Book Review: Ending Apartheid

Ending Apartheid

David Welsh and J.E. Spence

Pearson Education Limited 2011


When I first spoke to Professor Jack Spence about his upcoming book, “Ending Apartheid”, he explained to me that the purpose of the book was to provoke a debate about the topic which is yet to occur.  Despite nearly 17 years passing since South Africa’s first democratic election, the academic discussion regarding the reasons and arguments for the ending of Apartheid is still in its infancy.  Prof. Spence and David Welsh do not offer a definitive answer to this question; instead their short and concise book offers an insight into the various causes and events that led to the eventual dismantling of the Nationalist government.

The general election of 1948 is often regarded as a starting point of Apartheid, when the National Party defeated Jan Smut’s United Party.  I would personally look back as far as 1910 for the origins of Apartheid, but the purpose of this book is to look at the other end of the spectrum, the ending.

The forty-one years of Apartheid is broken up into three distinct categories; the first phase from 1948-1958 where Afrikaner power is consolidated; 1958-1966 which sees Dr. Verwoerd’s main engagement with black political organisations which included the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960; and finally 1966-1989 when Apartheid is in steady decline.  Many people, including the United Party, saw the National Party’s rise to power as a temporary blip which would be corrected at the next election, but this was to be a tragically naïve assessment.

Spence and Welsh do a superb job of contrasting various elements of Apartheid.  The security legislation that was quickly introduced to give the government more power to control its subjects is an example of the efficacy – albeit brutal – of the government.  But they also allow the occasional personal thought, like when they describe humiliating and embittering experience that Apartheid essentially was for the average black South African.

Apartheid is shown to be more than a simple black versus white issue.  I was struck by the vicious fighting between Inkatha and the other black movements, which was of course happily encouraged by the government.  Similarly there are several splits within the Afrikaner community, although none of them with any significant sense of moderation.

After the internal examination of Apartheid, we are allowed an outside glimpse of what the state of international relations looked like at the time.  I found it quite significant how South Africa fell into the global chessboard of the Cold War; despite international pressure on South Africa to hold democratic elections, the realpolitik of countries like the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States meant that they were quite happy with the way things were.  Not mentioned in the book is the attempt by the UK in 1970 to sell vast quantities of arms and ammunition to the Apartheid government, a good example of the significance of realism in international relations.

The effectiveness of sanctions is looked at in great detail too, and it is concluded that whilst there is reasonable proof of a squeeze being placed on the South African government, it is more of a long term solution.  Similarly, the battle of the black majority versus the Afrikaner minority is more of a stalemate in the end rather than an outright victory or defeat for either side.   If one definitive reason is given for the ending of Apartheid after the examination of all the evidence, it would be “all of the above”.

Ending Apartheid is a fascinating read that covers all the major issues and leaves room for the reader to explore further with a detailed bibliography.  I certainly hope that the book succeeds in its attempt to provoke debate, and hopefully in the coming years we will see some South African historians coming out with their own interpretations of this enthralling yet wretched period of world history.

Published in: on February 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

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