The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey

The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey

by Adam Hochschild

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A “stunning blend of reportage, travelogue, history and meditation” by the New York Times–bestselling author of King Leopold’s Ghost (Publishers Weekly).

National Book Award finalist Adam Hochschild brings a lifetime’s familiarity with South Africa to bear in this eye-opening examination of a critical turning point in that nation’s history: the Great Trek of 1836–39, during which Dutch-speaking white settlers, known as Boers, journeyed deep into the country’s interior to escape the British colonial administration.
The mass migration culminated with the massacre of indigenous Zulus in the 1838 Battle of Blood River. Looking at the tensions of modern South Africa through the dramatic prism of the nineteenth century, Hochschild vividly recreates the battle—and its contentious commemoration by rival groups 150 years later. In his epilogue, Hochschild extends his view to the astonishing political changes that have occurred in the country in recent decades—and the changes yet to be made.
Hochschild’s incisive take on these events, noted Nadine Gordimer, “is far more than an outsider’s perception of the drama of our country. Read him, in particular, to understand the rise of white extremism which is threatening the democratic vision of the African National Congress and its allied progressive constituency among people of all colors.”
“A good book for anyone who wants a succinct and precise account of how this fascinating country has got where it is. . . . This is a book I recommend warmly.” —Archbishop Desmond Tutu
“One of the most illuminating books ever written on contemporary South Africa.” —Publishers Weekly
“Thoroughly researched, immensely readable . . . A work of vivid reportage and astute political analysis.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547525228
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/24/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 726,325
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Adam Hochschild is the author of seven books. King Leopold's Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was his recent To End All Wars. His Bury the Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award. He lives in Berkeley, California.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

October 5, 1942

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1963

Read an Excerpt


Summer Folk

The most unexpected thing about going to South Africa is that the plane is full. I had hoped that a half decade of well-publicized bloodshed would discourage enough travelers so that I could stretch out across a few empty seats and get a good night's sleep. But every seat on my 747 from Europe to South Africa is occupied. One of my seatmates is a cheerful German who visits the country twice a year on business, but whose real enthusiasm is for its hunting:

"Springbok, antelope, an incredible variety! The professional hunter takes along his boy; they're out in the bush together all day; they've been working together for years. No race problems there. ... Politics? Oh, South Africa just needs time to solve its problems."

Judging from the tennis racquets they carry, many other passengers are tourists, among the several hundred thousand, I later learn, who visit South Africa each year, heading for the country's beaches and game parks. And judging from other statistics, some of my fellow passengers must be immigrants. Years of upheaval have reduced that number, but some ten thousand newcomers still arrive in the country each year, lured by skilled jobs and good pay, and black house servants at $30 a week or less.

After my plane lands at Cape Town, the pilot announces, "The safest part of your journey is now over. On leaving the airport, please drive carefully." There is a burst of nervous laughter from the passengers: the road between Cape Town and its airport runs past a number of black townships, and at times in the last few years when tensions have been high, black youths have stoned vehicles driving past. At the airport, an armored car with the bright yellow paint of the South African Police is parked on the tarmac; its hull, high and V-shaped to deflect the blast of land mines, gives it the look of a steel sailboat on wheels. On the freeway into the city, some buses have wire mesh over the drivers' windows, against the stones. How do builders overcome a brick shortage? runs one South African joke. Answer: They send a couple of buses through a township. But today things are quiet, and from the freeway I can see black teenagers playing soccer on gravelly patches of dirt.

Cape Town is heartbreakingly lovely, its setting, as the intrepid traveler Anthony Trollope observed in 1877, "one of the most picturesque things to be seen on the face of the earth." The flat-topped Table Mountain looms above the city, its famous "tablecloth" of fog rolling off the top and dissolving into the air. The mountain throws a protective, tree-covered spur around Table Bay, a beckoning arm of land which welcomed ashore the first Dutch settlers more than three centuries ago. To the south stretches the rocky, surf-fringed Cape Peninsula, pointing downward like a finger toward the junction of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Surely it was not only the Cape's strategic location that made those sailors stop here, but also its uncanny beauty.

This hillside sea-city's charm haunted me when I lived here for part of that summer twenty-six years ago, and it still does so today. Perhaps because it is in such contrast to what goes on here. For the full panoply of apartheid has been legislated into being in a setting of transcendent loveliness. By night the lights of the Alpine cable-car station on the summit of Table Mountain twinkle like an earthbound star. By day a wash of brilliant sunlight covers arcaded nineteenth-century streets, stately public buildings, statues of white statesmen and generals, and a Botanical Gardens with palm trees and aviaries full of chirping birds.

At the edge of all this greenery stands the majestic Parliament building. One afternoon I sit in the press gallery and listen to a "reading" (a formality; almost anything the President wants is passed) of a bill asking for some $100 million worth of extra funds for the police, army, and prisons. All the members rise in silence as a white-gloved functionary carries in a huge gold mace, preceded by other officials in black tailcoats. The Speaker wears a black gown, and the building's walls are filled with gilt-framed paintings of other white men in wigs or old high-collared uniforms. Pages in green jackets with gold braid carry messages. Later, Honorable Members from here or there rise to ask questions of the Minister of this or that: is such-and-such an item covered by the supplementary appropriation or the general appropriation? So solemn is the sense of ceremony, so dark and cathedral-like is the wood paneling of the chamber's walls, so respectfully hushed are the white schoolchildren in shorts and blazers who watch from the visitor's balcony, that for a moment you can almost believe that the whole thing is legitimate.

