Thursday, 24 June 2010

A Short History of South Africa

At the end of 2009, I was comissioned to write an article for a short-lived magazine. The publisher was South African, and a large proportion of the readership was South African. This worried me a little - not that I have anything against South Africans (apart from as part of a much wider misanthropy), it's just that I know nothing about them or their country, apart from the fact they all take annoying horns to football matches. I've only known four South Africans in my life – two of those were schoolboys, and a third turned out to be a paedophile. In hindsight, I should have introduced them.

Undaunted (I try never to daunt, especially near my laptop), I decided it was my duty to educate myself about that fair and beauteous land, and share with you, the reader, my findings. So, armed with a pint of tea, a websiteful of Wikipedia and a large bag of illicit herbal narcotics, I give you my Short History of South Africa.

Firstly, after consulting everything ever written on this fascinating region, it’s important to know that both books and the tourist pamphlet agree that the country now known as Sith Ifrici isn't at all important until the seventeenth century, when the first European settlers began arriving. Any evidence of prior human settlement, like the three million year old skulls found at the Sterkfontein caves, are red herrings sent to test our faith by Professor Richard Dawkins, and should be ignored to protect the feelings of a suspicious god who lacks self-confidence.

So, onward to 1652, when Jan de Riebeeck (in English, John the Ryvita) established a 'refreshment station' on the Cape of Good Hope on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. Bear in mind, this 'refreshment' is mostly for sailors, and so presumably consisted of numerous taverns and whorehouses, much like modern day Amsterdam, only with less bicycles. This station continued to service the needs of many a lonely matelot for a century and a half and it is to this long and liberal Dutch heritage that most South African males can trace their bizarre sexual perversions.

In 1795, The Dutch became concerned about Napoleon, because he was short, and mean, and had boats. Great Britain agreed to 'look after' the Cape Colony on behalf of the Dutch, who feared French naval power. “That won't do!” cried an indignant Britannia, “People seizing strategic positions for themselves? It's just damned ungentlemanly!”. Britain went on to seize the strategic position for themselves in 1806, after Admiral Lord Nelson Mandela left an ungentlemanly part of French naval power burning in the sea off Trafalgar.

After the victory over Napoleon, Queen 'Hot Lips' Victoria ordered the veterans of Duke 'Beef' Wellington's army to set about expanding the British Empire until the sun never set upon it, mostly because she was afraid of the dark. Armed with their trusty Brown Bess musket (named after a popular and accomodating courtesan frequented during the soldiers' stay in Lisbon), these valiant knights scoured the four corners of the globe looking for people less well armed than them, in order to steal their land and educate them in the prime victorian virtues of moustaches, sexual repression and tedious floral ornamentation. South Africa did not escape this relentless spread of enforced stuffification – indeed it is believed to have seen the first formal reasoning for the expansion. When questioned about the morality of their conquests, the soldiers replied with this popular ditty:

It doesn't matter
Cos we have got
A bloody great gun
And they have not.
Pvt R. Kipling, Her Majesty's Ironic Rifles, 1851-49

Eventually, British expansion led to trouble with the natives. The most famous of all uprisings in the region began in 1879 when the Zulus – descended from 80s pop legend Shaka Kahn – surrounded the British Army at Mickey Rourke's Drift. One of the most famous battles in history commenced as the melty-faced Hollywood hardman and his band of resiliant redcoats fought off endless swarms of the enemy. It's hard to be precise about the number of Zulus, but Mr M Caine, an eyewitness from a documentary I watched, said that there were literally “Fousands of 'em”. Only the superiority of the newly-issued Martini Henry rifle (named after a famous aristocratic drunk in downtown Durban) and Rourke's legendary rage as the attackers repeatedly trampled his prize begonias saved the plucky colonialists from destruction.

British rule was again under threat at the turn of the twentieth century when tensions between settlers of Dutch origin in the Orange Free State and Lord Kitchener's firm belief that all citrus fruit should be paid for led to a series of conflicts known as the Board Wars. This period can be classed into three main phases: the Plasterboard War, the Chipboard War, and the brief but bitter Undertheboardwalk War. The Board Wars are famous not only for the British introduction of 'Happy Camps' , where wives and children of the rebels would be accommodated with their choice of death by starvation or death by disease, but also is remembered as the first time the British Army fought without their traditional red uniforms. Red was thought a little too 'nineteenth century' for some of the more style-conscious officers, and the uniform varied for a year between shades of pastel and day-glo tie-dye schemes, before settling on khaki after a few conspicuously avoidable massacres.

After the death of Queen Victoria, people of her south african colony forgot about moustaches and rebellion, and spent remainder of the twentieth century engaged in their newest hobby, A PART HATE. Under the rules of A PART HATE, everyone in the country had to hate a specific part from the plays of Shakespeare which was decided by a show of hands. The first part hated was that of Polonius, the tedious waffler from Hamlet, but the fad really got going in 1948, when the country united in their hatred of the mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream, for their overtly simplistic and anti-agrarian portrayal of rustic life in sixteenth century Warwickshire. Such was the outpouring of vitriol that any actor caught playing the part of Bottom was enforced to live life effectively as a second class citizen, being denied access to the best libraries and being forced to drink only the cheapest of wine. One can only imagine the shadow of despair this would cast upon many a classically trained thespian – some of the survivors of this punishment can still be seen today in District 9 of Johannesburg.

During the 1970s, when the people of the republic hated the part of the bear in The Winter's Tale, the international literary community pointed out that it had all got a bit silly now, and decided that they wouldn't talk to anyone who disrespected Shakespeare and couldn't clearly see that the bear only existed in a stage direction. The writers of the world imposed a series of boycotts, depriving many South Africans of the chance to see the finest performance poetry or experimental theatre. A PART HATE was eventually ended when theatre-lover Admiral Lord Nelson Mandela hired the Spice Girls to star in his play featuring all of the Bard's previously despised characters and the burning remnants of French naval power.

The phenomenal success of this fusion of Girl Power and Ship Power launched the Republic of South Africa into a golden age. For the last few decades, its people have enjoyed a happy period of bloody diamonds, bishops in tutus, and cricketers who are better at throwing matches than they are at flying around mountains. All thanks to David Beckham's wife. Here endeth the lesson.

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