Myrna Robins

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EMPIRE, WAR & CRICKET IN South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein, by Dean Allen. Published by Zebra Press, 2015.


Appropriately dedicated to the late David Rawdon and the people of Matiesfontein, this multi-faceted book combines a biography of James Logan, founder of that fascinating Victorian pile alongside the railway line in the Karoo, with the story of cricket’s origins in South Africa. As the events take place in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th  - thus encompassing the Anglo-Boer War and developments that led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 – this is also a political history of the country during turbulent times.

James Logan was a particularly successful example of an entrepreneur who left his native Scotland intent on making his fortune in farflung parts of the British Empire, holding aloft, as Andre Odendaal states in the foreword, “the flag of fair play, civilisation and empire.” Together with better-known contemporaries like Cecil John Rhodes, Logan became prosperous at a period when Britain expanded her empire to the point when she occupied nearly a quarter of the world’s areas.

And then there was cricket, a game the British believed expressed a distinctively English morality, which developed in South Africa with Logan as one of its most enthusiastic patrons.

A son of a railwayman from a working class background, Logan arrived at South Africa in 1877. He got a job as a porter at Cape Town station, just as the railway infrstructure was expanding. Through hard work and diligence he was promoted rapidly and often – from station master to superintendent of the railway between Hex River and Prince Albert. Happily married to Emma Haylett, his fortune was founded when he took over as caterer for railway station refreshments, laying the foundation of his business empire which stretched eventually to Bulawayo from Cape Town.

In 1883 he bought about 7 700 acres of land around a little railway siding not far from Touws River, went on to acquire neighbouring farms and set about   building Matjiesfontein . The finished village was an impressive achievement that also became a fashionable health resort.

Logan entered politics in 1888 , winning a seat in the Cape legislative assembly six years later and by 1890 was being compared to his friend and political ally Cecil John Rhodes. Logan entertained on a grand scale, associated with dignitaries, politicians and sportsmen , which all helped his transformation from railway worker to Victorian aristocrat. His promotion and funding of cricket tours also went down well. He also built up his own estate Tweedside, a neighbouring farm where he hosted guests, making sure that these events were given coverage in the Cape Town newspapers. During the Anglo-Boer war Logan offered Matjiesfontein as a centre for the British forces. Logan was, like Rhodes, a man of his time, but his influence and fortune waned after his retirement from politics and he died at Matjiesfontein in 1920.

The book is based on a PhD that Dean Allen completed seven years ago, and publication was made possible by the Rupert Foundation. Wonderful old photographs enhance the text throughout . Tighter editing would have eliminated frequent repetition, but the parallel stories of Matjiesfontein, Logan, politics and cricket are timely and well told. It’s a pity that David Rawdon did not live to see this title: His wish that Matjiesfontein be preserved and its future assured is well supported by this story. As Liz McGrath who took over after Rawdon’s death has also since died, it is a question that needs to be answered.

Myrna Robins

Tagged in: Books Review
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Louis Botha’s War by Adam Cruise, published by Zebra Press, 2015.b2ap3_thumbnail_Botha.JPG

There are statues of him in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, he was the first prime minister of South Africa and Winston Churchill held him in high honour and regarded him as a good friend. Yet Louis Botha is largely forgotten in South African history, and the reason for that is mostly to do with the fact that Afrikaners regarded him as a traitor to their cause.

Adam Cruise did some serious digging when he decided to unearth information on both Botha and his campaign in German South West Africa, which took place 100 years back. Out-of-print books, tidbits on the internet, official military accounts and his own off the beaten track travels in Namibia all helped shed light on both the Boer War general and his largely forgotten war.

Cruise sketches the background, starting with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914. The young Union of South Africa, only four years old, was comprised of many antagonistic English and Afrikaans whites, the latter smarting from defeat by the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902 and not in the mood for reconciliation. The country was also rife with racial tension thanks to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which resulted in the formation of the SA Native National Congress. The defence force was weak and inexperienced and prime minister Botha did not appreciate Britain’s rapid request, two days after declaring war, that South Africa should please act against German South –West Africa.

But he did, and this book relates the story of not only the first war fought by a united South Africa, but also World War 1’s first successful campaign. Botha led his men and their horses over endless miles of barren desert, and at one stage even his wife joined the forces on the battle field. In the air, a couple of rickety German aeroplanes were flown by early aviators, but in vain, as  the Germans surrendered in Jul y 1915 to Botha and his party under the shade of a wild syringa tree at Kilo 500.

Photographs, old and new, add to the readable text and the index is detailed and well-compiled. While the title is of particular interest to history buffs and those who revel in military history, readers who know Namibia will also enjoy this tale of remote battle sites while many more will find the story of a man described by Churchill as the greatest general he had ever known, a fascinating one.

