Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Diamonds, Gold and War - Martin Meredith

An introduction to what Martin Meredith views as the crucial time period in South African history, this work details the lives and relationships of the men who would contest for rule in pre-colonial and colonial South Africa. Of particular strength in Meredith's work are the visions of Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger, the twin stars about which much of the region seemed to rotate for the closing years of the nineteenth century. Kruger especially is painted in a favorable light, and the reader cannot help but sympathize with the freedom plight of the Boers, particularly those of the uitlanders.

Where Meredith's work is at its best is picking the minutiae out of history to bring events and people to life so that the reader is left with a strong sense not just for what has occurred, but what it meant at the time. Particularly stirring are images of a young Boer girl playing the Transvaal anthem as her family is evicted from their farm, or Kruger's solemn goodbye to his wife - who he was never to see again. Meredith goes to great lengths to paint these pictures and is especially successful in his use of letters and speeches of the leaders he focuses on.

The most glaring omission from the work is its large disregard for the role played by black South Africans and how they changed along with the changing times. Too often in the work we see blacks as hinterland tribes reacting to encroachment, poor and dispossessed peoples having to reorganize their lives around burgeoning white populations, and as a people held hostage to the whims of the great white men around them. There is, of course, a modicum of truth in this reportage. However, if, as Meredith claims, the actions of South Africa's history have largely resulted from the fallout of the Anglo-Boer War, then it would certainly be appropriate to spend more time on the African identities and how they these interacted across the time period in question.

In all Meredith has provided a consumable, straightforward history of a fascinating time. Where the work suffers is from an omission of a more in-depth, nuanced look at how this time and place changed as events were unfolding. This is not to decry what Meredith has accomplished: a wonderful introduction to a crucial point in the history of country that has taken a very unique path to modernity. Meredith lays the groundwork for that path quite well.