African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004


Partner to History: The U.S. Role in South Africa 's Transition to Democracy. Princeton N. Lyman. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002. 344 pp.

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Princeton Lyman has not followed the example of two British ambassadors in South Africa who produced slight and heavily anecdotal memoirs of their time in the country. Unlike David Scott's Ambassador in Black and White (1981) and Robin Renwick's Unconventional Diplomacy in Southern Africa (1997), Partner to History is a substantial and important book, one that deserves to be read alongside Chester Crocker's account of the United States ' role in southern Africa in the 1980s, High Noon in Southern Africa (1992). Lyman is holder of a Harvard Ph.D. in Political Science, and like Crocker and the present U.S. ambassador to South Africa , Cameron Hume, he has set an account of his experiences in southern Africa within a broad analytical frame. Only part memoir, his book is detailed and well documented. Prior to completion, the author conducted a number of interviews with key role players to check his interpretation of events and attitudes. Lyman was U.S. ambassador in South Africa from August 1992 to the end of 1995, key years in the country's transition to a democracy. As he makes clear, such an outcome was by no means inevitable. When he arrived, negotiations were at a standstill and the transition came under renewed threat particularly when Chris Hani was assassinated in April the following year.

It is often said that the South African transition from apartheid to democracy was a home-grown product, unlike the transition in Namibia next door, which was heavily shaped by the involvement of the international community. Lyman shows that this assessment of the South African transition is not entirely correct, for though there was no direct mediation as there had been Namibia (U.S. offers to mediate were rejected), the U.S. used its influence, economic assistance and political support to support the peace process. Though in South Africa such 'facilitation,' Lyman argues, was important in helping to bring about the resolution of conflict. He claims that in the period he was ambassador, following the departure of the dynamic British ambassador Robin Renwick, there existed 'special opportunities' for U.S. influence (p. 54).

It is a pity the author did not find an expert on South African history to read through his background chapter, for it contains a number of small slips. Yet when he gets to the 1990s, he describes U.S. links with South Africa with a sure and deft touch. His book then becomes a blow by blow account of the remarkable events that took place during his ambassadorship. Within days of arriving, he was having regular meetings and conversations with Nelson Mandela, counselling the African National Congress not to continue with its planned marches into the Bantustans . He developed close relations with Joe Slovo and the U.S. began training protection officers for Mandela, after it was realised, very belatedly (those of us present in South Africa at the time had been concerned at this from the moment of his release in February 1990), that his protection was inadequate (pp. 86-87). At the same time, Lyman needed to indicate to the National Party government that the U.S. had confidence in what de Klerk was doing to further the process leading to a transfer of power and in dealing with the difficult Buthelezi (chapter 7).

Lyman admits to some errors, a small one being to schedule a powerful speech by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown at a university not in session (not the University of Cape Town , as he says on p. 188, but at the University of the Western Cape , as is stated in the Appendix that reproduces the speech). He is particularly interesting on the issue of chemical and biological weapons in the context of the transfer of power (pp. 189-94) and on the strained relations with Mandela after the election, when Mandela denounced the proposed U.S. aid program as "peanuts" (p. 231). In his final chapter, Lyman tries to draw out some lessons for the U.S. from the South African case, including one not learned by George W. Bush: "never forget your friends" (chapter 12).

Lyman gives us much new detail on the U.S. role, and nobody reading his account could come away with the idea that this role was totally insignificant. Because he focuses on what he and other Americans did, however, his book may give the impression that the U.S. played a truly significant role. That would be wrong. Without the U.S. pressures on the parties to reach a solution, a negotiated solution would probably still have been reached. Future historians may not agree with Lyman on the extent of the U.S. role, but none will be able to ignore his seminal account.

Chris Saunders
University of Cape Town