In the Heart of the Country

23rd May 2007

Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa
by Padraig O’Malley; Viking; 648 pages; $32.95. 

To the victors, it seems, go not only the spoils but also the history. In South Africa, that history has largely been written by those sympathetic to the African National Congress, the liberation movement headed by the country’s peerlessly charismatic first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, and which fought for decades to end the regime of racial segregation known as apartheid. In the grand narrative of South Africa, the ANC is unerringly good; the Afrikaners (the descendants of Dutch settlers) are mischievous and evil. Communists, because they were on the right side of the race question, get a free pass for an attachment to an abhorrent political ideology. Liberals, because they were not militant enough in their principled opposition to the apartheid regime, are feckless lackeys.

“Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa” (Viking, 528 pages, $32.95) by University of Massachusetts political scientist Padraig O’Malley, fits uncomfortably into the genre of “liberation history” that it seeks to join. It is a unique attempt at historical narrative, part biography, part autobiography, whose subject was a little known, but high-ranking figure in the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. Mr. O’Malley’s meticulous and unflinchingly honest documentation of the inner-workings of South Africa’s national liberation movement provides a surprising critique of the ANC’s blundering, ineffectiveness and ultimate irrelevance in ending apartheid.

“Shades of Difference” tells the story of Mac Maharaj, a South African of Indian descent who joined the anti-apartheid movement (in the guise of the underground Communist Party) as a young man in the 1950s. Each chapter begins with an introduction by Mr. O’Malley surveying the period at hand, followed by a longer series of ruminations by Maharaj himself. The story follows Maharaj in and out of South Africa, from his time as a political prisoner on Robben Island, to his torture at the hands of the police (described with such cool detachment as to make you shrivel with disgust), and the stress that this committed liberation fighter’s career had on his family.

At times, the book gets heavy with inside baseball accounts of the various factions within the anti-apartheid movement and names are inevitably dropped that the reader will soon forget. But the accounts of covert intrigue, cloak – and-dagger tactics, and international espionage make up for the book’s more tedious episodes. Throughout we find that the much-vaunted ANC had little control over the tumultuous events taking place within South Africa itself, and, as Mr. O’Malley writes, “the ANC in exile developed a selfperpetuating inability to deliver on any aspect of its internal struggle against the apartheid government.”

South Africa is strange in its dealing with the communist question, for it is among the very few democratic countries in which a communist party governs (the South African Communist Party has been in formal alliance with the ruling African National Congress for decades).

While communist parties were torn asunder during the democratic revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, South Africa’s communists could always point to their liberation credentials as securing their proper place in history, even as the Soviet Union fell simultaneously with apartheid. Though Maharaj did renounce Stalinism and the more brutal practices of the Soviet Union, his more senior colleagues in the party (such as the notorious Joe Slovo and the country’s current minister for intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils) renounced him for his dissidence. Mr. O’Malley chose Maharaj not just to write about a dashing individual, but also to serve a potent political agenda: Maharaj becomes the foil through which Mr. O’Malley can prove that “the battle for the soul of the ANC is increasingly becoming the battle for a large empty space.” The book’s recounting of every squabble shows just how internecine the ANC was and still is, and confirms the suspicion of many South Africa experts that the seemingly indestructible ANC is bound to fracture at some point.

But while Maharaj is an interesting story, it was unwise for Mr. O’Malley to attach his political sails to such a shady character: In February 2003, Maharaj was accused of taking bribes when he served as transport minister. Later that year, in a highly sensational press event, Maharaj claimed that South Africa’s director of public prosecutions had been an apartheid spy, which later proved false.

Abandoned by the ANC and many of his struggle comrades, Maharaj is the perfect example of how revolutions eat their own. And Mr. O’Malley, sympathetic to his subject, is cognizant of the ANC’s many faults, not least its intolerance of criticism, its belief in a perpetual right to rule, and its confusion of state and political party apparatuses. (Mr. O’Malley writes perceptively of “a silenced public life that conflates loyalty to the ANC with loyalty to South Africa.”) Regarding President Thabo Mbeki, himself a former member of the South African Communist Party’s politburo, Mr. O’Malley writes, “That he might have had a predilection to organize his presidency along the Communist lines in which he was schooled is not unreasonable to postulate.” “Shades of Difference” is a worthwhile and important effort that brings the saintly facade of the ANC, erected by the reigning South African liberation historiography, down a notch. Right now, the party that “claims ownership of the revolution,” presides over one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, for years exacerbated a catastrophic public health crisis by maintaining that HIV did not cause AIDS, and currently supports Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, whose land seizure policies have ruined a once-prosperous country.

Mr. O’Malley saves his withering criticism for the ANC until the very end and avoids infecting the book with polemic. But the downfall of Maharaj and the ANC are distinct, and Mr. O’Malley’s attempt to unite them (by holding up Maharaj as a paragon) is ultimately unsuccessful. Yet anything that puts a dent in the official narrative of ANC gallantry, as “Shades of Difference” does, is a victory for South Africa’s tenuous new democracy.

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