BOOK REVIEW / Cruelty under a bright blue sky: 'Innocents in Africa' - Drury Pifer: Granta, 15.99

In 1932 two youthfully idealistic people left an America bludgeoned by the slump, and set sail for Africa. Both had struggled up from poor backgrounds. Both had fought to get educated. She was a librarian. She loved poetry and the arts. He had become a mining engineer because of an attraction for metals. A passage in Spengler's The Decline of the West expressed him, he felt. 'The early artificers, in particular the metal smiths, appeared to those around them as somehow uncanny . . . The primary trade of all is the metal trade. On this foundation arise the techniques of higher cultures.' The pair had so little money they could not meet the immigration requirements of South Africa, but a Rand engineer who admired Gus Pifer backed him.

They found themselves in a small township on the Rand where they endured conditions as bad as anything they had known in their childhoods. Both were shocked by how the black workers were treated. Her letters home described how she felt about this, as about all their vicissitudes, and these chatty, funny, detailed letters, 13 years of them, enabled her son to write a book which is a chronicle of its time.

On the Rand gold mine, the new engineer saw that the inefficiency and stupidity of the black workers complained of by the mine managers were a way of expressing protest at their situation, and he introduced new methods that both gave them some human dignity, and improved their wages. At once output soared, and the stupidity ceased. But his ideas, which rejected racial stereotypes, were not approved of by the whites. Again and again he had to endure the envy, and then outright hostility, of less efficient men. The black passive resistance he observed and diagnosed reaches forward into our own time; so do the implications of the weekend entertainment of the mine workers who fought - for fun - with bicycle chains attached to sticks, indifferent to the many bloodied casualties. 'They are devilishly cruel to each other,' wrote Gus Pifer.

Among the whites who went to southern Africa were a leaven who understood the damage the country inflicted on itself by its treatment of the natives. If they had been listened to, racial bitterness would never have become the poisonous thing it was, and is. Both these clever people were damaged by South Africa, physically and morally. The beautiful and fun-loving young woman was always ill, grew old early, and died soon after she left. The engineer's idealistic heart was broken again and again when his efficiency was overlooked and he did not get the jobs he had earned.

From the Rand they went to Kimberley and then to a diamond mine in Namaqualand where he at once raised production and at once made enemies. 'De Beers had sent us into one of the great deserts of the world, the Namib.' A 90-mile- an-hour wind blew every afternoon under a bright blue sky; and food, clothes, bodies were always gritty with dust. In this unspeakable little township Patricia Pifer educated the local children, using her house as a library. By then she had two children of her own, one the author of this book - which is infused with the love of that continent which forever afflicts its exiles, and with pain for those remarkable people, his parents.

Again Gus Pifer was outwitted by rivals in whose unscrupulousness he never seemed able to believe, and he found himself in Oranjemund, on a mine where production jumped by 60 per cent in the first month. This was still Southwest Africa, so recently a German possession, and the local Nazis knew that Hitler would soon run the world, and were arrogant as well as stupid. Patricia Pifer made a dairy and kept chickens where no milk nor poultry had been, hired a school teacher, founded a library, and brought in films from Cape Town. 'By the time the family left many of the young children in Orangemund were better read than the American high schoolers I graduated with 10 years later in Seattle.' Many of these children's parents were illiterate.

The servants, during all these moves, are like a mute black chorus, with lives so difficult, so precarious, that the white employers might pity them - if they were like the Pifers - but knew they could not really understand the desperation of these edge-of-abyss dwellers.

The other shadowing presence here is Sir Earnest Oppenheimer of De Beers, a casual and impulsive despot, a maker and breaker of that time. He knew nothing of what went on in the lower orders of his empire. Jobs went to cronies or to yes-men. He seemed not to notice when a mine's output soared or dived according to the capacities of the men he sent to run it. If riches poured out of South Africa, this could only have been because there was so much wealth, not because of the efficiency of De Beers.

There is a convention - and like all political myths hard to shift - that all white people in southern Africa were rich and there only for what they could get. The blacks have needed to see all whites as infinitely privileged, and the whites have never liked to acknowledge that their superior kind could fail. But in fact the turnover has always been large and rapid, and the whites who left were often those who could have done the country most good. This book is tragic, because of how badly South Africa needed people like the Pifers, and it is wonderful because of their courage and resourcefulness. Here, too, is the evocation of a childhood often lyrical, sometimes cruel.

Innocents in Africa is appearing at the right time. It is not often one may recommend a book for its interest to a general reader, and, too, because it must be found invaluable by historians.

Extract

Oranjemund, so rigidly laid out on the stony sand, imitated in its own way those great assemblies of the party-faithful lined up in straight rows . . .

Quite aside from the Nazi business, Oranjemund was suffused for me with a mysterious significance. Because my imagination could run free, I provided the town's geometric outlines with obscure meanings. The straight lines, the dozens of small dunes raised by the tireless wind behind each house; all of this was peopled with images and sounds that filled me with a nameless pleasure. The flat world ended at a blue sky swallowed at night by countless stars. The days were full of light, and every evening our mother read us stories at bedtime. King Arthur and Theseus and the Minotaur inhabited the twilight stretch of desert that ran out to the sea behind our house. . . .

The desert, the wind, the sandstorms that obscured everything never made me feel isolated or cutoff. The clouds piling up like castles in late evening, the voices I heard in the breeze, these assured me there existed some source shifting for itself at the heart of things. I felt myself securely situated at the heart of the world.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea