Review: Archie Henderson
No Outspan, by Deneys Reitz (The House of Emslie)
If this doesn’t seem new, it’s because it ain’t. Old Deneys Reitz has been around for a long time, most significantly as the chronicler of Commando, the enduring classic of the Boer War, and only slightly less successfully in Adrift on the Open Veld, a combination of his trilogy in one volume by his dedicated publisher Trevor Emslie.
Emslie recently decided to publish the final volume of the trilogy on its own and it will still appeal to a certain generation of readers who remember Reitz fondly from those earlier volumes.
Reitz, with his quaint prose, is still a delight to read. He’s from a different era, now vanished. How he stands up in these times of political correctness is hard to gauge, but we need to remember that he completed his book 77 years ago when things were very different and light was beginning to emerge from the tunnel that was World War 2.
At the time Reitz was a member of Jan Smuts’s cabinet, a loyal follower of the prime minister and field marshal and about to be appointed High Commissioner to London. He died the following year aged 62. He is buried on Mariepskop, an imposing mountain in the Lowveld where he owned a farm and where he loved to spend time, relaxing and hunting.
He takes up his unusual life story at the end of one world war and ends it two years short of the end of the next one. It’s truly an extraordinary tale. As a fervent young Boer warrior (a famed Boerekryger of Afrikaans literature) he waged war on an imperial Britain (Commando). Then he went into self-imposed exile (Trekking On, the second volume) but was lured back home by Smuts’s wife, Issie, and he joined the ranks of his former enemies to become a regimental commander of Scottish soldiers against Germany in one of imperial Britain’s great conflicts.
No Outspan is about the post-World War 1 era where Reitz began to renew a friendship with Smuts that had been forged in the war of the republics against Britain. Their friendship grew to an extent where Smuts trusted Reitz implicitly and even indulgently. As a cabinet minister in Smuts’s first government (after the death of Louis Botha), Reitz was given the portfolio of Crown Lands and Irrigation, a job that suited him perfectly for he hated to sit in an office and would escape to rural South Africa and some border territories whenever he could, often on the pretext of getting to grips with his responsibilities.
With the defeat of the Smuts government in 1920, he went faithfully into opposition until Fusion in 1933, with JBM Hertzog, an old Free State Boer general, as prime minister. It was no surprise that Hertzog, an austere man, indulged Reitz as much as Smuts had. The author’s father, after all, had been a former president of the Free State republic and a good friend of Hertzog.
The most dramatic part of the book comes near the end when South Africa is faced with the difficult decision over whether to remain neutral in World War 2, or join the side of the British empire. Of all the stories told about the dramatic weekend of cabinet and caucus meetings and finally a vote in the House of Assembly, no one tells it better. We are indeed lucky that all along the way, Reitz had kept a detailed diary and he has used it well.
If there are flaws in his story, it is about his wife and the majority of South Africans, the so-called “Native Question”. Alas, Reitz steers far too clear from both issues. His wife, Lelia, was a significant person in her own right, the first woman to become a member of Parliament (for Parktown) and a campaigner for the rights of women and children. She deserved more attention. As for the native question, Reitz reveals a paternalism that would not hold up today.
Smuts described this book as: “[A]n entertaining narrative of his activities … in the course of which he has succeeded in proving … that in spite of our quarrels, South Africa is a country of good temper and good will, with the hope of a united nation to come.”