SAR, Vol 12 No 4, September 1997
A REVIEW BY CAROLYN BASSETT
Carolyn Bassett is a Ph.D. candidate at York University in Toronto. Her research focuses on the South African transition.
Dan O'Meara. Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948 - 1994, Randberg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1996. 579pp. ISBN 0 8214 1173 X
These are troubled times for South Africans attempting to come to terms with the implications of the barbarous legacy of white politics, particularly the 46 years of National Party rule, for South Africa's future. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided one forum to address some of these issues. Dan O'Meara's recent book, Forty Lost Years, likewise seeks to expose apartheid's troubled past, in order to overcome its legacy. For "[a]s in other regions of the world divided by their histories," he argues, "South Africa is quite literally haunted by the manifold unresolved issues of its tragic and violent past. The problem ... is that the collective minds of different groups of South Africans are living the nightmares of different histories."
The key, O'Meara suggests, is to understand the politics of the apartheid era: the processes and conflicts within the apartheid state, and the role of the National party in South Africa politics during its tenure. To this end, O'Meara exposes the internal politics of the NP ruling circles, and describes how these shaped the politics of the South African state from 1948 to 1989. He also seeks to present some of the discourse of Afrikaner nationalist politics to the reader who is not familiar with it, and therefore, O'Meara believes, is missing a component of South African culture vital to understanding the rise, and ultimate demise of the Afrikaner state.
Most of the book is comprised of a very detailed study of the personalities, and personal conflicts, of the leading National Party politicians. Interspersed with occasional sections and brief chapters that outline the impact and implications of changing social, economic and international trends during the period on the capacity of the NP to govern, the book describes the main political events of NP rule from Die Doktor [D. F. Malan] to Die Groot Krokodil [the great crocodile, P. W. Botha] primarily through their personalities, capabilities, and ruling styles.
On this level, the book is very successful. Undoubtedly some sections of the book will be contested by other scholars of South African national politics, but for the non-South Africa reader, with just a good general knowledge of the country's history and politics, the book fills a needed gap in the English language material. Although at 418 pages plus a theoretical appendix, the book cannot be considered brief, O'Meara's extremely detailed overview of the key personalities, events and scandals of 46 years of NP rule is very readable. The book is likely to become as useful a reference tool as Jeremy Baskin's study of COSATU Striking Back, or Martin Murray's overview of the main South African political actors at the time of the elections, Revolution Deferred.
But the book has much grander ambitions. The main theme outlined in his introduction and 70-page "theoretical appendix" is an exploration of the theoretical relationship between "agency" and "structure" in explaining political questions. In brief, while O'Meara describes himself primarily as a structuralist, an approach which certainly characterized the analysis of his earlier major work, Volkskapitalisme, he now argues that structural explanations merely determine the boundaries of the possible and that one must look to "agents" to explain particular processes and particular outcomes. Yet this central concern for O'Meara is only partially, and rather problematically resolved by the material presented in the book itself.
O'Meara's premise is that to assess the prospects of South Africa's political future, one must come to terms with the 1980s "crisis of apartheid" which ultimately ended white rule in South Africa. To do this, one must move beyond caricatures of the major figures of this period (and this point is punctuated by the series of political cartoons depicting the main characters of each chapter), to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how and why they could have promoted Afrikaner ethno-nationalism and white racial superiority.
O'Meara does indeed show that the NP was not monolithic throughout the period, that there were considerable interpersonal rivalries and tensions, and that these, at times, explained the particular decisions of policy-makers. Insofar as he is attempting to demonstrate that ethnic politics is not natural, and that it is, in fact, extremely challenging to create and perpetuate a national government based on ethno-national mobilization and exclusion, then he has succeeded. O'Meara's study demonstrates convincingly that such ethnic political movements are just as difficult to hold together as any other form of political movement. In this respect, it stands in contrast to the more sweeping, but less informed claims of analysts such as Samuel P. Huntington - and too many recent South African commentators - that "ethnic rivalries" are forming, unproblematically and apparently ineluctably, the basis of a new, more deeply rooted and more inherently conflictual politics.
Nonetheless, in O'Meara's book, this particular subtlety of argument is achieved at the expense of presenting other variables - popular protest (white and particularly black), the changing class composition of the Afrikaner volk, and South African economic development and trade relations - primarily as "problems" for the still apparently omnipotent, if now deeply conflictual NP to overcome. Notwithstanding the recognition at times in the text (particularly on the autonomy and power of white capital) and in his theoretical appendix that power and "agency" were not concentrated exclusively in the upper echelons of the government, struggles between the state and "civil society" are not accorded the explanatory weight that intra-elite NP struggles are. In the process, the inability of the NP to perpetuate its rule becomes a failure of its strategy more than the result of struggles between itself and the black population, white business and global economic forces.
For most of the study amounts to a "big man in history" political explanation of the type once so prevalent in the study of politics. Resurrecting this approach to conceptualize "agency," results in a preoccupation with elite, insider politics. The book is very much a study of political personalities, consistent with O'Meara's assertion in an article we published in Southern Africa Report in January, 1996, that "the only politics that really mattered [was] conflict within the government and the National Party." His cast of characters at the beginning of the book comprises 55 white men and but one woman, martyred Afrikaner poet Ingrin Jonker. Not that O'Meara should have pretended that women were more important in the NP, nor that there were people of colour who were influential within the party. What is to be noted here is that the book concerns itself only with those closest to the corridors of power within the NP government, and in terms of addressing O'Meara's theoretical question of the relationship between structure and agency, this can provide at best only a very partial explanation, for it is a very narrow conceptualization of agency indeed. In seeking to explain the NP, O'Meara has to some extent accepted its parameters of who counts as "agents" as his own.
Yet clearly for O'Meara himself, these personality conflicts can only provide a partial explanation - for why else would the main narrative be interspersed with sections outlining the intrusion of the economy, trade, white business leaders and black protesters, which appear almost like dei ex machinae to stymie the plans of the NP. Only occasionally, however, do they appear to be in a reciprocal relationship; too often, "structural features" (some of which, like blacks engaged in political protest against the apartheid regime, would seem to be at least potentially "agents" in their own right) are simply brought in as required by the narrative of personality conflict. Attempting to address the complexities of the relationship between agency and structure by seeking to blend micro-historical personality studies with the occasional acknowledgement of rather sweepingly-defined structural imperatives does not provide a convincing resolution. One hopes that O'Meara will continue to turn his formidable talents to this question, however, perhaps relying less on the methodological guidance of the theoretically limited and historically discredited works of Graham Allison.
What are the implications of O'Meara's shortcomings? Certainly that the book falls somewhat short of the "non-deterministic, materialist theory of politics" that he seeks. This is hardly surprising, and does not take away from the fact that the book is a major English-language contribution to the literature on South African politics of the apartheid era. Yet to return to the political questions that frame the book, what would O'Meara like us to learn from the past? Forty Lost Years does not, in the end, draw out any more general lessons for us. The question stands: how will understanding the dynamics of Afrikaner politics and the complicity of capitalism "have crucial bearing" on the "capacity [of the `new South Africa'] to dismantle the terrible legacy of apartheid"? Does O'Meara simply wish to ensure that the history of this dark period - and the complicity of so many members of South African society - is exposed so that South African politics of this type will never be repeated? But surely that is not a real issue, for no mater how difficult the future political terrain of South Africa becomes - and even if the resignation of F.W. de Klerk foreshadows the National Party's return from the political wilderness - there will be no going back to 1948. It is on such questions that the study's limited conceptualization of agents and agency becomes most pronounced.
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