James Michener built his reputation as a writer with his histories of contested lands: Israel (The Source), Korea (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Afghanistan (Caravans), and so on. By examining the land from the first—often before men had even come into the country—he was able to bring a perspective to these conflicts. By writing history as fiction, he communicates these perspectives in a very accessible way.
The Covenant is Michener’s novel of South Africa, from the time when only the nomadic San peoples (later called “Bushmen”) lived there; to the coming of the Zulu tribes from the north at the same time as Dutch Huegenots settled at the southern tip of the continent; the arrival of the British colonial settlers; the passive rebellion of the Boers (Voertrekkers who left their rich colonial coast farms for the stony inner provinces) and their active rebellion (the Boer War, which the British nominally won); the slim (clever) way in which the former Boer general Oom Paul Kruger and his staff managed to wrest victory from that defeat, imposing apartheid on the nation; and the multicultural society that developed in the 80s when the fence between blanks (whites) and nie-blanks (non-whites) was finally broken.
”What we’re looking for is beetles,” old Kharu said as they searched the arid land, “but only the ones with two white dots.” In fact they were not looking for adult beetles, but their larvae, and always of that special breed with the white specks and, Kharu claimed, an extra pair of legs.
It was impossible to explain how, over a period of ten thousand years, these women and their ancestors had isolated this little creature which alone among beetles was capable of producing a poison of remorseless virulence. How had such a discovery been made? No one remembered, it occurred so long ago. But when men can neither read nor write, when they had nothing external to distract their minds, they can spend their lives in minute observation… San people had had time to study the larvae of a thousand different insects, finding at last the only one that produced a deadly poison… —The Covenant by James Michener
So in The Covenant, we meet the San and learn their depth of understanding of this land and its animals; this is their land by virtue of their command of its powers. We understand the Boer with his forthright assumption of the covenant of Adam and Moses; this is his land by virtue of his willingness to invest the sweat of his brow in it. We comprehend the Zulu tribes and their drive south to acquire grazing for their cattle; it is their land by virtue of their blood and the blood of their children shed for it. We even learn some of the motivations for British colonialism and the savage investment English-speaking settlers made in the Boer War; for these people, “British” is what their grandfather was—what they are is South African, and this is their land, too.
We know this story too well to assume that Michener’s happy people, multi-culturally mixing, will be the end of this tale. But novels must have an ending, a climax and resolution, to their conflicts, and Michener’s teams of writers managed to achieve it in book after book. By investing in this research, James Michener brought their biases, perspectives, local knowledge and flavor to each novel. Where Michener excelled was in weaving together these disparate views and stories to create a solid, balanced and in-depth experience of the land in dispute.
Where South Africa will go now, post-apartheid in the 21st century is unknown. Michener has given us a richly nuanced look at where this troubled country and its conflicted cultures have been.