Textured history for contemporary times

The War for South Africa: The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 by Bill Nasson (Tafelberg)

Captured in Time: Five centuries of South African Writing
compiled and edited by John Clare (Jonathan Ball)

The British called it the Boer War, later the South African War. By the time of the centenary commemoration of the war’s start in 1999, then-president Thabo Mbeki was using its full title, “the Anglo-Boer South African War of 1899-1902”, which is a bit strenuous.

The Boers themselves, of course, called it die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog or Second Freedom War, the first being the 10-week tussle of 1880-1881.

The Boers lost their second freedom war, but they got a good peace—and the war became a wellspring of Afrikaner-nationalist myth, perhaps second only to the Great Trek. It was not just the heroism of the republican resisters to imperialism that appealed to propagandists but, very powerfully, the martyrdom of Boer women and children in concentration camps, an offshoot of the British scorched-earth policy of the latter part of the war.

Birth of the alliance
The Vereeniging-Pretoria settlement of 1902 fixed the basis for ­modern South Africa, including or especially the exclusion of black Africans from political participation (and from economic participation except as lowest-rung workers and reserve labour). This was a key Boer demand, and the British negotiators put up only token resistance. The Union of South Africa was only eight years ahead; it’s possible to see here the birth of the alliance that would rule South Africa for eight decades: the indigenised Afrikaner elite and capital backed by the British empire.

One of the great virtues of Bill Nasson’s book (expanded from the first edition, published in 1999) is his sensitive understanding of what the Boer War, a century later, means to South Africans today—or what it has come to mean in the various political discourses that have made use of it. Nasson is the author of a key social-historical study of the era, Abraham Esau’s War (2003), a view of the conflict from the perspective of one of its nearly forgotten victims: the people of colour who suffered greatly through what had been nominated a “white man’s war” and were largely ignored in histories of that war.

The War for South Africa not only sets the war in this long-term perspective, but is also alive to the social context of the war. In that it is superior to even Thomas Pakenham’s deservedly vaunted tome, which piles on the military and political detail. It is also very readable, perhaps because Nasson does not linger over such detail, though he is very good at describing the action and feeling of battles. It is perhaps the swiftest read on the Boer War since Rayne Kruger’s entertaining but flawed Goodbye, Dolly Gray. (My reading of Nasson was held up only by the unreasonably small type in an otherwise well-designed book.)

This monstrous war
Nasson touches on “A Century of Wrong”, the burningly heartfelt Afrikaner declaration issued just before the war and written chiefly by Jan Smuts, then a mere 29 but already Transvaal state attorney. It is an extraordinary document, presaging later anticolonial struggles, and it is given in full in John Clare’s anthology—which also has Banjo Paterson (lyricist of Waltzing Matilda) interviewing Olive Schreiner during the war. Schreiner of course damns “this monstrous war” and sees clearly the way it was driven by the ambitions of imperialists and the greed of mining capital.

Clare also, by the way, aptly describes The Story of an African Farm as “one of the weirdest of literary classics” and applies that sharp eye to a huge range of excerpts (some very short) telling the stories of South African history, or just reproducing some of the texture of lives lived long ago. Though this well-organised book, Clare keeps the larger picture in view with telling links between the excerpts. It is all here: reportage, letters, poetry and fiction (obviously the more realistic kind), starting with the epic voyages commemorated in The Lusiads, through the colonial hunters, warriors and massacres, to the grotesqueries of apartheid and the difficult triumph of its ending.

Clare ends his collection with a piece on Robben Island from Mongane Serote’s long poem, History Is the Home Address: appropriately, it looks back even as it attempts to take the measure of the present. But it also feels ungrounded, in some way, possibly because of the fragmented, abstracted nature of the poetry.

Contemporary reality
The second-last and third-last excerpts are from Jonny Steinberg’s non-fiction studies of South African life, both dealing with death—murder in Midlands and the Aids holocaust in Three-Letter Plague. These pieces ­certainly ground the book in a contemporary reality.

Captured in Time
is the kind of thing you want to give foreign visitors to South Africa who might like to absorb some history in a flavourful but engagingly bitty way; it should do really well at the bookshop at the airport. And so should.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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