Swans Commentary » swans.com October 21, 2013  



Who Was Laurens Van Der Post?
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



(Swans - October 21, 2013)   Although many people may not be familiar with either the name or achievements of Laurens van der Post (1906-1996), his peculiarly mythical life has exerted a significant influence on modern-day environmentalism, the story of which is ably unpacked by his official (albeit highly critical) biographer, J.D.F. Jones, in Storyteller: The Many Lives of Laurens van der Post (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Having been born within a "respectable but not particularly notable Afrikaans-speaking family in the South African interior," Jones skillfully charts the grimy details of Laurens's rise to international acclaim through a life dedicated to autobiographical fiction. (1)

Laurens's ascent to fame as an author of "nonfiction" was launched in the aftermath of World War II when he was recruited by the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC) to undertake an assignment in Nyasaland, Central Africa, to survey its potential for increased food production for the British Empire. (2) Based on the diary he kept during his two-month visit to Africa, Laurens wrote the bestselling book, Venture to the Interior (1951), which "marked the beginning of Laurens's reputation as an 'explorer'; a reputation he would build on in the subsequent ten years when he turned his attention to the Kalahari Desert." But unfortunately for his readers, while Laurens's fictional storytelling skills served a useful social purpose during his time as a POW in Japan, "he never entirely made the necessary transfer into the peacetime world when literal truthfulness once again becomes a moral imperative." (3) And so for a writer who would go on to seamlessly blend truth and fiction it is significant that when Laurens first worked for the CDC, he had become interested in the mystical mumbo jumbo of Carl Gustav Jung.

Contrary to the impression Laurens gives, "the subject matter of his first travel story in Nyasaland" was not, as the CDC well knew, a particularly remote or inaccessible district; it was frequently visited by local expatriates and colonial officials. This, however, did not stop Laurens to write a story of his 'adventure' to the interior that was "far more imaginative" than what was actually a fairly routine mission to survey livestock potential. Such creative writing evidently proved immensely popular, and when the British version of his book was published the following year it "had the sort of critical reception authors and publishers dream of..." (4)

It was around this time of his increasing fame that Laurens began to view then largely unknown Bushmen of the Kalahari region in a different light, seeing them as noble savages rather than as a labor force to be harnessed by Colonial authorities. In this way Laurens's change of heart served to amplify Lawrence Marshall's famously misleading work on the Bushmen. Faced with a mid-life crisis of sorts, Marshall had retired from Raytheon (which he had co-founded in 1922), turning over his life to a less toxic and more romantic endeavour, "set[ting] off with his family in search of a Bushman society which, it was believed, did not make war." (5) Unfortunately, despite what may well have been the best intentions of humanitarian imperialists like Laurens and Marshall, as Robert Gordon makes apparent in his book The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass (Westview Press, 1992), the promotion of such pseudoscientific narratives of peace and harmony would have "a disastrous impact on those people whom we label 'Bushmen.'" In fact, contrary to the mythical imagery applied to the Bushmen, by "the end of World War II the overwhelming majority of Bushmen had became part of Namibia's invisible rural proletariat, eking out an existence on settler farms." (6)

It is important to acknowledge that Laurens and Marshall were hardly original in their promotion of the Bushmen myth, as it had firm roots in the work of the Commission for the Preservation of the Bushmen -- which was chaired between 1949 and 1953 by the "famous Afrikaner author and anthropologist P. J. Schoeman." Therefore, given Laurens's own recent involvement in the surveying of farming interests in the locality, it is surely significant that the creation of the damaging Bushmen mythology proved immensely useful for settler farming interests who themselves provided the "major impetus" for the creation of a Bushman reserve. (7) As Gordon notes:

[T]o underline the importance of the farming lobby while the [Commission for the Preservation of the Bushmen] was engaged in its activities, an articulate spokesman of the ruling Nationalist party in the Legislative Assembly succeeded in having a motion passed that called on the administration to place all "vagrant" Bushmen in a special reserve for the following, rather contradictory, reasons: Bushmen were the first representatives of Homo sapiens; after this bow to misplaced humanism, he continued that they were largely a "bastard race" and rife with venereal disease. More important, vagrant Bushmen were a threat to farmers because apart from depleting the farmers' livestock, they were responsible for most veld fires and the killing off of the territory's game. ... It is not coincidental that these calls came when large tracts of the Kaukauveld were being opened to white farmers in the wake of World War II ... (p.161)

Notably, the Commission's interim report had suggested the formation of two Bushmen reserves; one for the Heikom by the Etosha Game Park, and a second for the Kung Bushmen in Karakuwisa. When the final report was published in 1953, this proposal was revised somewhat, with the first recommended reserve for the Heikom Bushmen ditched, and the second one now to be located at Nyae Nyae, not at Karakuwisa.

