The story of South Africa’s transformation.



Category/Subject/Tags (Key Words): Book Reviews: South Africa, books, good books, ‘Beyond the Miracle‘, Allister Sparks

Allister Sparks.

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Taking Stock of the Transition

With the publication of Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa, journalist Allister Sparks completes the trilogy he began with The Mind of South Africa and Tomorrow is Another Country. In the first book, Sparks examined the history of South Africa since colonization.[1] The second offered an intimate look at the secret negotiations that paved the way for South Africa’s peaceful transformation from pariah state to multi-racial democracy.[2] In Beyond the Miracle, Sparks identifies many reasons to celebrate his native country’s rebirth, yet he does more than revel. This book is a sober assessment of the many problems and challenges still facing South Africa and a highly accessible overview of “the transition.”

There is now a burgeoning literature on this subject. Readers will agree that Beyond the Miracle offers a more optimistic view than Patrick Bond’s Elite Transitions, which argues that elites, not the poor, have been the true beneficiaries of democracy and neo-liberalism in South Africa.[3] Although Sparks covers much of the same territory in a chapter called “The Great U-Turn,” he also provides his audience with a more wide-ranging and readable narrative than Hein Marais’s Limits to Change, a policy-oriented chronology of the African National Congress’s embrace of free-trade principles in the 1990s.[4]

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is its author’s use of interview material and anecdotal evidence to show how everyone from high-ranking politicians to small business owners, pensioners to Pentecostals, are trying to make sense of the dramatic changes they have witnessed, helped to bring about, and, at times, resisted. This is exactly what one would expect from Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and a journalist with a lifetime of experience writing from the frontlines of South Africa’s political battlefields.

By illuminating what the transition has meant for white and black South Africans on a psychological and symbolic level, Sparks distinguishes his book from others like it. He draws on discussions with African National Congress (ANC) leaders to explain some of their initial missteps when they first occupied the offices of their former enemies. He reflects on the hidden significance of seemingly unimportant events, such as when one bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance refused to take down the portraits of apartheid-era officials adorning the Ministry walls. Along with such snap shots of individual intransigence, we learn of the symbolic importance of Mandela’s decision to don a Springbok jersey after South Africa’s rugby victory in 1995 over New Zealand–rugby being a sport traditionally supported only by whites, especially Afrikaners. Mandela’s gesture constituted a step towards national reconciliation and racial inclusiveness.

Also setting this book apart is Sparks’s journalistic sensitivity to his informants’ words. Sparks quotes a Mrs. Malala, whose life, he suggests, was dramatically transformed by the delivery of electricity and indoor plumbing to her community. Instead of trekking miles to collect firewood and water, Mrs. Malala now enjoys television, refrigerated food, fewer chores, and, most importantly, leisure time. “I have got time to rest and I’ve got more time for my church work,” she says (p. 52). Sparks offers his readers inspirational (perhaps instructional?) stories of committed South Africans facing up to the problems of poverty and inequality and working for a better future. For instance, he recounts the story of a young white man who, having packed his bags to emigrate to the United States, decided not to “be a sheep following the others,” but to stay home (p. 235). He then went on to open the world’s lowest-cost university.

Lest the reader feel overly encouraged by these vignettes, Sparks unflinchingly describes the conundrums still facing post-apartheid South Africa. (This is familiar material for anyone versed in the transition literature.) He devotes one chapter to South Africa’s faulty educational system and high crime rates, presenting both as legacies of apartheid. The reader finds descriptive snippets and smatterings of statistics on rates of unemployment, vehicle hijackings, brain drain, mismanagement of government offices, and the difficulties of turning an economy previously geared towards self-sufficiency into a global manufacturing exporter. We are told, for instance, that more than 30% of South Africa’s police force is illiterate and an astonishing 11,000 officers do not have drivers’ licenses (p. 231).

Not surprisingly, the media provide the author with some of his best material. Sparks recounts a debate waged in the pages of an Afrikaans newspaper set off by journalist Chris Louw. Louw claimed to speak for young Afrikaners when he wrote an open letter to former President F. W. De Klerk that accused De Klerk of brainwashing his people into fighting against the ANC. The changing structure of the country’s news organizations also provides Sparks with a window into some of the unresolved tensions inhabiting South African news offices everywhere. Sparks draws on his own personal experience with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) when describing recent turf wars between a power-hungry older regime and a hastily-trained group of younger journalists.

