Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Fall 2006

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 South Africa’s foreign policy in the context of the peaceful transition from apartheid rule to multiracial democracy. Thabo Mbeki’s World is a collection of essays assessing the politics and ideology of Nelson Mandela’s successor as South Africa’s president. Barber explores the outside world in the context of Mandela; Calland and Jacobs and their contributors explore Mbeki as a sun around which South Africa orbits.

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 South Africa’s relations with the rest of the world in the 1990s, the contributors to Calland and Jacobs are polemicists who are anything but detached. Where Barber operates with clear if workmanlike prose, the essayists making their j’accuse against Mbeki (and almost all of them have come to their topics as prosecutors, and not defenders) are oftentimes not as successful. Several are clear and well written, but a number are turgid.

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 South Africa’s foreign policy since World War II. In 1972, he published South Africa’s Foreign Policy 1945-1970 and in 1990, he and John Barratt co-authored South Africa’s Foreign Policy: The Search For Status and Security. This volume explores South Africa’s remarkable transition in the 1990s through the lens of foreign relations. 

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, South Africa’s neighbors tended to fear it as both a potential threat and as the likely recipient of the bulk of the precious investment coming in from the outside world. South Africa’s economy and military made it a potential leviathan, and neighboring states felt that they needed to eye the “Rainbow Nation of God” warily.

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. South Africa struggled somewhat to find its place in the region and on the continent, and did not always succeed in accomplishing its foreign policy goals. Nonetheless, as Mandela prepared to step down from office, he handed to new president Thabo Mbeki a country that, in international affairs, was able to “punch above its weight.”

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 South Africa’s role in the region, continent, and the world. Nonetheless, Mandela’s World provides a model for contemporary history and offers a useful primer for understanding South Africa’s role in the international community in its first years of freedom.

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 South Africa under Mbeki.” This is a flabbergasting assertion. South Africa needs many things. Socialism in the year 2002 (or 2006, or I daresay 2016) is almost assuredly not one of them. Whatever criticisms one might have of the modern capitalist system, it would seem foolhardy for South Africa to withdraw from that system. Free markets are certainly no panacea in and of themselves, but rejecting free markets, or some semblance thereof, has universally led to disaster in Africa and elsewhere on the globe. One need not be a retrograde apologist for right wing politics to believe as much.

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 South Africa faced in the first years of Mbeki’s presidency, and while they do not always succeed, these essays may be of more use to future scholars trying to understand the transition from Mandela to Mbeki.

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.

Derek Catsam
University of Texas of the Permian Basin