This is a manuscript version of the following article.
Richard Peck, "Beware Wilbur Smith's Gaboon Adder: Purple Prose, Propaganda,
and Politics in South Africa." Journal of Contemporary African Studies 12, 2 (1994):
An edited version of that article was used as chapter 2 in Richard Peck, A Morbid
Fascination: White Prose and Politics in Apartheid South Africa. Westport, CT., and
London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, Contributions to the Study of World
Literature, No. 78.
Those who want to cite to a stable source are advised to find the journal article or the book
and cite to page numbers there.
“Beware Wilbur Smith's Gaboon Adder: Purple Prose, Propaganda, and Politics in South
Propaganda does not often come marching towards us waving swastikas and chanting 'Sieg
Heil'; its real power lies in its capacity to conceal itself, to appear natural, to coalesce
completely and indivisibly with the values and accepted power symbols of a given society.
(Foulkes 1983: 3)
In the 1990s South Africans are designing a "New South Africa" through the political
process. If politics consists of those untidy and frequently dissatisfying processes through
which people who do not agree with each other nevertheless tolerate differences and live in
a common society,2 then in 1993 and 1994 some South Africans -- those who insisted on
preserving the past as well as those who insisted on a complete break with it -- disdained
politics and worked for tidier solutions. Many of the resulting difficulties of forging a New
South Africa arise from mindsets characteristic of the "old South Africa." To understand
better those mindsets -- particularly on the right -- I examine two kinds of fiction.
Government propaganda supported apartheid, of course, although it claimed to be
"objective" and "non-political."3 South African mass-market entertainment writing,4 also
This is a shortened version of a paper presented at a Rhodes University seminar on March 1, 1994. I am
happy to acknowledge the many debts I have incurred in the preparation of this article: to Lewis and Clark
College for a sabbatical leave, to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Rhodes University for a
Research Fellowship, to the African Studies Library at the University of Cape Town and to the National
English Literary Museum (Grahamstown) for access to materials, to David Maughan Brown and Lindy Steibel
as well as two anonymous readers for this journal for useful comments on earlier drafts, and to D. Green and
Y. Brennan for hospitality. A careful reading of earlier drafts by Barbara Crockett improved the readability
enormously. Errors and omissions are, as usual, mine alone.
This definition is inspired by Crick's (1962). My thanks to Lawrence Wright for reminding me of this work.
I use "fiction" to refer to this propaganda to highlight the non-factual nature of much of it. To avoid confusion
I do not persist in that conceit.
This is a cumbersome term, but it has the two advantages of being similar to "mass fiction," which Stiebel
(47-8) borrows from the Frankfurt school for this kind of fiction, and of recognizing the commercial impulse
claimed to be non-political, but in fact much of it fed on and fed into an even more extreme
political vision. These sources "render visible" the "political mythology" of apartheid.
A "political myth," in Thompson's definition, is "a tale told about the past to legitimize or
discredit a regime" (1985: 1). Tales about the present can serve the same function, so I
include them as well.5 "Myths" are not necessarily false; in fact, the most effective often
contain important grains of truth. Even a statement which does not depart at all from the
truth serves as a myth if its repetition serves the (de)legitimizing function. A political
mythology is anchored in fact but swings about its anchor to follow currents which arise in
the collective mind of the society.
For an understanding of the political myths of white South Africa I draw on scholarly
analyses, overt propaganda, and potboilers. Maughan Brown and Stotesbury have analysed
popular literature in the colonial and apartheid traditions.6 Thompson (1985) and Cornevin
(1980) have analysed political mythology in South Africa, and Phelan (1987), Hachten and
Giffard (1984), and Laurence (1979) have analysed themes in South African government
propaganda. The propaganda I examine consists of works, largely from the 1970s, widely
distributed outside South Africa. These include materials published by or sponsored by the
South African government,7 materials clandestinely supported by the South African
government (de Villiers, 1976; van Rensburg, n.d.; Homelands n.d.),8 and material from the
Foreign Affairs Association (FAA) (de Villiers, 1977; du Plessis, 1977), a largely
government-funded front for the South African government (Laurence 1979, 45; also
Hachten and Giffard 1984, 254). I also draw on two issues of a far-right source of private
propaganda: the Aida Parker Newsletter (1989a, 1989b). For the entertainment literature, I
rely on the more recent works of Wilbur Smith's Courtney "saga," presenting a pair of South
African white dynasties (one English-speaking and the other Afrikaner), and consisting of
The Burning Shore (1985), The Power of the Sword (1986), Rage (1987), A Time to Die
(1989), and Golden Fox (1990). I also draw on his Ballantyne "saga," presenting a Southern
Rhodesian/Zimbabwean white dynasty, and consisting of Flight of the Falcon (1980), Men
of Men (1981), The Angels Weep (1982), and The Leopard Hunts in Darkness (1984) and on
some his other novels when they seem appropriate.
The entertainment writing of Wilbur Smith, an ex-Rhodesian whose phenomenal writing
career has developed in South Africa, may have much more ideological impact than South
Africa's official propaganda. Phelan concludes that the propaganda had an uphill battle,
behind it which Stiebel so emphasizes. To avoid repetition, I also use other terms commonly used for this kind
of literature (for example, "potboilers," "adventure novels," and "thrillers"), but without intending any
distinction among them.
A more accurate term for these latter would be "urban legends," as Hiley's analysis of spy fiction in those
terms suggests (1991).
Maughan Brown pioneered the examination of ideology in popular literature: in Kenya (1985); in
Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (1982); and in South Africa (1987b, and 1990). Stotesbury analyses similar South
African literature in all of his cited works.
Information Service of South Africa, 1973; de Villiers, Metrowich, and du Plessis, 1975; Bureau for
Economic Research re Bantu Development, 1976.
Laurence reports that the South African government distributed 80,000 copies of the van Rensburg work
given the forces arrayed against it, and its high klutz content (1987, 183). But Smith's works
are widely read indeed and use effective techniques to promulgate their vision. All of his
novels are still in print (Stotesbury 1991, 146); by mid-1991 they had sold more than 60
million copies world-wide (Caelers 1993), translated into some 16 languages (Mitchell
1991). They take up whole shelves in bookshops throughout the US, the UK, and South
Africa itself, and they show up year after year on lists of books most borrowed from British
Miles Donald (1972) captures the crucial characteristic of Smith's writing when he observes
of Smith's Sunbird, "I wanted to know what happened next even when I didn't care."
Readers keep turning Smith's pages, and are thus exposed to the embedded political
mythology. But suspense is only one of Smith's techniques for making his positions
persuasive. As is typical of the genre, detailed descriptions and historical references lead
readers who know little about South Africa against which to assess Smith's views to
consider him a "local expert." Smith cultivates this image, and has persuaded both readers
and critics of his knowledge,10 despite his distortion of the facts of history to serve his
ideological purposes.11 There is expertise in Smith's writing, of course; Doris Lessing
captured it in her comment in 1992 (quoted in South African newspapers under headlines
that missed every bit of her irony): "I recognise absolutely this man's . . . expertise. . . . I
recognise him as still the old white with whom I was brought up" (Hartnack 1992).
A central technique of both the propaganda and the potboilers is the claim to be non-political
and objective. The "pretence to objectivity" is intended to turn off the reader's critical
faculty so that the message will insinuate itself more effectively. Maughan Brown calls it
"the most important, and most insidious" of all the techniques of the mass market writers
(1985: 133). It is found also in the more straightforward propaganda. For example, a 1976
propaganda work claims to provide "a scientifically-grounded and objective survey of the
economic development of the various homelands" (Benbo 1976, v). Wilbur Smith has
consistently claimed he is not writing political literature, but just entertainment.12 In his
thrillers the "pretence to objectivity" takes complex forms. In A Time to Die, for example, to
avoid being charged with racism Smith gives the white hero close black friends who:
The lists are published by the Registrar of the Public Lending Right in the UK. For reports of these lists see
D.S. 1993; "UK readers" 1991; "Cookson" 1991; and "Wilbur Smith -- Britain's No. 3," 1984.
This is the feature of Smith's writing most frequently mentioned in press reviews in South Africa and
internationally. For South African examples, consider: "Exuberant" 1972; MCM 1982; Johns 1984; Taylor
1985; Prince 1986; Abendroth 1987; and Holtzhausen 1990b. For international examples, see Freedman 1977,
and Manvell 1980. Perhaps Midgley's headline captures best Wilbur Smith's winning combination: "Easy
reading, well-researched" (1991).
