December 13, 2012 | Volume 117, Issue No. 50

South Africa anyone?

Wick's World

Looking for lots of time to just lay back and read? A wicked bout of pneumonia is probably not the first method you would ask for, but it sure worked for me. My wife handed me a couple novels written 40 years ago by an author named Laurens Van der Post. Born in Africa, Van der Post wrote a total of 40 books and in 1981 he was made a Knight of the British Empire. If he were alive today, December 13th, he would be celebrating his 106th birthday. Sad to say, he only made his 90th.

Van der Post was raised on the family farm in South Africa where he spent more time in the family library than raising cane and feeding livestock. His father died when he was only 8 years old and by age 12 he was learned enough to be sent off to continue studying at Grey College. It was there that he discovered he was “being educated into something which destroyed the sense of common humanity I shared with the black people.”

Many of his writings centered on the effects of racism and apartheid in colonial Africa. He was especially interested in Africa’s Bushmen, their world view and their special relationship with nature which drastically contrasted with the view of white settlers. Many of the large farms and ranches of that era were settled by British, French and Portuguese colonists who "hired" the local natives, but in actual fact treated them as slave labor.

Van der Post’s family was the exception to this rule. Those they hired were essentially granted part ownership in the farm operation. The more valuable the employee, whether ranch hand or cook, the larger their piece of the pie. It goes without saying that most of the local neighbors resented this special treatment and went as far as ostracizing the Van der Posts.

In the early 1970s Van der Post wrote “A Story Like the Wind” followed by the sequel “A Far Off Place.” These fascinating novels introduce one to the stunning beauty of Africa replete with its lions, jackals, and elephants that compete for life alongside poachers, modern day slave traders, and unscrupulous colonists.

An unsavory element is brought into the novels in the form of a ruthless Chinese leader seeking the wealth and natural resources of this rich area. He forms rogue armies from various jungle tribes, convincing them that “this land is yours” and the white settlers should be removed sparing no expense, which translates into “take no prisoners.”

As stunning as the extraordinary Bushman’s relationship with the land is the horrific brutality portrayed by colonists, exploiters and atrocious tribal warfare. The novels follow the destruction of the family farm and the eventual fleeing by the young survivors across the African bush to begin a new life with their Bushmen companions. The books offer not only sheer entertainment value, but more than that, they offer a look into a piece of early Africa in the 20th century.

The condensed version goes like this:

Survivor boy meets survivor girl who meet Bushman boy and girl who together flee a marauding army led by a lone deranged Chinaman who wants to kill all the white colonialists now in order to avoid killing them later. This is his version of a compassionate war. By listening to the various plants, animals and insects that guide the survivors to safety while fleeing through the bush, they are forced into a new way of living that turns out to be far superior to the burned out one they left behind — great reading.

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