Outside Parliament, trees shade the streets from the summer sun; a few blocks away, the air is filled with fresh smells from open-air flower stalls near the cobblestones of Greenmarket Square. Immaculate parks are laced with walking paths. At first glance there is little to remind you that the scene is not some exceptionally unspoiled city in southern Europe.

For most whites, it is Europe. "Read Gorky's Summer Folk," a friend here tells me. "It's the best thing written about white South Africa today." When I read this play about turn-of-the-century Russian gentry, I see what he means. Maxim Gorky's characters are families on vacation in the country. They read poetry aloud, play the piano, and prepare endlessly for some amateur theatricals which never come off. The characters talk of flamelike love and prisonlike marriage; everyone is having an affair with someone else's mate. From time to time they argue about the country's dreadful poverty, which they vaguely know exists somewhere off in the distance; then they go back to their piano playing and love affairs. All the while, watchmen patrol the woods around the summer houses, cleaning up picnic debris, chasing away beggars, blowing their whistles to scare off thieves. We rarely see the watchmen, but the sound of their whistles recurs; it is the last sound in the play.

I'm reminded of these summer folk when I look at the South African newspapers. By now I would have expected, no matter how much distortion or censorship, that their pages would be dominated by the ongoing violence and political upheaval: the country has been in non- stop turmoil for the better part of a decade, after all, and thousands of army conscripts have been patrolling the black townships during most of that time. But most newspapers are filled with the same kind of stories that I remember from being here many years ago, stories that evoke that nation of dreams that most white South Africans imagine they live in. It is the country the tourist brochures call Sunny South Africa.

Sunny South Africa's inhabitants, judging by the newspaper photos, are almost all white, although a sprinkling of them are unthreatening blacks — Zulu dancers, cute children, an Indian cricket champion, an African businessman in a three-piece suit gratefully receiving an award. In clothing advertisements, only one model in three or four is black, a proportion doubtless calculated to catch the eye of black buyers without scaring off white ones.

Above all, the Sunny South Africa of the newspapers is relentlessly normal. There are ads for computer matchmaking, advice-to-the-lovelorn columns, articles about beauty tips, lost cats, high school reunions, tennis matches, and even one piece on an all-white bank robbery, long and lavishly illustrated, as if the editors were relieved at finding some violence that was not racial. A personals column: "White male professional, 35; likes wine, sports; seeks female companionship." "Selective top quality Jewish only introductions. Miriam, 783–5892." Human interest features: a water-skiing dog; a story, WOMAN MARRIES HER FATHER; and another, URBAN MAN IN A CAGE: "With grunting rhinos and roaring lions for neighbors, Bernard Rich quietly goes about his business of living in a cage in the Johannesburg Zoo. The 27-year-old salesman is being exhibited as Homo Sapiens Urbanus. ... The hardest part will be having to ignore the public,' says Bernard."

Why has the Sunny South Africa of the newspapers always so fascinated me? As a cocky nineteen-year-old, I think, it was because I, with my superior knowledge, knew this country was about to have a violent revolution, and the insensitive, carefree whites who lived here didn't. Reading their newspapers was like having a window onto the last days of Louis XVI. Now, of course, the revolution hasn't happened, but few whites are unaware that big changes are inevitable. So the fascination lies in something else: in how they choose to push aside that awareness. And in how the whole society is arranged to make that an easy thing to do.

For white South Africans, as for Gorky's summer folk, the simmering violence is out of sight. Of the more than five thousand people who have died in the upheavals since 1984, less than half a dozen have been white. Only now and then can Sunny South Africa hear the watchmen's whistles. In the post office, for example, a poster shows a picture of a limpet mine and warns in the two official languages, Afrikaans and English: SO LYK DIE DOOD!/THE LOOK OF DEATH! But the actual warfare is almost entirely confined to the black townships. And to the summer folk, the townships are almost invisible.

Indeed, many whites go through the average day encountering no blacks at all — except those who are maids, waiters, or the nannies that I can see accompanying almost every white child on the grass of those downtown parks. There is a moving song about the nannies, by Thembi Mtshali and Barney Simon:

My sister breast-fed my baby While I took care of you We met when you were three months old and I a woman of forty-two....
One morning I leave the land of the summer folk and visit the African squatter settlement of Crossroads. It is surprising how swift is the passage from one South Africa to another. Twenty minutes drive from downtown Cape Town, with its elegant seafood restaurants and well-stocked delicatessens displaying half a dozen varieties of ham, are the sand streets of Crossroads, where women are going door to door selling sheep's and pigs' heads, the very cheapest type of meat. At an intersection on the edge of Crossroads, several dozen men are sitting on rocks, waiting, in the hope that pickup trucks will come by and collect crews for temporary labor, paying 10 or 12 rand (less than $5) for a day's work.