For indications of Smith's historical misrepresentations, see Couzens 1982, 50; Maughan Brown 1990, 146-
149; Lysle E. Meyer 1973; Harries 1989; Stoneman 1989/90; and Nixon 1990. For a very rare appearance of
this kind of criticism in the South African press, see "Smith's work not well researched," 1987. For another,
but one which focuses on inconsequentials (arguing Smith got the color of SAP uniforms and the brand of
rifles they were carrying in the 1950s wrong), see The Frog 1987.
For examples from the South African press, see Partridge 1975; "Novel limits" 1976; "SA author has no
political message" 1976; "Wilbur Smith speaks on SA" 1976; "Race themes too sad" 1976; "Snubbing SA
harmful" 1976; Bagnall 1988; Lazar 1993.
had shared mortal danger [with him] so many times before that a peculiar bond
united their small, exclusive group. The four of them were closer than brothers, or
lovers. (1989: 44; see also 324)
The necessary conclusion is that racist sentiments expressed by Sean cannot arise out of
prejudice; they must be true.13 Just how little Smith really believes this vision of inter-racial
relations is made clear when Sean stops his black closer-than-brother Job from shooting an
enemy Englishman: "It would have been worse than murder to allow Job to shoot him down;
it would have been a kind of fratricide" (1989: 263). Smith has also distanced himself from
charges of racism in his interviews, even claiming that his earliest novels were banned
because of their scenes of inter-racial sex (Mitchell 1991). They were in fact banned, but
the reasons had to do more with the salaciousness of the depictions (by the South African
standards of the time) than with the colours of the participants.
Fiction can be a potent vehicle for propaganda for other reasons as well. It creates its own
world where its assertions are true, its characters say that they are true, and the plot makes
clear that they are true. The result is that the embedded myth is readily accepted by the
reader (Maughan Brown, 1985: 106-107). The propagandistic elements are presented as
assumed background "facts" which neither the writer nor the reader confront directly. They
enter our minds through our peripheral vision, and take up residence without our knowledge.
To keep us from rejecting ideas which are discordant with previously held ideas, Smith leads
us to think the views presented are "balanced" and "objective" yet force the desired
conclusion. He does this through "fake balancing" (Maughan Brown 1990: 136-142). Both
sides engage in violence, for example, but black African violence is presented graphically,
whereas white violence is largely technological with less impact on the reader.14 Similarly,
liberal views are expressed only to be undercut. The strategy is intended to leave the reader
thinking that "both sides" have been presented and that the more convincing side has won
Even if we cannot know how influential Smith's potboilers are, they still "render visible" the
underlying ideology (Maughan Brown, 1985: 12-13, following Althusser). Gardner
suggests that they particularly reveal the "thinking and feeling processes of many of the
white South Africans who feel excluded and puzzled by the processes of negotiation" (1993:
7). These ideological currents are of long standing in southern Africa, from H. Rider
Haggard of the late 1880's (Couzens, 1982: 36-52) through John Buchan, Stuart Cloete, and
Wilbur Smith, as well as more minor authors.15 Clearly the tradition has an important
resonance with patterns of English-speaking thought in South Africa, and perhaps in the
colonial empires more generally. Let us examine the political mythology embedded in it.
Central to apartheid, as many have noted (Cornevin, 1980: 30; Maughan Brown, 1985: 117;
Thompson, 1985: 29), is the following myth:
For similar scenes of close battlefield brotherhood between blacks and whites, see Angels Weep (1982: 390,
450, and 504-5).
For a reading of Wilbur Smith's Rhodesia/Zimbabwe novels which sees his treatment of the war as being
more balanced than I give him credit for here, see Chennells, 1984: 44.
Smith's 1976 letter to The Cape Times testifies to his great admiration for Cloete.
MYTH: Black Africans are inferior to whites. They lack intelligence and
imagination and are inarticulate, incapable of technology, and incompetent in
Both the propaganda and the adventure novels present this myth, elements of which date
from very early on in South Africa (Thompson 1985: 82-89), Southern Rhodesia (Maughan
Brown 1982: 99-101), and Kenya (Maughan Brown 1985: 73-75, 77-92, 117). In South
Africa it is usually couched in cultural rather than biological terms. For example, the
Bureau for Economic Research re Bantu Development tells us that even after agricultural
training, blacks lapse into "certain traditions and distinctive customs which cannot be
changed, in the course of a few years" (Benbo, 1976: 80; see also de Villiers 1976: 4).
Smith denigrates black intelligence, most notably in a fantasy which has the effect of
dismissing African achievements; the plot of Sunbird (1972) rests on the premise that
African civilisations near the Great Zimbabwe were the product of Phoenicians using
Africans as slave labour.16 To add credibility to this he claimed to have found a Phoenician-
built lost city of the Kalahari (1978), and to have found as well "definite links and a building
system in Greece [which were] echoed in Zimbabwe, thus reinforcing my ideas and making
them more credible" (Hart 1972; see also "Stoep Talk" 1972, and "The Truth" 1972).
But Smith goes well beyond this version of the racist myth and beyond the official
propaganda as well. The foundation of his more extreme myths rests on the following:
MYTH: Africa is a cruel and violent land and produces hard men.
Although it appears not at all in the propaganda, this "Law of Africa" theme, to use
Couzens's term, has echoed through the full century of mass market colonial African fiction
(Couzens, 1982: 48; Maughan Brown, 1985: 111), contributing to the mutually reinforcing
character of the mythology. Smith asserts it repeatedly. In Rage Africa is "a hard land and
cruel, and it bred hard men, black and white" (1987: 22). In A Time to Die Claudia's "first
taste of the real flavor of Africa" is
the first time in her life that she had been beyond the trappings and buttresses of
civilization . . . Here she was as vulnerable as an antelope to the leopard, in a forest
full of predators. (1989: 103)
This myth helps Smith raise the level of adrenalin in his stories, of course, and that may be
much of the purpose behind the repetition. One suspects, given the compulsive machismo in
Smith's writing, that it also allows its author to believe more strongly in his own manliness
for being one who can stand up to the purported savagery of the continent. Interestingly, it
also shows up in his interviews, where he uses it to excuse the extreme characterisation he
uses in his novels: it is not his imagination which creates such raw humans, he says, but
rather the African environment which he uses as his setting ("Wilbur Smith -- true son of
For a damning contemporary review of this novel which points out just what pernicious nonsense it contains,
see Meyer 1973.
Because Africa is nature red in tooth and claw, it is easy to accept Smith's next myth:
MYTH: Africans are cruel and savage, given to bloodlust and a madness to kill
("divine madness") which leads them to violence which would sicken
According to this myth Africans have wantonly killed each other for centuries, often in
gruesome ways, sometimes including cannibalism. Thus white domination is beneficial
because it keeps Africans from killing each other. Even black anger against whites is
explained away: it is not created by the mistreatment of Africans, but is innate, just waiting
to come to the fore.
To render assertions of inherent African violence convincing Smith multiplies references to
Chaka and Mzilikazi and the mfecane (dificane) -- the Zulu conquest of neighbouring
groups. The historical legacy is expressed now in a modern bloodlust which Smith sees as
an essential part of the African psyche. In an echo of Haggard's King Solomon's Mines,17
Africans in Angels Weep succumb to bloodlust whenever someone shouts "Jee!" (1982: 57,
171, 202, 269, 275, 280). The historical connection is highlighted when we hear about
Tungata's men "in the divine killing madness of the victors, the atavistic instinct come down
from their forefathers who had formed the fighting bull and raced in on the horns to the
stabbing" (1982: 496; see also 1986: 363).
The African violence to which that atavistic instinct gives rise is so gruesome that it sickens
even Smith's battle-hardened and violent whites. In Leopard Craig's reaction to the violence
of the Africans on his own side in a military confrontation fills him with a nausea that won't
let him eat (1984: 321). In a version which is almost humourous (although certainly
unintentionally so), Lothar de la Rey in The Burning Shore is "sickened and soiled" by what
he expects his followers to do to a captured San, and so sits apart reading Goethe (1985:
Smith also gives graphic pictures of black violence. In Flight of the Falcon (1980) set
during the end of the slaving period, the whites are as violent and cruel as befits the era, but
it is the Africans who relish cruelty and violence. The ship's captain Mungo St. John orders
the flogging that will expose the careless lookout's backbone, but it is his mate Tippoo who
"licked his thick lips involuntarily" when he heard that he was going to be allowed to do
another flogging (17). Those well-licked thick lips belong to a "half Arab, half African, a
See the cry "'s'gee, 's'gee" in 1985: 170. (Given the variety of editions of this work, the more useful
reference is to note this is found about three pages into chapter 14.) I am grateful to Lindy Stiebel for drawing
this to my attention. Haggard's version may derive from an eye-witness account of Shaka's forces written
about 1838 by Henry Francis Fynn, where the first line of a victory song is rendered "Zhi, zhi, zhi, zhi, zhi, zhi,
zhi, zhi" which we are told are "exclamations of triumph" (Stuart and Malcolm, 1950: 149-50). In that
transcription it appears as well in Elizabeth Paris Watt's Febana (1962) where, during a battle, a "fiendish
chorus swell[s] louder and ever louder, more merciless and more murderous" the words "Zhi . . . zhi . . . zhi . .
