A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique Lapierre is, ultimately, a good book about a great story. It is only “good,” in and of itself, rather than “great,” because while parts of it are amazing, and all of it tells an amazing story, too much of it tells an amazing story in overwrought, hand-wringing fashion….like far too much writing about South Africa.
The main problem with it is that it begins as a fairly objective, fairly reasonable and very well-told history of South African history pre-World War II (which is back when the racism that would become Apartheid was not yet formalized).
That’s good — it’s going strong. The bad news is that it turns about halfway through into a hagiography of the poor. It’s also a hagiography of Mandela, which I feel like I’ve heard a thousand times. The real messy story feels like it’s avoided in favor of pouring out overwrought prose about how hard it was to be black during the Apartheid era. I’m already fairly clear that it blew pretty seriously. That’s why I’m reading a book on South Africa in the first place. Lapierre hits too hard on the same old messages of martyrdom, which makes this book not an effective history.
Don’t get me wrong…I don’t think “objective” makes a lot of sense when it comes to Apartheid, racism or Afrikaans-dominated South Africa. But I also don’t need to be beaten to death with overheated, overwrought, hand-wringing prose about the troubles of the poor. I read a LOT of books on Africa, and I see the kind of heartfelt, weepy prose engaged in here to be borderline condescending. It’s not intended that way, sure. But certainly many African writers express a deep-distaste for the hand-wringing of the West vis-a-vis Africa, and this book seems to be guilty of that. Lapierre is sort of the chief of it, having written a number of very good but very overwrought pieces of tragedy tourism (Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, for instance, and his magnum opus City of Joy). With Joy, he certainly did the right thing…spending part of the proceeds of the book to set up a foundation to help the poor of Calcutta — whom the book is about. I don’t fault his impulses, only his execution, in City of Joy as well as Rainbow in the Night. It’s not that he’s done anything wrong as that the way he does it, to some extent, dehumanizes rather than humanizes the poor of the developing world — at least to Lapierre’s Western audience.
I understand that Lapierre (and presumably his translator…not sure if this was written in English or French) are trying to communicate the agonies of being poor and black in South Africa — which are EXTREME today and were vastly more so during the Apartheid era. But I found the overdone prose in certain sections to be somewhat insulting in its obviousness.
That said, however, Lapierre’s heart is in the right place, and it’s the most accessible (and actually LEAST overwrought) thing I’ve read to-date on South Africa. The struggle the black South Africans, Mandela included, went through is amazing. I do wish there had been less hagiography and more, for instance, about the Zulu nationalist movement to the North, which opposed the African National Congress, and the criminal elements that flourished in the slums in the context of rampant soul-crushing poverty; it is in THOSE elements, it seems to me, that South Africa’s contemporary troubles have their origin.
We can attack the white Afrikaaner fascist racist murderers all we want. But as Michael Moorcock said, “All tyrants are pretty much the same, but there are many kinds of victims.” By spending the second half of this book making the racist demons as demonic as possible and the black South Africans saintly, I feel Lapierre has missed the real story in the ongoing triumph and tragedy of the struggle in post-colonial Africa overall, not just in South Africa. The result is an immensely readable book but one that’s a bit hard to take seriously as history, insofar as it concerns the Apartheid period itself (after World War II).
Speaking of which, why is this subtitled “The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa?” The author’s intention is to establish that the period from the landing of the first Dutch settlers on the Cape to the establishment of pluralist democracy is *ALL* the birth of South Africa…but out of context, it’s a little bewildering of a subtitle. It seems like it misleads the potential reader a bit.
The book still gets an honored place on my bookshelf, principally because I think it’s SO accessible that I hope it’ll be read by people who wouldn’t tackle a denser book or a more nuanced history about South Africa. The struggles the black South Africans and the Apartheid-opposing whites, Indians, those of mixed race etc. went through should be known to every person of conscience everywhere in the world.
Therefore, my nitpicks aside, if a zillion people read this book the world will be a much better place, and for that alone it gets some extra credit.
When all is said and done, it is an inspiring book and well worth reading.