Great read for battle fans and others

2014-01-18 00:00

SOUTH African Battles is the ideal book on battles for people who don’t like battles. Indeed, as author Tim Couzens points out in his introduction: “It is, in fact, a bedside book”, one in which each chapter can be read separately “like a short story”.

Thirty-six stories in all, 10 more than the first edition published in 2004. Couzens, author of The New African, Tramp Royal and Murder at Morija, and a past winner of the Sunday Times Alan Paton award and the CNA literary award, is as interested as much in literary history as its military counterpart, and his book has three main aims: firstly, to entertain; secondly, to encourage readers to “travel to places they might not otherwise visit”; and thirdly, to serve as an appetiser for further reading.

A self-confessed armchair historian who took to the road to satisfy his curiosity, Couzens takes lesser-known battles for his subject matter.

The one that features from the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is neither of the usual suspects, Isandlwana or Rorke’s Drift, but the final battle of Ulundi, which Couzens pairs with the battle of oNdini from 1883. King Cetshwayo ka Mpande provides a thread, allowing Couzens to stitch in the 1856 battle of Ndondakusuka, which decided the succession to the Zulu throne in Cetshwayo’s favour, and where the appalling casualties — including non-combatants — chillingly demonstrated that “there is little more terrible and tragic than civil war”; a tragedy repeated in 1883 when, at the battle of oNdini, Cetshwayo was sent packing by his rival Zibhebhu kaMapitha and where the deaths of many prominent Zulus effectively ended the old Zulu order.

All this is refracted through the lens of H.I.E. Dhlomo’s praise poem to Cetshwayo from the thirties, which placed the king “in the pantheon of African heroes”.

Literary references abound throughout South African Battles, from Mark Twain to John Buchan, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Thomas Mofolo, as Couzens serves up a beguiling blend of travel experiences backed up by wide reading and a well-developed sense of irony. In fact, considering the subject matter, the book is a surprisingly amiable affair but there is a sting in Couzens’ tale. In the final chapter, “Battle 37” — not a battle but “a traveller’s story” — Couzens vents his “utter detestation of politicians, national, provincial and municipal”, and their habit of haranguing us, the South African public, “especially on heritage days, that ‘we must never forget our history’”. As Couzens rightly points out, the “concept of history offered is narrow, nationalist, often racial, always self-serving”.

Couzens goes on to argue that it is the same “careless politicians” who are, in fact, “destroying history and the means to enjoy it”.

“Corruption and incompetence have reduced the roads, both national and local, to rubble … The roads and the signage are an insult and a disgrace … Though the purpose of this book is to encourage readers to explore lesser-known areas, I am hesitant to recommend roads of clear and ever-present danger or destruction. This is not a trivial matter: tourism is under threat in wide swathes of the land.”

Couzens also takes issue with the way the “institutions of history” are currently being run: “Libraries and museums are the lifeblood of researchers, and librarians and curators are their Florence Nightingales. Bless them. But the replacement of vocation-driven staff (of whatever colour) by couldn’t-care-less-it’s-just-a-job substitutes is a compounding disaster. The near-catastrophic deterioration of existing collections and displays (not helped by political correctness) and the precariousness of future acquisitions or non-acquisitions are of great concern.”

Couzens cites honourable exceptions: the Sol Plaatje Museum in Kimberley, Museum Africa in Johannesburg, which “are (in historical, not monetary, terms) priceless, priceless. Yet they, and so many public institutions like them that are repositories of history, are under-staffed, under-funded and under-appreciated.”

Given such a situation it’s not surprising that Couzens — and he’s by no means alone — resents the patronising lectures from politicians on not forgetting our history. It’s thanks to Couzens, and others of his ilk, that we are able to remember it with a broader and more inclusive vision.

• South African Battles by Tim Couzens is published by Jonathan Ball

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