Encounters with the History of South Africa


Dominique Lapierre is the author of A Rainbow in the Night.

During three years of trips to South Africa to research my latest book, A Rainbow in the Night, I discovered a country and a people very much attached to its past.

The rock of Robben Island, at the extreme tip of the continent, has been made into a true historical sanctuary. It is there, in cell 466/64 of a maximum-security prison, that Nelson Mandela, the father of independent South Africa, spent almost a third of his life. I visited the place along with several hundreds of the thousands of South Africans—blacks and whites— who come every year to pay their respect to this landmark.

South Africa is full of these cherished memorials to the past. In Cape Town, the imposing statue of a six-foot Dutchman with long hair and a white collar reminds the citizens of today that the turbulent history of their country began one day in 1652 with the arrival from Holland of Jan van Riebeeck and a hundred farmers to start the colonization of the continent.

Scattered around the land, hundreds of small museums stand guard to the memories of South Africa’s turbulent past. In a showcase in one of these shrines in the Transvaal, I once discovered a small piece of barbwire. This bit of steel was a sample of a new British invention that had imprisoned tens of thousands of men, women, and children in the first concentration camp of modern times, during the ferocious Boer War.

Near the city of Pietermaritzburg, I took a swim with a group of black children in a river which bears the name “Blood River” in memory of all the Zulu lives lost in that waterway during an attack against the white conquerors.

In the city of Bloemfontein, there’s an impressive plaque over the entrance of the local theater that solicits the respect of today’s South Africans. It’s in this theater that, on January 8, 1912, the chiefs of all the black tribes of the country assembled to found the African National Congress, the organization that started the South African Blacks’ crusade for equality and freedom.

Near Johannesburg I was to discover, in the backroom of a café, another plaque which reminds today’s citizens that it was there a small group of white activists founded, one day in 1918, the secret organization which would put the white minority at the command of the country—a tragic adventure that would give birth to the racist regime of apartheid.

My numerous pilgrimages to collect material for A Rainbow in the Night took me to over one hundred other memorials that are important to today’s South Africans—particularly the young generation that takes such pride in its great history.

But of course, in frequent instances, the hardships of today’s existence tend to overshadow the love of South Africans for their past. South Africa is the richest nation in Africa today, but it cannot escape a severe rate of unemployment, a dramatic exposure to the scourge of AIDS, and its recurrent inter-tribal conflicts with its less privileged neighbors. As a result, the magic country of Nelson Mandela does not always offer the image of peace, prosperity, and fraternity her giant father dreamt for her.

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