- South Africa's Future: From Crisis to Prosperity, and: Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa, and: South Africa in Transition: The Misunderstood Miracle, and: A Concise History of South Africa, and: South Africa: A Narrative History (review)
- Africa Today
- Indiana University Press
- Volume 47, Number 3/4, Summer/Autumn 2000
- pp. 182-187
- View Citation
- Additional Information
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Why major convulsions occur in history (the American Civil War, the end of the Cold War, or the more or less peaceful shift of South Africa from white majority rule to majority black rule) occupies historians for generations--not just because time lends a clearer perspective, but also because events have very long-term affects. These five books provide some of the material that will help make developments as they unfold in the Republic of South Africa more intelligible. Three books deal with the recent past and near future, while two deal with history; they provide some insights into how the South African government in the 1980s found it necessary to raise the level of violence in the country. The African National Congress had pledged that they would make the country impossible to govern. With only a portion of its police/military/commando-reserve power, the government, figuratively with one hand tied behind its back, maintained order and business as usual. The ANC failed. This, however, was accomplished at some expense to Pretoria in economic terms and lost foreign support. In the simplest of terms, both sides decided that talking with one another made more sense than continued hostility.
More than four decades of reading South African histories did not prepare me for Welsh's narrative history of South Africa. In an elegant style he elaborates on the traditional recounting of events, adding details, fleshing out the personalities of men on the scene, while evaluating the performance of administrators and bureaucrats back in the Netherlands or England. An indication of his thoroughness is that on page 350 he is still only up to the Anglo-Boer War. He takes time to explore the career of each major player on the historical stage, demonstrating for example that the Afrikaner leaders of the Great Trek period were a quarrelsome lot, whose followers were near anarchists, ready to cooperate only as a last resort. This contrasts with the disciplined, highly organized Afrikaner leadership of National Party rule after 1948; virtually every official was a member of the Broederbond.
Educated in Cambridge, Welsh enjoyed a career in business that included chairmanship of South African mining companies, and he served as [End Page 182] a director of National and Grindlay's Bank, a leading institution in Indian and East African commerce. His business experiences gave him insights into events as different as the problems of the Dutch East India Company, which sent Van Riebeeck to establish the Cape station, and the attitudes of the British bureaucrats who begrudged any expenditure at the Cape in the early nineteenth century. The period since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison is understandably less thoroughly covered in this volume. Many of the details of that period await clarification from as yet closed records, as well as the publication of the memoirs of the major players. T. R. H. Davenport's The Transfer of Power in South Africa is a fine summary of that period. 1
By contrast, Ross's Concise History is, to this writer, painfully "politically correct" but useful since his view is that of the more radical revisionist scholars. His assessment of the cattle-killing episode of the mid-nineteenth century is a good example. The consequence of a supposed message from the gods--that if the cattle were all killed and the grain fields destroyed, the whites would...