By BRUCE DENNILL
The Advocate by Randy Singer 8
Mega Structures and Master Minds by Tony Murray 7
Run, Racist, Run by Eusebius McKaiser 6
The Secret Society by Robin Brown 7
A self-proclaimed fan of Robert Harris, Randy Singer’s wander back to imperial Rome is at least as convincing as Harris’ highly-rated Imperium (which focused on Cicero), not least because of the filter through which Singer chooses to examine a period of time in which Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ, Caligula and Nero all had a major impact on the way the Empire panned out. Theophilus, the title character, is one of those names mentioned just once or twice in historical literature – in this case the Bible – whose personal histories must be fascinating given the circles in which they move, but whose stories almost always go untold. A member of Rome’s lower-grade nobility, Theophilus had access to the greatest teachers of his age, Seneca included, and because of his own sharp intelligence and ambition, he found himself serving in some interesting positions, including as an advisor to Pilate in the trial of Jesus. Unsurprisingly, that event has a profound effect on the young man, and a future in the legal profession gives him a chance to right the wrongs he feels might have been avoided. His courtroom opponents include both Caligula (a former classmate) and Nero, so both Theophilus’ intellect and his valour is constantly tested. Singer’s attention to detail and passion for the period about which he is writing makes The Advocate a treasure trove for anyone with similar interests. Textbook-style history is cast aside for a vibrant, pulsating narrative filled with all the cultural curios of the time; influential men and women of all stripes; huge, filmic action sequences and the breathtaking, shattering cruelty of which the emperors and their acolytes where capable. Books like this, placed in the hands of readers who imagine they have nothing to learn from antiquity, can spark a change of perspective that’ll benefit both the readers and anyone interacting with them post-transformation. The Advocate is a brilliant work of fiction, laced with numerous threads of truth – enough so that the story will resonate often, and deeply, with book lovers sharp enough to see parallels in contemporary society.
Mega Structures and Master Minds is a very readable account of the construction of 33 major structures in colonial and post-colonial South Africa. The author is a scion of the Murray family of Murray and Roberts, and is both an engineer and a cracker-jack historian. He brings his engineering knowledge to bear on his writing and shows enormous insight into the people who were involved in these projects. There are also good stories of how men who had the conceptual and engineering skills needed in many instances to persuade their political masters of the importance and value of what they proposed. A leading figure was Charles Michell, who arrived in the Cape in 1828. He had proved himself a gallant soldier; he was handsome and a figure of romance; he was a talented artist and an able linguist. He was a superbly competent engineer with drive and determination. Britain had taken over a colony that had little or no infrastructure. Settlers were pegging out land for farms with little scrutiny or order. Roads were virtually non-existent. Michell was appointed Surveyor-General. His first great work was the building of Sir Lowry’s Pass, which revolutionised trade and farming by opening up the hinterland to Cape Town. He also built the first hard road across the Cape Flats, was the architect of many government buildings, developed the system of cadastral surveying for the registration of land, recruited and trained brilliant assistants and then tackled the urgent problem of lighthouses. The story of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse is fascinating reading. The Montagu Pass was part of my own childhood. When I travel it again I will remember Henry Fancourt White, one of Michell’s proteges. Andrew Geddes Bain and Thomas Bain are part of the great saga. Their human problems and engineering challenges are beautifully chronicled. What amazes is the budgets: great ingenuity and careful control of all expenditure, supplemented of course in some cases by low-cost convict labour, make our modern projects seem bloated and incredibly badly managed. Table Bay Harbour, lighthouses, sewage works, tunnels and bridges all owe their existence to men who came to the Cape or to Natal often with little training but with great intelligence and perception, ex-army men, naval officers, surveyors who took on huge engineering projects. They adapted, they persuaded, they coped in the most extraordinary circumstances. Gradually, of course, there were new appointees, with apprenticeships and scientific training behind them. John Gamble, former lecturer in mathematics at Oxford, trained in Britain as an engineer, is an example of the transition and provided water for many towns. We move then into the 20th Century, with Steenbras Dam (David Lloyd-Davies), DuToitskloof ( P A de Villiers), Kariba (J l S Jeffares) and a number more (I have chosen my favourites). This is a great book, easy to read, informative and also a useful contribution to the colonialisation debate.
Run, Racist, Run is an anthology of essays on the subject of racism. By the author’s own admission it is an unhappy, indeed an angry collection. Some of the essays have previously been published. Others are new in this book. They cover McKaiser’s compulsion to write about racism; the nature and challenge of black and white writing on race (“Biko lied”); identity politics (“Heard the one about young people not seeing race?”); discerning the identity of the racist (“Reporting from the racist’s heart”); assuming racism (“Racism receipts”), the challenge to “white liberals” (“What do Black People want from me?”); the lie of the virtuous liberal (“If Max du Preez tells Steve Hofmeyr”); the subtle myth of white superiority (“Meritocracy, white excellence and other myths”); justified anger (“Anger misunderstood”); the dilemma of coloured identity (“For coloured people only”); the financial burdens that the black middle class bears and the real problems of entering into the culture of another race (“At least allow us beetroot salad”). The book is directed principally at whites who naively believe that they are “on the side of blacks” and engage in often misdirected efforts in both action and conversation. It is an attempt to take the white person (especially the English-speaking liberal?) on a journey of understanding, to come to terms with what racism is in all its many manifestations. McKaiser does not begin to engage with those who are “outright” racists. This book is directed at me (a Hofmeyr) and possibly at Willie, but not Steve. I query first the title, a play on “Run, rabbit, run”. It sets the tone for the book: I am a rabbit in the headlights of a car; I am pretty well helpless. McKaiser, after the style of Calvin, sees me in terms of total depravity. None of my good works can save me. No word I speak is acceptable. He reserves the right to detect my racism even when there is no evidence that I can comprehend. I cannot defend myself against any charge he brings. The book does serve a purpose: it is a critique of unthinking and foolish “liberalism”. It does give me an insight into the hurts and wounds of those who live in this country with me. The Wits student who is as I write being heard before the Human Rights Commission for wearing a T-shirt on which he had painted the words, “Being black is s-t” and “F-k all whites” is angry. And has a right to be angry. Racism is, however, explained as the besetting sin. I tend to think more broadly about the social ills and dysfunctions of South Africa and indeed of the world. Perhaps I have lived a great deal longer, had more varied experiences, talked to more people across a broader spectrum, read more history. My ouma was the sister of a Boer War hero. My grandmother was from the servant classes in England and trained as a nurse in the slums of Glasgow. Race and racism are not the only narratives. Colonialism, tribal structures, the myriad forms of human grouping, forms of leadership, world economics, market forces, consumerism, all need more in-depth discussion, discussion in which race will be taken into account. I know that McKaiser has experienced hurts which are beyond my understanding. I am angry and sad. However, we need to put the race issue in a broader context. We need to have debates that encompass ways forward. The Wits student referred to above needs to understand a great deal more than that white students seem to have it easy as they line up or registration. The university is part of a very large world and its history, its structures, its governance, its racial composition are reflective of much than cannot be and should not be reduced to a sweary slogan. McKaiser’s anthology serves a useful function but it is an inadequate piece of work.
The subtitle to The Secret Society is “Cecil John Rhodes’s Plan for a New World Order”. It is obviously highly topical given the current debate on Rhodes and colonialism. The book is discursive rather than a narrative biography, and is at times awkwardly written, returning to episodes and characters as they play different roles in Rhodes’s life. That said, it is a fascinating volume, connecting the careers of a wide variety of eminent men – and two women – as it postulates a secret society that had its origins in the diamond fields of the Cape but became an important factor in British politics. General Gordon of Khartoum, Leander Starr Jameson, at least three British prime ministers, Lord Rosebery, Joseph Chamberlain and David Lloyd George, the Times of London and, of course, Lord Alfred Milner. The Society was to be secret (so official records reflect nothing of such a body); it was to be run like the Society of Jesus; and its aim was to establish a new world order, run by the English, who would for its good purposes seek a federation with the United States. The Society would, after Rhodes’s death, continue to impact on international politics even to the point of influencing those who sought appeasement with Hitler. Rhodes’s own sexuality comes under close examination and a great deal of new information is presented, gleaned from diaries and letters. He had an entourage of “lambs and angels”, had relatively long relationships with a few individuals, and trusted only those men who eschewed marriage, in fact flying into a rage if any of his circle considered marriage. A great deal of light is thrown on homosexuality in late Victorian and Edwardian society. The general inference is made that male homosexuals played an unduly large part in the politics of the day, though they were expected to establish themselves in respectable marriages. Brown delves into the lives of both Countess Catherine Radziwill and Olive Schreiner and their complex relations with Rhodes. Was Radziwill an agent of other players on this complex chess-board? Obviously Rhodes’s extraordinary career as an entrepreneur is dealt with fully and interestingly. I enjoyed insights into his relationship with Oxford University. Brown examines Rhodes’s own South African political career, including the ill-fated Jameson Raid and his involvement with the Anglo-Boer War. Interesting insights here on Kruger, the antithesis of all the Rhodes was and believed in. These events are part of the elaborate mosaic of colonialism and the huge ambitions that swirled round his mind. His own intrepid advances into new territories, the physical stamina that he demonstrated in long rides and harsh living and his ability to draw men into his plans are all well related. “Founding” a country and giving it his name are of course evidence of a strange genius and energy. His treatment of the peoples he subdued is honestly recounted. He was a man of his time and this was, in his view, “war”. There can, however, be no excusing his treacherous behaviour towards those who surrendered under treaty. This book throws light on Rhodes, obviously, but seeks to put his life and work in a much broader context. There will be claims that this is a sophisticated case of conspiracy theory, that the Secret Society existed more in Rhodes’s mind than in fact. It’s worth reading this and coming to your own conclusions.