South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation by R W Johnson - review by Adolf Wood

Adolf Wood

More Than Apartheid

South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 288pp £16.99 order from our bookshop
 

GROWING UP IN South Africa before the Second World War, one was occasionally given books to read that dated from the Edwardian era, with titles like South Africa's Story and The Romance of South Africa - rousing, shamelessly propagandist stuff, the former book, in the 'Our Empire Story' series, sporting captions to its colour plates such as 'Where now the great city of Cape Town stands, they set up their tents and huts', 'Dutch explorers attacked by lions', 'The bullock-wagons wound slowly over the billowy plains', and 'Thus did a hundred men keep three thousand savages at bay'. It is always a shame when romance dies, but that sort of thing had to go. Interestingly though, with appropriate updating and the very risible and derogatory bits expunged, the essence of such a take on South African history stayed fairly secure until quite late in the twentieth century, when it was largely vanquished, first by Marxist academic militants in English-speaking universities, and then by the new A6-ican nationalism (Marxism itself of course, in any serious sense, disappeared in South Africa and elsewhere almost without trace in the wake of an event strangely concurrent with the demise of apartheid, the collapse of Soviet Communism).

From under the rubble of South Africa's exploded historiography clambers out a political scientist, historian and journalist, R W Johnson: a courageous fellow who abhors the vacuum, and is attempting to move the study of the nation in a new direction. Since 1997 Johnson has been the Southern Africa correspondent

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