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
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