The Mind of South Africa. By Allister Sparks. Knopf: 424 pp.; $24.95.
May 27, 1990        

“The Mind of South Africa” is as thorough and fair- minded an account as apartheid — the South African theory and practice of racial separation — is likely to receive.

It will not reduce many readers’ antipathy to that doctrine. Nor is that the author’s intent Allister Sparks Is a distinguished South African journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee with a long record of opposition to apartheid. Still, his book gives a history and human lineaments to what will probably have been, for most of his readers, not more than a monstrous abstraction.

After a helpful first chapter on the geography and traditional societies of precolonial South Africa, Sparks begins his account with the arrival of the Dutch in the mid-l7th century. What most profoundly shaped the character and experience of these first settlers — hence, of subsequent Afrikaaner nationalism— was their extreme isolation. For 150 years they had little contact with Europe, or even with each other, living on widely separated farms, leading lives of great physical, emotional and intellectual austerity.

At the turn of the 18th-century, the English arrived and attempted to annex the colony. The ensuing 100-year struggle, culminating in the bloody Boer War, was the second formative influence on Afrikaaner nationalism.

The better-armed English pushed the Boers (as the Afrikaaners, or descendants of the Dutch, were now called) inland, where they clashed with the indigenous populations. The Boers’ military victories over the more numerous black armies in these conflicts reinforced their conviction of divine sanction and mission.

Isolation, austerity, a biblically based patriarchal authoritarianism, a burning sense of grievance at their treatment by the English and an equally passionate sense of divinely appointed authority over black Africans — these are the historic ingredients of Afrikaaner nationalist ideology, from which apartheid emerged. Sparks does an excellent job of narrating the development of this ideology or “civil religion,” as he usefully calls it, and of demonstrating its relevance to contemporary South African politics.

Along the way, he does not stint on describing the frequently dire treatment of black Africans at the hands of both the Afrikaaners and the English. But only in the latter half of the book do blacks assume center stage.

Discussing the non-violent marches and boycotts of the 1950s, the turn in the ‘60s to guerrilla activity in response to increasingly violent government repression, the mass protests of the ‘70s and the virtual insurrection of 1984-87, Sparks combines the anecdotal immediacy of a first-hand observer with shrewd strategic analysis. He is particularly illuminating (and troubling) on the bitter, often violent, ideological competition among the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress, the Zulu organization Inkatha, and other black opposition groups.

“The Mind of South Africa” is an ambitious book. Specialists will no doubt quarrel with one or another aspect of it. But Sparks’ journalistic gifts serve him well; his writing is vivid and well-paced. This is a valuable look be hind the headlines at the history of a fateful conflict.