After casting Nelson Mandela as a vanishing saint and a towering figure of moral authority, Sparks devotes much of the book to exploring the mind of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. We learn of the current president’s seemingly loveless childhood, his discomfort in crowds, his controlling administrative style, his poetic eloquence, and the paranoia he suffers after spending years in exile (pp. 253-259). Sparks effectively summarizes Mbeki’s perplexing relationship with AIDS dissidents between 1999 and 2002. Is this a man in desperate denial, or is Mbeki asserting “an African intellectual independence, to show that he is not simply a captive of Western thought systems” (p. 291)?

Sparks touches on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), a pan-African scheme formulated largely by Mbeki. Nepad signatories hope to promote economic development in Africa by securing international aid in exchange for self-enforced good-governance. For Sparks, the crisis in Zimbabwe has become “Nepad’s credibility test.” By refusing to put pressure on his former comrade, Robert Mugabe, Mbeki has, thus far, failed to pass the test, leaving the legitimacy of Nepad hanging in the balance (p. 326).

In his introductory and concluding remarks, Sparks makes three analytic choices that some readers might find problematic. First, he seems overly concerned to make his story compelling to an American policy audience. This is perhaps because Sparks completed his book in Washington D.C. during the soul-searching months that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The message he attempts to convey is that “the Third World does matter” and “you can’t ignore your neighbor in a global village” (p. xii). South Africa is made to serve as an example of the need for the First World to acknowledge and address the growing anger of the Third World.

Second, the author preaches. Speaking from the position of an observer who has seen the potential for massive conflict avoided through acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, Sparks wants the world to heed the lesson. He introduces some of his chapters with biblical quotations reminding us that “we are our brothers’ keepers” and “the meek shall inherit the earth.” By choosing to do this, Sparks gives his book an emphatic, emotional tone, rather than a dispassionate, scholarly one.

Third, the author wholeheartedly adopts “globalization” as an explanatory device. Drawing heavily on Milton Friedman, Sparks defines globalization as something creating “exciting new vistas of opportunities,” but also causing “rising inequality and perilous instability”

Despite these limitations, Beyond the Miracle offers an eminently readable set of reflections on South Africa since 1994. The book is packed with stories that succinctly capture South Africa’s current complexities and contradictions. Sparks also does a good job of reminding us that the past haunts the present. Practically all of the people we hear from in this book carry with them heavy burdens from the past, burdens now publicly discussed in the form of confessional memoirs, or brought to light by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While some of Sparks’s informants appear embittered, others are chagrined, others triumphant.

The unsettled and conflicting ways in which South Africans now think about themselves as a people; the dilemmas of how to create jobs in a questionable investment environment; and the impossibility of ever shedding the weight of history are all issues poignantly raised by Beyond the Miracle. Although this reviewer wished that Sparks had delved more deeply into a select few of the issues at hand, instead of trying to cover all the bases and collapsing much of his fascinating subject matter into the framework of globalization theory, he has nevertheless given his readers (particularly non-specialists) an informative overview of “the transition,” judiciously spiced with personal reflections, telling anecdotes, and evocative quotations.


[1]. Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa (New York: Knopf, 1992).

[2]. Allister Sparks, Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[3]. Patrick Bond, Elite Transitions: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2000).

[4]. Hein Marais, South Africa: Limits to Change: The Political Economy of Transition (New York: Zed Books, 2001). On the transition, also see Ashwin Desai, We Are The Poors: Community Struggle in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002); Gillian Hart, Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002); and Sampie Terreblanche, A History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652-2002 (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002).


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* *

Mandela, Mbeki and the future

Allister Sparks’s forensic study of South Africa today, Beyond the Miracle, is compelling, says Anthony Sampson

Anthony Sampson


The Observer, Sunday 14 September 2003


Article history

Buy Beyond the Miracle at

Beyond the Miracle

‘You poor fellow, after all you have done, it must be terrible to see what is happening to your country.’ Allister Sparks recalls hearing that often when he travelled abroad. And he quotes his fellow South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, who kept being asked in Europe and America: ‘What is happening to whites?’ ‘They identify only with whites whether consciously or unconsciously,’ Gordimer protested. ‘Because I am white, they assume I do the same.’

Sparks is a doyen of South African journalism, the author of one of the best histories of his country and a former correspondent for The Observer. But he does not automatically identify with whites: he worked closely with black writers and broadcasters before and after the Mandela government came to power in 1994, and he is well-placed to assess what has happened to his country since, among all the races.

He has some unease about calling his book Beyond the Miracle, for the change that has taken place in South Africa, he says, was not really a miracle. It ‘was brought about not by some Damascus Road revelation , but by ordinary, fallible human beings who ultimately recognised that they had been cast together by the forces of history’.

