Acclaimed journalist Dominique Lapierre (Is Paris Burning? et al.) has a uniquely engaging approach to history, deftly intertwining facts and figures with a keen sense of the personal struggle. His style finds no better subject than in his latest, A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, which compactly surveys the country’s 350-plus years of existence (since the white man came, that is) while also focusing with acute perception on the complex intermingling of race and political culture that has characterized South Africa’s explosive past.

In the mid-1600s, Dutchmen arrived on Africa’s southernmost coast to establish a farming community that would serve as an outpost for Dutch sailing vessels. Later, upon the heels of the discoveries of diamonds and gold, the British arrived, imposing all their global arrogance and imperial ways—including a mandate to abolish slavery—thus driving many of the Boers (Dutch-descended farmers) further into the African countryside. The Dutch-British conflict culminated in the Boer War (1899-1902), and while the political resolutions were peaceful enough, South Africa’s longstanding racial realpolitik still held sway, in spite of the religious passions of the Dutch ancestral line.

Lapierre charts all these developments in involving prose, then hurtles forward to the 20th century and the formally—and forcefully—instituted program of apartheid (separation), in which white South Africans segregated blacks and imposed strict penalties on anyone breaking the laws designed to maintain the dominating, pure white culture. The rise of the African National Congress, the eventual imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, a changing world at odds with South Africa’s white-minority government—these are the issues that merit Lapierre’s latter coverage, up to the present day and the emergence of saner, more equitable live-and-let-live official policies.

All is not perfect in South Africa. Unemployment for both blacks and whites looms large, despite the country’s progressive political profile. Yet Lapierre’s lucid account, while rife with bloodshed and shocking inhumanity, points the way to more prosperous times. Sidebar coverage includes the role of important historical South Africans such as heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard, social worker Helen Lieberman and the despicable Dr. Wouter Basson, while the appendixes run down apartheid laws, serve up a handy chronology of events and present a useful glossary of terms germane to a nation of many languages.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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