Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Mandela’s World: The International Dimension of South Africa’s Political Revolution, 1990-99. James Barber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. 256 pp.
Thabo Mbeki’s World: The Politics and Ideology of the South African President. Sean Jacobs and Richard Calland, eds. New York: Zed Books, 2003. 304 pp.
These two books share similar titles. That is about all that they share. James Barber’s Mandela’s World is a monograph that explores
In addition to thematic differences, these two books deviate strikingly in tone and approach. Where Barber provides a scholars’ thorough and detached (as much as detachment is possible) view of
James Barber might be the most respected historian of sub-Saharan African foreign policy and diplomatic relations. Mandela’s World can best be seen as the logical continuation of his work on
Initially it is somewhat difficult to ascertain where Barber is going. He spends the first quarter of the book exploring the by now well-trodden ground of the negotiated settlement that led to the epochal 1994 elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the long verboten African National Congress to power. Barber surely could have truncated this first section in order to move into his exploration of the settlement in the international context in which De Klerk, Mandela and their underlings and allies jockey for international support, which occupies section two: “Negotiations and Competitions for International Support.”
The book hits its stride in the last two sections in which Barber assesses the foreign policy challenges, achievements, and shortcomings of the Mandela years. After the initial euphoria about the country’s transition to democratic rule, reality set in. Mandela miracle or no,
The rest of the world, particularly the western powers, tend to have short attention spans. Once the self-congratulations were done, and Mandela’s inauguration passed, the expected wave of aid that most expected would be forthcoming fell short of expectations.
Barber of necessity has provided an overview that scholars in future years will supplant as new information and historical distance from events change our understanding of
If Barber provides a model for scholarship on contemporary issues, Jacobs and Calland show some of the difficulties of making spot assessments in medias res. The two initially proposed the book in 2000 – Mbeki only entered office in 1999 – and published the final product in 2002. Many of the essays feel temporal, rushed, and not especially insightful in 2006, just four years after publication, when Mbeki still sits in office.
Given the staunch anti-Mbeki approach of the vast majority of the contributors, it might have been useful for the editors to have branched out to find someone who could have brought a perspective more sympathetic to the ANC to have tempered the opposition. In the wake of the publication of this book, after all, the ANC with Mbeki at its head did win another overwhelming election victory, and indeed the 2004 results gave stronger support to the party and its leader than they had received in 1994 or 1999. One need not believe that Mbeki has been an especially great leader, or even a particularly good one, to wonder if he could possibly be (or have been) as bad as this book makes him out to be. As it is, this book is the written equivalent of an echo chamber.
The main critiques essentially argue that Mbeki has been too willing to embrace “neocolonialism,” or “global capitalism,” or “western style capitalism” (none of which are especially clearly defined). This, according to the contributors, is bad. The respected Africanist John Saul, in the first essay after the editors’ introduction, goes so far as to posit, “the phrase ‘socialism or barbarism’ has rarely had more meaning than in contemporary
Jacobs and Calland divide the book into two sections, “Ideology” and “Politics.” Perhaps because the section on “Politics” is driven somewhat less by ideology than the section on “Ideology,” it is more successful. The six contributions to this section earnestly try to grapple with the political questions
Nonetheless, on the whole, Thabo Mbeki’s World does not succeed in capturing Thabo Mbeki’s world. The contributors to this volume are almost universally respected, as well they should be, but because of the unbalanced tone of the book and the lack of historical perspective on the subject, this is probably not the book to which most of us will go to as a guide to South Africa at the turn of the 21st century.