Ambitions: Martin Meredith, right, whose latest book traces the prominent Reitz family’s influence on historical events in SA. Picture: THE TIMES
Ambitions: Martin Meredith, right, whose latest book traces the prominent Reitz family’s influence on historical events in SA. Picture: THE TIMES

Afrikaner Odyssey: The Story of the Reitz Family in South Africa

Martin Meredith

Jonathan Ball

Martin Meredith has made a career writing about African history and politics. He has written a biography of Nelson Mandela, two books about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, an interesting and lesser-known account of elephants and several other books on African affairs.

His book Diamonds, Gold and War remains an important text for understanding how the discovery of diamonds and gold in the latter of half of the 19th century helped to shape the future of modern SA.

Meredith’s latest book, Afrikaner Odyssey: The Story of the Reitz Family in South Africa, moves away from the broad lens for which he is well-known and zeroes in on the role of one Afrikaner family during great political change in SA.

In this relatively short, but engaging book, he offers a detailed portrait of how one family crossed paths with some of the most significant people shaping the history of the late 19th and early 20th century in colonial SA.

In the process, Afrikaner Odyssey engages with the complexity of individual ambitions alongside the ambitions of a nation-in-the-making.

The Reitz family was part and parcel of the Cape Colony aristocracy in the 19th century. The patriarch Francis Reitz bred horses and owned Rhenosterfontein, one of the most impressive farms in the Swellendam district that drew visitors ranging from well-known stockbreeders in the Cape to foreign dignitaries. His son Frank Reitz, whose decisions and experiences guide much of the narrative, was born in 1844.

After showing potential in school, Frank decided to study law in London, where he developed an interest in politics. After he returned from Europe, he transposed English-language poems he liked into Afrikaans, some of which were published in Het Volksblad, a weekly newspaper in Cape Town.

His love for Afrikaans later featured as a potent source of cultural pride at a time when animosities between the British and early Afrikaners were increasingly tense. Despite his education, Frank struggled to find employment as a lawyer, because the economy of the Cape Colony was tiny.

However, the discovery of diamonds in the interior of the colony — and later, gold in the Transvaal — boosted economic growth and his skills and training were put to good use.

Shortly after marrying Norwegian immigrant Blanca Thesen in 1874, Frank received an offer to become the president of the newly established High Court of Appeal in the Orange Free State.

This offer changed not only the course of the Reitz family; it also adjusted the course of South African history.

He played an integral role in the formation of the Boer Republics, notably through his contribution to the creation of the Afrikaner Bond in the Orange Free State.

Due to his popularity as chief justice, he became president of the Orange Free State in 1889 following the death of Johannes Brand, and quickly took to modernising the region.

Despite much resistance from the conservative platteland community, one of his important achievements was to lobby successfully for Bloemfontein to be linked to the Cape railhead in 1890. As a result, Bloemfontein gained quite a reputation. As Meredith notes, the city was "renowned for its cosmopolitan character and flair for social activities". During a visit in 1877, the English novelist and travel writer Anthony Trollope said the peace and quiet of the city "is better than the excitement of a Paris, a London or New York".

The globalised ambitions of Bloemfontein were short-lived. They were outmatched by the colonial ambitions of the Boer Republics and the British Empire, both drunk with the desire to control access to gold fields on the Witwatersrand.

At the time, there was a lack of consensus in the Afrikaner community and the rest of the Cape Colony about the future. Frank, with Paul Kruger and Jan Smuts, was at the centre of discussions with the British colonial administrator, Joseph Chamberlain, and the British high commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, on the prospect of war.

On October 5 1899, Frank delivered an ultimatum to the British, drawing the two sides into war. Despite his travels, love of British literature and seemingly global perspective, it seems Frank was hemmed in by nationalist ambitions for Afrikaner independence.

With nationalist impulses re-emerging across the world, his myopic commitment to the volk seems instructive as an example to be avoided.

A familiar, but nevertheless interesting, takeaway from Afrikaner Odyssey is the number of people who were involved in some way, shape or form in the Anglo-Boer War, who made significant contributions to the direction the world took in the 20th century. For example, Winston Churchill (then a journalist) was captured and detained for 25 days by the Boer army after the bloody Battle of Spioenkop, which saw more than 1,000 British soldiers killed in a devastating defeat.

But Meredith’s depiction of the Anglo-Boer War is hardly nostalgic, as the horrors of conflict feature throughout the text through the voice of Frank’s son, Deneys. He draws from Deneys’ notebooks from the time, in which he repeatedly describes the deteriorating state of his tattered clothes. This motif illustrates the toll the war took on individuals as much as it affected the region.

After the war, and unlike his father, Deneys spoke out in favour of the South African Party due to his tutelage under Jan Smuts, who helped him recover after a failed expedition in Madagascar. As a member of Smuts’ government from 1921 to 1924, he helped introduce legislation for the creation of the Kruger National Park.

Readers familiar with Meredith’s comprehensive style may be surprised by the brevity of this book. However, Afrikaner Odyssey is an engaging and worthwhile addition to understanding the people involved in the intricacies of a momentous period in the course of South African history.

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