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An essay by Morley Roberts

Near Mafeking

Title:     Near Mafeking
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

To a man who has lived and travelled in the United States of America and the not yet United States of Australia, there is one characteristic of South Africa which is particularly noticeable. It is its oneness as a country. And this oneness is all the more remarkable when we take into consideration its racial and political divisions. A bird's-eye view of America is beyond one; a similar glance at the seaboard of Australia from Rockhampton even round to Albany (which is then only round half its circle) gives me a mental crick in the neck. But in thinking of Africa, south of the Zambesi, there is no such mental difficulty. Even the existence of the Transvaal seemed to me an accident, and, if inevitable, one which Nature herself protests against. Some day South Africa must be federated, but if any politician asks me, "Under which king, Bezonian, speak or die," I shall elect (in these pages at least) to die.

But though this disunited unity seemed to me a salient feature in cis-Zambesian Africa, it was the differences in that natural ring fence which attracted most of my attention as a story-writer even as a story-writer who so far has only written one tale about it. I began to ask myself how it was that, with one eminent exception, our African fiction writers had confined themselves to the native races, and the friction between these races and white men, Boer or English, when there were infinitely more attractive themes at hand. Perhaps it may seem like begging the question to call the political inter-play of the Cape Colony, of the Transvaal, and the Free State more interesting than tales in which the highest "white" interest appears in a love story betwixt some English wanderer and an impossible Boer maiden, or such as relate the rise and fall of Chaka and Ketchwayo. And yet to me the mass of intrigue, the political friction, the onward march of races, and the conflicts above and below board, called for greater attention than the Zulu, even at his best.

To a novelist (who sometimes pretends to think, however much such an unpopular tendency be hidden) environment and its necessary results are of infinite interest. Upon the Karroo, even when in the train, I tried to build up the aloof and lonely Boer, and, though I failed, there came to me in whiffs (like far odours borne on a westerly wind) some suggestions that I really understood deep in my mind how he came to be. The chill fresh air of the morning, before the sun was yet above the horizon, recalled to me some ancient dawns in far Australia: and then again I thought of days upon the Texan plateaux. But still the secret of the lone-riding Boer, who loves a country of magnificent distances, escaped me.

But one early dawn, when I was half-way between Krugersdorp and Mafeking, I came out upon the veldt in darkness, which was a lucid darkness, and in the silent crisp air I stumbled upon the truth. Betwixt sleep and waking as I walked I felt infinite peace pour over me. So had the silent Campo Santo at Pisa affected me; so had I felt for a moment among the ancient ruins of the abbey at Rivaulx. In this dawn hour came a time of reversion. I too was very solitary, and loved my solitude. The necessities of civilisation were necessities no more: I needed luxury even less than I needed news. I cared for nothing that the men of a city ask: there was space before me and room to ride. The lack of small urgent stimuli, the barren growth of civilisation's weedy fields, left me to the great and simple organic impulses of the outstretched world. And in that moment I perceived that this silence is the very life of the wandering Boer, even though he knows it not; for it has sunk so deep into him that he is unaware of it. He belongs not to this age, nor to any age we know.

For one long year, twenty years ago, I lived upon a great plain in Australia, and now I remembered how slowly I had been able to divest myself of my feeling of loneliness. But when I came at last to be at home upon that mighty stretch of earth, which seemed a summit, I grew to love it and to see with opened eyes its infinite charm that could be told to none. I knew that the need of much talk was a false need: as false as the diseased craving for books.

To feel this was true of the widespread wandering folks who once came out of crowded Holland to resume a more ancient type, instructed me in what a false relation they stand to the rolling dun war-cloud of "Progress." They called in the unreverted Hollander to stand between them and the men of mines, and now they love the Hollander as a man loves a hated cousin, who is a man of his blood, but in nothing like him. But anything was, and is, better than to stand face to face with busy crowds. To have to talk, to argue, to explain to the unsympathetic was overmuch. The veldt called to them: it is their passion. As one labours in London and sinks into a dream, remembering the hills wherein he spends a lonely summer, among Westmorland's fells and by the becks, so the Boer, called cityward, looks back upon the wide and lonely veldt which is never too wide and never lonelier to him than to any of the beasts he loves to hunt.

