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Historical fiction: South Africa from the Dutch Colonial Era to Apartheid

The Covenant - James A. Michener

It's a weird, sad coincidence that a mass shooting just happened yesterday, in which the shooter was wearing an apartheid-era (i.e. 1948-94) South African flag on his jacket. I think he meant it in a racist way, the way some people wear Confederate flags.


That said, this is an excellent book for anybody interested in the long and troubled history of South Africa. The main portion of the book follows a family of Dutch settlers from the early 1600's, when South Africa was a watering station for "Jan Compajnie" ships making the long journey from Amsterdam to the fabulously wealthy Dutch colony in Java. Some additional story lines also follow Xhosa and Zulu families, as well as English who show up later on- but the book is mostly focused on the Dutch.


Parallel to the growth of British colonies in North America, South Africa was a haven for religious and political dissenters, social outcasts and misfits, adventure-minded free spirits, and driven entrepreneurs. As the colony grew and required manpower to build infrastructure, it opened up to immigration from French (mainly Hugenots), German, and Irish immigrants.


I guess you could say that trouble began at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at the 1816 Congress of Vienna, when Holland agreed to sell Britain the colony in South Africa. Not a popular move among the Dutch living there... which the British couldn't understand, because who wouldn't want to be part of the British Empire, right?  Oh, but you're all going to have to start speaking English in the public schools, and the government jobs are going to go to people educated in British universities, and bow to the Queen when she visits, and we might need some of your sons to go fight in this war way off somewhere that Britain has got herself into....   So after about 100 years of those sorts of tensions building (and some conflicts with the Zulu on a scale which dwarfs any of the "Indian Wars" of North America) we get the Boer Wars (I & II) between Dutch and British, followed by an embarrassing episode in 1940 where most of the Dutch wanted to enter WWII on the side of Hitler, so long as he promised to throw the English out of S.A. ...oddly, the Third Reich wasn't willing to come out and officially, publicly make that deal. Ultimately the country came to its senses and fought against the Axis.. but even then, the South African contribution was overwhelmingly English-stock colonists.


The most post-war era is then dominated by internal politics, in which a conscious strategy of voter solidarity and the rise of an Afrikaaner (i.e. Dutch ancestry)-dominated bureaucratic class wrests political control from the English minority and the unrecognized, unrepresented, officially non-citizen native Africans. If you don't believe in conspiracy theories, you won't want to hear about this, because it was largely achieved by a nationwide, semi-secret (widely denied, but exposed on several occasions) society of hyper-nationalist Afrikaaners called "The Brotherhood" (actually called by the Dutch name "Broederbond"). They essentially conspired to hire only fellow nationalist (read: anti-British) Afrikaaners into civil service jobs (including the police), undermined British policies and rule, under-enforced did not enforce laws they objected to, and probably engaged in nationwide election fraud. The longterm consequence of the "Broederbond" was essentially a political coup in 1948 resulting in a break from the British Empire, and a major re-writing of South African laws- including introduction of apartheid. It's really quite a stunning chapter in history... unless you think conspiracy theories never happen, in which case I'm not quite sure how Apartheid came about.


The book was first published in 1978, and at the end, Michener predicts the fall of Apartheid sometime around the end of the 20th century. Not a bad call.. it collapsed in 1994, just 6 years difference.


Good stuff, and highly readable; I did the whole 1235 pages in about three weeks. That's pretty good for me.




Fun/weird quirk of history:  There was really a battle that took place in the Second Boer War (the Battle of Spion Kop- January 23-24, 1900) , in which a young Winston Churchill, a young M. Ghandi (serving as an ambulance attendant), and a young Louis Botha (later Prime Minister of South Africa) - none of them yet famous- were all present on the battlefield.