Holmes, A., South Africa: History in an Hour. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2012
History in an hour “is a series of eBooks to help the reader learn the basic facts of a given subject area” (p. 3) In his book, South Africa, Anthony Holmes covers the most important and consequential events and people with brevity and accuracy, allowing the reader to determine if further study is beneficial. Holmes is a retired engineering graduate with a successful career which culminated in his being CEO of international companies and someone who developed a love of culture and history while travelling extensively in America, Europe and the Far East. He was born in England but educated in Johannesburg and now lives in the Western Cape and as such speaks with authority on the subject, being someone who has lived through one of the most transformational movements in history.
Holmes traces the history of South Africa from the first European settlers in the Cape of Good Hope to the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and used “to describe the diversity of the new South Africa and its successful transition from an oppressive regime to a democratic state” (p. 42). The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 chronicles the early history of South Africa from the time when the first settlers arrived, through the wars with the locals, the splintering of colonizers and the pioneer movement by the Dutch into the interior of Africa and the subsequent discovery of diamonds and gold, the Anglo-Boer wars and the establishment of the National Party of South Africa . Part 2 documents the twentieth century struggle for equality by the African people against the ‘Apartheid’ government and the atrocities along the way and ending in the Soweto riots of 1976. Part 3 is devoted to the escalation of the struggle in intensity and international scope and culminating in the release from prison in 1990 of who is “generally acknowledged to be the de facto leader of the country” (p. 5), Nelson Mandela. The final part of the book is dedicated to the turbulent and precarious path the two recipients of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, F.W. De Klerk and Mandela, negotiated as South Africa avoided the fate of so many war torn revolutions by peacefully terminating the apartheid regime and laying the foundations of the new and democratic South Africa (p. 40).
Holmes zooms into a time in the history of South Africa where the nation was “poised on a knife-edge” (p. 5) to provoke the reader to ask, “what tortuous path led South Africa to this dramatic moment in its history” (p. 6)? Ever since the seventeenth century there has been a conflict between black Africans and white people in South Africa according to Holmes. In 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck, captain of a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and his party of eighty sailors arrived in the Cape of Good Hope with orders to establish a fort and vegetable garden to provision the ships sailing to and from the east (p. 7). Even though the historical record is one that on the one hand has the white historians advocating their written ‘truth’ opposed to the oral transmission of history handed from one black generation to the next, each version painting a picture of reality favorable to themselves, there is agreement in the scope and veracity of the wars fought between the two parties starting with the first tribe encountered by the Dutch settlers namely the Khoikhoi (p. 8). It is important to note that since the dawn of time men have waged wars with one another and this is not a condition which arrived with the Dutch settlers but rather a function of the fall of humanity that traces its origin to the first man, Abel, slayed by his brother Cain. Holmes by focusing his scope to black and white persons conflict may be guilty of portraying a garden of Eden situation before the Dutch settlers arrived which could not be further from the truth. Holmes accurately describes the cause for conflict as one of ideology whereby the Dutch settlers had Judeo-Christian understanding of private property ownership which differed completely from the heathen understanding of the Khoikhoi when it came specifically to cattle (p. 8). By 1662 there were approximately 250 settlers of a permanent colony (p. 8) and fiercely independent free farmers, ‘vryburgers’, were given their own land to farm but by the early 1700s the pioneer farmers emigrated into the interior which put them on a collision course of competition for land with the Xhosa tribe (p. 8). Holmes correctly, according to most historians, highlights the fact that the Xhosa were likewise migrating westward along the southern coast (p. 8) when they encountered the pioneer free farmers. This competition for land and property foreshadows the symptoms South Africans have been warring over for centuries.