But the fauna disappear, and ancient civilisations crumble. And those who revert are once more overwhelmed by civilisation. It is a great and pathetic story, a story as old as the tales told in stone by the preserved remnants of prehistoric monsters.

Yet, speaking of monsters, what is a stranger monster (to an eye that hates it or merely wonders) than the many-jointed Rand demon crawling along the line of banked outcrop? I saw it first by day, when it seemed an elongated wire-drawn Manchester in a pure air, but I remember it best as I saw it when returning from Pretoria. First I beheld the gleam of electric lights, and remembered the glow of Fargo in Eastern Dakota as I saw it across the prairie. Then the mines were no longer separate: they joined together and became like a fiery reptile, a dragon in the outcrop, clawing deep with every joint, wounding the earth with every claw, as a centipede wounds with every poisoned foot. The white residues gleamed beneath the moon, from every smoke stack poured smoke: the dragon breathed. Then the great white cyanide tanks were like bosses on the beast; the train stopped, and the battery roared. That night, for it was a silent and windless night, I heard forty miles of batteries beating on the beach of my mind like a great sea. And men laboured in the bowels of the earth for gold. But out upon the veldt it was very quiet, "quietly shining to the quiet moon." I understood then that it was no wonder if the simple and stolid Dutchman had a peculiar abhorrence for a town, which, even at night, was never at rest. In Johannesburg is neither rest, nor peace, nor any school for nobility of thought; it destroys the pleasures of the simple, and satisfies not the desires of those whose simplicity is their least striking feature.

Upon the veldt and the Karroo, and even through the Mapani scrub country that lies north of Lobatsi, simplicity is the chief characteristic of the scenery. As I went by Victoria West (I had spent the night talking politics with the civillest Dutchmen) I came in early morning to the first Karroo I had seen. The air was tonic, like an exhilarating wine with some wonderful elixir in it other than alcohol, and though the country reminded me in places of vast plains in New South Wales, it lacked, or seemed to lack, the perpetual brooding melancholy that invests the great Austral island. As I stood on the platform of the car, the sun, not yet risen, gilded level clouds. The light reddened and the gold died: and the sudden sun sparkled like a big star, and heaved a round shoulder up between two of Africa's flat-topped hills, which were yet blue in the far distance. Then the level light of earliest day poured across the plateau, yellow with thin grass, which began to ask for rain. The picture left upon my mind is without detail, and made up of broad masses. Even a railway station, with some few gum trees, and the pinky cloud of peach blossom about the little house, was excellently simple and homely. A distant farm, with smoke rising beneath the shadow of a little kopje, a band of emerald green, where irrigation sent its flow of water, a thousand sheep with a blanketed Kaffir minding them, filled the eye with satisfaction.

Out of such a country should come simple lives. By the sport of fate the cruellest complexity of politics is to be found there.

And yet who can declare that the environment shall not in time exert its inevitable influence on the busy crowding English, and make them or their sons glad to sit upon their stoeps and smoke and look out upon the veldt with a quiet satisfaction which is unuttered and unutterable? The Karroo and the veldt do not change except according to the seasons; they pour their influences for ever upon those who ride across them as the Drakensberg Mountains send their waters down upon Natal beneath their mighty wall. And even now the busy Englishman complains that his African-born son is lazy and seems more content to live than to be for ever working. Each country exacts a certain amount of energy from those who live there; as one judges from the Boer, the tax is not over heavy.

And as in time to come the great centre of interest shifts north, as now it seems to shift, one may prophesy with some hope, certainly without dread of such a result, that a more energetic Dutch race, and a less energetic English one, will fuse together, and look back upon their childish quarrels with mere historic interest. Perhaps the Dutch in those times will become the aristocrats, as they have done in New York; they may even see their chance of going for ever out of politics. For they never yet sat down to the political gaming-table gladly.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Near Mafeking