Book Review: Born In Africa

Martin Meredith has become synonymous with great books on Africa. His style of writing is easy to read and he manages to make complicated issues accessible to layman audiences.  His two previous books The State of Africa and Diamonds, Gold and War were critically acclaimed.

In Born in Africa he takes a big step back from his usual topics of modern African history, 4 million years back to be precise. As a novice to pre-history, I expected to struggle a bit with the idea of fossils and apes, but Meredith tells the story in the form of the 20th century competition to unearth the oldest fossil and piece it into the ever-changing puzzle of our family tree.

It had been long accepted that Asia was the birthplace of modern man, when we dropped our ape-like tendencies and started walking on our back legs.  But fossil discoveries made in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa in the 20th century completely rewrote this theory, accompanied by some ferocious fighting between the different groups of paleoanthropologists and academics which makes for compelling reading.

Meredith spends the first part of the book following well-known names like the Leakey family in Kenya and their three generational contribution to the Australopithecus saga. It struck me how an incidental stumbling upon a small tooth in the ground would later lead to a complete rearrangement of our family tree, only to be undone a few years later by another groundbreaking discovery.

The devil is in the detail, as a small difference in a shin bone or jaw size could have massive ramifications to the age and development of each fossil. The debate over whether brain size or walking ability was the precursor to our advancement winds its way through the book.

The second half of the book sees Meredith recap on the discoveries made during the 20th century and the last few years, and where it leaves us now. Based on what we currently know, he declares how human life as we know it was born in Africa and we all probably come from one of the larger families that was in East Africa 200,000 years ago. From there they move forward, into the Middle East, Europe and Asia, leaving behind small traces of DNA to help us map their route.

It is difficult not to be mesmerised by the 4 million year journey our species has taken, and how our development is so closely linked to the earth and the constantly changing climate. It is not unimaginable that our entire history could also be rewritten again based on further discoveries they are bound to make in coming years.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in Africa, it just might completely change the way you view this amazing continent.

Published in: on January 8, 2015 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: Ending Apartheid

Ending Apartheid

David Welsh and J.E. Spence

Pearson Education Limited 2011


When I first spoke to Professor Jack Spence about his upcoming book, “Ending Apartheid”, he explained to me that the purpose of the book was to provoke a debate about the topic which is yet to occur.  Despite nearly 17 years passing since South Africa’s first democratic election, the academic discussion regarding the reasons and arguments for the ending of Apartheid is still in its infancy.  Prof. Spence and David Welsh do not offer a definitive answer to this question; instead their short and concise book offers an insight into the various causes and events that led to the eventual dismantling of the Nationalist government.

The general election of 1948 is often regarded as a starting point of Apartheid, when the National Party defeated Jan Smut’s United Party.  I would personally look back as far as 1910 for the origins of Apartheid, but the purpose of this book is to look at the other end of the spectrum, the ending.

The forty-one years of Apartheid is broken up into three distinct categories; the first phase from 1948-1958 where Afrikaner power is consolidated; 1958-1966 which sees Dr. Verwoerd’s main engagement with black political organisations which included the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960; and finally 1966-1989 when Apartheid is in steady decline.  Many people, including the United Party, saw the National Party’s rise to power as a temporary blip which would be corrected at the next election, but this was to be a tragically naïve assessment.

Spence and Welsh do a superb job of contrasting various elements of Apartheid.  The security legislation that was quickly introduced to give the government more power to control its subjects is an example of the efficacy – albeit brutal – of the government.  But they also allow the occasional personal thought, like when they describe humiliating and embittering experience that Apartheid essentially was for the average black South African.

Apartheid is shown to be more than a simple black versus white issue.  I was struck by the vicious fighting between Inkatha and the other black movements, which was of course happily encouraged by the government.  Similarly there are several splits within the Afrikaner community, although none of them with any significant sense of moderation.

After the internal examination of Apartheid, we are allowed an outside glimpse of what the state of international relations looked like at the time.  I found it quite significant how South Africa fell into the global chessboard of the Cold War; despite international pressure on South Africa to hold democratic elections, the realpolitik of countries like the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States meant that they were quite happy with the way things were.  Not mentioned in the book is the attempt by the UK in 1970 to sell vast quantities of arms and ammunition to the Apartheid government, a good example of the significance of realism in international relations.

The effectiveness of sanctions is looked at in great detail too, and it is concluded that whilst there is reasonable proof of a squeeze being placed on the South African government, it is more of a long term solution.  Similarly, the battle of the black majority versus the Afrikaner minority is more of a stalemate in the end rather than an outright victory or defeat for either side.   If one definitive reason is given for the ending of Apartheid after the examination of all the evidence, it would be “all of the above”.

Ending Apartheid is a fascinating read that covers all the major issues and leaves room for the reader to explore further with a detailed bibliography.  I certainly hope that the book succeeds in its attempt to provoke debate, and hopefully in the coming years we will see some South African historians coming out with their own interpretations of this enthralling yet wretched period of world history.

