Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa

Posted on October 2, 2010


by Martin Meredith
(Jonathan Ball)

Review: Terry Bell

Martin Meredith has already established himself as a force in terms of the political and economic analysis of Africa and the historiography of the continent. His recent The Fate of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence has rightly been hailed.

Diamonds, Gold and War maintains, in a highly readable form, the same high standard of scholarship, erudition and clarity of analysis. Here can be clearly seen the advantages of being an historian/journalist or journalist/historian: this is an enthralling, comprehensive narrative covering the events that shaped modern South Africa and had a considerable impact in many other parts of the world.

The bare bones of the story and many of the anecdotes dealt with may be well known to those who have ever shown an interest in, or been exposed to, the history of this period. But while there is not much that is very new in terms of overall facts, the manner in which they have been drawn together, reveals a clear understanding of the political and economic nuances. This makes for the most lucid reportage on this era that I have come across.

It is the sort of history that reads like a good thriller. Which is probably why the publishers chose to feature a comment by Wilbur Smith on the cover. Smith, a writer of generally gung-ho action novels notes: “Vivid and thrilling…a book I know I will re-read time and again over the years ahead.” This comment is obviously aimed at attracting readers who would not normally bother with what is all too often thought of — and all too often is — history drily and boringly told.

And it is these very readers, especially in South Africa, who should read this book. For here the roots of the present and the all too recent racist past are exposed and there are sound lessons to be drawn about many current political developments. At a time when so much history has been obscured by popular myth and prejudice, when revisionist rewriting of the past abounds, this a timely reminder of how the years between 1870 and 1910 laid the foundations of the modern South African state. Here we see how bigotry, brutality, racism and arrogance fuelled opposing nationalisms, along with the racist distortions and the still extant mythology of liberal English and illiberal Afrikaners.

It is useful even to be reminded about just how the pass laws and the notorious compound system came about and who introduced these measures many decades before formal apartheid was announced in 1948. I had forgotten — or perhaps never fully realised — just how the supposedly “progressive” members of the commission headed by Sir Geoffrey Langdon firmly put in place the basis of formal, legal, segregation in their 1905 report.

There is also a salutary reminder here of how the kombuis taal of Afrikaans came to be the glue of Afrikaner nationalism and how this nationalism was unconsciously fostered and promoted by the perfidy of British and colonial bureaucracy. Meredith’s explanation of the origins and growth of Afrikaner nationalism also aids an understanding of the ethnic and nationalist strife which continues to erupt, not only in Africa, but around the world.,

Above all, Meredith here presents admirably clear portraits of the two men who dominated most of the period covered: Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger. Of course, there already exists a large body of literature dealing with both men and their careers. Much of it, however, is two dimensional and, especially in the case of Rhodes, amounts to mild or blatant hagiography. Kruger’s image has tended to suffer from the predominant English view of him as a crude buffoon, a man who did, indeed, believe that the world was flat.

But it is easy to see why the SA Communist Party leader Bram Fischer (as quoted in Meredith’s 2002 biography, Fischer’s Choice) chose, during his 1966 trial to quote Kruger, despite his narrow Calvinism, as “one of the great Afrikaner leaders”.

Both Rhodes and Kruger were men of considerable ability, but in any hero and villain stakes, it is Rhodes who clearly takes the cake as a wholly unprincipled and consummate opportunist. His often charming exterior and erudition only thinly disguised a malicious, power-hungry opportunist and racist capable of glorying in brutality.Olive Schreiner,

It was the writer, Olive Schreiner, as Meredith points out, who saw and understood this duality. She wrote to her sister: “Rhodes, with all his gifts of genius…and below the fascinating surface, the worms of falsehood and corruption creeping.” Like so many other prominent people, she was also, initially enamoured of Rhodes. But, as she wrote in 1892: “I saw that he had deliberately chosen evil.”

Schreiner, also modelled the villain of her 1897 novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland on Rhodes, and included as a frontispiece illustration a “Christmas tree” of hanged Ndebele fighters surrounded by a group of white “pioneers” of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company.

But this is no one-sided or jaundiced view of that tumultuous period. The users and the used, the betrayers and the betrayed, the good the bad and the ugly all parade here in a grand tale that is extremely well told and whose lessons we ignore at our peril.

The one criticism I do have — and it is is one that will certainly be shared by researchers and academics — is that Diamonds, Gold and War is not fully annotated. Instead of detailed foot or end notes on sources, Meredith relies on ten pages of general “chapter notes” and an 11-page “select bibliography” list. It may sound like carping, but I feel that reference merely to “the archive evidence” for a source is simply not good enough.

*Originally published 06/2008

Posted in: Archive - 2008