But having witnessed the transformation at close quarters, and having lived in the midst of it, he has no doubts about the extent of the achievement. As he writes: ‘An equivalent settlement in the Middle East would see Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip consolidated into a single secular state which, before long, would be ruled over by a Palestinian majority government and in which Jews could live in peace and security as a minority group.’

He provides vivid accounts of different aspects of the reconciliation process, most notably the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was able to put the truth of past atrocities on record ‘to a degree unequalled by any post-conflict inquiry’. And he describes how South Africa has survived the extraordinary economic problems, including the dwindling of gold production on which much of its wealth was based.

He is fiercely critical of sectarian white politicians and businessmen who refuse to adjust to a multiracial country, including Tony Leon, the leader of the supposedly liberal Democratic Party who launched a campaign ‘aimed blatantly at winning over the white conservative vote’. He points out how few white businessmen have an understanding of politics: ‘The South African economy has always been dominated by the English-speaking white community, who have been on the political sidelines for a hundred years.’

He recognises that many of the Ministers in Mandela’s government failed to grapple with their departments, and he points to the danger of black racists who can use the charge of racism to demolish white competitors for jobs. He quotes the black political journalist Mondli Makhanya, who describes how the new elite ‘wield blackness like a weapon as they climb the ladder of privilege’.

He describes candidly the shortcomings of President Mbeki. He analyses his obdurate denials and fatal delays in facing up to the menace of Aids, and he argues vigorously with him about his failure to confront President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mbeki tells him that whites are only concerned about Zimbabwe because some whites are being killed: ‘The extraordinary preoccupation with what is going on in Zimbabwe,’ says Mbeki, ‘in reality has got to do with white fears in South Africa.’ Sparks agrees that whites are too preoccupied with their fellow-whites, but he insists that ‘what is happening in Zimbabwe is a major African tragedy in the making’.

What makes this book unusual and important is the wide overview, across the different racial communities, against a background of the author’s international experience. He does not try to ignore the economic problems of South Africa, the high unemployment and floods of immigrants, the harsh industrial competition from other countries, the lack of necessary skills. South Africa, he recognises, faces a double whammy as a country at the bottom of the most marginalised continent.

But he has a long historical perspective, a respect for his own countrymen and their resilience. He has watched his country enduring far more dangerous predicaments, from which there appeared no way out. ‘When you have just escaped Armageddon,’ he concludes, ‘that is no time to become a pessimist.’


 Publisher Description

It is the dramatic story of how a handful of rookie politicians came ‘out of the bush’ – to use Mandela’s own phrase – to take over the running of a complex and deeply troubled country that they thought was richly endowed but in fact was almost bankrupt; of how they struggled to come to terms with an often hostile bureaucracy; and how above all they found themselves struggling not only with the complexities of their own society but also with the bewildering and often destabilizing forces of the new globalized economy. It is the story of singular triumphs and some distressing failures. South Africa still faces many problems, but it is also one of the most vibrant and exciting places on earth – and, as Sparks suggests, a microcosm of the world. For this is a country not only of white and black, but one where the impoverished meet the rich everyday, where Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus, sophisticated urbanites and tribal traditionalists, Zulus and Xhosas, English and Afrikaners, must all surmount their historical conflicts and find a common national identity. Mandela’s dream was of a nonracial democracy, and this book is a realistic assessment of the status of that dream as the new South Africa nears the end of its first decade. But Sparks also suggests that it is much more than that. South Africa also represents a unique negotiated resolution to a historical conflict that had its roots in rival claims to sovereignty over the same piece of national territory. Whose country is it? Both white Afrikaners and black Africans laid claim to South African sovereignty – one as a God-ordained right, the other by indigenous birthright. This is a conflict that repeats itself in many of the world’s most intractable trouble spots – between Israelis and Palestinians, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. In that respect particularly, Sparks suggests that the great South African experiment is of abiding global importance.

 PPS: As Sparks writes: ‘An equivalent settlement in the Middle East would see Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip consolidated into a single secular state which, before long, would be ruled over by a Palestinian majority government and in which Jews could live in peace and security as a minority group.’ 

!!!! ??????

Anthony Sampson is the author of Mandela: the Authorised Biography 

by Allister Sparks
Profile Books £14.99, pp288 (p. 218). The all-encompassing G-word prevents Sparks from considering the myriad ways in which South Africa’s recent troubles cannot be explained by reference to mobile capital and out-sourcing (and other things taken to define globalization). Even if South Africa is now being shaped by economic forces that are global in nature, does it not still behoove us to pay careful attention to the ways in which South Africa is quite different from other countries where, to use Sparks’s words, there is a widening gap between “the stinking rich and the dirt poor” (p. x)? Grace Davie (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California at San Diego)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2005) Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xiv + 384 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-76858-8.


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