Review: Douglas Foster pierces the surface in ‘After Mandela’


After Mandela
The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Douglas Foster
Liveright: 608 pp., $35

What a pleasant surprise to encounter a book that actually looks beyond the surface of South Africa’s by now well-known story. We’ve read so many accounts of the miraculous transformation of the hideous apartheid state into the rainbow democracy and, in the nearly two decades since that happened, of the flies in the ointment that have marred the fairy tale.

In his many visits to South Africa over the last eight years and the year he spent living there, California journalist Douglas Foster, former editor of Mother Jones, has gained a superb understanding of the complexities of South African society. Though never underestimating the burden laid upon present-day South Africa not just by 45 years of apartheid but by centuries of segregation, he has wisely chosen to concentrate on the chaotic present and immediate past as well as trying to see what a very uncertain future might hold.

Foster gives us a portrait of a vibrant nation, full of contrasts and contradictions, of wealth and poverty, of diversity and sophistication alongside ingrained attitudes and resistance. He doesn’t hesitate to point out clay feet in even such idols as Nelson Mandela, who failed to address the scourge of AIDS, which was ravaging South Africa during his presidency. The farcical policy of his successor, Thabo Mbeki, with its rejection of anti-retroviral drugs, defies logical explanation, here as elsewhere.


Foster shows us a country blessed with a wonderful constitution, ensuring freedoms of all kinds. But that noble document is beleaguered, its permissiveness under attack from religious zealots and other bigots: Even its treasured press freedom is threatened by the very leaders sworn to uphold it. A fine constitution is all very well, but even ours was of little help in the 1950s against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt and Mrs. Shipley’s passport bureau. As we read Foster’s account of confronting President Jacob Zuma on his efforts to curb freedom of expression by the press, it is all too clear that hard-won liberties are now endangered.

When he has one of his many talks with Zuma, he notes the rarefied environment of the governing elite:

“The vast government compound outside Pretoria is known as Bryntirion Estate. Top government officials, including the president and cabinet ministers, lived there in a bucolic, parklike setting with little traffic, no crime, clean air, and plenty of open space between the grand residences. No wonder they sometimes seemed cut off from the daily realities of the people they governed.”

Given his choice between magnificent colonial relic residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, it is not surprising that Zuma, in the words of his senior wife, had “set aside ‘the land of cobras and honey’ [his rural family home] for more rarified surroundings.”

Trying to avoid putting 1980s South Africa into one of her favored boxes of authoritarian versus totalitarian, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick correctly put her finger on the essential nature of apartheid South Africa by saying that it was an oligarchy. It is clear from the detailed picture in Foster’s book that it remains one, the only difference being that today there are some black as well as white oligarchs, the former holding most of the political reins while the latter largely still control the nation’s wealth.

Foster notes that the ANC has gone from game changer to representing the establishment, perhaps an inevitable trajectory in what is, despite the newfound robust democratic institutions, effectively a one-party state:

“By 2012, eighteen years after its leaders were vaulted into power in the first place, the African National Congress was no longer in transition.… You could tell plenty about the party’s deep-seated values from watching the leaders who had emerged from its ranks…. [Zuma’s] ambition now was to be seen as the heroic figure who managed to ease the country into its post-Mandela, post-Mbeki, and even post-Zuma reality…. Yet, on at least three essential counts — gender equality, media freedoms, and judicial independence — it was quite clear that the president could never be the nation’s reliable guide.”

To his credit, Foster pulls no punches on the failure of successive presidents to deliver a larger slice of the pie to the deprived majority. He is also fearless in putting his questions to the president, but given the nature of Zuma’s evasions and excuses, it is no wonder that, at its conclusion, the book looks beyond the democratically elected leaders to the demos, the people of South Africa, and its essential spirit:

“It would take someone from the next generation to see things from a fresh angle and in a different light.… The ideal of a nonracial, nonsexist, egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa lived on. Young South Africans would determine if that big idea, and everything it implied, would vanish, or yet prevail.”

“After Mandela” makes it clear that this idea enduring is not only key to a peaceful developing South Africa but indeed to the whole continent. In fact, the stakes in that noble experiment’s success are high for all of us, wherever we happen to live.

Rubin is the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”