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)

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