." When this reaches Tshaka's ears, he gives a smile which is "the smile of Satan himself hearing the hiss of
hell's flames and the dying agonies of the damned." I am grateful to Dan Wylie for bringing these latter two
works to my attention.
honey-colored giant of a man" (17). Rage shows the brutal killing of a nun in a riot with
associated cannibalism (1987: 215-220, 243, 444). Leopard opens with African violence
against a herd of elephants (1984: 1-11). Angels Weep dwells on African war atrocities
involving the cutting open of pregnant women and sexual attacks on women (1982: 265,
269, 287), including the gang rape of the leading white woman (1982: 500-503, 514-5), a
rape she returns to in her subsequent nightmares (1982: 540). With violence described so
fulsomely, it is easy for Smith to reduce it to a background assertion, a commonplace that of
course must be true. In Rage, "Lothar knew how swiftly the African mood can change, how
close below the smiles lies the violence of the African heart" (1987: 512). In Leopard,
"cruelty has a different value in Africa. If you live here you have to understand that from
the beginning" (1984: 180). Luckily, however, there is an immediately efficacious cure for
the cruelty of Africans: turn them into servants. In A Time to Die Claudia's prison wardress
is vicious and mean (1989: 235), until Claudia bosses her around like a servant (228, 238).
Shown her proper place she causes Claudia no further problems.
If individual Africans are violent and cruel, the mob is infinitely worse:
MYTH: Africans en masse are mindless, frightening, and animal-like.
Maughan Brown has shown that this is a preoccupation even of liberal white South African
writers (1987a: 4). Smith explains Sharpeville in terms of the panic of police who face a
mob that is:
not human, this was a monster . . . A creature with ten thousand throats and twenty
thousand legs, a sprawling insensate monster that roared a meaningless word and had
no ears to hear nor mind to reason. (511)
The only one of these more extreme racist myths from Smith's works which also shows up
in the propaganda is the following:
MYTH: Africans are superstitious, given to witchcraft.
The implication is that Africans are not wholly civilized, even when they are highly
educated. Since their culture is not western culture, "separate development" is justified.
The myth turns the African into an "other" who is irrational and uncivilized and not up to
western standards. Black Development garbles Max Weber to argue that the "mystical
animism and the worship of ancestral spirits [of blacks] are directly opposed to the rational
approach to life characteristic of Protestant ethics [sic]" (Benbo 1976: 58). Moreover,
Christianizing the blacks is at best superficial (59), and "witch-doctors are still consulted
regularly, even by educated Blacks, some Christians and surprisingly, by a few medical
A very wide range of writers find witchcraft to be a defining characteristic of Africans,
including the liberal Rian Malan (1990: 188-191, 204-215, 274-275), the romance writer Joy
Packer (Stotesbury 1991: 138-139), colonialist literature from Rhodesia (Maughan Brown
1982: 108-109), the adventure writer Peter Essex (Maughan Brown 1987b: 55), and, of
course, Wilbur Smith. In Falcon Africans have a "strange, almost telepathic knowledge of
far events and places" (1980: 347). In Rage, a woman who wants her sons favoured pays
money to grave-robbers "to bring her the liver of an infant drowned at birth by its own
mother" to "make the charm infallible" (1987: 138). In Leopard when Tungata arrived at
Lobengula's tomb "he was overcome with a superstitious awe. He was an educated and
sophisticated man, but beneath that he was African" (1984: 289).
Another myth found in both the thrillers and the official propaganda externalizes onto black
Africans a weakness more common among whites:
MYTH: Africans are tribalists, and even racists.
This myth uses the "primordial" understanding of tribalism based on "identity" rather than
the more accepted "instrumentalist" understanding based on "utility". It asserts that ancient
tribal hatreds make it impossible for blacks to live in peace with each other. A minor
extension leads to the conclusion that Africans are also racists and would commit atrocities
against whites if they got a chance. This serves many of the same purposes as the
"tribalism" arguments, justifying white domination.
The tribalism/racism theme is very common in the 1970s propaganda. For example, de
Villiers argues that tribal wars have divided the African continent (1976: 6), and devotes a
chapter to "Tribalism Rampant" (81 ff) in which he argues that:
tribalism has been rampant in Africa for centuries and even in an enlightened 20th
century it is tribalism that is at the root of much of the political, constitutional and
economic malaise and upheaval in Africa. (81-2)
This myth provides the central explanation for Africa's problems in the colonial thrillers,
both in Southern Rhodesia (Maughan Brown 1982: 108) and in South Africa (Maughan
Brown, 1987b: 58, 62). In Rage we learn that South Africa suffers from age-old hatreds
between the Zulus and the Xhosa (1987: 135, 143-146)18 which are in the "blood, deep and
atavistic" (1987: 140). In Falcon Zimbabwe's difficulties arise from ancient hatred between
Mashona and Matabele (1980: 293, 403).19 The close connection between tribalism and
racism is made clear when Sean tells Claudia in A Time to Die: "Here racism is the same as
tribalism, and we are all blatant tribalists, especially the blacks" (1989: 38). The propaganda
takes much the same line. In African Problems de Villiers's chapter on "The Spectre of
Racialism" (1976: 98 ff) argues that Africans are deeply racist, and cites as evidence the
Nigerian "war of genocide between two distinctive ethnic groups or nations" (99), the
Sudanese civil war (102), the treatment of Asians in Eastern Africa (106-110), and the
See also Sword (1986: 396). I am indebted to Lindy Stiebel for pointing out to me that this lies behind the
popular myth that explains Inkatha's opposition to Nelson Mandela by invoking the Zulu-Xhosa tribal hatred.
By contrast, a careful study which finds very little emphasis on "Zuluness" among the urban township Zulu
population around Durban is reported in Campbell, Mar‚ and Walker 1993.
This analysis is ubiquitous throughout the novel, so these page references are intended merely as illustration.
See also Leopard (1984: 49, 139).
savagery and bestiality displayed by Black Congolese in July 1960, with its heavy
accent on racial and tribal animosity [which] has seldom been surpassed even in a
continent where even the most savage and the most bestial no longer shock. (111)
In strange contradiction to the myth of African brutality and savagery another myth is linked
to it not through logic, but through psychologic:
MYTH: Most Africans would be happy and contented if not for outside
agitators and intimidation.
This myth is related to the "happy Sambo" version of American racism. Once again it
reassures whites that their treatment of blacks does not really justify resentment. As events
of early 1994 show, concerns about intimidation are justified when political passions run
high, but to turn the agitator and intimidation into the principal explanations for opposition
activity is to leave the realm of fact and to enter the land of comforting mythology.
The myth of the happy African seduced by agitators is a standard feature of Smith's
potboilers; it appears in official propaganda as well, although in a less blatant way. It has
been a staple of popular writing about southern Africa for the past 100 years (Couzens 1982:
48; Phelan 1987: x; Maughan Brown 1982: 104). It often takes the form of the argument
that "our blacks are better off than other Africans." For example, de Villiers concludes that
the only people opposed to South African's homelands policy are:
elements active in the fields of subversion and aggression -- those who despise
evolutionary constitutional channels -- the agents of a revolution, masterminded from
outside Africa and camouflaged by moral slogans. (1976: 25-6)
The myth appears frequently in Smith's adventure tales as well. In Rage a trustworthy
Afrikaner policeman observes:
the African was notoriously lackadaisical and happy-go-lucky --
but then they had the advice and assistance of their white communist comrades. The
protests and demonstrations and strikes were widespread and effective. (1987: 221)
In Angels Weep Southern Rhodesian terrorists are not really committed: 90 percent of them
just "hole up in good cover near a village which can supply them with food and young girls,
and they try to keep out of danger" (1982: 446).
However, this myth leaves open the possibility that agitators may have good reasons for
their activities. To close that loophole, the mythology discredits them as well. Official
propaganda is restrained in its attack, suggesting merely that agitators are communists. But
Smith excoriates them with abandon.
