Like a quilt, A Rainbow in the Night is an amalgamation of multifarious stories beautifully threaded together through elegant use of language and glamorous figures of speech as well as masterful transitions, cementing the text as one of the most wonderful pieces of art. While the author warns readers that his aim in writing the book was not to compile an exhaustive history of South Africa, the thoroughly researched text traces, with extraordinary skill, the journey of the Dutch from Europe to South Africa and their mostly oppressive interactions with native peoples, as well as the struggle that black South Africans put to finally cast off the shackles of apartheid. Moreover, the author demonstrates how Dutch emigrants (the Boas), following John Calvin’s teachings and believing that they are a people chosen by God to rule over all mankind leveraged religion and the Bible in the unthinkable subjugation and persecution of black South Africans through the repressive and reprehensible system of apartheid. Lapierre skillfully demonstrates how apartheid, a system closely modeled after and inspired by Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Nazism, dehumanizes blacks relegating them to a status lower than that of animals and elevates whites to the level of gods.
Despite draconian laws that keep people apart based on their skin color, the system is met with brave opposition from both blacks and whites. A young white speech therapist, driven by her human instinct brazes threats and insecurity to save a black baby which has been discharged without the care it needs to survive. This becomes the first of numerous acts of mercy that culminate in the formation of Ikamva Labantu, “The Future of the People,” an organization aimed at addressing problems faced by poor black South Africans. A black bishop campaigns against apartheid even winning the Nobel peace prize. Though later demolished and its people displaced, a multiracial township defies Apartheid with residents—both black and white and even colored—eating, drinking, and working together, and some of them even making love and marrying across races, despite “The Immorality Act,” a piece of legislation that prohibits romantic love across racial lines. A surgeon holds out against the masters of racism by letting people share organs across the races. And, after decades of struggle, humiliation, bloodshed, unjust political imprisonments, and killings, specifically the Sharpeville massacre, Nelson Mandela and his compatriots form uMkhonto we Sizwe, “Spear of the Nation,” an armed wing of the ANC that eventually brings the system to a halt.
Translated from French by Kathryn Spink, the book is divided into four parts. The first part traces the Dutch’s (later Afrikaners) journey to South Africa, their motivations, their struggles, their conflict with other European forces in an effort to control the South African region, and their first encounters with the natives. The second section chronicles the triumph of the Afrikaners in their quest to control South Africa and their establishment of a minority government for which blacks and coloreds are not allowed to vote as well as the institution of apartheid. Part three introduces us to Helen Lieberman and Christiaan Barnard, two whites to whom the author refers as “lights in the darkness.” The former, a speech therapist, braves draconian laws and unthinkable risks on her life to work with a multitude of downtrodden Africans in building a community that strives to free itself from the chains of oppression. The latter, the surgeon who led a team of medical practitioners to perform the first human to human heart transplant, defies the guardians of racial segregation to transplant body organs across the racial divide as long as the donors and recipients do not mind it. The last section is an account of the various efforts by both white and mostly black South Africans in their struggle for freedom. Mandela has been in prison for more than two decades by this time, but he has been busy: He has secretly maintained vigilant and persistent contact with ANC leaders, he is an inspiration to many South African freedom fighters including his own wife Winnie Mandela, and he even conducts lessons in prison for fellow political prisoners. In some ways, his imprisonment strengthens his resolve, bolsters his legendary status, and consequently boosts ANC’s bargaining power. Finally, he is released unconditionally and leads the nation into the first free and fair elections with his ANC winning by a landslide.
With vivid descriptions and transitions that tie the numerous strands of the story neatly into one masterpiece, the author’s wealth of research is magnificently displayed bringing to life historical facts in an easy, fun to read manner. Feigning an irreproachable presumptuous Christianity, Lapierre quotes scripture in an apparently innocent manner that delivers punches of mockery to ignorant egocentric adherence to scripture. Anyone seeking to get a glimpse into apartheid—its origins, workings, and eventual collapse—should consider reading A Rainbow in the Night. The book is also a great resource for history students, world leaders in general and African ones in particular, human rights activists as well as all politicians.