Holmes then lists a series of events which put the Dutch Settlers on a collision course with the British as well as the indigenous people of Southern Africa. After France conquered the Netherlands in 1795, William prince of Orange fled to England and persuaded the English to occupy the Cape (p. 8) and to solve the frontier problem in 1820 they sponsored 5000 British emigrants to the Cape which only exacerbated the competition for land (p. 9). A Kafir originally referred in the Arabic language to an unbeliever and the term was used to name the “Kaffir Wars” of 1779, 1789, 1811 and 1857. The term is considered racially offensive today and has been actionable under South African law since 1976 (p. 8). In 1877 the Cape Colony annexed all remaining lands of Xhosa people and at this time they were acting on behalf of England. Additionally, the “Coloured” people are defined in South Africa as the mixed race from inter-breeding between white, Khoikhoi and slaves from the East, most notably Malaysia. Interestingly, thirty-two years before the abolition of slavery in the US, in 1833 Britain passed a law freeing all slaves in South Arica (p. 9). This infuriated the Dutch settlers who had blamed the Brits for not protecting them from the Xhosa and in 1836 14000 embarked on the “Great Trek” searching for the promised land in ox-drawn wagons where they could establish a free and independent state (p. 10). This small fraction of the settlers with pioneering courage were called Dutch Boers (farmers) by the British but called themselves “Afrikaners” (p.10). The “Voortrekkers” (pioneers) set out to establish independent trading links with Europe outside the control of the British and endured the arduous voyage over mountain ranges and through the Kalahari Desert and deadly malaria mosquito and tsetse fly infested lands, which ravaged their livestock, in order to reach ports at Delagoa bay, Inhambane and Sofala (p. 11).
The British behaved like thugs in that they annexed the land settled by the Voortrekkers of the Republic of Natalia after they tried to establish contact with the Netherlands in the 1840s (p. 11) while recognizing the independent Boer Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State. With the discovery of diamonds in 1867 at Kimberley, within the dominion of the Orange Free State, the British behaved predictably in 1880 and annexed the area surrounding the discovery and called it Griqualand (p. 12-13). Gold was discovered at Barberton and Pilgrims Rest and in 1877 the British “adopted their usual tactic and promulgated the annexation” of the territory within the Republic of Transvaal (p. 16).
The First Boer War was a short conflict which began on 20 December 1880 with a British column was devastated by the rifle fire of a Boer ambush in Bronkhortspruit while it tried to enforce the annexation (p. 16). It ended with a British expeditionary force of 1200 soldiers being repulsed by the Boers at Laing’s Nek near Newcastle on the border between Transvaal and Natal (p.18). The Boers fared worse in the second Boer War which lasted from 1899 to 1902 and claimed the lives of 75000 soldiers and civilians died. Although relatively fewer Boer soldiers died, 7000, versus British, 22000, the death toll of Boer civilians was estimated at between 20000 and 28000 (p. 17). Notice the balance of deaths came from the black Africans who were rounded up with the Boer women and children and placed in concentration camps while their farms were burned, and wells poisoned (p. 17). At the treaty of Vereeniging on 31st May 1902 the last of the Boers surrendered (p. 18). By 1910 the four states, Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Free State, unified into the Union of South Africa (p. 18) but the hatred engendered by the treatment of women and children by the British endured through the twentieth century. During the First World War the Afrikaners, dismayed at helping the British against Germany, established the National Party in 1914 under the leadership of J. B. M. Hertzog to rally against the Anglicizing policies under Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (p. 20). Again, during the Second World War in 1939 Hertzog resigned from the coalition government in protest of Britain’s war effort against Germany.
Holmes accurately moves the narrative arc from the Boers and their real grievances against the Brits to the struggle for equality initiated by the South African Native National Congress at its formation in 1912 with a goal to maintain the voting rights of ‘Coloured’ males in the Cape and an expanded mandate and name change to the African National Congress in 1923 (p. 19). In 1944 Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu became members of the ANC youth league and was promoted to general secretary in 1947 (p. 21). The year before what has been recognized as a watershed year as the National party were voted into power ousting the United South African party. In1948 the National party promised to codify apartheid,apartheid which is an Afrikaans word for the state of being separated, and under D.F. Malan it formalized legislation based on racial distinctions (p. 22) albeit the discrimination based on race had been practiced for decades. To make its policies sound humanitarian it promised the development of all races as being ‘separate but equal’ but in practice it was used to entrench white supremacy. With every person legally classified into one of four groups namely Black, Coloured, White and Asian, the legislation was drafted which assigned each group to specific areas of living or homelands (p. 22). Black homelands or Bantustans were supposed to start as semi-autonomous areas but gradually move toward sovereign nation status and represented 13% of the area while their inhabitants represented 70% of the population and “it is estimated that 3.5 million Black Africans were uprooted and dumped into the Bantustans” (p. 22)! Enforcement and sign posting of separate amenities such as toilets, parks and beaches and the outlaw of mixed marriages ensued. Blacks were assigned pass books and travel without them was outlawed. Separate colleges were established, and jobs could be advertised for white only applicants (p. 22). Black people had no political representation outside Bantustans and police powers were expanded such that you were presumed guilty until proved innocent (p. 23). The suppression of communism act of 1950 allowed anyone to be listed as a supporter of the outlawed communist party (p. 24).