MYTH: African agitators are either dupes or mendacious.
The myth of duped African agitators who have sold out to communism also has a long
history in settler-dominated Africa (Couzens 1982: 48; Maughan Brown 1982: 107-108;
Maughan Brown 1985: 120).20 It again frees whites from considering reasons for African
dissatisfaction, and it devalues black politicians as well. Smith gives us such politicians
aplenty. For example, in Sword when Hendrick is inducted into the ANC and the SACP he
realizes that his brother, Moses, a revolutionary leader, wants "'not a part of it, not even the
greater part. You want it all. The whole land and everything in it.' And Moses smiled. His
brother had at last understood" (1986: 404). In Rage it is made clear that no political
solution is needed: "Blacks don't need votes, they need a slice of the pie" (1987: 125). In
Time to Die, Sean describes the wonders of the South African economy to the black
Mozambiquan, Alphonso, but notes that black men don't have the vote. Alphonso responds:
Vote? You can't eat a vote. You can't dress in a vote, or ride to work on it. For two
thousand rand a month and a full belly you can have my vote. (1989: 359)
Of course, most South African blacks were deprived of their vote for considerably less than
two thousand rand a month.
The greed of the African leaders is emphasized again in Angels Weep when Comrade
Inkunzi -- virtually a pseudonym for Joshua Nkomo -- tells Tungata that it is not the case
that "the revolution is power to the people" (the catechised phrase that comes to Tungata's
mind automatically). Rather:
"The people are mindless cattle," he laughed. "They would not know what to do
with power if anyone was fool enough to let them have it! No, no! It is time you
learned the true answer. . . . The truth is that the revolution is power to the chosen
few. The truth is that I am the head of those few, and that you, Comrade Commissar
Tungata, are now one of them." (1982: 436)
Smith often makes the point about mendacious African politicians implicitly by describing
the rich trappings of the African revolutionary leaders. For example, after independence we
are carefully told that Inkunzi is wearing suits from Savile Row (541), and later still he is
sitting behind a desk in the style of "Louis XIV" (548). In another example from Zimbabwe,
Smith recites the name-brand items Geoffrey Manguza (a Shona deputy head of the game
department) is wearing, including a Hermés necktie and a Patek Philippe wristwatch (1989:
59-60). And we are told that even during the war "the guerrilla leaders wore no insignia of
rank but could usually be identified by the superiour quality of their clothing, by their
sunglasses, wristwatches, and the rows of ballpoint pens in their breast pockets" (1989: 88).
The same technique is used for the South African revolutionary, Raleigh Tabaka, in Golden
Fox (1990: 129-30).
This range of myths coupled with the lack of attention to socio-politico-economic reasons
for guerrilla activity forces the conclusion that Africans have no real reason for joining
liberation movements. And, in fact, Smith leaves us without any ability to understand why
For this theme applied to the ANC in official propaganda and by the South African Broadcasting
Corporation, see Tomaselli 1992: 285.
Africans do join. For example, in Angels Weep Constance joins because she has to, but we
don't really hear why she has to, just the flat and unconvincing statement that "I could shirk
my duty no longer" (1982: 405).
Although the main preoccupation in white South Africa, reflected in the adventure novels, is
the huge black African population, there are other populations in South Africa as well,
notably the so-called "coloureds" and the Indians. These groups figured importantly in the
South African government's attempts to divide and rule by establishing largely meaningless
separate houses of parliament for them in the 1984 constitutional changes. But very little is
said about either of these groups in the popular literature, presumably because their numbers
are not so threateningly large that they need to be discredited (as Smith does to the black
The other black group that is featured in Smith's writing is the San (the "Bushmen").
Curiously, they are portrayed in a very positive light. Perhaps Smith, together with other
mass market authors celebrating the San in recent years (Maughan-Brown 1987c), finds the
vastly reduced numbers of that group unthreatening enough that he can afford to idolize
them. We might phrase this myth in the following terms (borrowing a phrase from
contemporary American university students):
MYTH: The San ("Bushmen") are the original Sensitive New-Age Guys
(SNAGS), gender balanced, environmentally conscious, and just generally
wonderful human beings, if a little simple in their language and understanding.
This myth is restricted to the mass-market literature, perhaps because there are so few San
left that the official propaganda sees little point in mentioning them at all. Still, it is
surprising how often this myth shows up in South African literature, in Smith's potboilers
and elsewhere. Clearly, a huge turnabout has taken place from earlier visions which
depicted the San as vermin to be hunted down. That was when they did pose a threat to the
whites; now that they pose no threat, the image can change. The ideological purpose served
by the change to an adulatory image is, as Maughn-Brown points out, to convince us that the
writer is not racist (1987c). It may also relieve the guilt of a reader who would otherwise
feel he or she was being led into racist sentiments by Smith's depictions of other Africans.
Smith's principal depiction of the San as SNAGs is found in Burning Shore (1985),
presented as a mini-series on the South African premium television station in March, 1994.
There we are led to disapprove of the fact that the San are hunted by the whites (278-9),
since our heroine Centaine shows us their admirable humanity. When Lothar kills her
adoptive San parents, she is unrelenting in despising him for it. But more than just human,
the San are caring humans, gender-balanced in their lives (279, 292), in tune with their
environment, never despoiling everything but leaving some of everything for the next
generation (323) -- they are new age wonderpeople, so to speak. On the other hand, they are
somewhat simple in their thinking: "though the San language was rich and complex in its
descriptive powers of the material aspects of the desert world, it was extremely difficult to
use it to convey abstract ideas" (329). In later novels in this series, Centaine keeps her
connection with the San, and we hear, for example, her conclusion in Sword that the San are
"the happiest people in this earth. But I wonder for how much longer" (1986: 140).
Blacks are only one side of the balance of power, of course. An effective political
mythology of apartheid must also glorify the whites and justify their dominant role. This is
complicated by the division of the whites into Afrikaners and English-speakers. In an earlier
era, an Afrikaner mythology would have stressed historical reasons for hating the British
(Thompson 1985), and an English-speakers' version would have blamed the Afrikaners for
most of South Africa's racism and apartheid (Thompson 1985: 242). But by the 1970s the
two white groups discovered their need for each other:
MYTH: Whites now share common interests and must stick together.
In an illustration of the typically bland statements on this topic from the propaganda,
Homelands assures us that the relationship "between the two White subcultures can best be
described as a symbiotic union" (n.d.: 9). Smith dwells more explicitly on reasons for the
historical enmity between the two white "subcultures", but eventually advocates cooperation
to meet the common threat. In Rage Manfred (from the Afrikaner branch of the family) tells
Shasa (from the English-speaking branch):
our differences are only those of style and degree. We both want to keep South
Africa safe for the white man and for European civilization. We both know that for
all of us apartheid is a matter of life and death. Without it we will all drown in the
And Shasa thinks "the point was apt and painful" (1987: 33). The point is symbolized by
the family relationship of the prototypical English-speaking South African and the
prototypical Afrikaner: they are half-brothers, having the same mother.
The mythology must also make acceptable white control of the wealth of the land:
MYTH: Whites have a just claim to the land in South Africa.
This rests on two sub-myths:
MYTH: The land was empty before the whites arrived, and
MYTH: White ingenuity created the wealth of "white South Africa."
The myth of the empty land is the most consistent theme in the official propaganda. For
example, Black Development argues that the land at the Cape and in Transvaal was empty
before the coming of the whites (Benbo 1976: 2); similar assertions can be found in Stepping
into the Future (van Rensburg n.d.: 7) and Progress through Separate Development
(Information Service of South Africa, 1973: 12, for example). Curiously, however, Smith
hardly mentions the myth. Similarly, the myth that white ingenuity created the wealth of the
country was important in colonial Kenya (Maughan Brown 1985: 118) and Zimbabwe
(Maughan Brown 1982: 101) and remained important in the heyday of South African
propaganda (and in 1994 as well),21 although it appears hardly at all Smith's works.
The point of much of the political mythology of apartheid, of course, is to support the
following summative myth:
MYTH: South African apartheid is reasonable.
This has three associated sub-myths:
1. MYTH: White rule holds African violence in check.
2. MYTH: Blacks prosper under apartheid.
3. MYTH: If whites lose control, South Africa will look like the appalling
situation in independent black African countries, particularly Zimbabwe
Wilbur Smith gives full voice to the first and third of these, while the second is much more
prominent in the official propaganda.
