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Review: A Rainbow in the Night

Dominique Lapierre’s account of South Africa’s brush with 350 years of violent rule.

books Updated: Jan 15, 2011 07:51 IST

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="115" caption="Dominique Lapierre"][/caption]

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Review: A Rainbow in the Night

Dominique Lapierre

Full Circle

Rs 275  pp 320

Now that Indians can happily fly to South Africa to cheer on their favourite team and stay in a hotel not displaying a sign saying ‘Whites Only’, enjoying a multicultural, multilingual, multicoloured vacation, one can think of at least two good reasons why Indians should pick up a copy of Dominique Lapierre’s new book.

The first and most important of course, is that most literate Indians, even today, whether in school, college or university, are either uneducated or uninformed, or both, about matters African.  Some would say that things have got better, that Indians can now travel from one African resort to the other, assessing the continent on the strength of its game parks and the number of wild animals seen. It doesn’t mean Indians will ever want to know the real Africa.

In the light of this book, and several hundred before this, we ought to be asking ourselves how this country, a beacon to freedom struggles from Cairo to the Cape, at the forefront of the Non-Aligned Movement, a steadfast supporter of the African National Congress and the imprisoned Mandela, never thought it important enough to introduce its high school students to the geography and history of Africa. But that as they say is another story.

Although the second reason most Indians must run out in their nightgowns and buy this book, is because, even while claiming to be morally upright, secular, casteless, equal, democratic and all the other blah-blah, most are actually racist at heart. And this isn’t because of our wonderful caste system either, our centuries old, home grown apartheid, this is about other people.

The racism, yes, racism, that all Africans living and studying in India face is very, very real, the prerequisites just a black skin and tight crinkly hair, and some of us may wish further introspection after reading Lapierre’s rendering of three centuries of racist and violent rule. He brings to life the rise of a white minority of Dutch origin, sent to South Africa to provide a kind of way station for ships of the Dutch East India Company, who profited from the slave trade to get free labour and then sought recourse to verses in the Bible to believe that they had found their promised land.

When the trade in black human beings ended in the 19th Century, spurred by Victorian evangelism, British conscience ironically, did not see it fit to return the fledgling white colony at the Cape back to its indigenous peoples. In fact, for the first time perhaps on the continent, white man fought white man over four years, one British eye focused on the glint gold and diamonds under South African soil, then tolerating them at a distance, and finally, both eyes shut to the reincarnation of Hitler-style governance.

According to the South Africa Act of 1909 (an act of the British Parliament, and also the Constitution of South Africa) political power in South Africa was limited to white-skinned people. No non-white, could vote for, or be elected to, parliament or any the provincial councils.

For the rest of the world, what exactly this meant surfaced in 1948 at the general election for the whites-only parliament. The vaguely pro-British, vaguely democratic government of General Jan Christian Smuts was routed by the nationalist party of Daniel Malan whose strong faith in Hitler’s brutal philosophy Lapierre dramatically brings to life.

All in all though, the book seems slightly truncated. There is some patchiness in its history nearing the last four decades, when world-wide political pressure was building up against the apartheid regime. There is too little of the actual foot-soldiers of the African national Congress and, more importantly, the role of its cultural wing that kept the flag flying. There is too much made perhaps of the humanization of a few white liberals in the recent past and way too little about Steve Biko, who, more than anyone else galvanized the new political consciousness that went beyond black and white.

There is of course, too little on Mandela too, although there’s also a brief but very moving account of the important role played by Bishop Desmond Tutu with his historic “Truth and Reconciliation Meetings”. Some would say that was only fitting, given that progressive elements in the world-wide Anglican Church railed against the Facist apartheid policies from 1948 itself and gave, as religions in the world are supposed to, gave voice to those who have none.

(Review by Hartman de Souz, a Pune-based theatre person)