MAC/20: Mines and Communities

BOOK REVIEW: The mining machinations behind South Africa's making

Published by MAC on 2007-12-15

BOOK REVIEW: The mining machinations behind South Africa's making

15th December 2007

"Diamonds, Gold and War :The British, the Boers and the Making of South Africa"

by Martin Meredith (570 pages), published by Public Affairs, US$35.

'The Fate of Africa" was Martin Meredith's monumental study of 50 years of postcolonial African history, all of it compressed into a single, mesmerizing volume. Although the range of his material was enormous, Meredith managed to present a strong narrative and sharp overview.

His new book, "Diamonds, Gold and War," devotes itself solely to the development of one part of the continent, South Africa, over a shorter period: 1871-1910. But bitter tensions, wild economic changes, shifting factional loyalties, manipulative imperial ambitions and an array of fierce, conspiratorial characters make Meredith's latest book about South Africa sound more complicated than his survey of the whole continent.

"Diamonds, Gold and War" is the work of an author who knows African history intimately. He has also paid sufficient attention to the story's major players, beginning with Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger, to capture them in indelible detail.

Rhodes is arguably the single most influential figure in the story of South Africa's creation. Meredith ably encapsulates the reasons why this is a dubious distinction. Since Rhodes is also an exemplar of why this chapter of history is so complicated, the book must keep track of his many incarnations.

Rhodes arrived in the region (in Natal) from Britain in 1870 at age 17, a participant in a cotton-farming venture. By the next year he was poised to take advantage of the diamond fever that had taken root. The discovery of diamond deposits transformed the interior of the Cape Colony (which had become British in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars) from a place deemed "the most sterile and worthless in the whole Empire" to a locus of greed and ambition.

When gold, too, turned out to be one of the area's abundant resources, this time in the Boer territory known as the Transvaal, Rhodes was again ready for profiteering. By the age of 37 he was not only prime minister of the Cape Colony but also a gold and diamond mogul. He had finagled permission from Queen Victoria to wield private police power as well as public authority.

Meredith catalogues the stages of Rhodes's scheming while also emphasizing the more peculiar parts of his nature. In his early African years, Meredith writes, Rhodes was "often to be seen supervising black laborers while sitting on an upturned bucket reading a volume of the classics, deaf to the noise about him." This image serves as a harbinger both of his future racism and his love of learning. He endowed the scholarships that bear his name, although his plan included a few kinks.

Rhodes, whose scholarships were extended exclusively to men, compulsively ignored women and became enraged when his young acolytes felt otherwise. He excelled at co-opting others through economic incentives and specialized in the outrageous remark. (On how to treat African tribesmen: "You should kill all you can, as it serves as a lesson to them when they talk things over at their fires at night.")

Meredith is hardly the first historian to contrast Rhodes with Kruger, the blunt Boer leader who believed the world was flat, but lacked no sophistication when it came to understanding Britain's imperial ambitions in Africa.

"Diamonds, Gold and War" carefully analyzes the seesawing of power between the Boers and the British, even when many factions and territories were involved. The fates of the Orange Free State, Bechuanaland and the tribal kingdoms that suffered for their proximity to gold fields (and would be shamelessly annexed by foreign interests) are also vital to this book's version of the Scramble for Africa.

Meredith shows how one misstep led to another, how fear yielded miscalculations, how national pride and arrogance created poisonous conditions.

If the arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling, the young Mohandas K. Gandhi, tribal leaders and Afrikaner supremacists could agree on anything about the Anglo-Boer War's consequences, it was, in Meredith's view, this: The machinations behind the making of South Africa would create patriotic fervors even worse than the ones they supplanted.

[Recommended by MAC Edi tor, Frank Nally and reprinted froma review by Janet Maslin::

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