A Chameleon among the Boers

By Willan, Brian | The Spectator, April 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Chameleon among the Boers


Willan, Brian, The Spectator


Kas Maine is an unlikely subject for biography: an uneducated, semi-literate African sharecropper from South Africa's remote south-western Transvaal, his was not a life of public achievement. In terms of the official record it would be true almost to say he was a man who never was: the sole record of his existence was an entry, in September 1931, in the Periodic Criminal Court at Makwassie, a small town in this impoverished countryside, recording the fact that he had been fined five shillings for being unable to produce a dog licence.

And yet here is a biography which in its subtle, evocative portrayal of the lives of black and white alike has more to say of South Africa's 20th-century experience than anything I have read. For behind the image of the gun-toting white farmer threatening Armageddon in the face of majority rule lay an infinitely more complex reality, marked certainly by gross inequalities between black and white, mutual suspicion and, now and again, explosive moments of conflict, but also by a less obvious but very real mutual dependence, a common vulnerability in the face of the elements, shared experiences in making a living from the land. One of the many achievements of this brilliant biography is to provide a key to an understanding not only of what has torn South Africans apart, but also of what has bound them together.

For most of his long life Kas Maine earned a living for his family as a sharecropper, dividing his harvests with a succession of landlords in return for the use of their land. Living in close proximity to these Boer farmers, Kas Maine learnt to speak their language fluently, and won their respect for his skill in cultivating the land and raising livestock. Colour apart, there was not much to distinguish him from these Boer farmers, and precious little social distance lay between them.

A social order emerged in which a particular variant of paternalism (powerful echoes here of the American South) generally held sway over the starker racism so often assumed to be dominant in South Africa's past. But it was rarely as straightforward as that. Undercapitalised white farmers were every bit as dependent upon the likes of Kas Maine to make something of their land as he was on its use. Maine himself had an acute understanding of the intricacies of the social relations that developed in these circumstances, and he owed his survival - and at times his prosperity - to his ability to act, as he put it himself, like 'a chameleon amongst the Boers', adapting skilfully to local conditions and customs. …

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