How Peace Came to S. Africa: Telling the Incredible Story

Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa

By Patti Waldmeir

W.W. Norton

384 pp., $27.50

Thabo Mbeki sat in a cozy New York hotel, face to face with his white oppressor, listening.

Serenity never left the brow of the anti-apartheid activist, though there was plenty of reason for outrage. An ocean away, the townships of South Africa were burning. At that very moment, the white government was imposing a state of emergency to quash resistance to apartheid, the Afrikaners' cruel system of segregation. Black children were being tortured and killed.

Patty Waldmeir describes this historic meeting in her book, "Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa."

The author takes her reader step by step through a multitracked process that began with secret meetings in New York, Britain, Zambia, even in government minivans inside South Africa's townships, and ended with the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in 1994.

In New York, the topic of discussion was peace. Mr. Mbeki, a senior official in the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) (and now deputy president of South Africa), had joined Pieter de Lange, chairman of the Afrikaner Brotherhood, the apartheid state's secret society, in a highly clandestine and tentative step toward reconciliation. Not even the South African cabinet knew of the meeting.

Mr. de Lange had come to explain why his government was preparing to repeal two pillars of apartheid - the Mixed Marriages and Group Areas acts - that kept blacks and whites from living in the same houses and suburbs.

The ANC regarded such acts as so much nibbling at the edges. Blacks wanted political equality, not white wives. Mbeki knew, however, that that goal could only be achieved after the two sides learned to know each other. So de Lange talked and Mbeki listened, and thus began a painstaking process of each side letting go of fear.

It is tempting to view South Africa's troubled history of apartheid in stark moral terms. But Waldmeir, Southern Africa bureau chief for the Financial Times from 1985 to 1995, properly digs deeper, and forces her readers to acknowledge that evil resided in a system more than a people.

She traverses the factors, from black insurrection to international economic sanctions to the fall of the Soviet Union, that brought the Afrikaner state to its knees, and narrates many of the contradictions during this period. She explains why, for example, the white government turned more violently oppressive even as it secretly pursued peace with the enemy.

A handful of books precede this one, and an argument can be made that, three years into Mr. Mandela's presidency, energy would be better spent examining the process of reconciliation rather than the years of transition. What makes this book important is its author. Waldmeir is a first-rate reporter, who cut her teeth on racial turmoil during the 1967 riots of her native Detroit. She possesses sharp perceptiveness and skepticism.

Her book is insightful but frustrating. She concentrates on the crucial decade from 1983 to 1994, examining the motives and methods by which two adversaries bent outwardly on each other's destruction came to mutual admiration and understanding. ("We had to start from where they were," Mbeki tells her.)

But there is a price to pay for gaining her insights, and it comes in small annoyances. Waldmeir struggles with the art of storytelling, and her narrative is often disjointed. Each chapter is preceded by a short offering of reportage meant to illustrate the theme of her next discussion; the vignettes are more often disruptive.

And there are too many instances when the author parades her own talents and access to South Africa's most important players, to wit: "Musing on my long and exhausting encounter with [President Botha] ... I reflected on the question, why did the Boers give it all away[?]"

A tedious way of phrasing the question, but she answers it well. By elucidating the fears, pragmatism, and humanity of South Africa's reformers, Waldmeir shows not only how a remarkable transition occurred, but shines a light into the future. Her exploration of the Afrikaner mind helps explain why the Boers (South Africans of Dutch descent) have adjusted successfully to black rule. And her portraits of such men as Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's appointed successor, hint at what's to come.

Ultimately, however, Waldmeir's greatest contribution is to bring valuable new eyewitness testimony of South Africa's grand achievement, namely, that peoples have the capacity to forgive, and bloodshed need not beget bloodshed.

* Kurt Shillinger is a Monitor staff writer.

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