AS ANYONE who has worked as a foreign correspondent in South Africa can attest, interviews with Afrikaners, be they politicians, civil servants, students or farmers, at some point invariably produce a brief history of the Afrikaner people. Like all groups that feel misunderstood by the outside world, Afrikaners believe that if only more was known about their past, there would be more sympathy toward them in the present.
The history of this proud and resourceful people -- first on the African continent to wage an armed "liberation struggle" -- is certainly relevant to an understanding of present-day South Africa. And anyone who thinks the bloom is off the rose of Boer nationalism, the force that propelled these 21/2 million whites of Dutch and Huguenot descent into the powerful group they are today, has simply misunderstood South Africa.
For those seeking an elementary knowledge of that history, British documentary film maker David Harrison has produced a concise and readable primer on the Afrikaners' last 80 years. His The White Tribe of Africa, which grew from his work in South Africa for a BBC television film of the same title, is straightforward, well researched and enlivened by anecdotes and evocative photographs.
Its early chapters that document the Afrikaners' travails in "the stupidest war the English ever carried on" are strongest. All the Anglo-Boer War achieved, an elderly Afrikaner woman told Harrison, "was to consolidate the Afrikaner nation, from the bottom of the Cape, right up to Transvaal."
Through the words of those who lived through the war, Harrison tells how Afrikaner women and children were herded into concentration camps to prevent their giving aid to the Boer guerrillas. "When we got there we were taken to a sandy hill, a godforsaken place alongside the Vals river," another Afrikaner recalled. "It was winter then, and the river was very low. And they gave us a bell tent and said, 'there you are.' Eventually we got a second bell tent and that is where we had to live. There was no protection. In the summer you could not live for the flies. And the sanitation was an open hole with small lavatories erected for all the people. You could imagine how disease could spread." Spread it did, helping bring the camps' death toll to an estimated 26,000 Afrikaners and 13,000 blacks.
Harrison then traces the Afrikaners' stubborn uphill battle for political supremacy in South Africa, documenting the growth of the secret society of Afrikaner men, the Broederbond; the birth of the ruling National Party; its 1948 electoral victory repeated in every election since, and the 1979 "Muldergate" affair which revealed widespread political corruption, influence-peddling and secret slush funds.
It is in the history of South Africa since 1948 that the ironies of the Afrikaners' nationalist struggle unfold. By trying to crush the nationalistic aspirations of South African blacks, the Afrikaners have become oppressors themselves. Harrison reviews the removal of blacks into rural resettlements that seem much like the wartime concentration camps the Afrikaners endured; the government's insistence that the Afrikaner language be used in black schools (a grievance which set off the 1976 rioting), and the arbitrary use of power to silence dissent.
By listening to the reminiscences of a few Afrikaners, mostly men in their seventies and eighties, Harrison in an understated way reveals the two strands of Afrikaner nationalism -- one exclusive, one generous and forwardlooking -- that co-exist even today.
One wishes he had started his account with a brief overview of the Afrikaners' arrival on the continent in the 17th century. And missing, too, are chapters on South Africa's influence on the neighboring states of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola, where a late, expansionary phase of Afrikaner nationalism seeks economic and military hegemony over southern Africa.
Harrison's sketch is not a book for those who seek a scholarly treatment of Afrikaner history or a probe of where their nationalism may lead. But as an enjoyable and informative introduction, it is highly recommended.
Someone else who trained a camera lens on Africa and then turned to write about it is Marion Kaplan, a free-lance British photojournalist who worked for more than 20 years in Africa, most of it in the black-ruled part of the continent. Focus Africa is her long (440 pages) memoir of a reporting career that covered everything from orchid culture to mercenaries. The memoir gives some feel for "Africa's diversity and many moods."
There are chapters on Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, on Zimbabwe, Zambia, Zaire, Ghana and Kenya. Kaplan also recounts her five-month sail across the Indian Ocean in a wooden dhow; her visit to Lambar,ene in Gabon, site of Dr. Albert Schweitzer's hospital, and her adventures photographing wildlife.
But Kaplan wanders too much and the book's diversity is also its handicap. What could be a scintillating dinner conversation with a veteran Africa traveler does not work in print. Her accounts are rambling, disjointed, and often interrupted by extraneous comments and anecdotes that just do not fit.
Sometimes, too, Kaplan becomes trite and sentimental: "A realist will accept the inevitability of change. An altruist will try to make the change a beneficial one. Perhaps the trouble with Africa is that there are insufficient altruists -- or perhaps there are too many," she writes at one point.
And even Kaplan's skill in picture-taking is not on display in Focus Africa. It contains fewer pictures than one would expect from a photographer, and it is a pity they are not all as appealing or interesting as the excellent one of Britain's Princess Anne sitting amid a gaggle of admiring Kenyan schoolboys.
For those who know little of Africa's 50-odd countries, Kaplan's book is an unfocused panorama, more bewildering than enlightening. And those who know Africa well are unlikely to find much that is new.