The Covenant, by James A. Michener, New York: Random House, 1980, 873 pp., $15.95.
James Michener's latest epic novel, The Covenant, sets out to tell the story of South Africa. It is a detailed and mostly fascinating history of a country whose tumultuous past leads inexorably to its difficult present. The imaginary incidents described in the book are based on and interwoven with actual incidents. Thus the adventures of three families—one Afrikaans, one English, and one black—are traced through 10 generations. These families interact with a rich variety of people, including the local Hottentots and Bushmen, slaves from Malaya, Ceylon, Madagascar, Angola, and Java, and French and German settlers. Individual personalities do not feature on the pages for long, and their characterization is neither complex nor subtle. They are representatives, rather, of the cultural and racial groups whose mingling led to the current complex situation in South Africa.
Michener maintains remarkable objectivity as he deals with the lives and actions of these people. He observes both their strengths and weaknesses and succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the circumstances from which these qualities arose.
The scene is set for the eventual arrival of various groups of European settlers by a description of Bushman life 13,000 years ago and the adventures of a young black man from a small tribe south of the Limpopo in the middle of the 15th century. Owing to lack of documentation, Michener relies largely on imagination in this section, which has distinctly Hollywood-style overtones. Fortunately, when Michener embarks on the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in the Cape, his writing is backed up by intensive research. The book becomes dramatically more plausible and remains so until near the end.
The book concentrates on the Afrikaner, and he is the hero of the main story. The members of the black family, who don't receive equal attention, are less convincing. The English are realistically handled but do not capture the imagination in the way that the Afrikaner farmers do.
First, a large number of influential whites, both Afrikaans and English, business people and academics, have become aware of the desperate need for change. The dogmatic Afrikaans farmers Michener describes exist, but they are a minority. The mainstream of contemporary thought is that if South Africa is not to be a second Zimbabwe it is essential for the black, brown, and yellow peoples to share the rights enjoyed by the whites. Even the government has started moving in that direction. Much of the discriminatory legislation that Michener discusses as current has been repealed. For instance, the statutory reservation of certain jobs for whites in white areas is now practically nonexistent. It only affects approximately two percent of jobs and is being phased out completely. Large corporations are currently preparing their white workers for the day they will have black bosses. In addition, blacks now have a 99-year leasehold in black townships, and many restrictions on their rights to open a business have been lifted. There is talk of lifting the Mixed-marriages and Immorality acts, and infringements of these are largely ignored. "Whites Only" signs have disappeared from park benches, elevators, post offices, and liquor stores. Many theatres, restaurants, and other public places are now open to people of all races. All this is the thin edge of the wedge, but there are strong signs that, as fast as it becomes politically viable, the disadvantaged peoples of South Africa will be allowed more and more freedom.
It is interesting that Michener apparently equates political freedom with individual freedom. He does not observe, however, that repeal of legislation is far more important than universal suffrage. It is also surprising that he seems to take it for granted that South Africa should be the butt of the world's hostility. Blacks throughout Africa have, on the whole, significantly less individual freedom than those in South Africa. Yet strangely this passes unremarked, apparently because the governments that oppress them so severely are made up of people with the same color skin.
Since The Covenant has achieved so much popularity it may significantly affect the attitude of the Western world towards South Africa. What a pity the final picture lacks the breadth and sensitivity of observation that characterizes the bulk of the book.
Michener observes that these courageous and hardy Afrikaners were motivated constantly and primarily by a search for individual freedom. They originally trekked inland to escape the rigorous laws of the Campagnie, a consortium of businessmen who ruled the Cape. Subsequently the Cape was handed over to England, and again the Boers (Afrikaners) fled to preserve their own language, customs, and lifestyle. Michener does not mention here that most of the Voortrekker Republics had limited-government constitutions. What he does point out correctly is that they sadly never recognized that other people too might desire the freedom they pursued so ardently. Their bible told them that they were to be the masters of the promised land, and they were determined to impose this belief on the colored (people of mixed blood), Hottentot, and black peoples who surrounded them. Thus the seeds were sown for the conflicts of today.
It is unfortunate that Michener is weakest in the contemporary period that ends the book, since this tends to leave an impression that eclipses the excellent work that has gone before. At this stage the book is primarily concerned with the development of apartheid in the last 30 years and its consequences. All the incidents that make up the story here could have typically occurred in South Africa except for the court case of black leader Daniel Nxumalo, who is up for treason. Exchanges take place between Nxumalo, the judge, and the state advocate which are unlikely in the extreme. For instance, Nxumalo says, "In the great election of 1948 that threw Jan Christian Smuts out of office and brought your party in, that was against the wishes of white people. You might say you engineered a takeover, like the Communists in Czechoslovakia." State Advocate Scheepers replies, "That's a lie. We won that election fair and square." For the advocate to openly align himself with the government would be inadmissible in the South African law courts, as the judiciary is maintained in separation from the influence of the ruling political party. Whatever those men's personal allegiances may have been, the judge especially would have maintained strict impartiality.
Other incidents that describe personal tragedies that the blacks experience as the result of apartheid are more typical. However, the picture that arises—of violent black dissidents, hard-headed Afrikaners determined to follow their policies come what may, and a handful of concerned but ineffectual whites trying to assist the blacks in their plight—would be true if it were a description of South Africa in the 1950s and '60s. But Michener is talking about the late '70s. And in the late '70s and early '80s, the story has become somewhat different.
Frances Louw is editor of the South African newsletter The Individualist and author of a forthcoming book on child rearing, The Adult Test, to be published by Books in Focus.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "South African Saga".