The View from Slagter’s Nek

The Covenant
James A. Michener
Fawcett, 1987 (Amazon)

I think the question I really wanted this book to answer for me is why District 9 is such a good movie. It outperformed expectations.

Michener, who is renowned for his expert research, brings us all of the most important episodes of South African history, and many of its most telling quirks–the Norwegians who fought and died in the Boer War purely out of hatred for imperialism, the Afrikaner housewives who demanded that a classical statue in their town square be veiled in the name of decency–all in the context of an epic, generation-spanning fictional narrative, the purpose of which is not to distract from the history being made, but to give that history a human face. Michener’s is determined to show what history looks like, at the expense of any side; and, digesting the work properly, you are forced to evaluate the morality of remembrance and history itself as a human endeavor.

Michener opens with the imagined stories of the !Kung San and Zimbabweans before proceeding to the meat of the narrative, the Afrikaners. Taking the three stories side by side, it is impossible not to come to a reasonable evaluation: the !Kung San’s culture was beautiful and timeless, but being timeless it was also unchanging, and did not have any cultural narrative that could fill up a 1000 page book. Zimbabwe, too, must have had some limited history in the days of its kingdom, but it was never written down and dissolved into legend, irrelevant to its descendants. Is that bad, necessarily? Is it better to have a collective history than a lot of individual stories? Well, the next section will supply some evidence.

The Dutch are deposited in Africa as an unimportant colony, and remain unimportant in world history to everyone besides the southern Africans themselves– attracting notice only as the heroes of the Boer War and the villains of apartheid, but never with any context, and always as part of some other country’s political narrative. In an utterly foreign and savage land, being given no meaning to their mission, it was natural that they would invent some meaning for themselves, and Michener’s quiet argument in The Covenant is that they became an Old Testament people fashioning themselves after the narrative of the ancient Israelites.

This may or may not be true. But the more obvious truth is that they clung to every event in their history, with a bitter, collective insistence that they were alone in the African wilderness–other ethnic groups being incidental or antagonistic to their racial memory–and had been attacked on all sides for hundreds of years. For much of their history the Afrikaners were pretty much left alone to populate the coastline, embark on their own Oregon Trails, and rough it in the Veld with no formidable enemy but themselves. But after their colony was appropriated by the British Empire, Afrikaners kept a running tally of the English crimes against them, which, combined with post-independence responses to apartheid, were made into a historical case for the brutality of the world against the Afrikaner: a double hanging at a place called Slagter’s Nek, the imposed end of slavery by the English, decades of fighting the English for freedom, torture and death in English concentration camps, and now the murders of innocent citizens by (black) communists and killers, political harassment by European leftists and atheists, and so forth.

Too much history! Of course, this history is not easy to forget, just as Americans cannot easily forget 9/11. The Afrikaners cannot be faulted for remembering things that happened to them as a people. If we are to fault anything, it is human nature. Should someone time travel to 1700 and warn the Afrikaners that race is a cultural construct and that they should intermarry freely with the natives, they would be lynched; this was a group that already shared so many cultural bonds separating them from the Other that race was just another layer on the pile. Michener laments many times that the Afrikaners did not give the Colored (mixed-race and Indian) population equal voting and political rights, a choice that could have prevented the terrible legacy of apartheid and could have even eventually integrated the black population. But excluding the Colored was more than a matter of race. In the Colored population the myth of embattled Christians stranded in the wilderness was diluted and lost, replaced with family and local histories that held none of the power of racial memory. Putting aside the Afrikaners who were labeled Colored as a brutal punishment, the actual Colored population did not share the Afrikaners’ teleological drive.

Out of the evils of human history, some, such as imperialism or Balkans-style ethnic conflict, are readily understood as the mistakes of good people. Some, like Nazism and slavery, were easy to understand as the product of good people in the past, but are steadily moving towards ineffability as the world alienates itself from the motives behind them. And some, like apartheid, are simply bizarre to an outside observer. How could a tiny minority of good people perpetrate a system like this onto people they were at peace with, their neighbors and coworkers, whom they agreed belonged in their country? The answer can be found precisely in the Afrikaner narrative, for a people battling for their lives against a cold and uncaring world cannot easily incorporate other peoples, who do not share that sense of urgency, into their polity. The Afrikaners of the 20th century did not lack humanity or intelligence. They openly discussed their political situation with visitors of all kinds; their politicians, leaders, and judges constantly tried to impress the importance of their narrative onto South Africa’s other ethnic groups. The only thing they lacked was the ability to escape their Afrikaner identity.

What actually dissolved over the course of the 20th century was their belief in their own coherence. When they finally backed down and admitted that their system did not work, they were also being forced to admit that their own narrative, which could fill not only the 1000 pages of this book but several more books, was unable to provide a basis for fair and just government. The government that replaced them did not have a 1000-page narrative. In fact, we can see that while it is fairer to everyone, it is also directionless, and from this lack of meaning rises selfishness, corruption, and anarchy.

So, why is District 9 a good movie? Because the Afrikaners are us: a species struggling to keep the world coherent in the face of chaos. We have developed in the past 500 years the ability to refine our myths, but an educated person cannot help but notice that even these purified, enlightened narratives fail to change basic human nature. So we paddle against the current, and hope that if the aliens come they will be saviors, and not miserable wretches like us.

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Book Reviews