Tom Wheeler. Apartheid Past, Renaissance Future (South Africa's Foreign Policy 1994-2004). Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs, 2005. xv + 779 pp. (paper), ISBN 978-1-919969-22-0.
Reviewed by Roger Pfister (Centre for International and Comparative Politics, Stellenbosch University)
Published on H-SAfrica (December, 2006)
Chronicling Apartheid South Africa's Diplomatic Window to the World
The book under review is a contribution to our knowledge on the foreign relations of apartheid South Africa and, more specifically, the supposedly predominant policy actor in this domain, the foreign affairs ministry. However, it is not a scholarly work in the strict sense of the word. Rather, as is frankly declared in the foreword: "The work does not offer a comprehensive picture of the Department [of Foreign Affairs] as a government department nor of its operations over a specific period.... It tries rather to give a broad survey of composition and diplomatic role of the Department of Foreign Affairs ... in the hope that students or other researchers will be encouraged to undertake more extensive research into specific topics" (pp. xii-xiii). Another primary purpose of the book is to provide "a scientifically compiled manual for training and motivating personnel" (p. xiii), an ambition that is closely related to its origins. Significantly, the South African Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) initiated the project, as far back as the first half of the 1980s, and academics were subsequently recruited. Given the predominance of officials coming from an Afrikaner background in this and other departments, it comes as no surprise that all the contributions in the volume are written by researchers with the same roots, with none of them having any track record of research in the field of South Africa's foreign policy. Additionally, a former DFA Director for Personnel, Johan H. de Beer, wrote four chapters. Finally, the Editorial Committee, which was established "to give guidance to the researchers" (p. xi), was comprised exclusively of officials from that same department. Given this arrangement, we can argue quite safely that the purpose of the enterprise was not to assess the DFA's past in an overtly critical way.
The task of writing the individual chapters was completed in the early 1990s, but the idea of compiling and getting them published did not advance thereafter. It was only after Tom F. Wheeler, a former senior DFA official became Chief Operating Officer in 2003 with the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) that the project gained in momentum, resulting in the book under review. However, his editorship neither changed the substance of the different chapters nor the organization of the book, such as it was already planned in 1999; the final product differs only marginally from the then three-volume, ring-bound study available to me when I conducted research early in that year for my own study.
Sadly, therefore, the book reviewed here represents little more than a patchwork of puzzle pieces. It lacks a coherent framework and there is neither an introductory or concluding chapter, which would have been vital in consolidating the arguments posed in the twenty-eight contributions. These chapters are assembled in three parts: part 1 focuses on the period 1927-48, the DFA's early years, and notably examines the role of Eric Louw, the Minister of External/Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1963, as well as the relations with the United Kingdom, the Americas, East and Southern Africa, and South West Africa (SWA), as well as issues to do with the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. Part 2 covers the period up to1966, with chapters on Pretoria's relations with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Africa, Southern Africa, SWA, the United Nations, Europe and the Americas. In contrast, the chapters in part 3 examine aspects relevant to both the DFA's organization and management, from its establishment in 1927 to the end of apartheid. There is a noteworthy annex containing the names of Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Heads of Department and Missions for the period under review. The organization of the book's main thrust is unsatisfactory. It would have been far more helpful to place part 3 at the beginning, to introduce the reader to the Department of Foreign Affairs, its development over the years, its key officials, etc. In addition, the main bulk of the book deals with Pretoria's foreign relations, rather than with the history of the DFA, as was to be expected from its title. Whilst the linkage of the two aspects is legitimate, this should be reflected in the title. There should have been similar clarity with regard to the time period covered by the book, that is, up to either 1966 or 1994.
A more serious concern pertains to the choice of subjects and the sources used. In particular, did the DFA define the subject areas to be covered and open up the relevant files, or could the selected academics freely access all files and decide thereafter on how to best organize their findings? We also do not know, for example, whether the DFA's Top Secret files could also be accessed. Under the guise of purporting to be a scholarly historical book, this framework for research should have been clarified.
In terms of content, both the quality and the scientific value of the different chapters vary quite significantly. Generally speaking, those in part 3 offer the most insight, probably due to the insider knowledge of Johan de Beer, who authored four of the seven chapters. Among the more interesting contributions in the two other parts of the book are those on Pretoria's relations with the Commonwealth and with African states, both covering the period from 1948 to 1966. Other than these contributions, the book, for the most part, does not provide much more than purely historical accounts without any deeper genuflection on the significance to South Africa's overall diplomatic relations. Also missing is any serious discussion of inter-departmental frictions, which were manifold. A case in point, substantiating this argument and criticisms, is the following statement in de Beer's chapter on "The Organisation and Functioning of Missions":
"The situation was aggravated when certain departments or parastatal institutions housed in a mission were authorized to send their representatives instructions through the diplomatic bag or to enable them to expend secret funds by Cabinet without the head of mission being able to satisfy himself that they were being put to proper use. Such departments or parastatals included [the Department of] Defence, National Intelligence, Armscor [Armaments Development and Manufacturing Corporation] and [the Department of] Information" (p. 642).
In addition to a lack of sources necessary to back up this important point, no examples are given and there is no further elaboration on the implications of this for both the Department of Foreign Affairs' standing and its work.
In conclusion, given the likely privileged access to the archival documents and insider knowledge of both the editor and Johan de Beer, much more could have been made of this study and it missed the opportunity of making a significant contribution to the literature.
. Christoffel Frederik Jacobus Muller (former Professor in History at Pretoria's Unisa), Adam Johannes van Wyk (lecturer in History at the Universities of Durban-Westville, Pretoria and Unisa), and Frederik Jacobus Nöthling (lecturer in History at Unisa).
. Wheeler served with the DFA from 1961 to 2003, with postings, in sequence, to Washington, Blantyre, London, Sydney, New York, Washington and Ankara.
. Roger Pfister, Apartheid South Africa and African States: From Pariah to Middle Power (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005). Reviewed in H-SAfrica by Paul-Henri Bischoff (forthcoming).
. The Armaments Development and Manufacturing Corporation (Armscor) was established in 1968 to counter the 1963 UN voluntary arms embargo, it became the main armaments supplier of the South African Defence Force (SADF).
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Roger Pfister. Review of Wheeler, Tom, Apartheid Past, Renaissance Future (South Africa's Foreign Policy 1994-2004).
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