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A history of South Africa in less than 600 pages!,
This review is from: Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa (Paperback)
As a student of colonialism in all its forms, I knew relatively little about the evolution of South Africa from 1806 to the start of the Boer War. I recently read a harrowing history of the DeBeer's stranglehold on the diamond industry whose continued existence (or unfortunate persistence), in spite of global sanctions against monopolies and all of the economic evils they entail, has its antecedents in the "entreprenurialism" of Rhodes, Beit and company during the power struggles between the British and Boer over hegemony of southern Africa during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Histories on SA up to this point I felt were scant on the actual detail or origin of many of SA's recent history and current problems. Enter Mereidith's fine work on filling in the gaps.
Here we have a rapid, fast paced account of the development of southern Africa from the time the British annexed the Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars, and her troubles in reconciling the needs of two distinctly European settler types, despite successful precedent in other parts of the empire. The story is indeed one of self-determination (Boer) versus the needs of Pax Britanica. The fact that Britain was unable to stand residing side-by-side with a European derivative republic boils down to on-the-ground personalities, jealousies, greed and international insecurity- in short, the love of money dictated the evolution and destinies of entire civilisations, a hangover whose pain is even now still felt.
Criticism has been leveled at Meredith's work for his preoccupation with Rhodes, Milner, Kruger and Smuts etc and this may be so but we must appreciate that these people, and others, were the dominant personalities of the day and did so much to influence domestic, international and imperial strategy during the period. It's hard to feel any sympathy for these people, the British or the Boers. Both races behaved reprehensibly and in complete violation of the laws and institutions of their respective parents (Rhodes and Kruger could rightly be judged war criminals by today's standards). The whole colonial period was nothing short of bare-faced and cynical land grab at the expense of the indigenous populations, the details of which are clearly presented by Meredith's sharpened narrative.
This work sheds a lot of insightful detail on the political games,the personalities who played them and the stakes involved but does gloss over the intricacies of resulting conflicts and how these shaped twentieth century evolution (only a handful of pages are allocated). The focus is squarely on South Africa and so the details of Rhodesia's (Zimbabwe) part in the power struggle is mentioned but not fully fleshed out which I found disappointing in since, from a macro perspective, the stories are intricately linked. For a detailed account of the Boer War, I would recommend Pakenham's superb account on this specific subject. Be that as it may, Meredith's work is however readily accessible, enjoyable, paced correctly and I felt evenly balanced, a fine general history of a very disturbing time in SA's history. I would recommend this for anyone interested in the failures of colonialism and South African history equally. Looking forward to Meredith's next work!