Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
By R.W. Johnson
(Overlook, 702 pages, $40)
Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was “a good communist.” Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.
This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed R.W. Johnson’s reporting. The South Africa correspondent for the (London) Sunday Times and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Mr. Johnson has been a prolific critic of the ANC’s 16-year tenure in power. “South Africa’s Brave New World,” his political history of the post- apartheid era, amounts to a book-length indictment of the ANC. Its leaders come through as so corrupt, lecherous and violent that governance is not even an afterthought. “If we didn’t dine with thugs and crooks,” says one to Mr. Johnson, “then we’d always eat alone.” The book is a catalog of sins and rumors (footnoted, though often attributed to private sources or, for example, “old girlfriends” of ANC members). It is big and disorganized but filled with credible gossip—like the Trevor Manuel story—and therefore a delight.