Saul David’s favourite books on South African history

Saul David is a historian and broadcaster. He specializes in wars of empire and is the author of The Indian Mutiny (shortlisted for the Westminster medal for military literature). His latest book, Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879, is published by Viking (£20).

1. The Boer War by Thomas Packenham

Eight years in the making – and it shows. Packenham’s exhaustive research in numerous archives in Britain and South Africa, not to mention interviews with more than 50 survivors, resulted in a completely new take on many aspects of the war: the crucial role of two Rand millionaires in precipitating it; the feud between the British generals Buller and Roberts; and the plight of the 100,000 black Africans who served both sides. A fast-paced narrative – with wonderful descriptions of the fighting – is merely the icing on the cake.

2. The Washing of the Spears by Donald Robert Morris

Donald Morris’s peerless narrative is both a history of the rise and fall of the Zulu nation and a no-holds-barred account of British colonial and military policy in South Africa. The chapters on the Zulu War of 1879, particularly the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, are spellbinding. But if Morris’s scholarship is impressive, it is the quality of his sparkling prose that makes this book one of the greats.

3. My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan

Not a history book as such, but a fascinating insight into apartheid South Africa by a young Afrikaner who tried to shed his inbuilt racism but found it central to his identity. As a teenager he scribbled “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” on walls to proclaim his anti-apartheid credentials. He even slept with a young black girl. But he secretly felt guilty and left South Africa in 1977, shocked at the violence of the Soweto uprising, which he covered for the Johannesburg Star. A beautifully written, searingly honest account of a white South African’s struggle with his conscience.

4. The Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People by Neil Bennun

The earliest inhabitants of South Africa were bushmen, stone age hunter-gatherers who did not survive the arrival of white settlers. Their extraordinary world of sorcerers, hunters and artists would have been lost for ever had it not been for the efforts of Wilhelm Bleek, a Prussian linguist, and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, who spent 18 years in the late 19th century recording the stories, pictures and personal histories of six of the last bushmen. Neil Bennun’s account of Bleek and Lloyd’s labour of love, and the remarkable culture they saved for posterity, is superbly told.

5. The Afrikaners by John Fisher

A majestic history of the white settlers of Dutch, German and French descent who dominated South African politics for more than 300 years. John Fisher, a historian and diplomatic correspondent, provides a clear, considered and remarkably objective assessment of who the Afrikaners are and how they came to be there. Published 30 years ago during the apartheid years, it is still the best survey available.

6. The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation by John Laband

The history of the ‘Black Spartans’, from their rise under Shaka to their deliberate destruction by the British in 1879, is neverless than compelling. What this book lacks in storytelling, it more than makes up for with the quality of its analysis and the depth of its research. John Laband, associate professor at the University of Natal, is the senior authority in this field, and his command of Zulu sources is unsurpassed. This enables him to avoid the Eurocentric bias of so many other South African histories, even Donald Morris’s. A work of stunning quality.

7. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Riveting memoir by one of the great moral and political role models of the 20th century, and required reading for anyone interested in a black perspective of the apartheid struggle. In simple, unadorned prose it charts Mandela’s extraordinary journey: from his childhood in a small village in the Transkei (where he was the foster son of a Tembu chief), through his 27 years in captivity on Robben Island, and finally to his inauguration in 1994 as South Africa’s first black president.

8. Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War by Denys Reitz

Rivals the recently reissued world war one classic The Storm of Steel (Ernest Junger) as a war memoir of brutal frankness. The son of a former president of the Orange Free State, Reitz was just 17 when he took part in battle of Spion Kop, a British defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Reitz played his part, helping to drive the numerically-superior British force from the crest-line and eventually off the hill altogether. Commenting on one particularly bloody skirmish, he wrote “A fight is a fight”.

9. The Bang-Bang Club: The Making of the New South Africa by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva

A compelling and honest account of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to black majority rule told through the eyes of four young photographers. No punches are pulled as the authors witness at first hand the consequences of the white regime’s ruthless attempt to cling on to power by spreading dissension among its black political opponents. Marinovich’s account of his Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of a suspected Inkatha member being burned to death by ANC supporters is heartbreaking.

10. Jameson’s Raid by Elizabeth Pakenham

The future Lady Longford’s groundbreaking study of the famous raid that foreshadowed the Boer War. The raid, into the Transvaal Republic in 1896, was part of a hare-brained scheme by Cecil Rhodes and a group of British-born Johannesburg business leaders to overthrow President Paul Kruger’s anti-British regime. Longford provides evidence that the British government, in the form of the colonial secretary Joe Chamberlain, knew about and supported the raid. It failed nevertheless, though its leader Dr Jameson recovered to become prime minister of Cape Province. Despite being Longford’s debut book, it’s still one of her best.


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