An Eyewitness Account Of South Africa Today

By Richard Manning

Houghton Mifflin. 255 pp. $16.95


Inside South Africa's Hidden War

By Stephen M. Davis

Yale University Press

238 pp. $27.50; paperback, $8.95

IN A June 1986 crackdown, the South African government expelled Newsweek's Johannesburg correspondent, Richard Manning. As two South African policemen escorted him across the runway to his plane, Manning turned. " 'You know,' I said to them. 'None of this was personal. I just hate to see you guys {ruining} your country.' All three of us shrugged."

The anecdote is retold in Manning's book about his nine months in the land of apartheid, called "They Cannot Kill Us All". For readers of Newsweek, much of the book is familiar: conversations with Winnie Mandela, leaders of the 1976 student uprising, young black "comrades" and conservative white Afrikaners.

Manning presents this material in a looser, more personal fashion. He uses descriptions such as, "His tongue smacked the consonants like a plumber's wrench on a pipe." He introduces his photographer as a dramatic character who contributes obscene observations.

The book has the tone of moral tourism, a rapid look around the political landscape with some awkward personal touches. Manning describes himself at home one night reverently humming the Zulu Methodist hymn that has become the unofficial national anthem among black South Africans. Manning reaches the hymn's final line: "Hamba kahle, I whispered to the night. Go well."

Alas, events in South Africa don't go well and neither does the book. It is composed of seven chapters. A chapter about sanctions appears to be based largely on newspaper clippings that appeared after Manning's departure. A chapter about the imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela mainly quotes lengthy excerpts from published trial statements made by Mandela in 1964 and from a widely reported press conference given by ANC president Oliver Tambo in 1986.

A chapter about English-speaking whites says as much about the company Manning kept as it does about English-speaking society. He writes that "Social occasions . . . were more intense mating dances than they were dinner parties . . . I sensed in the eyes of many women I met a pleading, really, a wanting to be warmed . . . There were times we almost needed a scorecard to figure out which peach was shacking up with whom, which weebit was carrying on behind whose back."

Manning divides Afrikaners, the ruling white ethnic group, into neat compartments. Conservative Afrikaners he treats harshly. He drives away from one farm "shaking my head in disbelief . . . Why are these Afrikaners so Goddamned obstinate?" After meeting two enlightened Afrikaners, Manning generously amends this to say "I wasn't going to condemn an entire people as long as there were still Nico Smiths around to care."

The two best chapters deal with young blacks. Just before the 10th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, Manning found three key student leaders who went to jail and have since reemerged as political figures. Manning also recounts a chilling interview with a young "comrade" who helped murder an informer by the necklace method, which involves forcing a tire around the shoulders of the suspect and setting fire to tire and suspect with gasoline. The comrade calmly describes the agony of the victim, who had to be set alight a second time after the first douse of gasoline burned out.

But even here, Manning's book possesses an underlying weakness. A typical profile is composed of a single interview. As a result, his profiles lack structure and character development. Like many foreign correspondents, he relies on the legwork of a local black stringer. To locate the youth involved in the necklace killing, Manning simply asks his black stringer, who obligingly delivers Exhibit A to Manning's office the next week. Is this what reporting is all about? Manning never goes through the process of cultivating contacts and winning their confidence -- a process that might have helped him to get to know them better.

STEPHEN M. DAVIS' book, Apartheid's Rebels, about the African National Congress, belongs to a superior category. Davis has followed the African National Congress on and off since 1978, first as a visiting political officer for the U.S. Embassy in Zambia, and later as a free-lance journalist and as a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has conducted serious research and he draws on interesting court records, interviews with exiled leaders of the ANC, and a rare visit to an ANC refugee center in Tanzania.

It is refreshing to read a book on the ANC that isn't obsessed with the group's ideological tilt. Davis focuses on the nuts and bolts of the ANC: its funding, bureaucracy, military equipment, infiltration routes, clandestine cells, strategy, and prowess (or lack of it) as a guerrilla force. Davis is sympathetic to the ANC's cause, but discusses its strengths and weaknesses in a matter-of-fact style.

He challenges some of the conventional wisdom about South Africa's conflict. First, he treats the ANC as an organization and not just a symbol of resistance to the government. The distinction is vital. The South African government's crackdown in 1963 brought whites years of peace and smashed the black anti-apartheid structures. The government's crackdown last year leaves a far-flung, if somewhat haphazard, ANC organization in place.

Second, Davis suggests that the South African Defense Force isn't invincible. War against the ANC is taking a heavy toll on white South African troops, shown by high rates of suicides and courts-martial. South African government expenditures for defense have soared from about 6 percent of the budget to about 35 percent. Moreover, the army has been unable to fill its black recruitment quotas.

But the book remains flawed. Davis attributes 1961 tensions within the South African Communist Party to the "sudden split" between the Soviet and Chinese wings of the worldwide party, though that split didn't come until 1964. He says the police discovery of the headquarters of the ANC sabotage campaign in 1963 was the result of "careful detective work" when it was due as much to ANC carelessness and indiscretion. Davis attributes the 1986 car-bomb assassination of an unpopular black homeland leader to the ANC, even though evidence suggests the South African government ordered the minister killed after his brutal behavior proved an embarrassment.

He maintains that the leading black South African union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the chief anti-apartheid coalition, the United Democratic Front, are controlled by the ANC. In fact, the domestic organizations have close but often tense relationships with the exiled leadership, a condition that reflects much of the subtlety of black politics. This remains unexplored.

Important aspects of ANC strategy and organization elude Davis. He never obtains access to ANC camps in Angola, where virtually all the ANC's military training takes place and where the greatest concentration of cadres resides. He doesn't portray the major personalities in the ANC leadership or discuss their influence on the character of the organization. Perhaps for fear of compromising ANC agents, he doesn't reveal much that is new about cell structures or infiltration routes.

But Davis' effort to depict "South Africa's hidden war," as he calls it in his subtitle, underlines the fact that "war" is what both the ANC and the South African government are slowly building up to. These secret campaigns emphasize that South African casualties so far might only be a prelude of more serious battles to come.

Steven Mufson, formerly Johannesburg correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Business Week, was expelled from South Africa in May 1987.