In South Africa, Both Whites and Blacks Fail to Grasp the New Reality

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PLETTENBERG BAY, South Africa — New democracies tend to be a little oversensitive. Take South Africa. A conservative journalist here named Max du Preez recently referred to Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's president, as a "womanizer." I'm not going to reckon with the truth or falsehood of the accusation, but by the ANC's reaction, you'd think Mbeki had been called a murderer, a cheat, a fraud, a deviant and a liar — all epithets that Bill Clinton, and probably every American president, routinely gets called.

Some in the ANC called for special legislation to make such verbal attacks on the president illegal. That is not a very democratic response. The First Amendment is neither alive nor well here. But it's also the natural reaction of a ruling party in a fledgling democracy, a ruling party that doesn't always see much virtue — or advantage — in a free press, at least compared to free electricity or water.

No new democracy can be expected to embrace the robust American-style media, where pretty much anything goes. Nelson Mandela was wont to say that journalists are patriots too, and why shouldn't they do their part to help the home team? It's a fair question, but what I'm not sure the South African government understands is that journalists are also being patriots when they root out corruption and when they speak truth to power by pointing out when the government errs.

The hypersensitive reaction of the ANC was recently mirrored by one of the stalwarts of traditional South African liberalism, Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature. The education department of Gauteng province (where Johannesburg is located) recently announced that Gordimer's 1990 novel, "July's People," was "not acceptable" for use in the prescribed list of books to be read by high school seniors. The committee described the book as "deeply racist, superior and patronizing."

Liberal South African whites reacted with amazement. It was as though a school board in America had said students were forbidden to read the Declaration of Independence — or "Huckleberry Finn," for that matter. Ms. Gordimer responded with high dudgeon similar to that of the ANC; she said that "if the selectors of fiction are looking for moral lessons against racism, few could be more telling than the situation in this novel."

I read "July's People" quite a few years ago, and I recall it as a story of a longtime domestic servant named July who rescues a white family from a kind of racial Armageddon by sheltering them in his own township world. Gordimer is a fine writer, but I'm afraid the committee's description of the book as an "anachronism" is on the mark. July amazes the complacent, well-to-do white family — and by implication the complacent well-to-do white reader — with his kindness, resourcefulness and wisdom. In other words, he's the classic "noble savage" of 19th- and early-20th-century literature. He may not be educated or know what a bell curve is, but his heart's in the right place. It is, in many ways, a moving book, but for a new country, a new African country, the depiction of an uneducated black servant who risks his life to save a spoiled rich white family is not exactly the kind of thing you want your black high school seniors to be reading just as they go off into the world.

But I'm afraid Ms. Gordimer just doesn't get it. Her hilariously self-righteous response — which reads like the sort of pretentious literary description that the book would get in Cliff Notes — shows that her own attitudes are as anachronistic as the idea of the noble savage. "The black servant takes full responsibility for the couple," she writes, "sheltering them among his own people; even if students miss the irony of the reversal of dependence — white now dependent on black — this act of non-racial human feeling and tolerance is glaringly evident."

Among his own people. White now dependent on black. What Ms. Gordimer does not seem to understand — like most of the well-heeled white families who populate this lovely resort town on the Indian Ocean where I'm staying — is that July's People are the people of this country, and that South Africa is now an African country. The sensitive moral register of the white readers of Ms. Gordimer's fiction — and I promise you, Ms. Gordimer had no black South African readers — doesn't much matter anymore. Whites no longer have to be persuaded that blacks should have power; blacks have the power. That doesn't mean there's no place for white folks in South Africa, it just means there's no place for old-fashioned patronizing thinking.

Rick Stengel will be on vacation until May 1 and will not be able to respond to his e-mail until his return.