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Getting South Africa Wrong THEY CANNOT KILL US ALL: An Eyewitness Accountof South Africa Today by Richard Manning (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 255 pp.)

September 06, 1987|William Finnegan | Finnegan has written extensively about Southern Africa. He is the author of "Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid," which was published in paperback in August. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker. and

Shortly before Richard Manning, Newsweek's bureau chief in Johannesburg, was expelled from South Africa in June, 1986, he reported a cover story about the conflict there that so disturbed the Botha government that the issue containing it was banned. A national state of emergency, which remains in effect, had just been declared. "President P. W. Botha has turned a racist regime into a police state" was how Newsweek put it.

What perhaps disturbed the apartheid authorities most about that cover story, however, was how little it dwelt on their role in the South African conflict. The story's centerpiece was a long section, written by Manning, about three black resistance leaders. The strong implication was that these were now the main players in the South African drama and that the regime was, historically speaking, a spent force: lumber awaiting removal from the stage.

That story about the three resistance leaders was a powerful piece of reporting and it is included, in expanded form, in "They Cannot Kill Us All."

Although Manning was in South Africa less than a year--"The most intense nine months of my life," he calls them--he has written an ambitious book. With didactic aplomb, he devotes one chapter to the Afrikaners, another to the country's English-speaking whites, another to Nelson Mandela, another to U.S. policy and the sanctions issue. Manning has spent his entire career as a journalist at Newsweek, and his is, in fact, the peculiar, unshakable aplomb of the newsweekly's approach to the world, the chief (perhaps the only) virtue of which is its unfailing compression of events into nice, bite-size concepts. It is not, unfortunately, a kind of journalism that lends itself to expansion.

Manning tries heating up his material. Interviews that might have yielded a quote or two for Newsweek--journalistic boilerplate--are here presented, at exhausting length, as frightfully dramatic encounters.

When the interviewee is an unpleasant union official, there is screeching, barking, shouting, sneering, desk-pounding, finger-waving, spittle-flecking, even chin-flapping ("His double chin looked like a goiter").

When the interviewee is Winnie Mandela, we hear so much about her "sensuality," and how she "crossed her legs demurely," and "the coy, inviting sideways slant of her chin," that we begin to wonder if we are in the right hotel room.

Manning also tries, wherever possible, to personalize his subject. After each interview, he recounts his own reactions and judgments--often in the form of a conversation with Mark Peters, his ex-Rhodesian photographer.

After leaving the apartment of a government-supporting postal clerk: "Peters asked me how someone could be that far out of it, that cut off and dense. Easy, I said. That's what happens when the National Party takes care of everything."

In its outlines, the analysis of South Africa's basic conflict that Manning offers seems accurate. The Botha regime is historical lumber awaiting removal, and Manning is not fooled by its "reform" program; he finds evidence of its fundamental flaw even in its language: "The government's term for the accommodation of black political aspirations is 'a political dispensation for blacks'--something that is dispensed from above, handed down from the pulpit. Since black South Africans show few signs of accepting anything that is dispensed from above because the process smacks of condescension and paternalism, hope for a peaceful resolution of South Africa's future must be sadly diminished."

But when it comes to finding a vivid, authoritative voice in which to describe South Africa's dilemma, Manning searches in vain. His penchant for self-dramatization often veers into the hackneyed--"I'd drive home at night saying why, why, why over and over again"--or the ludicrously self-evident: "I cared too much to simply write the country off, but I was powerless to provide the remedy." Who, after all, would ever have imagined that he could "provide a remedy" for South Africa?

Perhaps the most stunning example of this sort of bleeding-heart arrogance ("Easy, I said") comes when Manning, ordered out of the country, is saying goodby to Joel (no last name given), his black gardener.

"Never forget that this is your country, your land," Manning instructs the gardener. " 'I won't,' Joel said, shaking his head." The condescension that Manning accuses the Botha regime of showing toward black South Africans is clearly not something with which he is personally unfamiliar.

When he writes about the ruling Afrikaner minority, however, condescension becomes outright racism. Manning blames "Afrikaner pigheadedness" for South Africa's problems, and reckons that one Afrikaner liberal he meets "is perhaps the best Afrikanerdom has to offer."

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