Published in: on February 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: Mugabe

Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe

Martin Meredith

Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg 2007


Whilst reading this book, flashing up on the Sky News was the reports that the power-sharing deal between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai was on the rocks.  Despite being first published in 2002, Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe gives clarity to much of what is currently happening, especially the internal power struggle within Zanu-PF.  Martin Meredith has a wonderful ability to make complicated material easy to read and digest and it was hard to put this book down once I started.


Meredith starts off in an often neglected area of Mugabe’s life; his youth.  We learn of his upbringing in a Catholic missionary camp and his move to Ghana to take up teaching.  In possibly the most significant moment of his life, Meredith describes how Mugabe hears of the the news that his first son, Nhamodzenyika, has died.  To compound this, he was in prison and his wife was in Ghana, and despite support from the prison service, the Rhodesian government would not let him attend the funeral.  It is a genuinely upsetting moment for the reader, putting a human perspective on what has become such a viscous monster.


The book develops into the story of Mugabe’s reign from 1980 to the present.  Meredith makes use of speeches made by Mugabe to assist the narrative, which becomes more effective as time goes on and Mugabe’s actions become more wild and ludicrous.  What I found interesting was the subtle comparisons made to the Rhodesian government, how Mugabe was using the very same oppressive legislation that Ian Smith had use to oppress his own people.


But as Mugabe became more withdrawn from the public and media, so does Meredith’s narrative, as he gives an interesting but uninspired description of the 1990s, such as the the independent media crackdown, the oppression of opposition and the farm invasions.  Meredith looks extensively at the war veterans, and rightly criticizes their methods, but offers little explanation of the origins of this community.  It is understood that few of these were even alive during the war of the 1970s, but we are left wondering what affiliation these people had to Mugabe.


In the end we are left with a disturbing character sketch of Robert Mugabe.  Zimbabwe may fall into the “another failed African state” category, but Mugabe cannot be put into the same boat as the likes of Idi Amin or Laurent Kabila.  He is an educated, brutal and calculated man who has brainwashed himself and his ruling elite and created a complex and powerful “evil empire”.  


Meredith’s book does well to give an understanding of how Zimbabwe has descended in chaos under his leadership, or lack of.  All the names within Zanu-PF that are currently wrestling for a good position in the new unity government crop up constantly, and give a worrying indication of what these men and women are capable of.

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: Diamonds, Gold and War

Diamonds, Gold and War: The Making of South Africa

Martin Meredith

Published by Simon & Schuster, London 2007


Once again Martin Meredith has produced a book that covers a key time period in a country’s history, combining a phenomenal amount of research and an easy to read style of writing, making this book the proverbial “must” for readers interested in this period of South African history.


It starts during the discovery of valuable minerals in the 1870s in the area soon to become Kimberly and follows through the turbulent period to the making of the Union of South Africa in 1910.  Particularly fascinating are the stories of people making their lifetimes fortunes in a matter of minutes in the diamond pits, and thirst for money which drove people to this otherwise barren land.  It sets the tone for the rest of the book, that the growth of South Africa must be understood in capital terms, as the title suggests.


Meredith also contributes much time to the forming of Southern Rhodesia, showing the close relationship that the “fifth colony” had in the making of South Africa.  He gives an interesting account to the meetings between Cecil John Rhodes and Lobegula in the twentieth chapter, The Place of Slaughter, giving a fairly balanced account on what was a fairly unbalanced result.  I couldn’t help but feel nauseous reading this part,  watching the slow decimation of the Ndebele people in the name of British imperialism and capitalism.


Meredith spends much of the book devoted to the larger than life characters that existed during this period, and in doing so showed the huge effect a handful of people could have on such a large amount of people.  Rhodes is afforded plenty of pages, in understanding this complex man the reader gains an appreciation for how much he accomplished in a short life.  Alfred Milner was only in South Africa for a few years, but his influence on the destiny of the country is immense and tragic.  Whilst Meredith could be criticized for spending so much time on so few people, he does well to illustrate the influence and power these people had, nothing of which can be seen today.


Whist spending much time on the British and Afrikaners, it is only after the Boer War that the author turns his attention to the blacks and coloureds.  By doing so, we are shown the little say that these people had in the direction their country was heading in.  Whilst most books on the subject tend to stop after the surrender of the Boers to the British, Meredith spends the last few chapters on the fascinating post-war period, and how these months saw the construction of racial segregation and what was later to become Apartheid.  However, Meredith gives the impression that the united Boers and British of South Africa headed for London and snatched the Union from the newly elected Liberal government, ignoring the new schools of thought that the new British government was quite happy to relieve itself of all responsibility of this troublesome spot of the British Empire.


This is a wonderful book that covers an important and neglected period of South African history.  Whilst most books on the subject can be labourious to read, this book is accessible and could be enjoyed by the novice and expert. If more people were aware of this history, there would be greater understanding of the intricacies of the South Africa today.

Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment