A noted South African exile returns to his homeland to find that wondrous changes have taken place since the fall of apartheid.
Journalist Woods fled South Africa in 1977 after running afoul of the Botha government one time too many, this time after naming names in the murder of his friend, the black activist Steve Biko, events that Woods recounted in his book Cry Freedom (the basis for Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film of the same name). In 1990, the South African regime, now led by F.W. De Klerk, released another activist, Nelson Mandela, from prison after 27 years and pardoned thousands of dissidents, including Woods. Thus he was able to return in August 1990 to a country that he had regarded as “enemy territory in my mind.” Among the first signs he saw that change was coming to his homeland was Mandela’s campaign of charming former enemies with simple courtesy, as when he called on a hospitalized member of the hated apartheid government. “Bloodthirsty terrorists do not usually act like gentle old grandfathers,” writes Woods, adding that Mandela’s statesmanship set an important example for South Africa as it struggled onto a democratic course. Finding that way was by no means simple, and Woods offers many examples of how cultures that had existed side by side for generations still could not understand one another. Another important step was taken, he writes, when, following the first free election in April 1994, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose and document the crimes of apartheid for posterity. “The chairman of the commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, as he had done so often in South Africa’s political past,” writes Woods: namely, that a new class of censors and secret policemen would not replace the old in the course of reckoning.
Woods acknowledges failures, such as the fall of Winnie Mandela, while concluding that the emergence of a free South Africa was “a brilliant achievement.” Readers of this vivid memoir will surely agree.