The African huts I walk past here are made of corrugated zinc, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, or pieces of the walls of demolished buildings, with painted advertisements still on them. Cocks are crowing. The sand streets and shack floors are dry today, but in the rainy season they will be mud.

In one two-room hut I visit, the ceiling is black from the smoke of a tiny kerosene stove and the room smells of its fumes. There is no room for a closet: clothes, in plastic bags, are hung high up near the ceiling. Twelve adults and children share four beds in these two rooms. But what strikes me most is the walls. They are wallpapered with the shiny paper from Sunday newspaper ad supplements. And so lining this pair of cramped rooms are hundreds upon hundreds of color photos of dishwashers, remodeled kitchens, dining table-and-chairs sets, sofas, stereos, deck chairs, and Jacuzzi tubs.

On the street outside this house, I see a giant Casspir armored car following a small white truck. "That's the post office truck," explains a woman who lives in these rooms. "Without the Casspir the comrades would burn it." The war is still on.

These days, however, the "comrades" — the young militants — are in retreat here; in most of the Cape Town African townships a conservative black vigilante group is in control, backed up by the armored cars of the army and the police. That police force itself is now more than half black. An unemployment rate of more than 50 percent in places like Crossroads means the police have little trouble recruiting. But at the height of the current wave of violence a number of black policemen were "necklaced" by angry crowds; nationwide, more than nine hundred others had their homes burned. In some parts of the country, black police and their families had to be evacuated from townships in the middle of the night and moved to special tent villages behind barbed wire, next to police stations. As they now take revenge for homes destroyed and companions burned alive, they become as feared as the white police.

Standing outside a clinic in Crossroads, I see some of that history in the grim face of a black policeman, as he looks down from an open-topped armored car that suddenly roars into view along a winding sand path — in search of someone? Or just on patrol? His eyes are narrowed; he is holding a submachine gun. Children shrink away from the vehicle's path.

Inside the clinic this morning, a white pediatrician is seeing patients. She is instructing some medical students as she does so. She explains to them that the swollen cheeks on some of these children are not due to infection, as medical textbooks might have them believe, but to kwashiorkor, a disease of malnutrition. Bottle-baby syndrome is a major problem here, the doctor tells me: this is the tragic near-starvation that occurs when a mother does not breast-feed, then can't afford enough baby formula or the fuel to boil water for it. "Mothers have so little confidence they can't believe that something they produce themselves is what's best for their baby." The doctor examines each child carefully, hands out packets of protein powder, explains the importance of vegetables, then fishes into a big box of old clothing and gives each mother a wool blanket or sweater. Incongruously, a shelf behind the packed benches of waiting mothers and babies holds some children's books donated from some household in Sunny South Africa: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Knowledge, Black Beauty, and The Young Ballet Dancer.

Back in Sunny South Africa myself one afternoon, I am jogging through the beautiful pine and eucalyptus forest on the slopes of Table Mountain. I round a bend and come upon some stone ruins. A plaque explains that this was the house of a local dignitary, built in 1797. Everywhere around Cape Town I constantly stumble onto vine-covered houses, museums, three-hundred-year- old farms, all with brass plaques celebrating the longevity of white settlement in this corner of the country. Hundreds of monuments and oil portraits show the early Dutch burgers of this city, stern-looking men with ruffled lace collars and a somber, righteous gaze. Scores of history books record the conflicts between the English and the Dutch and the activities of the Dutch East India Company, to whom the colony for its first 150 years actually belonged. But, until recently, nobody paid much attention to the fact that this was a society built not only on conquest but on slavery. When I was here in 1962, I lived in a rented room off cobblestoned Greenmarket Square, unaware that it had once been the city's slave market.

The threat of punishment kept the slaves in line, and those who revolted or escaped were dealt with harshly. A major instrument of control, then as it is now, was Robben Island, one of the oldest penal colonies on earth. You can see it from the hill above Cape Town harbor, a low smudge on the horizon. Even before Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape, both British and Dutch ships left mutinous sailors on Robben Island to die. The Dutch later used the island as a prison for rebellious slaves, and for members of the Cape's native population who resisted Dutch rule. Two prisoners stole a leaky boat and escaped to shore in 1659.

No prisoner has successfully escaped since. For a time the island was put to other uses — a lunatic asylum, a leper colony, a military base. But when South African jails began filling with long-term political prisoners in the early 1960s, Robben Island, a blacks-only prison, was where most of them went.


Excerpted from "The Mirror at Midnight"
by .
Copyright © 1990 Adam Hochschild.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Front Matter,
Preface to the Mariner Edition,
Part One,
Summer Folk,
"Laugh Like We've Been Laughing",
Place of Weeping,
Loyal Natives,
"A Balanced View",
Journey to the North,
Part Two,
The Play Within the Play,
Johannesburg Notebook,
The Truth Room,
On Trek,
"The Light of Civilization",
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist,
Shell of the Old, Seed of the New,
A Carpet-Bombing,
The Mirror,
Journey's End,
Epilogue: Old Bricks, New Building,
Bibliography and Acknowledgments,
About the Author,

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