Myrna Robins

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One only has to study the front cover to realise that you have in your hands one of the quirkiest titles to come out of a local publishing house in a long while. Information on the back cover puts the concept into perspective: this little softback comprises a compilation of the stories – factual and fictional – behind place names, selected from across the length and breadth of our country. Alphabetically arranged, a wealth of fascinating lore has been assembled , often interspersed with drawings of ewes or rams to add ‘sheepish’ evidence of the writer’s fondness for this farm animal.

In fact we learn that Ann Gadd is not only an author of 13 books, but one of South Africa’s most popular and successful artists, whose affinity with “Baabaaism” extends to including “ewe” in words like knew(e) and (ewe)nique .

History is lent lighthearted enjoyment with her humorous asides as we contemplate which of several options to accept on the origin of Langebaan on the lovely West Coast lagoon of the same name. Perhaps it was the Dutch sailors referring to the “lange” or long lagoon, or maybe the lagoon was named after the long planks the fisherman used as platforms for drying the fish to make bokkoms. Another suggestion is that it referred to the long road between the farm De Stompe Hoek and the town. We also learn that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was among the first Europeans to visit the area, having landed at St Helena Bay further up the coast in 1497. As a sidebaa (as her additional pearls of history are dubbed), Gadd gives us a graphic description of da Gama’s character that is not included in our history books – his cruelty to all who stood in his way, whether sailors or local inhabitants, makes for gruesome reading.

The place names are listed in the front of the book, followed by a good map of South Africa, pinpointing their locations. Perhaps on one of her future trips Gadd will focus on other intriguing place names along the west coast and inland – places like Soebatsfontein in the Namaqua park and others will yield a further treasury of little-told tales.

This is a title to slip into your suitcase or keep in your car. Whether you are stuck at an airport or relaxing at a country guest farm, you will find something intriguing to digest as you turn the pages to the names of your destinations.

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The recent passing of Sir David Graaff focussed renewed attention on this prominent Cape family. Although present interests revolve around agriculture, it is the family’s contribution to South African politics that catapulted his grandfather and father into the limelight.

The fact that this biography was submitted as a doctoral thesis at the University of Stellenbosch gives a good indication of its nature: both formal and factual, it aims to “portray Graaff in his time, not to give an account of the man and the time in which he lived and worked.”

In this, it certainly succeeds, providing a valuable and comprehensive account of a man who was active in South African politics before and after the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910. Intensive and lengthy research has gone into the chronicle, starting with Graaff’s humble beginnings, his rise to becoming  a respected politician, a successful and shrewd businessman, and a Cape Afrikaner who managed to straddle the divide between Boer and Brit with impressive acumen.

David Graaff’s parents account for a romantic if impoverished beginning, eloping from the farm Radyn in the Overberg to Franschhoek where they married. Anna’s father, farmer Pieter de Villiers eventually came round to the idea of his farmhand son-in-law, stipulating that male offspring should take on the De Villiers name as well as Graaff, merging immigrant German and Huguenot refugee names with a combination that lives on today.

Nort and Annie , who eked out a meager existence on the farm, had nine children, the sixth of whom was David Pieter de Villiers Graaff, born in 1859. Although he had limited schooling, his intelligence was noticed by an uncle, Jacobus Combrinck, who swept young Dawie off to cape Town to be educated and to help in his flourishing butchery. Cape Town was enjoying boom times, and, at 17, the young man took over management of the business, soon to be joined by one of his brothers. Not only were upcountry farms bought to ensure a constant supply of meat, but Graaff realised the need for cold storage, in its infancy at that time, and installed cooling chambers on the butchery premises. This was the start of a business empire that eventually encompassed Europe, South America and neighbouring countries in southern Africa.

He was active in local politics from the age of 23 when he became a Cape Town city councillor, and nine years later was elected mayor. He helped bring electricity to the mother city, and then entered colonial politics, becoming a member of parliament. As a member of the South African Party Graaff played a role in the election of General Louis Botha as first premier of the Union in 1910.

He received a baronetcy from Britain soon after, and two years later, this bachelor surprised many by marrying a clergyman’s daughter Eileen van Heerden 30 years his junior.  Retiring in 1920 as MP because of ill health, Graaff devoted his time to diverse business interests , which encompassed Imperial Cold Storage, involvement in the SWA diamond fields and large land purchases in the Tygerberg ,where he had established his home farm De Grendel. He and Eileen had three sons, most famous of which was the eldest, De Villiers, who was to become SA's longest serving leader of the opposition.

Anyone with an interest in our history will happily digest this account of a life immersed in Cape politics and business .  Very few women and virtually no people of colour feature on these pages, which no doubt reflects the absence of both in those spheres in the early 20th century. I would have found the portrait of Graaff more engaging if we had learnt something of his social and home life – and if the biographer had answered some of the questions that locals have tossed around for decades: was it true, for instance, that one of the important sources of Graaff wealth was the income derived from an arrangement with the former SAR&H which, it was said, paid him a halfpenny for every ton of freight that was railed over his extensive properties in the Tygerberg?
Illustrations are limited to a handful of old photographs but the endnotes, bibliography and index are extensive.

Myrna Robins

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