Richard Manning’s 1986 NEWSWEEK cover story on South Africa’s escalating civil war earned for him an expulsion order after he had been in the country less than a year. Nine months was long enough, however, for this energetic journalist to interview an amazing variety of individuals across the political spectrum; it was also long enough for Manning to fall hopelessly in love with the beautiful, maddening country that is South Africa.
South Africa is a sort of moral and political Rubik’s cube: Though solutions are frustratingly hard to find, the puzzle hooks one, draws one in. Manning’s treatment of the complexities of his subject is strongest when he maintains a degree of journalistic distance, letting facts speak for themselves. His simple recitation of statistics regarding Soweto is heartrending: “Tuberculosis occurs as frequently as the common cold in New York or Los Angeles.... In the Diepkloof section of Soweto, families sleep four to a house. Four families: one to each room.” There is real insight in the discussion of the guilt-ridden paralysis of upper-class Anglos (English-speaking whites). The short biography of Nelson Mandela shines, and Manning’s reflections on South Africa’s future and on United States policy are thought-provoking.
Several mannerisms of Manning’s style, however, are extremely annoying and distracting. For some reason, he interrupts even the most eloquent speeches of his interviewees with descriptions of their gestures: shrugging, nose-rubbing, eye-widening. It is hard to keep from visualizing the speakers as jerky marionettes.
The book is less than successful as a memoir. Manning and his colleagues seem to have had a penchant for undermining moments of deep emotion by responding with four-letter words. He seems to revel in the freedom to do in his book what he could not in the pages of NEWSWEEK: betray the feelings of admiration or contempt that he experienced toward his interviewees. Paradoxically, this frankness diminishes the emotional impact of his descriptions.
There is much here to instruct, even to inspire, if one is willing to endure the author’s self-indulgence.