Afrikaner icon’s darkest secrets

Stephen Gray


Eugne Marais, with his passion for the South African wild outdoors, put the Northern Transvaal’s Waterberg district on the map. His memory is still celebrated there. In the Nylstroom library, an alcove is fittingly devoted to his bust (sculpted by Willem Nezar in 1975). At Naboomspruit, children enter their laerskool under an arch bearing his name, and the owner of the hot-spring resort at Lekkerus will guide hikers through the old Union Tin Mine to the kloof where his baboons lurk on.

Once when couriering it to a suitable literary archive, I had in my hands a briefcase engraved with the initials ENM. Inside was his silver syringe, freckled with rust now, its wet-dreamy spill crusted on the lining. His pill-box for storing the heavenly grains, a silver spoon and burnt matches. This was the addict’s kit of 45 years, jumbled in with legal documents, scraps of poems and the overlaying perfume of cachous. Under the locks, talcum – used to tone up his deathly complexion.

The owner of this grisly exhibit was the real Eugne N Marais, the English-speaker who blessed the Afrikaans language renewal of the 1920s with a handful of decadent ditties, acquired in London in the 1890s. As a law student there he also got hooked on Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup for its opium content.

Back in Pretoria he came to rely on the wives of friends to ration his shots. Dandified in his white suits, strutting the streets like a mechanised corpse – addicted to his own deceptions and his pain really – he signed chits like autographs. Slowly he became that unique, untouchable icon of Afrikaner nationalism – the splendid hack who turned out exactly the right kind of veld-mystical, popularised science and springy tales to deadline, sometimes right on the typesetter’s bench. He was the one who shot the circulation of the party papers into profit.

So he did not bother to see into final shape any of the works on which his reputation rests today. Had the great inventor of the Voortrekker mythology that so dominated our public spaces and curricula, Gustav Preller, not kept his bow-tie knotted and sorted out his papers, probably Marais would have been forgotten.

Tuning in to Hitler and Mussolini at the back of the Ons Vaderland offices, of course an apathetic drug derelict was the last advertisement those admirers of National Socialism needed. When in 1936 he at last took a 12-bore double-barrelled shotgun to himself and blew open his chest, and blew off the top of his head, they let him.

Leon Rousseau’s recuperation of the grim Marais story is already, rightly, much respected. Clearly, like JG Strijdom, as a lady-killer Marais relied on his blue eyes, was magnetic to the women he seduced and abandoned. With children he acted as a natty pied piper, whispering to them the dark secrets of the bush, yet, for his own son, stranded by the death of his gorgeous mother, he never gave a damn. His high was passing on the bitterness.

Although in country areas he had the nerve to pose as a doctor, he never managed to heal anyone. The dark stream of Rousseau’s title is just that: a kind of sadism trickling from chemical dependency into the larger affliction of apartheid.

When Rousseau’s biography first came out 25 years ago, it was hailed as masterly. The whole, jolting truth was that such an Afrikaner hero had feet of clay. Understandably, the serialisation in Rapport in late 1974 caused a furore. Today we would call the work, now reissued in revised English and for the first time in paperback, magisterial – an astoundingly thorough writing up of all the evidence, with the testimony of numerous witnesses. Occasionally the translation is awkward, though: why not Sweetiepie for Koekie, rather than Little Cake?

Not every aspect of Rousseau’s achievement continues to impress. There is no apparatus of sources and references, making it worthless as scholarship, and no index. Still, it ends with that in-your-face trigger-pull, as if Rousseau wishes to have done with his horrid drama. But wasn’t Marais buried in Heroes’ Acre, after all?

Why hasn’t his new publisher chivvied Rousseau into an afterword, updating the controversy which this book itself fuelled? First that American wiseacre, Robert Ardrey, used Marais’s field studies of primates (“the purest genius that the natural sciences have seen this century”) to justify no less than the Vietnam War. And then Lord Solly Zuckerman made his devastating riposte, denouncing Marais as a paranoid charlatan who fancied the greats of European science had filched his African discoveries (“the fact that no biologist ever bothered to steal them is because nothing Marais ever said about scientific matters was worth stealing”).

For holy writ we now apparently have just hokum, for revelation mere racist hooey or what? That stream flows on darkly and should have been traced further.

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