A few years back, after a vacation in Ireland with Linda’s mother, we asked Emily, “Where do we go next?”. She did not hesitant to suggest going on a safari. Friends of hers had traveled to southern Africa, and the photos of petting a lion cub caught her eye. We have spent the last couple of years researching the options and saving for this trip, as well as fitting it in between nephews’ graduations and other won’t-happen-again events. This Fall we will board the plane to cross the Atlantic and the Equator to land in South Africa. Safari planning, of course, brings the opportunity to do some history reading.
One of the books that the three of us are passing around is James Mitchener’s historic novel, The Covenant. This is his account of the populating of the southern regions of the African Continent, filled with fictitious characters based on composites of the types of people who lived during the known and speculated history. Bushmen, Hottentots, Xhosa, Zulu, Arabians, Malaysians, Indians, Dutch, Huguenots, Trekbores, Voortrekkers, English, Afrikaners fill the 1200 pages of adventure, exploration, exploitation, wars and sex. The narrative starts with the Great Zimbawa expansion moving south toward the coast of the Indian Ocean, then picks up centuries later with the Dutch trade routes settling into Cape Town and expanding east toward the Orange and the Limpopo Rivers. Of course, along the way their is a lot of mixing up of the various groups both in war and love. Mitchener published the book in 1979, leaving us in the height of the Apartheid era, with surprisingly accurate hints about what might transpire over the next couple of decades. But, this is territory for Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which I have cued up to read.
A couple of qualities of the text kept my interest. Of course, there is my complete ignorance of this region’s history, duh! Then there is Mitchener’s skill as laying out the narrative in a way that prevents me from taking sides. This is not a “good guys vs bad guys” story. In fact, he had me rooting for same group at one point, then despising them a chapter later. He also outlines the history as a series of actions and reactions, such that even events which I might loath make sense in light of what occurred in the pages before. The English take over of South Africa makes sense given the sequence of wars and treaties going on between England and the Netherlands in Europe. The Voortrekkers taking of land and enslaving the Xhoka and Kaffir makes sense in response to the English expansion from the western coasts. The Boer Wars make sense in response to the Voortrekkers attempts to establish independent republics. The Afrikaners (aka Boers after the Boer Wars) attempts to form alliances with Germany during World Wars I and II make sense in response to the English decimation of the male Boers in battle, their wives and children in concentration camps, and their farms with scorched-earth reprisals for the Boer’s hit and run tactics. The development of Aparthied governance makes sense in response to the Afrikaners’ sense of powerlessness in business and politics under the English. History is a series of decisions that our leaders and we as citizens make. Judging our history is another mater.
Throughout my reading of The Covenant, I found all the references to the Dutch Reform Church and the Book of Joshua fascinating. So much so, that I have read the latter twice to better understand why the Calvinistic thought so influenced the history of South Africa. Joshua was the leader of the tribes of Israel across the Jordan to the land of milk and honey. The Book of Joshua falls between the end of Deuteronomy, where Moses dies on the eastern banks of the Jordan, and the Book of Judges, which you can imagine is a series of actions and reactions. If you have a similar response to mine, you probably think Joshau, yeah, the Battle of Jericho.
Jericho falls in chapter 6. What happened in chapters 1 – 5, as well as 7 – 24. Let me tell you, a lot of other things occurred, though chapters 12 to 21 are dullsville, as these mostly list the 31 kings where were defeated and the allocation of land and cities to the tribes of Israel. Prior to Jericho, the flood waters of the River Jordan are held back by hauling the Arch of the Covenant to mid-stream. Forty-thousand soldiers cross the dry river bed, along with how many tens of thousands of women, children, and non-soldier men. Twelve stones are hauled out from the middle of the river bed and placed on the western banks as a remembrance of the crossing. Those men, who had not been circumcised during the 40 years in the wilderness, get a foreskin snipping. Spies enter Jericho and hide in a prostitute’s home (she and her family are later spared from annihilation of all citizens and property of Jericho). Achan disobeys the commandment to destroy all and keeps some spoils of war, leading the routing of the Israeli army at Ai. War, war, war. The sun and moon stand still for a day to allow for more war, waste, and destruction. Then seven words end chapter 11, “Then the land had rest from war”. After the allotments to the tribes, Joshua provides the instructions of their Covenant with the Lord. Behaviors to assure purity are outlined. Alters are erected as moments to remind future generations of what this generation did to secure the Covenant.