It is difficult to explain this volteface, except to note that Schoeman had accepted employment as chief game warden of Etosha while he was chairman of the commission and that not only was Karakuwisa part of a game reserve, but it also had the potential to be developed by European ranchers. In contrast, Nyae Nyae was isolated from markets, and its belt of gifblaar (Dichapetalum cymosum) made cattle ranching singularly unattractive in that part of the Kalahari. (p.160)

Laurens's advocacy of the cause of the Bushmen via the deployment of the problematic agrarian myth thus not only served settler interests -- despite the fact that he said he was most concerned with helping Bushmen -- but his stories echoed his "generation's nostalgia for a simpler, perhaps more innocent, society." (8) His popularist (and confused) version of Bushmen history thus manifested itself as a 'third-way' ideology (which presented itself as both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist), which in turn was largely plagiarized from the work of earlier scholars. (9) Amongst the numerous best-selling books that Laurens published during this period, perhaps his most influential was his two-part travelogue The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of the Hunter (1961), which resulted from his work on a six-part documentary series for the BBC that was filmed in 1955. A documentary series that, when it aired on television the following year (as Lost World of the Kalahari), could boast of viewing figures that were "second only to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II three years earlier." (10)

Bushmen myth-making was never Laurens's only concern, and during the 1950s he became involved with the Capricorn Africa Society. Originally created in the mid-1940s by the founder of the British Special Air Service (SAS), David Stirling, the Society was seen as a way to counter socialism and promote British business interests in Africa. In keeping with his propensity for mistruths, Laurens "used to describe himself as the co-founder" of the Society, when in actual fact "did not even meet Stirling until late 1952."Why Laurens would wish to associate himself with the Society's early days confounds belief; but by the time he became involved in the Society it was adopting a slightly more enlightened approach to social change, with their 'Salisbury Declaration' of December 1952 publicly adopting a policy "of partnership between the races with the whites in control..." Later still, in 1955, J.H. Oldham would write a book, New Hope in Africa (1955), which summarized the Society's increasingly liberal approach to social engineering, while it is notable that nevertheless the Society still considered the liberal African Bureau to be their "great enemy." (11) Activity at the Capricorn Africa Society, however, was soon wound down, as they were overtaken by existing independence movements in Africa, (12) and Stirling...

...resigned the presidency and withdrew to London, to the gambling world of his right-wing Mayfair friends, and then to the Middle East, where he ran a private army in the Yemen Civil War and became an arms dealer to Saudi Arabia. He also set up Watchguard, a shadowy organisation which offered protection to heads of state friendly to Britain. He survived a bad car crash in Scotland in the early 1970s and then got even deeper into right-wing extra-parliamentary politics. His friendship with Laurens survived: after his death in 1990, Laurens described his life as 'noble, complex and significant'. (p.257)

Laurens went on to oppose apartheid in South Africa -- it was hard not to -- but it is more than a little concerning that he maintained his friendship with Stirling, who remained involved in controversial mercenary work until his death in 1990. For example, in 1986 Stirling founded a mercenary outfit known as KAS Enterprises that went on to work with WWF in South Africa "train[ing] anti-poaching units in Namibia, which was then still under the control of South Africa, as well as Mozambicans in South Africa." This secret project was code-named "Operation Lock," and was funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the founding president of WWF, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. John Hanks, the head of Africa programmes for WWF-International subsequently took the blame for the covert action, taking a so-called "demotion" in 1990 to become the chief executive of WWF South Africa. (13) Later still, Hanks went on to bigger and better things, becoming the founding executive director (1997-2000) of the Peace Parks Foundation (which, incidentally, counted Prince Bernhard among their founding patrons).

Here perhaps it is appropriate to step back in time to 1971, when after the success of his first BBC documentary series on the Bushmen, "Laurens made a substantial three-part film about Jung for the BBC." Laurens had prided himself as a sophisticated Jungian disciple and his semi-autobiographical novel, The Face Beside the Fire (1953), demonstrated the early influence that Jung had exerted on his enchanted mind. As a follow-up to the successful documentary, Laurens wrote Jung and the Story of Our Time (1976), which turned out to be a generally well-received popular book. This biographical study provided "one reason why Laurens, over the next twenty years, became a frequent and lauded visitor to the U.S., a familiar figure at Jungian, or in due course New Age, gatherings from New York to California, Houston to Chicago, Philadelphia to Buffalo." (14)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Jones, Storyteller, p.1. For a useful summary of some of the main arguments presented in Jones's book, see Frank McLynn, "Faking it, "New Statesmen, October 8, 2001.  (back)

