Saturday, January 13, 2018

Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise

The moment I saw Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise, I knew it was a book I needed to read. I'm fascinated by South Africa's complex history, and I was looking for a book that would not only be accessible for someone like me who's not au fait with politics, while also filling in the blanks in terms of history.

Louis Botha is not a figure who's lauded much, yet I know of him because of the statue that is situated outside of the parliament buildings in Cape Town. In terms of South African history, it's still curious (to me) why we'd have a statue of an old Boer general up. Well, now I know.

When Louis Botha was prime minister of the South African union, the Anglo Boer War was still front of mind for many South Africans. Botha had the unenviable task of putting a unified army in the field when the UK requested that South Africa invade what was then German South West Africa. How I read the book, it's my opinion that the South West African campaign (1914-1915) was primarily a European war fought on African soil, the bastard offspring of colonial powers' weakening grip on the continent.

Cruise focuses on the military tactics Botha and his opponents employed. He discusses the incredible difficulties the armies faced; knowing Namibia, it's not exactly a landscape you go waltzing into. The extremes in temperature and lack of water make it daunting to travel by land across the country now even. Back then, when warfare in Africa was still largely fought by infantry, cavalry and artillery, with minimal support courtesy of motorised vehicles ... I garner fresh respect for what Botha achieved. Aircraft were only starting to be used in warfare, though the railway proved to be absolutely vital too.

Yet this is not just a dry book about military tactics. Cruise also looks into the socio-political reverberations caused by this war, such as the rebellion that occurred in the union, as well as the later effects that bloomed into full-scale Afrikaner nationalism. Our history is incredibly complex.

Namibia itself is a land that holds special fascination for me, and I admit this is partially due to the fact that I'm married to a Namibian, and we've visited the country a few times. I've fallen irrevocably in love with the wide-open spaces and the incredible diversity of the landscape that can be at times barren and desolate (and eerily beautiful) or the alien qualities of locations like the oasis Goanikontes. What Cruise does exceptionally well is combine a narrative of the conflict with little tastes of the history of the land, so that places I've visited (like the grassy plains just beyond Aus) come to life for me in terms of the past.

Louis Botha is revealed as a remarkable individual – not just a statesman (and the devil knows we have few enough of those these days) but also a shrewd warrior. It's doubtful that we have people like this as decision makers in these days of celebrity presidents and career politicians. Granted, Cruise doesn't shy away from the fact that Botha himself was less than perfect (his attitude towards non-Europeans are typical of his time) but he does come across as a reasonable man who was considerably less extreme in his views than Herzog, Verwoerd and his ilk.

Cruise gives Botha his due in this slim volume that is easy to read, both informative and fascinating, with well balanced content. I certainly feel as if I have a firmer grip on southern African history of a time period that I was fuzzy about, and in such a way that I engaged with the book from cover to cover.