The myth (#1) that colonial rule halted tribal violence is not prominent in the official
propaganda, although Cornevin reports a version of it (1980: 106). Wilbur Smith gives a
variety of statements of it, making some of them especially persuasive by having black
Africans state them. At the end of Leopard, for example, an African makes clear how much
Zimbabwe needs whites by saying to the white hero, "We need men like you to help stave
off these new dark ages that threaten to overwhelm the land we both love" (1984: 440). In
the context of the unremitting emphasis on African tribal brutality which comes before this
statement, readers conclude that whites are needed to stop the tribal violence.
The myth (#2) that blacks in South Africa are doing very well economically is common fare
in the propaganda. For one example, Homelands tells us that "the Bantu of the RSA enjoy a
higher standard of living than the majority of other African peoples," citing that as proof "of
the progress which the Government has already made in the field of development." It is,
they conclude, "unparalleled in Africa" (n.d.: 19). The implication is that the appropriate
comparison is to the rest of Africa, not to the rest of South Africa. Separate development is
good, since it "should save blacks from becoming just a poor proletariat which is what they
would do in a unified South Africa" (van Rensburg, n.d.: 16) and will protect them from
"merciless competition from people living in more sophisticated democratic capitalist
communities" (de Villiers 1976: 115; see also 25, 113).
Dr. Pieter Gous, president of the Free State Agricultural Union, said about a community land conference held
in Bloemfontein in February 1994 that "it was clear that, just as in the rest of Africa, it was planned, with mass
support, to seize what had been built up and provided by generations of Western civilisation and brainpower"
(van Wyk, 1994).
We may draw a summary statement of the official propaganda's praise for separate
development from de Villiers:
It will be for the historian of the future to decide whether those Black Africans who
were denied independence for a few brief years of history while solid economic and
personnel bases were being built [in the homelands] were given a better or worse
deal than those [in independent black Africa] who were plunged into misery and
hardship because the political agitators rushed them into independence before
adequate economic and personnel bases had been constructed. (1976: 139)
Surprisingly, Smith is restrained in showing apartheid's economic benefits for the blacks.
On rare occasions he describes a black township in terms which are less than glowing, even
if they are more attractive than the reality: "although aesthetically ugly and uninspiring, the
accommodation was adequate and offered reticulated water mains, sewerage and electricity"
(1987: 48; see also 476). His full-blown version of this myth so overstates the situation that
it sounds like an unintentional self-parody. In the conversation that leads Alphonso to offer
to sell his vote, Sean tells him that in South Africa "men, even black men, eat meat every
day" and "sometimes they get so sick of eating beef that they try chicken and lamb just for a
change." Moreover, they earn lots of money, the shops are full, and only poor people have
bicycles, with many having cars (1989: 358-9).
The myth (#3) showing the dystopia of independent black-ruled African states is common
both in the official propaganda and in Smith's works. The extreme Aida Parker Newsletter
draws the comparison even more starkly (1989a). Independent black African countries are
always the losers when Smith compares them sometimes with South Africa, and sometimes
with their own previous colonial rule. Socialist states and policies come under particularly
vitriolic attack. Readers are hardly ever left to draw their own conclusions. In Time to Die
Sean tells Claudia that colonial Mozambique had been "a reasonably happy and prosperous
community" under Portuguese rule (1989: 97): "It all worked very well, as indeed did most
colonial administrations, especially the British" (98). When Claudia objects, he responds
"your average Indian or African living today in a former British colony is a damned sight
worse off now than he was then" (98). Later, as Sean sees a forest brutally razed by
Frelimo, he turns nostalgic and melancholic:
He realized that the destruction of this forest was symbolic of the predicament of the
entire continent. In a few fleeting decades, Africa had been overtaken by its own
inherent savagery. The checks that had been placed on it by a century of colonialism
had been struck off. Chains perhaps those checks had been, but since being freed of
them the peoples of Africa had been rushing headlong, with almost suicidal abandon,
toward their own destruction. (423)
Contemporary Mozambique, indeed, is the threatening future for South Africa. Here Smith
produces, as Rob Nixon puts it, a "vicious travesty" (1990) of history to make it clear that
both black African sides in the FRELIMO-RENAMO war are terrible and that neither can
be trusted. In Leopard Craig's musings on African socialism make clear the nature of many
of Smith's thoughts on black African independence:
he loathed the politics of envy and the viciousness of socialism which, he felt, sought
to strike down the heroes and reduce every exceptional man to the common greyness
of the pack, to replace true leadership with the oafish mumblings of trade-union
louts, to emasculate all initiative by punitive tax schemes and then gradually to
shepherd a numbed and compliant populace into the barbed-wire enclosure of
Marxist totalitarianism. (1984: 53)
Capitalism is better because it lets the supermen rule.
The mythology must also discredit outside opponents of apartheid. In this the propaganda is
again much more restrained than Smith's caricatures. Communism was the principal
bogeyman for white South Africa for years and even in early 1994 the rooi gevaar ("red
peril") formed an important part of the NP's electoral campaign:
MYTH: South Africa is a prime target for the communist conspiracy.
This myth was central to both the propaganda and the mythology of the potboilers. The
Communist Strategy gives the flavour of the official propaganda:
Within South Africa and beyond our borders there are those who are at work
unceasingly, day and night, to bring about a revolution which will result in the
peoples of this country being plunged under the brutal, cruel and atheistic
dictatorship of Communism. (de Villiers, Metrowich, and du Plessis 1975: 55)
Smith's many dastardly communist villains are at their worst in Leopard, where a thoroughly
despicable African communist, Peter Fungabera, describes how he will turn to South Africa
once he has power in Zimbabwe, putting South Africa "in the tutelage of and under the
protection of that greatest of all lovers of freedom, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics"
(1984: 253-5). In Sword "coloureds" and liberal whites demonstrate peacefully until
leftwing groups including the SACP "scented blood in the air" and joined in, egging the
demonstrators on to violence (1986: 536-537).
To discredit the communists further Smith provides the following myth:
MYTH: Outside communist agitators are inhuman and sexual perverts.
The official propaganda largely assumes that the label of communist is enough to condemn;
but Smith goes to extraordinary lengths to show that they are barely human. For example,
Smith's communists use children cynically and cruelly, arguing that children:
make perfect soldiers for they question nothing and it takes no great physical
strength to pull a trigger. If an enemy strikes them down they become the perfect
martyrs. The bleeding corpse of a child strikes horror and remorse into even the
hardest heart. . . . If a child cannot grow up a free man, then he might as well die as a
child. (1987: 198)
The communist leader in Angels Weep rapes a young woman and argues that young women
are present among his recruits to please the men sexually; when the rape victim attempts to
run away a revolutionary wannabe is made to cut her neck with a deliberately dulled knife as
a test of his willpower (1982: 423-5).
Smith also makes his communist agitators homosexuals (a damning indictment in his macho
world) who lust only for black male flesh (a characteristic reserved for those he particularly
wants to discredit). For example, Marcus Archer, in Sword, was introduced to
homosexuality by the same man who taught him Marx and Lenin (1986: 378); he arrived in
South Africa from England with an addiction which he picked up in Jamaica to sex with
black males (378). Golden Fox similarly condemns Michael, who starts out as a
sympathetic liberal and ends up not only a homosexual but one with a fixation on black men
(1990: 107, 110). Morever, by the end of that novel Michael has decided to spray nerve gas
on a crowd of 200,000 whites in South Africa in the service of his now communist-inspired
Just in case this is not enough to discredit the communists, Smith gives us the ultimate
condemnation for them: they are cruel to animals. I intend some irony in the emphasis here,
but I am not sure at all that it is an irony Smith would see. This may be just a new-age way
to discredit the African communists; it tells western liberal conservationists that African
communists do not share their values and cannot be fully civilized. Perhaps it derives from
Laurens van der Post; an earlier version can be found in his A Far-Off Place (1974: 146-
148). Although this is presented in the potboilers, but not in official propaganda, the private
Aida Parker Newsletter special issue on SWAPO printed a photo of elephants peacefully
bathing in a stream; the caption reads:
Elephant in the Etosha National park, Namibia's premier tourist attraction. Will they
suffer the same fate as has wildlife in other parts of Africa, ruthlessly hunted to
extinction while corrupt governments turn a blind eye[?] (1989a: 6)
Smith tells us in A Time to Die that Frelimo fed its army with the big game of Mozambique,
shooting them down from helicopters (1989: 124). And Leopard begins with the slaughter
of elephants in Zimbabwe in which former communist guerrillas drive a herd toward a mine-
field. Later their communist leader contemplates their painful deaths with callous
equanimity (1984: 1-11).