According to Mitchener’s history, the Dutch Reform Church in South Africa relied heavily on the accounts of Joshua to support their position. They were the pure, new tribe of Israel leaving the oppressive, sectarian wars in Europe with a new Covenant to establish a new nation and culture. As with many colonial cultures, being geographically distant from the mother country, their development branched out in a self-reinforcing way. The promise of all the land from the western oceans to the Euphrates River in Joshua became all the land from the Atlantic to the river in the west… was that the Drakensberg Mountains and the Orange River? or the Limpopo and the high veld, now Kruger National Park. The commandments to remain pure, through acts like circumcision and abstinence from marrying the Cannanites, would flow into the Aparthied era when commissions would investigate accusations that someone living in Afrikaner neighborhoods had black blood in their ancestry. The issue of the Coloreds was the forewarned millennia early. The provision, after Jericho, that the tribe of Israel could keep the bounty of war, justified the Voortrekkers possesion of the land, kraal (farms), and slaves of those they conquered. The slash-and-burn tactics of Joshua’s armies permitted the Boers to destroy the Zulu nation at Blood River. What is frightening is that it is all there in Joshua, just waiting for a certain interpretation.
While I was reading The Covenant, Linda was reading Nelson Mendela’s autobiography. We had many conversations about the Apartheid era. Could such an rigid, selective political system occur again? I made the argument that not only could it happen, but we are in the process in several regions of the world. The core characteristics are a slowly developing system of laws, which single out one group for favored political position while excluding most other people because they lack some quality. Do to lacking this quality, these people are legally stripped of rights of ownership and political participation. The laws are set up in such a manner that prevent these people from petitioning or redress. Underlying all of this is the minority group’s conviction and assertion that they have a more pure position with God’s favor.
Where might this be happening? I will suggest that events in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and USA may fit this pattern. Take these as conspiracy theory, if you like. The Arab Spring of last year, and Syrian Uprising that is ongoing, have disposed of dictators who have controlled those countries over the past few decades. Whatever the initial “leaderless” revolutions may have intended, those who are filling the leadership voids are coming from theocratic, Islamic, if not Islamist sectors. They are beginning to build the legal codes that will reinforce their positions one law at a time. Their motivation appears to be to construct a society which they consider pure and cleansed of the evils that they perceive in the world.
In the USA, we have been watching other groups who also claim that they carry the mantel of purity in our political arenas. The Tea Party may be the latest manifestation of this push, but prior waves of the Moral Majority, The Christian Coalition, and multiple political action committees and now Super-PAC’s. Constitutional “Originalists”, including Supreme Court Justice Scalia profess that they are the true champions of what the Founding Father’s intended in our legislative and legal systems. Underlying each edict and decision that I read of are the themes that “We are making society pure” and “God made this country great”. The net result is that a favored few will reap the benefits of these political system which will piece together a network which will take decades to deconstruct.
While Mitchener wrote The Covenant before South Africa began to deconstruct the Apartheid system, he outlined the course taken as one option. Through the gracious overthrow of the Apartheid system, intelligent, educated, and patient Blacks, Coloreds, British, and Afrikaners worked together to seek Truth and Reconciliation. The South Africans are a resilient people. We need only look to the example of Oscar Pistorius, an Olympic runner, born without lower leg bones, a double amputee at age 5 years old, and sprinting on bilateral prosthetics this summer in London. Because of their resiliency we have the privilege of visiting them on safari.