BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Max du Preez is a critical thinker in a country where there is too much criticism and too little meaningful thinking. In A Rumour of Spring – his attempt to answer “Where are we now after 20 years of democracy?” – he has embraced the need to have a thorough grounding of history to understand the present. His writing on the exiled ANC is particularly illuminating – and goes a long way to help explain the undemocratic tendencies of some of the party’s contemporary leaders. His attempts to empathise, to understand, and to appreciate multiple points-of-view means he’s capable of capturing complex issues with nuance and maturity. His reflections on race are fascinating and refreshing.
A Rumour of Spring is strongest in its documenting the mixed record of the ANC’s two decades of rule. Du Preez eloquently explores key governance issues, including land reform, policing and the judiciary, education, health. In these sections there is the greatest detail, the greatest time spent formulating diagnoses about what the ruling party has and hasn’t achieved. Here is the data, and the textured arguments he builds from those. He mostly works hard not generalise, though at other times the scale of his assumptions are cringe inducing. A random example is: “SADTU is most ordinary South Africans’ pet hate.” Perhaps the destructive teachers’ union might be, but how would he know? Did he do a survey?
When looking ahead, Du Preez is on wobblier ground. While forecasting the future is often a futile exercise – and he is to be commended for effectively rubbishing the claims South Africa could easily become a failed state – his look to the future at the end of the book is too brief and too superficial. The post-apartheid political opposition (both its past and its future) is a particular blind spot. The DA’s trajectory, from a 1.7% minnow in 1994 to attaining nearly 17% of the vote in 2009 goes unexplored; the chief architect of much of this growth, Tony Leon, gets a single mention. In the final chapter, du Preez tells us the DA wants to expand its support amongst black voters, but no attempt is made to assess how or whether the party can achieve this. No effort is made to unpack its vision of “an open opportunity society for all” – and whether or not this is a vision that a majority of voters can get behind. The party “does still struggle with its white ‘neoliberal’ roots” du Preez tells us. It is hard to discern quite what is meant by this breezy pronouncement, but presumably there is, in there, the implication that the DA should be ashamed of its liberal ideals (the very ideals that saw its predecessor parties fight apartheid).
Du Preez seems to have something of a soft spot for the former struggle activist and businesswoman, Mamphela Ramphele. Writing before the ill-fated – and shortlived – announcement that she was to become the DA’s presidential candidate, du Preez lauds her for not becoming “tainted” by allowing her party to join the “‘white liberal’ DA”. This is ironic for someone who appears to have a very genuine desire to see South Africans’ political identities become less intertwined with their racial ones. Du Preez also tells us that Agang has “a lot of money” – an unsubstantiated and, as it turns out, inaccurate claim.
A Rumour of Spring is an essential albeit uneven book: a compelling, articulate and conversational diagnosis of where we’ve come from, and where we are now. You should read it.