With the communists shown to be depraved, perverted, and cruel to wild animals it remains
only to undermine other anti-apartheid groups through the following myth found in both the
official propaganda and Smith's potboilers:
MYTH: Groups opposed to apartheid are (perhaps unwittingly) communist
front organisations, including virtually all liberal groups.
The Aida Parker Newsletter argues that the communist party is forming a "popular front,"
penetrating "the legitimate Parliamentary opposition parties" and including "liberal and non-
violent organisations" in the front (1989b: 2). More officially, The Communist Strategy tells
us that most anti-apartheid groups are infiltrated by communists (de Villiers, Metrowich, du
Plessis 1975: 65, 112, 125-130). Tomaselli shows that reporting on South African television
also portrayed the ANC as a communist front organisation (1992: 296-300). Smith
personalizes this myth, showing liberal opponents of apartheid to be ignorant, misguided
and posturing. In Rage, the liberal Tara is "a dilettante, naive and impressionable, and easily
swayed by [her] more vicious associates" (1987: 84). Jacobus says sensible liberal things
(448-9), but Smith undermines his credibility by making him responsible for a bomb in a
train station which maims little girls in ways graphically depicted (613).
If the principal villains were the communists, the press ran a close second. The myth shows
up amply in both the propaganda and Smith's writing, that
MYTH: The press misrepresents South Africa, exacerbating the problems it
Phelan reports the common white South African belief that the press pays blacks to stage
more dramatic protests (1987: 32, 37), and Hachten and Giffard report that after 1979 the
government saw the press as instigators of black activism (1984: 12, 59-60, 66-67, 72). The
Steyn Commission argued that the press had complicity with the "Total Onslaught," and that
it cooperated to aid Soviet communism against South Africa (Hachten and Giffard 1984: 86-
87).2222 Wilbur Smith's potboilers give this myth flesh and (lots of) blood. In Rage the
journalist Kitty Godolphin helps to create the awful realities that she portrays. In the Congo,
condemned men were paraded so cannibal women could bargain for their meat on the hoof,
so to speak. Kitty brags that she bribed the man in charge to postpone the execution to the
next day so the light would be better for her filming (1987: 391-2). In South Africa Kitty
informs the police about a demonstration hoping they will attack and produce bloodshed for
her to film (212).
The mythology must demonstrate that the outside world is wrong in its opposition to
apartheid. Smith's extreme versions of the mythology discredit US policy by linking it with
MYTH: The United States so hates apartheid that it will ally itself with
communists to defeat it.
Although this myth does not appear in the official propaganda, it is prominent in both the
far-right private propaganda and Smith's novels. The Aida Parker Newsletter accuses
"Uncle Big Nose" of meddling to support "very special Blacks: Soviet-aligned
Marxist/Leninist revolutionary groups which have practised terrorism at every level"
(1989a). Wilbur Smith makes a similar claim in Time to Die: the US hates South Africa so
much that it gives help to the Zimbabwean Marxists to enable the ANC to attack South
Africa (1989: 222).
For an examination of these charges, see Tomaselli 1992: 71-93.
The mythology also attacks more moderate policies which outside powers were pursuing --
economic sanctions and disinvestment:
MYTH: Sanctions hurt only the innocent in South Africa. Wealthy white South
Africans got richer because of them.
Cas de Villiers argues that sanctions will increase black unemployment, let instability
escalate, and help the cause of the USSR in Southern Africa (1977: 23, 27). In Smith's A
Time to Die this is embodied in an extended parallel between outside sanctions and the
hunting of a lion. The American liberal, Claudia, shouts a warning to a lion just as her
father is pulling the trigger (1989: 40). The consequences are tragic, and Smith forces a
parallel to sanctions against South Africa through Sean's verbal attack on her:
You are a citizen of the land of the quick fix, and you come and try your simplistic
na‹ve solutions here in Africa. You try to save a single animal from his destiny, and
you end up by [creating disaster]. . . . [Y]ou were wrong. Just as you and your
people are wrong to try and starve an African nation of thirty million souls into
acceptance of another one of your na‹ve solutions. When the damage you have
inflicted is beyond repair, will you again say, 'I'm sorry, I was wrong' and walk away
and leave my land and my people to bleed and suffer? (52)
Claudia capitulates entirely. Just in case a reader might waver on the issue, in Golden Fox
Smith informs us that sanctions were a communist plot arising out of the communist
penetration of the American Democratic party! (1990: 241-2)
Wilbur Smith's view of politicians and of the political process is thoroughly negative. We
have seen his discrediting of black revolutionary politics and of virtually all opposition
political groups. In a theme which dominates many South African fictional treatments of
politics, whether on the right or the left, Smith also frequently shows us the conflict between
politics and private life. His black revolutionaries note that there can be no private life for
those in the struggle (e.g. 1987: 52, 196, 231, and 311). If the theme is used on the left to
show the dedication of the political combatants, in Smith's works it suggests that
revolutionaries are heartless machines. But for Smith all politics is venal and corrupt,
including that engaged in by his leading white characters. Even his stereotypically self-
righteous Afrikaner politicians are Nazi sympathizers, members of Afrikaner secret
societies, and not above common corruption (e.g., 1987: 117, 339, 352, 589-91). Nor are the
English-speaking politicians spared. Centaine Courtney's huge fortune is preserved only
because her lover, a well-placed politician, reveals to her that South Africa is about to go off
the gold standard, allowing her to make a killing in speculation (1986). In Golden Fox
Isabella enters politics only because she is forced to do so by her Soviet blackmailer so she
can place herself better to obtain secrets for her Soviet spymasters (1990).
Smith has been consistent in claiming that his novels have no political "message." He said
in the mid-1970s that he was personally not at all interested in party politics beyond casting
his vote, and that he found South African politics "boring" (Partridge 1975). In 1989 Ted
Willis reported that "Smith himself is a supporter of the redoubtable Helen Suzman and her
PFP and is sternly opposed to apartheid." If all of those statements are true reflections of
Smith's beliefs about himself, he must sense the currents of political sentiment among his
audience and cater to them even if they depart radically from his own beliefs. His sales
figures suggest that his antennae are exquisitely sensitive and on the face of it, it seems
reasonable to take his views as a reflection of those currents.
For a sense of the currents which Smith's antennae register it would be helpful to know more
about his audience in South Africa. Sales figures indicate that it is huge, but we have few
ways of telling how his readers react. Some indication, admittedly imperfect, can be
obtained from examining the attention which he and his works have received in the South
African press. The clippings files maintained by the National English Literary Museum
(NELM) in Grahamstown, South Africa, are invaluable for providing a feel for this.
Smith's best-sellers have been very extensively reviewed in the South African press. The
most common review praises his newest work for its thrills and adventure and notes the
"meticulous research" which Smith has done for it. On reasonably frequent occasions the
reviewers argue that the novel has no political message (Leverton 1990; rev. of The
Elephant Song 1991), or that it presents both sides in a balanced way (Henning 1987; R.B.
1987; Holtzhausen 1990a), or that it is accurate in its political conclusions (Abendroth 1987;
Roberts 1985; Johns 1984). Once in a while there is a note that some left-wing group will
find a novel of his offensive (Holtzhausen 1990c). Only rarely is there an indication that
Smith is taking a retrograde political position (Ricci 1985); when one finds such an
observation it is more likely to be in a letter from a reader than in a review.23 One reviewer,
however, suggested Smith might be wrongly accused of promoting a mythology for whites,
although she herself thought he was addressing:
complex and controversial issues head-on with none of the coyness or idealism that
sometimes permeates other novels: the 'everything will be fine once we get rid of
apartheid/colonialism' school. (Gowans 1989)
Perhaps the most curious (and perhaps most revealing?) review of Smith's works was a
column written by an engineer, Andrew Kenny, who questioned why Gordimer rather than
Wilbur Smith should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He could find no
workers at his factory who had read Gordimer, he said, because her works, and those of
"high culture" writers like her were "achingly boring" and read by only "a tiny group of
middle class whites." Smith has "Dickens' power to reach the common people" and is
honest in his treatment of South African political themes. "If I had to choose one book to
explain South African politics to a foreigner," Kenny wrote, "I should unhesitatingly choose
'Rage'" (1991). The reviews imply that at least some influential South Africans (as well as
Mr Kenny's shop floor workers) saw the world in much the same way as did Wilbur Smith.
For example, a letter from Duncan Levine at the University of Natal Pietermaritzburg (perhaps David
Maughan-Brown's student?) said, "Any student with reasonable literary skills can quite easily grasp how
Smith's style reinforces and perpetuates myths that subordinate blacks, women and colonised cultures" (1991).
See also a letter from S. Raditlhalo of Orlando (1991) on a similar theme.
