Zunami! The 2009 South African Elections; Mandela: A Biography; Contemporary South Africa. 2nd ed

In This Review

Zunami!: The 2009 South African Elections
By
Jacana Media, 2010
288 pp. $23.00
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Mandela
By Martin Meredith
PublicAffairs, 2010
688 pp. $29.95
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Contemporary South Africa (Contemporary States and Societies)
By Anthony Butler
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
224 pp. $31.00
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South Africa is now well into its second decade of postapartheid rule, and these three recent books by South African scholars reveal a good deal about the country. Southall and Daniel's collection of essays reviews the April 2009 general elections, which witnessed both the emergence of Jacob Zuma as leader of the African National Congress and president of the country and the first significant cracks in the electoral dominance of the ANC, with the creation of a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE). In the end, COPE received only a little over seven percent of the vote, less than half of what the mostly white Democratic Alliance got. But Southall and Daniel's volume rates the emergence of COPE as the more significant event, since its support comes from core ANC voters. The book is deeply wary of Zuma, viewing his presidency as part of the ANC's drift into populist cronyism, and the authors bemoan what they view as the country's growing corruption. Only a stronger opposition with substantial support from the black majority, they argue, can bring about greater democratic accountability.

Meredith has updated his excellent 1997 biography of Nelson Mandela, and the new material expresses many of the same deep misgivings about the evolution of the country since Mandela's retirement from politics in 1999. At the same time, Mandela's story serves as a reminder of the incredible political distance the country has covered over the course of the last several decades. This edition retains the first edition's many qualities, such as the expertly drawn picture of Mandela's early forays into nationalist politics and his many years in prison, but the new material is quite compelling, too. The book's focus is decidedly biographical, with more pages devoted to Mandela's fraught relationship with his wife than to the details of the negotiations that brought about majority rule. Nonetheless, Meredith uses telling detail to deliver a troubling portrait of former President Thabo Mbeki and the ANC leadership's internal dynamics.

Butler's book is perhaps the best one-volume introduction to contemporary South Africa available. It starts with a succinct historical overview and several chapters on socioeconomic issues before focusing on present-day politics and challenges. Butler notes the country's extremely high levels of inequality; postapartheid policies have appeared relatively successful at expanding services to the poor yet have failed to prevent the increase in income inequality. But he is even more concerned with the country's political evolution. A theme of his analysis is that the political supremacy of the ANC is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, a dominant political force was probably necessary to stabilize the country and push through much-needed structural reforms, yet on the other hand, the weakness of the opposition has allowed the ANC to escape accountability and avoid political sanction for its recent decline in self-discipline and civic spirit. One counterargument to the pessimism expressed in these three books is that South Africa's ability to produce such a high quality of political scholarship remains a cause for measured optimism about the country's prospects.