2.  Jones, Storyteller, p.171. "He was in fact a contracted Senior Assistant, Animal Products Division at the CDC, but he preferred to write, afterwards, that he was I engaged, rather mysteriously, in 'work of national importance' for which he had volunteered following his wartime experiences." (p.171)  (back)

3.  Jones, Storyteller, p.175, p.42. "In Laurens's life there is an unending confusion between the fact and the fiction which it is sometimes impossible to disentangle. From an early age Laurens slipped easily from literal truth to what he saw as imaginative truth. The important key is this: whenever he amended the literal truth, whether in his books or in his conversation, he invariably did it to promote himself -- to position himself at the centre." (p.129)  (back)

4.  Jones, Storyteller, p.176, p.185. "Elsewhere reviews were ecstatic, except in the (Communist) Daily Worker..." (p.185)  (back)

5.  Jones, Storyteller, p.211. "Visiting Cape Town in 1949 to sell a radar system, he heard of an expedition to search for the 'Lost City of the Kalahari' -- a fable current since the 1880s -- and decided to join it with his son John. Raytheon had designed the trigger of the Hiroshima bomb. Marshall, horrified by the consequence, decided to retire, and set off with his family in search of a Bushman society which, it was believed, did not make war. The Marshalls conducted seven expeditions to then Kalahari in the 1950s. They were amateurs, but they produced two influential results: a best-selling book (The Harmless People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in 1959), and a film, The Hunters, by the son, John. Marshall's wife, Lorna, also published a number of ethnographic papers. The Marshalls' work did much to establish an international image of the Bushmen as an ancient people, unspoiled, living in harmony with their environment. John Marshall later volunteered that that image was, sadly, false." (p.211)  (back)

6.  Gordon, The Bushman Myth, p.1, p.157. For a detailed examination of Laurens's culture essentialism and racial stereotyping, see Edwin Wilmsen, "Primitive Politics in Sanctified Landscapes: the Ethnographic Fictions of Laurens van der Post," Journal of Southern African Studies, 21 (2), 1995. Wilmsen notes that "from 1949 van der Post became progressively more drawn to Jung's ideas about primitive mentality." He later writes: "Although well-intentioned, the appropriation of the first people image leads in the wrong direction. Van der Post's imagery is a perversion of anti-apartheid, non-racial discourse. Far from mediating racist divisiveness he naturalizes divisions, and from his own hands -- his support of Inkatha on grounds of its claims to the revival of cultural purity -- feeds tribalist revanchism." (p.204, p.222) For further analysis, see Edwin Wilmsen, "To See Ourselves as We Need to See Us: Ethnography's Primitive Turn in the Cold War Years," (pdf) Critical African Studies, 1, 2009.  (back)

7.  Gordon, The Bushman Myth, p.160, p.169. Prior to accepting his role as chair of the Commission, professor Schoeman had worked at Stellenbosch University, "where he had been actively involved in developing a cohesive doctrine of Grand Apartheid and had unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat as native representative. In addition to his academic respectability, as an Afrikaner, he could be counted on to 'know how to behave.' Given this background, it was inevitable that the commission would come up with a recommendation for a special Bushman reserve, if only to maintain the logical consistency of the Apartheid ideology." (p.163)  (back)

8.  Jones, Storyteller, p.215. For more on the problem of the agrarian myth, see Tom Brass, "The Agrarian Myth, the 'New' Populism and the 'New' Right," Journal of Peasant Studies, 24 (4), 1997.  (back)

9.  "In fact, most of the Bushman stories Laurens recounts in The Heart of the Hunter, and which he would retell so often in the years ahead, can actually be found either in Bleek's Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911), or his 'Short Account' (1875), or Lloyd's Account of Further Bushmen Material (1889) or Dorothea Bleek's Mantis and his Friends (1923), just as much of Laurens's history comes from Stow. Laurens does not deny the debt -- he acknowledges the Bleeks in his introduction to The Heart of the Hunter -- but he is never specific about how large it is. He volunteers that his mother read Bleek's books to him when he was a child, and describes them as 'a sort of stone age bible to me'. His own book turned out to be a sort of Apocrypha." Jones, Storyteller, p.233.  (back)