The political mythology of apartheid in Wilbur Smith's potboilers goes considerably beyond
that presented in government propaganda. Its myths are anchored in the real world and
reflect enough reality to make them plausible to his readers.24 Yet they select facts which
match their vision, and invent "facts" when the distance between reality and vision is too
large to support the vision otherwise. The myths support a Manichean worldview which
leaves no room for the give and take of politics. Opponents of apartheid are unrelievedly
evil, while the heroes are men of action with big penises25 who glory in outdoor activity and
blood-sports of every kind and who revile communism, socialism and trade unions. In short,
they are fascist superman, altogether the wrong type to be willing to make concessions to
work out a joint future for "the New South Africa" so much to be desired in that country.
To judge from his post-1990 work, Elephant Song (1991), Smith can change his colouration
to blend in with the new political situation in South Africa. He concludes that apartheid is
"cold porridge and last night's leftovers" (1991: 215). He invents new non-communist
villains. But the core is unchanged. It lurks just beneath the surface, like the "gaboon
adder" so loved by Smith as a sudden killer in his novels (1980: 242; 1984: 272-9; 1989:
181; 1991: 302). Africa is still a cruel continent (1991: 25, 283, 511), requiring whites to be
hardened heroes to survive there. Africans are still tribalists (274, 321-2), who believe in
witchcraft (496) and hide a core of barbarism just under their civilized facade (58-9). White
farmers are still necessary to the success of agriculture (126); black majority rule has been
the ruin of other African countries, in particular African socialist policies (121, 211). And
sanctions against South Africa merely allowed rich people to make themselves richer
through speculation (36).
It is hard to know how wide-spread similar attitudes may be in white South Africa. But the
trajectory of Smith's writings over the past 30 years, the astounding popularity of those
works in South Africa (as well as beyond its borders), the largely uncritical reviews those
works receive in the South African press, and Smith's ability to maintain his core mythology
even into the post-apartheid negotiation period of South African history are not the kind of
evidence to leave one optimistic. Many South Africans of every colour understand the need
for political processes of negotiation to arrive at mutually acceptable compromises and are
participating in those processes with good-will and optimism. But the lens provided by
Smith's writings lets us see as well elements in the white South African psyche which are
much more troubling. It may be a consolation to South Africans, although it should not be
one to the rest of the world, that there is no reason to think that the frightening currents
which Smith is feeding on and feeding into are more confined to white South Africa than are
I am grateful to Lindy Stiebel for reminding me of this.
A fixation on large penises runs throughout Smith's works. If he does not fix one upon a white human hero
(1989: 213), he tells us about the sexual size of an African (1987: 51, 196, 363), an elephant (1989: 113), or
even a horse named Mzilikazi (1982: 448). In the ultimate Rambo (and pre-Bobbitt) fantasy, his women are
motivated to political action by their insatiable desire for the largest of these (human) penises. In Rage, for
example, both the white Tara (1987: 51) and the black Vicky (196) find intercourse with Moses so inspiring
that they promise to be his slaves forever. In Die, Claudia tells Sean after intercourse that, "Even if I die today,
it won't matter so much. I have had you in me" (1989: 213). An examination of Smith's often highly sexist
presentation of the relations between men and women (in various permutations of the South African racial
categories) would be enlightening but would take me well beyond the limits of this article.
Abendroth, K. 1987. "Politics, intrigue in SA, as seen by Wilbur Smith", Rev. of Rage by
Wilbur Smith, The Citizen (Johannesburg) (June 1): 6.
The Aida Parker Newsletter 1989a. 129 (Spring), "An APN Special Issue" titled "SWA
Namibia: Quo Vadis?"
The Aida Parker Newsletter 1989b. 130 (August), "Perspectives on Southern Africa."
Bagnall, G. 1988. "Wilbur Smith: Best Seller", Edgars Club Newsletter (October): 10-11.
Bureau for Economic Research re Bantu Development (Benbo) 1976. Black Development in
South Africa: The Economic Development of the Black Peoples in the Homelands of the
Republic of South Africa. Pretoria: Benbo.
Caelers, D. 1993. "Blackmail, sex, threats in Wilbur Smith family saga", rev. of The
Leopard Hunts in Darkness by Wilbur Smith, Sunday Star (Johannesburg) (January 24): 7.
Campbell, C.; Mar‚, G.; and Walker, C. 1993. "Calling all Zulus", Work in Progress
(Braamfontein, Johannesburg) 93 (November): 18-20.
Chennells, A. 1984. "Just a Story: Wilbur Smith's Ballantyne Trilogy and the Problems of a
Rhodesian Historical Romance", Social Dynamics 10, 1 (June): 38-45.
"Cookson the UK favourite" 1989. The Cape Times (Cape Town) (January 6).
Cornevin, M. 1980. Apartheid: Power and Historical Falsification. Paris: UNESCO.
Couzens, T. 1982. "The Return of the Heart of Darkness", English Academy Review
Crick, B. 1962. In Defense of Politics. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
de Villiers, C. 1976. African Problems and Challenges (Selected Essays on Contemporary
African Affairs). Sandton, South Africa: Valiant Publishers.
de Villiers, C. 1977. "South Africa -- A Changing Society", Focus: Comment on Topical
Issues (Foreign Affairs Association, Pretoria, South Africa), No. 5 (February).
de Villiers, D.; Metrowich, F.; and du Plessis, J. 1975. The Communist Strategy. Pretoria:
Department of Information.
Donald, M. 1972. "Spirited Balony", rev. of The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith. New Statesman
(October 20): 568.
D.S. 1993. "NB", Times Literary Supplement (January 15): 16.
Du Plessis, J.A. 1977. "South Africa: The Link of Terror", FAA Study Report (Foreign
Affairs Association, Pretoria, South Africa), No. 7 (October).
"Exuberant" 1972. Rev. of The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith, The Argus (Cape Town)
(December 6): 9.
Foulkes, A. 1983. Literature and Propaganda. London & New York: Methuen.
Freedman, R. 1977. "Pirates, Soldiers of Fortune and Spies", New York Times Book Review
(September 4): 10.
The Frog 1987. "A Backdrop flawed by inaccuracies", rev. of Rage by Wilbur Smith,
Pretoria News (August 15): 6.
Gardner, C. 1993. "Contemporary South Africa: A Momentous though Momentary
Convergence of Political Struggle and Literary Striving?" Paper presented to the AUETSA
[Association of University English Teachers of South Africa] 1993 conference.
Giddings, R. (ed.) 1991. Literature and Imperialism. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Gowans, J. 1989. "Great Adventure Story", rev. of A Time to Die by Wilbur Smith, The
Daily News (Durban, South Africa) (June 16): 10.
Granqvist, R. (ed.) 1990. Signs and Signals: Popular Culture in Africa. Umea, Sweden:
University of Umea Press.
Hachten, W.; and Giffard, C. 1984. The Press and Apartheid: Repression and Propaganda
in South Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Haggard, H. 1887. King Solomon's Mines, ed. and with an afterword by K.J. Saycell.
Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1985.
Harries, A. 1989. "Pandora's Box", rev. of Rage by Wilbur Smith and Ties of Blood by
Gillian Slovo, Southern African Review of Books 2, 4 (April/May): 3-4.
Hart, E. 1972. "Cover to Cover", The Argus (Cape Town) (October 4): 28.
Hartnack, M. 1992. "Lessing Praises Wilbur Smith", Daily Dispatch (East London, South
Africa) (February 8): 4.
Henning, D. 1987. "Rather serious and painful for Wilbur", rev. of Rage by Wilbur Smith,
The Natal Witness (September 10): 7.
Hiley, N. 1991. Decoding German Spies: British Spy Fiction 1908-18. In Wark, 1991: 55-
Holtzhausen, E. 1990a. "Master of spice at his best", rev. of Golden Fox by Wilbur Smith,
The Cape Times (Cape Town) (May 12): 4.
Holtzhausen, E. 1990b. "He's not any old Smith, He's Wilbur the Wordsmith", Sunday
Times (Cape Town) (May 27): 20.
Holtzhausen, E. 1990c. "Wilbur Smith faces flak over new novel", Sunday Times (Cape
Town) (April 29): 9.
Homelands: The Role of the Corporations. Johannesburg: Chris van Rensburg Publications,
Information Service of South Africa, 1973. Progress through Separate Development: South
Africa in Peaceful Transition, Fourth Edition. New York: Information Service of South
Johns, V. 1984. "Another Wilbur Smith winner", rev. of The Leopard Hunts in Darkness by
Wilbur Smith, The Natal Witness (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa) (June 19): 6.
