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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Afrikaner Odyssey an engaging and worthwhile addition to understanding those involved in the Anglo-Boer War, writes David Reiersgord

Afrikaner Odyssey
In the first half of the nineteenth century, southern Africa was a jumble of British colonies, Boer republics and African chiefdoms, a troublesome region of little interest to the outside world.

Into this frontier world came the Reitz family, Afrikaner gentry from the Cape, who settled in Bloemfontein and played a key role in the building of the Orange Free State.

Frank Reitz, successively chief justice and modernising president of the young republic, went on to serve as State Secretary of the Transvaal Republic.

In 1899, he stood shoulder to shoulder with President Paul Kruger to resist Britain’s war of conquest in southern Africa. At the heart of this tale is the extraordinary life of Deneys Reitz, third son of Frank Reitz and Bianca Thesen.

David Reiersgord recently reviewed Afrikaner Odyssey for Business Day Live:

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.

Continue reading Reiersgord’s review here.

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