Diamonds, Gold and War, By Martin Meredith
Friday 25 January 2008
In the 1860s, despite over a hundred years of effort, the European colonial presence in Southern Africa was a fragile thing. The Cape colonists, British and Dutch, had managed to wipe out the San and push back the Xhosas, but this small agrarian incursion clung to the fertile coasts of the south. To the north-east the voortrekkers had stolen and defended enough land to establish two wafer-thin republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
By 1910, the newly formed Union of South Africa, although formally bound to the British Empire , was the largest and most powerful state on the African continent. Its economy was the most industrialised; its cities the fastest-growing; most chillingly, its apparatus of racial policing and segregation the most sophisticated and pernicious. The great strength of Martin Meredith's book is to tell southern African history as an epic of state-making and to provide an account of that era structured around the intersecting forces of economic and military power.
States need money and this one hit the geo-political jackpot. Diamonds were discovered around Kimberly in 1870, gold on the Witwatersrand a decade later. Gigantic mining rushes followed: mass migrations of whites, blacks, locals and foreigners in a bout of instantaneous hyper-urbanisation, all fuelled by the most rapid and primitive wave of capital accumulation.
From nothing, South Africa controlled the overwhelming majority of the world's diamond industry and was a major player in gold. Johannesburg emerged from the dust,and the cruelly segregated labour market was perfected as African men migrated alone to the mines and the cities, were issued with stringent passes, confined to barracks and policed by curfews.
South Africa was worth fighting over, and the British and Afrikaner republics did. In 30 years, the Shona and the Ndebele were swindled, beaten and yoked to the colonial order. The Zulu, Swazi, Venda and Pedi kingdoms, among others, were defeated, stripped of land and power. The two European powers faced off, the British ultimately unable to accept Afrikaner control of the Witwatersrand goldfields. This account of the ensuing British-South African war, out of the wreckage of which the Union was finally forged, is unflinchingly brutal.
However, while the backdrops of Meredith's story are these gigantic social forces, the narrative endlessly retreats to the biographies of the most powerful actors, above all Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger. This is not to suggest that individual European men did not wield disproportionate amounts of power. At one point Rhodes ran De Beers and Gold Fields, and was the premier of the Cape Colony. Kruger was the centre of Afrikaner politics for almost half a century. Moreover, the technological and military gap between white and black was at its apogee. The available written records naturally take us to these figures and the others who left a literary trace like Smuts, Gandhi and Olive Schriener.
Yet, in the end, there is just too much of Cecil and Paul, of the internal intrigues of the London, Cape and Transvaal elites. Meredith does occasionally offer us a glimpse of history from below. His account of the correspondence between Lobengula, the Ndebele king, and Queen Victoria over the bona fides of Cecil Rhodes and his mercenary gang has a tragic air; his retelling of the resistance of the Natal Indians is more hopeful. South Africa, as it has demonstrated, throws up political leaders of unique charisma and capacity. It has also demonstrated the amazing capacity of humans for collective political action. It needs histories that truly acknowledge both.
David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin
Simon & Schuster £25 (592pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor David Dinsmore reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Parma, Missouri: 80 per cent of town's police quit after first black mayor is elected
- 4 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
- 5 Google search history can now be downloaded in its entirety, mass embarrassment expected
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Avengers Age of Ultron 'after credits' scene leaks online days before cinema release
Groundhog Day musical to premiere at Old Vic from Matilda theatre director
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments