cover image South Africa: A Narrative History

South Africa: A Narrative History

Frank Welsh / Author Kodansha America $35 (544p) ISBN 978-1-56

A vast tragedy of racial strife unfolds in this understated history of South Africa. A Cambridge-educated historian, Welsh (A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong) structures his vivid narrative around several pivotal events, including the Dutch settlers' decision in 1657 to rely on imported slave labor; the opening of diamond mines, which reinforced exploitative colonial capitalism; the replacement of the Dutch overlords in 1795 by the English, who brought their illusory promises of a multiracial democracy; and the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which set the stage for apartheid's institutionalized racial divisions. Outspoken and opinionated, Welsh deems contemporary South Africa a compromise rather than an outright victory over the apartheid system. Though he praises President Nelson Mandela as a leader capable of transcending racial boundaries, he finds him ""an unsteady judge of character (the worst example being his second marriage... to Winnie Madikizela)."" His study, vital to an understanding of modern South Africa as a regional power, contains incisive profiles of such figures as arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes; Zulu chief Shaka, a tyrant mythologized as benevolent in Welsh's judgment; and Jan Smuts, a ruthless Afrikaner guerrilla commando, a racist South African ruler, founder of the League of Nations and originator of the philosophy of ""holism."" Photos and maps not seen by PW. (Feb.)