In response to these injustices the ANCYL initiated in 1949 a program of action which included boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation and Nelson Mandela became president in 1950. In rallies around the country he campaigned and recruited volunteers in rallies and strikes that attracted thousands to the cause and membership grew from 5000 to 100,000 members (p. 24). Holmes shows his hand when he calls the government of the National party a Nationalist government (p. 24) because nationalism is not a bad thing as can be seen in Japan or Israel which are both proudly nationalist. Supremacy is bad but being proudly nationalist is not necessarily bad. There is a tendency to conflate white supremacy with nationalism and thereby imply that both are equally evil. Nevertheless, it is true that this supremacist government arrested campaign leaders including Mandela who received a suspended sentence confining him to Johannesburg and forbidding his attending gatherings (p. 24). If they believed this would stifle his success they were disappointed to know that during this sentence he formulated a plan to split the ANC into cells which became more accessible to the locals (p. 24).
Holmes correctly alludes to what others see as the result of the toughening stance against the ANC by the National party government, that is to the push the leaders of the ANC into the arms of the communists in the Soviet Union. It’s after the 1954 changing of the guard from Malan to J. G. Strijdom that South Africa severs diplomatic ties with the Soviets while moving toward severing ties with the British Empire (p. 24). The Freedom Charter of 1955 produced by the ANC remains the guiding proclamation and states that South Africa belongs to all regardless of race and equal protection under the law and that wealth should be distributed equally. It was during a 26th June discussion about the charter that the police surrounded and took names and addresses of all participants because they suspected treason was being committed (p. 25). On the 5th December 1956 Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo and 153 others were arrested under the Suppression of Communism act and charged with high treason, but it took 5 years for the regime to put together a case against the defendants who were all acquitted. While the leaders were incarcerated however, a radical faction movement split away from the ANC, and formed the Pan African Congress (PAC) (p. 25). During a national campaign protesters provoked police to arrest them when they gathered outside police stations without ‘pass books’ (p. 26) and in 1960 in Sharpeville protests turned violent when police opened fire killing 69 and wounding 186 black protesters (p. 26). The ANC called for the burning of the ‘pass books’ and countrywide protests erupted including a peaceful march on Parliament whereupon the regime declared a State of Emergency, arrested 18000 and banned ANC and PAC (p. 26).
Holmes accurately depicts the action and reaction of both sides as the struggle escalates from Sharpeville to the imprisonment of Mandela after the second treason trial, the Soweto riots of 1976 and the international pressure together with the internal armed resistance aligned against the regime which over decades began to turn the tide of public opinion against the evil ideology of Apartheid. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the banning orders against the ANC and PAC were rescinded (p. 36). By 1992 69% of the whites voted that reforms to end Apartheid should be continued (p. 39).
On the 27th April 1994 91% of registered voted in the first democratic elections whereby the ANC won 63% of the vote (p. 40. In June 1995 the Truth and Reconciliation commission, chaired by Desmond Tutu, began investigating human rights abuses by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 1994 to reconcile both parties in truth and provide closure to both parties (p. 41). The new constitution barred discrimination against persons because of race, including against minorities, and was signed into law by Mandela on Dec 10, 1996 (p. 42). A new South African flag accompanied a new National Anthem sung in Afrikaans, Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu completed the transformation of a country from being oppressive to being progressive (p. 42).