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Milking South Africa's Sacred Cows : THE MIRROR AT MIDNIGHT; A South African Journey By Adam Hochschild (Viking: $19.95; 289 pp.)

January 06, 1991|Rian Malan | Malan is the author of "My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience" (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Adam Hochschild spent the summer of 1962 working on one of South Africa's white liberal newspapers. It was a Damascus road experience for Hochschild, who became suddenly and painfully aware of the silver spoon in his mouth, and resolved to spit it out. Back in America, he founded "Mother Jones Magazine," campaigned for the oppressed and downtrodden, and eventually became a political commentator of some renown.

He never forgot South Africa, though. It had become "the landscape of my dreams," so he returned to it from time to time to write magazine articles, and finally to research this book. The year was 1988, the 150th anniversary of the "Great Trek" that opened the country for white settlement and planted the seeds of the conflict raging today. In celebration, columns of bearded Boer horsemen donned period costume and escorted ox wagons down the highways to reenact their forefathers' conquest of the African interior.

Hochschild followed these curious processions around the country for a month or two, meditating on the trek and its legacy of injustice, repression, police brutality, detention without trial and so on and so on, and so on. His rendition of these things is as heart-rending as any, but they have been repeated in so many books that one longs for a more original treatment. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu "groaned" when Hochschild's publisher asked him to supply a quote for "The Mirror's" cover.

In the end, Tutu rose to the occasion and endorsed the book, but he has a bigger heart than I. Indeed, "The Mirror at Midnight" put me in mind of a political rally I attended about a year ago. Walter Sisulu and other stalwarts of the struggle against apartheid had just been released from prison, and 80,000 people had gathered in a soccer stadium near Soweto to welcome them home. A band played African music, freedom songs were sung, and the leaders ran a lap of honor around the stadium. Then they sat down on the podium, right under a Communist Party flag.

This was a little embarrassing for reporters bent on portraying the ANC as a civil-rights movement in the Western democratic tradition. Around mid-afternoon, I fell in behind a foreign TV crew who were in town following a famous local writer around the territories, searching for an angle from which the ANC notables might be photographed sans their red backdrop. The hammer and sickle made it difficult to portray Sisulu and his comrades as reincarnations of Martin Luther King, so the journalists in question had decided to blot it out.

I did not have the pleasure of seeing the resulting documentary, but Adam Hochschild's book is informed by a similar spirit of deception. He wants his readers to believe that South Africa remains a racist police state, the De Klerk reforms notwithstanding, and he is careful to manipulate his data accordingly.

Several such books have been written before, but Hochschild's has the unique distinction of having been completed on July 1, 1990, well into the year of naked emperors and slaughtered sacred cows. South Africa has a tendency to make fools of those who claim insight into the future, and almost all the experts wound up with egg on their faces this year:

The ANC was unbanned and turned out to be incapable of signing up more than 150,000 members. Nelson Mandela told black children to go back to school, but nobody paid any heed. Rival black groups welcomed the era of reconciliation by falling on one another in an unprecedented orgy of killing. By July, 1990, the worst racists in the country were saying "Told you so," and progressives of Hochschild's ilk were tearing out their hair.

Under the circumstances, one cannot but admire Hochschild's tenacity, his steadfast adherence to traditional anti-apartheid themes. Great swaths of his book are given over to accounts of torture and death in detention, and the sinister activities of death squads--an entirely valid line of inquiry, considering that some 30 black radicals died in police cells in the past decade and another 47 have been slain by mysterious assassins.

That's 77 martyrs too many and yet, and yet, and yet . . . the dungeons of the secret police are not the only place where South Africans die. Those 77 martyrs are outnumbered 75-1 by the victims of internecine fighting in black communities, 10-1 by the number of people burned alive by revolutionary thugs in the past decade. They don't even equal the number of South African policemen killed in action last year, or the number of Shosas and Zulus butchered in a recent week in quasi-tribal fighting around Johannesburg.

South Africa is awash in blood. Looking at all of it makes you sick with confusion. It's so much easier to avert your eyes, as Hochschild does, and write about the safe, old South Africa, when noble anti-apartheid activists battle unspeakable white evil in the name of democracy and civil rights.

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