‘A Rainbow in the Night’ by Dominique Lapierre

Anyone who has read “Is Paris Burning?” or “Freedom at Midnight” knows that Dominique Lapierre has a knack for bringing history alive. Now his latest book tells the tragic story of South Africa’s 300-year-long oppression of its majority black population and its triumphant rebirth as a rainbow democratic nation at the end of the 20th century. Lapierre begins his story with the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 and ends with Nelson Mandela’s 1994 presidential inauguration in Pretoria, once capital of the small Transvaal Republic established in the 19th century by the Boers (or Afrikaners, as they became known).

Lapierre tells the story of the Afrikaners -- made up of the original Dutch settlers with a large infusion of French Huguenots fleeing Roman Catholic oppression in France after the revocation of the tolerant Edict of Nantes in 1685 -- vividly and with sympathy for their struggles against British imperialism. But he pulls no punches in tracing racism toward blacks and people of mixed races endemic in their culture to its very roots. He is right to contrast this attitude unfavorably with the more tolerant attitude in the British Cape Colony, which had a colorblind franchise carried over when it became a province of the Union of South Africa in 1910. But in the other British colony incorporated into South Africa, Natal, people of color had no voting rights before or after union. So the South African brand of racism is not owed only to the Afrikaners (as you might think from this book), although it is certainly their Nationalist Party that developed the odious system of apartheid -- literally the Dutch word for “separation” -- so roundly abhorred and condemned by nations and people around the world.

Lapierre has a good story to tell, and he is adept at infusing it with drama aplenty. His heart is clearly in the right place, but he has chosen to structure his story in an odd manner. Rather than concentrating only on the great political figures -- Boer President Paul Kruger, Prime Minister and international statesman Jan Smuts and, of course, Nelson Mandela -- Lapierre has identified people who are points of light in the generally gloomy history of South Africa. Some are well-known, like pioneering heart transplant surgeon Christiaan Barnard, others -- like Cape Town housewife Helen Lieberman, who experienced an epiphany about the iniquities of apartheid and went on to become a social activist -- much less so. This diffusion leads to an unbalanced and disproportionate book, which will leave many a reader puzzled.

Especially as a much more serious fault is the number of startling historical inaccuracies that pepper the text. Some of these are insignificant in themselves but contribute to the reader’s uneasiness about this book, exacerbated by its choppy view of South African history. Reading “A Rainbow in the Night” is a little like watching a DVD that skips and jumps -- there are shocking gaps and omissions, events are elided and the overall result is a profoundly unsatisfactory historical record. For instance, apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi ideology, but the highly colored account here of his visiting Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s as a student is a flight of fancy. In fact, by this time Verwoerd was well established as a leading South African intellectual and a full professor at Stellenbosch University: He had been a graduate student in Hamburg and Leipzig, but in the mid-1920s. Interestingly, he seems to have been more influenced toward his nefarious racial views by the counter-example he found in Weimar Germany and also by the thinking of a professor at New York’s Columbia University (where he went for further study). It has become commonplace to deplore the unfiltered information on the Internet, but what are we to make of some of the contents of a book like this by a seasoned author and published by reputable houses in New York and Paris? (It is translated from the French.)

To his credit, Lapierre has dug wide and deep to come up with some unusual and interesting oddities. Among these, in an appendix, are extracts from a totally factual pamphlet published in London in 1959 called “This Is Apartheid,” which details the laws implementing this infamous system. But even here Lapierre’s inaccuracy creeps in. He writes that Leslie Rubin “wrote this pamphlet as she represented the Africans of the Cape Province (excluding the Transkei) in the Senate.” What he says is correct except for the pronoun: Sen. Leslie Rubin was not a woman. I should know: He was my father.

Rubin is a critic and author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”