Kenny, A. 1991. "Did any of the judges sample Wilbur Smith?" The Star (Johannesburg)
Laurence, J. 1979. Race, Propaganda and South Africa. London: Victor Gollancz.
Lazar, C. 1993. "Wordsmith spins a fine tale", Sunday Star (Johannesburg) (May 9): 5.
Leverton, B. 1990. "Another winner by Wilbur Smith", rev. of Golden Fox by Wilbur Smith,
The Argus (Cape Town) (May 3): 13.
Levine, D. 1991. Letter, The Natal Witness (October 31): 8.
Malan, C. (ed.) 1987. Race and Literature. Pinetown: Owen Burgess, 1987.
Malan, R. 1990. My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country,
His Tribe, and His Conscience. New York: Morgan Entrekin-Atlantic Monthly Press.
Manvell, R. 1980. Rev. of A Falcon Flies by Wilbur Smith, British Book News (August):
Maughan Brown, D. 1982. "Myths on the March: The Kenyan and Zimbabwean Liberation
Struggles in Colonial Fiction", Journal of Southern African Studies 9, 1: 93-117.
__________ 1985. Land, Freedom, and Fiction: History and Ideology in Kenya. London:
__________ 1987a. "The Image of the Crowd in South African Fiction", English in Africa
14, 1 (May): 1-20.
__________ 1987b. "Images of War: Popular Fiction in English and the War on South
Africa's Borders", English Academy Review 4: 53-66.
_________ 1987c. "The Rehabilitation of the San in Popular Fiction." in C. Malan 1987:
__________ 1990. Raising Goose-Pimples: Wilbur Smith and the Politics of Rage. In
Trump, 1990: 134-160.
MCM, 1982. "Bloodier than the Sword", rev. of The Angels Weep by Wilbur Smith, Fair
Lady (South Africa) (December 15): 27.
Meyer, L. 1973. Rev. of The Sunbird by Wilber [sic] Smith, South African Outlook 103
Midgley, P. 1991. "Easy reading, well-researched", rev. of Elephant Song by Wilbur Smith,
Grocott's Mail (Grahamstown, South Africa) (November 1), 11.
Mitchell, J. 1991. "Slickest story-spinner in the world", The Star (Johannesburg) (June 13):
Nixon, R. 1990. "A Pig Called Wilbur: Racism for Fun and Profit", rev. of A Time to Die by
Wilbur Smith, Village Voice 35, 28 (July 10): S17.
"Novel limits" 1976. The Friend (Bloemfontein, South Africa) 127, 7 (December 7), 2.
Partridge, T. 1975. "When Times are ??? turn to books, ???" Sunday Times (Cape Town)
(April 6): 18, 23. [The question marks indicate parts of the title which were missing in the
clipping held at NELM. I have not managed to find the original.]
Phelan, J. 1987. Apartheid Media: Disinformation and Dissent in South Africa. Westport,
CT: Lawrence Hill & Co.
Prince, B. 1986. "Another gripping Smith blockbuster", rev. of The Power of the Sword by
Wilbur Smith, The Cape Times (Cape Town) (August 13): 6.
"Race themes too sad for novels -- author" 1976. The Daily News (Durban) (December 2):
Raditlhalo, S. 1991. Letter, The Star (Johannesburg) (June 24): 8.
R.B. 1987. Rev. of Rage by Wilbur Smith, Natal Post (Durban, South Africa) (June 17-20):
Rev. of The Elephant Song by Wilbur Smith, 1991, Tribute (South Africa) (September):
Ricci, D. 1985. "Simplistic pulp," rev. of The Leopard Hunts in Darkness by Wilbur Smith,
Frontline (Johannesburg) (August): 48.
Roberts, R. 1985. "Volatile Zimbabwe Setting", rev. of The Leopard Hunts in Darkness by
Wilbur Smith, Sunday Times (Cape Town) (May 6): 7.
"SA author has no political message" 1976. The World (December 3): 26.
Smith, W. 1972. Sunbird. New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1992.
__________ 1976. Letter, The Cape Times (Cape Town) (March 30): 14.
__________ 1978. "Search for a Lost City", Readers Digest [international edition] 113
(October 1978): 149-152. [Also reprinted in the South Africa edition, 116, No. 693 (January
__________ 1980. Flight of the Falcon. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1981. Men of Men. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1982. The Angels Weep. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1984. The Leopard Hunts in Darkness. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1985. The Burning Shore. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1986. The Power of the Sword. New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1987. Rage. London: Pan; New York: Fawcett Crest.
__________ 1989. A Time to Die. New York: Random House.
__________ 1990. Golden Fox. London: Pan Books.
__________ 1991. Elephant Song. London: Pan Books, 1992.
"Smith's work not well researched" 1987. Rev. of Rage by Wilbur Smith, City Press
(Johannesburg) (June 28), 9.
"Snubbing SA harmful -- author" 1976. Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg) (November 23): 5.
Stiebel, L. 1992/3. "Treating Trash Seriously: Teaching Popular Fiction in South Africa",
Perspectives in Education 14, 1: 47-53.
"Stoep Talk: Fact to Support Fiction" 1972. The Star (Johannesburg) (September 28): 17.
Stoneman, C. 1989/1990. "Killing People in Zimbabwe", rev. of A Time to Die by Wilbur
Smith, White Man Black War by Bruce Moore-King, and News from Nowhere by David
Caute, Southern African Review of Books 3, 2 (Issue 12) (December-January): 6-7.
Stotesbury, J. 1990a. "The Function of Borders in the Popular Novel on South Africa,"
English in Africa 17, 2 (October): 71-89.
Stotesbury, J. 1990b. "Getting it Right: A Study of Narrative Strategies in Popular Fiction
on South Africa." Unpublished dissertation for the degree of filosofie licentiat in the
Department of English, University of Umea, Sweden, February 1990.
Stotesbury, J. 1990c. Umea Studies in the Humanities: Wilbur Smith Plays Happy Families.
In Granqvist 1990: 189-195.
Stotesbury, J. 1991. The Intransigent Internal Colony: Narrative Strategies in Modern South
African Popular Fiction. In Giddings, 1991: 128-149.
Stuart, J. and Malcolm, D. McK. (eds.) 1950. The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn.
Pietermaritzburg: Shooter & Shuter.
Taylor, P. 1985. "Another sure fire adventure winner from Wilbur Smith", rev. of The
Burning Shore by Wilbur Smith, The Citizen (Johannesburg) (May 13): 6.
Thompson, L. 1985. The Political Mythology of Apartheid. New Haven: Yale University
Tomaselli, R. 1992. "The Politics of Discourse and the Discourse of Politics: Images of
Violence and Reform on the South African Broadcasting Corporation's Television News
Bulletins -- July 1985-November 1986." Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Centre for
Cultural and Media Studies, University of Natal, Durban.
Trump, M. (ed.) 1990. Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture
of the 1970s and 1980s. Johannesburg: Ravan.
"The truth in Smith's fiction," 1972. The Pretoria News (September 27): 4.
"UK readers love Wilbur," 1991. Daily Dispatch (East London, South Africa) (January 14):
van der Post, L. 1974. A Far-Off Place. London: The Hogarth Press.
van Rensburg, C. (Project Director) n.d. Stepping into the Future: Education for South
Africa's Black, Coloured and Indian Peoples. Johannesburg: Erudita Publications, [1975?].
van Wyk, E. 1994. "Claims 'ridiculous and exorbitant'", Eastern Province Herald (Port
Elizabeth, South Africa) (February 15): 5.
Wark, W. (ed.) 1991. Spy Fiction, Spy Films, and Real Intelligence. London and Portland,
OR: Frank Cass.
Watt, E. P. 1962. Febana: The True Story of Francis George Farewell: Explorer, Pioneer
and Founder of Natal. (Research by Patrick and Elizabeth Gooderham.) London: Peter
"Wilbur Smith -- true son of Africa," 1992. Diamond Fields Advertiser (Kimberly, South
Africa) (January 20), 8. Same interview reported in "Wilbur Smith -- true son of Africa,"
The Daily News (Durban, South Africa) (January 14, 1992), 10.
"Wilbur Smith -- Britain's No. 3" 1984. The Friend (Bloemfontein) (October 5): 19.
"Wilbur Smith speaks on SA" 1976. Pretoria News (December 2): 9.
Willis, T. 1989. "Smith Captures Soul of South Africa in Adventure Novels", rev. of six
Courtney novels re-released in a uniform edition by Heinemann, The Cape Times (Cape
Town) (January 14).