A RAINBOW IN THE NIGHT: THE TUMULTUOUS BIRTH OF SOUTH AFRICA
By Dominique Lapierre
Da Capo, $26, 288 pages
Reviewed by Carol Herman
In his latest book, world-renowned, best-selling author Dominique Lapierre tackles the turbulent history of today’s South Africa. Part straightforward account of the epic events that led to the rise and fall of apartheid, part character study of the heroic men and women who, with untold bravery, pushed back against its singular cruelty, the book takes readers on a heart-stopping and illuminating ride through the verdant fields and blood-soaked streets that in 1994 finally brought blacks and whites, Europeans, Asians and Africans a “rainbow nation” at peace.
But in 1652, the year from which Mr. Lapierre begins his epic saga, the world was anything but peaceful:
“Pillage, rape, murder, it was a sixteenth-century crusade against heresy so violent it was almost unique in history. Holland’s northern provinces were engulfed in flames and blood, occupied by savage troops sent from pious Spain.”
The Dutch response to “the Spanish crown and papal tiara,” was to fight back, bolstered by theological support from John Calvin and by a thriving capital - Amsterdam - coming into its own as the cultural, artistic and financial center of Europe. The Dutch East India Company, possessed of “150 merchant vessels and some 40 warships” added commercial supremacy to a nation of souls already coming to believe that “they were the new children of Israel.”
To protect its sailors, in 1652, the Dutch East India Company sent a small group of farmers to the cape of what we now know as South Africa. Company orders were clear: Cultivate vegetables and fresh meat for the sailors who were dying from scurvy, but stay away from the natives. Over time, it was an order that the settlers found impossible to sustain. They were God’s chosen people, more than capable of subduing the natives.
Whether fighting indigenous tribes or fighting the armies of Queen Victoria, the settlers’ numbers grew along with a sense of entitlement that three centuries later would facilitate the formation of a regime in which a determined racist minority subjugated millions of blacks, including Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years until his liberation, after which he became South Africa’s first black president.
Mr. Lapierre tells his story relying on the facts of history, but in one instance, he treats readers to a dramatization “based on the historical record” of a pivotal meeting:
On May 15, 1938, a day when South Africa “tilted toward ineluctable tragedy,” four men sat down at a drawing room table to “work out the last details of an electoral campaign to bring Daniel Francois Malan’s Purified National Party to power and to decide what actions to take once they controlled the government.”
With the portraits of “the principal heroes of Afrikaner history” on the meeting room walls - “Jan van Riebeck in his white collarette; the indomitable Paul Kruger with his bulging eyes and top hat; Andries Pretorius, the heroic commander who had crushed the Zulu army; General Jan Smuts who had routed the squadrons in scarlet tunics, then made peace with the British and governed the first State of South Africa - along with a portrait of John Calvin, Mr. Lapierre writes, “the four visitors no doubt looked to [Calvin] and the other figures on the drawing room wall for inspiration.”
The four men were Daniel Francois Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd, Piet Meyer and Henning Klopper, who together, using Nazi Germany as a model, set the terms of the apartheid laws that would separate the races and subjugate its nonwhite citizens.
Mr. Lapierre has an extraordinary story to tell and he tells it well. Few will not already know its heroes (Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk), villains (P.W. Botha) and martyrs (Steven Biko), but with the same sweeping brushstrokes that made his previous books blockbusters (“The City of Joy” and, with coauthor Larry Collins, “Is Paris Burning?” and “O Jerusalem”), Mr. Lapierre brings South African history since 1652 vividly forward, shining a spotlight on some of the lesser-known heroes of recent years.
Notable among these heroes is Helen Lieberman, a white speech therapist to whom Mr. Lapierre dedicates his book. In 2002, Mr. Lapierre traveled to South Africa to meet Mrs. Lieberman, the founder of Ikamva Labantu (The Future of our Nation), the country’s largest social welfare organization. In recent years, Mr. Lapierre has devoted much of his efforts to helping the world’s poorest children. A portion of this book’s proceeds will go to funding Mr. Lapierre’s charitable organization City of Joy Aid, devoted to helping the children of Calcutta.
His meeting with the 59-year-old Mrs. Lieberman, who at great risk saved the lives of several thousand black children during the darkest days of apartheid, is what led to the writing of “A Rainbow in the Night.” With 60 hours of taped interviews with Mrs. Lieberman, he learned, as readers do, of the extraordinary courage of this woman dedicated to protecting the world’s most helpless citizens. Her story - along with the story of heart surgeon Christian Bernard and of countless others who pressed forward during South Africa’s darkest days - is unforgettable.
Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.