are able to explore the way in which former colonies, despite many internal and external threats, provided ongoing support to the ANC and in particular to MK.  At the same time the machinations of the Thatcher  and US Governments are exposed in some detail.  

The author’s provides an in depth exploration of the process of negotiation which eventually brought about the end of apartheid.  This includes many struggles between Mandela and the apartheid regime over who would be included in the ANC negotiating team.  Mandela, as has been well documented, refuses to begin negotiations until key figures including Communist leaders are released from prison or allowed to return to South Africa.  Disagreements between members of the ANC’s negotiators are also well illustrated.

Some stories are amusing such as when Ronnie Kasrils and Mac Maharaj are permitted to return to join the negotiating team. Both are already in South Africa engaged in Operation Vula transporting weapons and fighters into the country as well as providing the key communications between ANC leaders in prison including Mandela and those in exile.  Kasrils and Maharaj have to be smuggled out of the country in order to re-enter legally. 

The story ends with the many challenges of today’s South Africa: corruption, State Capture and Covid 19.  It shows how these tragic episodes and the difficulty to overcome them are closely interlinked with the political struggles within the ANC.

This book adds a great deal to the record of Southern Africa’s torturous transition through colonialism, apartheid, independence and the ongoing struggle to overcome that legacy in a world dominated by neo liberalism.  I highly recommend it.

History of South Africa 1902 to the Present by Thula Simpson. Publisher Hurst £22

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