10.  Alan Barnard, Anthropology and the Bushman (Berg, 2007), p.59.  (back)

11.  Jones, Storyteller, p.251, p.252, p.256.

The following draws upon Anne Yates and Lewis Chester's book The Troublemaker: Michael Scott and His Lonely Struggle Against Injustice (Aurum Press, 2006). The Africa Bureau was founded in 1952 by David Astor and was headed by Anglican priest Michael Scott for the next sixteen years ("Astor described it as 'a vehicle for Michael'") (p.127). Prior to World War II Scott had been an active member of the Communist Party, however after the war he threw himself into liberal and Quaker-based human rights activism and eventually came to become an arch anti-Communist. For example, in 1949 Scott was appointed as the overseas observer for the International League for the Rights of Man (which was chaired by Roger Baldwin) (p.105) which in turn guaranteed him a place as a representative at the United Nations. (p.150) Moreover during his early forays at the UN, Scott's main tutor was Secretariat member Jack Sargent Harris, the former war-time head of America's intelligence network in South Africa. (p.153) The "prime original function"of the Africa Bureau was to offer "backdoor diplomatic access to the British government for emergent African nationalists"(p.238); and an early project at the Africa Bureau was the formation of the African Development Trust, which a few years later was "merged into" E.F. Schumacher's Intermediate Technology Group. (p.143) Scott's work in Africa also "prompted" George Hauser to form Americans for South African Resistance in 1952, and the following year "Houser extended the compliment by establishing the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), with the assistance of Roger Baldwin and Bill Sutherland." (p.150, p.151) Initially, the Africa Bureau had relied "heavily"upon David Astor's financial support, but with time it soon became more reliant upon philanthropic foundations, such that by the "late 1950s one of the most dependable sources of finance was the Farfield Foundation, based in New York." Spending as much as three months of every year in New York in the 1950s, during this time Scott cultivated a strong friendship with another rich financier, the influential liberal philanthropist named Daniel Bernstein. (p.233) Later revelations in Ramparts magazine (in 1967) demonstrated that the Farfield Foundation was a front organization for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and although the Foundation abruptly stopped funding the Bureau in 1960 -- perhaps because of "Scott's high-profile advocacy of nuclear disarmament"-- at the time the Foundation were actually providing a third of the Bureau's annual budget and so their decision to cut off their largesse meant that the Bureau faced a temporary "cash crisis." (p.215, p.216, p.214) It is thus ironic that Scott, who was publicly upset by the revelation of the CIA's dirty money, would soon go on to serve on the executive committee of the Study Project on External Investment in South Africa and Namibia, which was funded to the tune of $200,000 by the Ford Foundation who themselves had a long history of working with the CIA. (p.285) By the time the project was launched in 1972, "it was already arousing suspicions of being a roundabout way of promoting 'dialogue' with South Africa." "In an article entitled 'South Africa's Frail Friends' in the New Statesman, the left-wing writer Suzanne Cronje poured scorn on the enterprise for reinforcing the status quo and 'providing the comforting illusion that "something is being done"while South African profits roll in'."(p.286)  (back)

12.  "Capricorn disappeared from any role for which David Stirling had created it. Its direct offspring was the Zebra Trust, under the patronage of Princess Margaret, which over the last forty years has successfully run a group of hostels for Commonwealth students in London." (p.258)  (back)

13.  Raymond Bonner, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife (Vintage, 1993), p.79. For an excellent discussion on the relationship between conservation and paramilitary units, see Stephen Ellis, "Of elephants and men: politics and nature conservation in South Africa,"(pdf) Journal of Southern African Studies, 20 (1), 1994. It is significant that the South African Defence Forces actively recruited Bushmen into their paramilitary units: for further details, see chapter 20 of the second edition of The Bushmen Myth, and Richard Lee and Susan Hurlich, "From foragers to fighters: South Africa's militarization of the Namibian San,"(pdf) In: Eleanor Burke Leacock and Richard Lee (eds.), Politics and History in Band Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp.327-47.  (back)

14.  Jones, Storyteller, p.322, p.329. The BBC documentary "included the first sighting of the 'Red Book', Jung's private and secret journal, which has still not been released by the family in its entirety. Laurens had secured the family's co-operation for the film but he afterwards complained that thirteen hours of film had been reduced to three 1 half-hour programmes, and that the Jung Foundation had reneged on its promise to release the rest of the footage; there were rumours that the family had objected to the inclusion of the Red Book. The television version, filmed by Jonathan Stedall amid mist-shrouded snowy peaks and a Wagnerian sound-track, is evocative and seductive, and will have introduced many people to Jung." (pp.322-3)

Laurens "claimed that he had been asked to write the official biography, though there is no evidence of such a proposal." In fact: "The problem with Jung and the Story of Our Time, as many Jungians have complained, is that it is first and foremost a book about Laurens. In fact he devotes his first sixty pages to talking about himself before he arrives at the words, 'Jung was born on July 26th, 1875'. Laurens positions himself in the early chapters at the hem of the story and describes Jung constantly with reference to himself. He underestimates the passion of scholars and diminishes the sophistication and subtlety of Jung's immense scholarship. He does not understand the mysteries of the analytical process because he was never willing fully to undergo it." (pp.324-5)  (back)


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Published October 21, 2013