It’s a bold title but a good one. Published in 1996, it’s a history of the South African apartheid state from 1948 to its wrap-up in 1994 — about the time that South Africa generally fell out of the international consciousness aside from sport reports and the ravages of HIV, which isn’t necessarily the best of legacies. But such are the consequences of success, at least if you didn’t actually live there or nearby — “Hey, there wasn’t a revolution or civil war and everyone’s happy! Um, so anyway, demi-tasse?”

This book was in a way revisiting my past, but only as a receptor of outside reports — I grew up first ignorant of the place then learning that it was really fucked up, that there was something called apartheid and that it was bull. Which of course it is, but it’s a bit like how everyone had something to focus on with the Berlin Wall and then didn’t anymore. The consequences keep being dealt with to this day, but otherwise we continue on.

There are doubtless other histories and other impressions, but as a sociohistorical overview of the party and state that controlled the place during that time, it was a useful peek into a view that could only be described with bewilderment. In the space of forty plus years, a whole mythology was constructed (with deep roots, to be sure, but hardly enjoyable ones) and then fell apart when it was conclusively proven to be unworkable, that nobody bought anymore. The parallels with the regime’s bete noire the Soviet Union are implied rather than spelled out; O’Meara’s touch is lively if sometimes repetitive, sharp but not overly digressive.

He looks into internal power struggles, questions of self-perception, misreading of domestic situations, corruption scandals (and how scandalous they really were) — all the kind of things you can find in politics in general, but not always with the overlay of a regime happy to devolve into a farcical/horrible police state, willingly embracing torture and its own paranoid stereotypes that just made matters all the worse. So rarely can you look at something and thing, “Jeez, I’m glad THAT’S over and won’t come back.” Sure, the world continues to not be working and South Africa has plenty of problems as a country and a society — but it could be, and was, a lot worse.

The Brown Wedge