Carolyn Holmes’ new book, The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-building in Democratic South Africa (U Michigan Press, 2020),takes its title from a cartoon that captured the complicated nature of democratization and nation-building in South Africa in the period that followed the end of apartheid. As Holmes explains in her deeply researched book, the promise of a diverse “rainbow coalition” that was to characterize the “new” South Africa has been caught within the structural and political constraints of a nation that is in tension within itself in a variety of different ways. The Black and White Rainbow examines the tensions at the heart of democracy building—which sets different groups in opposition to each other in the competition of ideas and policies that come from those ideas—and nation building—which works to bring together disparate groups of people into a unified whole. These competing forms of creating political structure within a country have worked to reify some of the racial distinctions that were to be overcome in this new South Africa. Holmes also highlights the quandary within South Africa in terms of trying to transition from the previous, apartheid state to a new, diverse country; this quandary is one that combines the yearning to move on and put the violence and difficulties of the past behind, and the need and desire not to forget these scars of the past.
Holmes pulls together a variety of sources for her research—but most impressive are the interviews she was able to do in order to get at the idea of identity in South Africa and what this idea means to a variety of South African citizens. These interviews also posed complexities for Holmes, in terms of the answers she received and some she did not, when subjects of her interviews cut her off. The structure of the interviews, the questions asked, and how the interviewer exists in that space and context were also considered in terms of the information and the analysis of the responses. This is a multi-layered analysis that brings together political science as a framework for the investigation, but also integrates ethnography and sociology to help deepen the analysis and the understanding that comes from these interviews. The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa is a fascinating interrogation of nation-building in South Africa, and what this means for the country and for the citizens within it as they continue to struggle to live together in a democratic state. At the very center of this struggle is the question of identity, which itself is not a new concept, but is the focus of so much research and analysis in many different countries.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @gorenlj.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.