Writing the Covenant:
White and Gray
in St. Michaels on August 23, Michener wrote a final note on the trip:
"Philip Bateman was perfect for the job and he arranged extraordinary
meetings. I accomplished all I had hoped, and he is to be commended.
did not however, for reasons which I am not sure I understand, arrange
any meetings with blacks, and this is a significant gap which must be
filled by you drawing upon such black South Africans as may be in New
York, or with whites sympathetic to their cause and well informed. (I
met many blacks in 1971 and have met others in London, so I am not barren;
but this is not good enough for a book of this nature.)"
spoken with Bateman by phone before giving him the Michener assignment,
mentioning a need for these interviews but saying that I wouldn't make
any reference to this in written communications with him.
I was probably being over-cautious but given the existing climate in
South Africa with BOSS (Bureau of State Security) looking over everyone's
shoulder, I didn't want to see Jim denied a visa that at the time he'd
yet to apply for.
Even he had been uncertain as to whether he'd get
permission to visit the country: "I can see reasons why they might not
issue me one, and reasons why they might. But I am so deeply involved
with this project, and so convinced that I can do a first rate and needed
job that I propose to go ahead, whether the South African government
grants the visa or not; which means that you two gentlemen (Oursler
and me) ought to consider how we might operate in the event that I have
to do all my work from America."
2001, when Dr. Barbara Helly was preparing her doctoral thesis on The
Covenant, she asked Bateman about this omission and received an
email with this explanation which appears in her thesis:
didn't he get to meet many blacks? This is an interesting one!
The question is not why I didn't organize more black people
for him to meet but why he did not get to meet many.
are the reasons:
The programme was very tight - very compressed. We had only
a matter of weeks to cover the whole country - both geographically
and in terms of history - and all the other disciplines he was
We had to concentrate on experts in each field. For historical
reasons there were at the time very few black academics and
an insignificant number - arguably none - in any of the fields
he was working in. (Oddly enough the same statement would apply
today, but slightly less so.)
by Adam Small. I tried to make an interview with the so-called
"coloured" academic and poet Adam Small. I had great difficulty
with this and he in fact turned me down. This was extraordinary
considering he was one of the most outspoken people in 'struggle'
politics. He would have been an ideal person for Michener to
meet. I was very disappointed over this.
Mutwa. He did a tour of Soweto and met a leading black businessman
as well as the fascinating Zulu witchdoctor Credo Mutwa. This
was admittedly a brief visit, At the time he was famous for
having been the only black to have written about black history.
Michener was given his book of course. He was also taken to
Crossroads, the squatter camp outside Cape Town to meet some
ordinary black people.
agenda. There was no 'agenda' or underhand purpose in this.
It was simply the way things happened. Had we had three months
we might have met more black people but, as I've said, the vast
majority of information comes from white academic sources. I
don't think we could have done it any other way considering
the immense time limitations.
don't believe there was deliberate bias. We were simply practical.
Bateman e-mail to Barbara Helly, April 2 2001, quoted in Dr.
Helly's thesis "The Covenant, de James A Michener,
un roman populaire américain sur l'histoire l'Afrique
du Sud," Universite Rennes II -Haute Bretagne.
the time, I was less concerned about this omission than Michener for
my own background more than fulfilled his criteria as a white sympathetic
to the struggle of South Africa's blacks. In fact, I'd already had my
own misgivings about Jim's representation of blacks in the novel. I set this out in a note to Jim following our first meeting on September
9, after his return from South Africa.
really think the in-depth black interviews are vital... At present
the core of the book seems heavily weighted toward the Van Doorns
and the Saltwoods, and the interplay between them and the Nxumalos
is still very sketchy. Hopefully, the missionary-black effort will
afford opportunity toward rectifying this. Still, when I look at
the family trees of Van Doorn/Saltwood - against the Nxumalo one
in my rough working notes - I have this sense of inadequacy.
I have a feeling that what one needs do is to put aside the Van
Doorns and Saltwoods and 'think' black. In other words, with all
the material at one's disposal plus whatever interviews can be got,
to project the entire story through the Nxumalo family. I'd be happier,
for example, if I had a 30-page "rough working" synopsis on exactly
the same era, placings, etc. as what now exists but concentrating
solely on the black family. Then, take that and fit it against the
wouldn't change it and much would be unsaid but it would bring the
balance needed. We know, for example, how the Van Doorns and Saltwoods
think, how they react to the great and s smaller events around them,
how their opinions are shaped and their actions determined. We seem
to be able to get inside them. I don't think this is yet the case
with the Nxumalos who often seem to be on the periphery rather than
- even if silent, watchful observers - in the main arena.
you think I have a point here, it will probably be important that
we start resolving this soon. I believe that with intelligent reading
of material available and detailed interviews with as many reliable
sources here, much could be achieved.
the emphasis likely to be placed on South Africa's blacks at the
time when the book appears, I think it will be very important to
have it all in the right proportion.
September meeting was important in taking stock of our progress and
plans for realization of the novel, as well as deciding on specific
research projects I was to undertake. My notes from the meeting provide
a distillation of our ongoing working process, items like "Sable antelope,"
"de-landed Boer," "Trek," essentially flash cards
that point to subject areas I was to delve into.
NOTES : With Jim Michener/ September 9, 1978
chapters to be completed first:
Creation and the Diamond
Australopithecus - Antecedent of his? Relationship: Gracilus/Robustus?
Education of a Puritan
antelope: Life pattern...leit motif among animals
of the Veld: "De-animalization" -
how this took place
Boer, 1922 etc. Perhaps through Detleef's growing up/reflections
Reformed Church split, Holland etc. 1978/79?
lived for 00? years before any member of the family saw a black
man. And 00? years until actual contact with blacks"
of Boer section reference to fact that no universities
had been established. In Peru and USA colleges soon after settlement.
These were to provide a 'leadership group.' In Southern Africa,
the settlement was controlled by a commercial company with its
own interests in mind. It concerned itself with commerce. Analogy
between the two. Not to have had this germinal material? Their
(the Boers) university was a university of the Bible. It did
produce a more homogenous people - but narrow-visioned
First Van Doorn estate near Stellenbosch with view
of the Mountain. Van Doorn dies, leaves young widow. She marries
French Huguenot...She buries him...That ends Huguenot section.
Kraal 1810-1836, near Webster, closer to Grahamstown
than Graaff Reinet and within distance of Slagtersnek. Makes
it a 'fortress'. But it is devastated by everybody and finally
burned in 1834. And some of his best blacks killed. And Hottentots.
Says to hell with it...
in Graaff Reinet/ Musters in Grahamstown. (Riebeek Oos?)
Circuit-Slagtersnek. Thaba Nchu. Natal. Vrymeer.Pretoria 1899
Venlo five miles north-east of Hendrina
Spioen Kop Buller. Comic counterfoil to de
Black Muslim movement in Soweto?
Huguenot pro rata contribution. Present evaluation?
Blood River and Covenant
Trek... American, Russian, Nguni, Boer. Mystical value to direction
in traveling. Russian to rising sun. American to setting sun.
Evaluation of historical, emotional and numerical importance.
God obligated to accept their covenant even though it abused
rights of people He thought as much of."
New York, I met two black exiles from South Africa, who accepted an
invitation to spend a weekend in October with Michener and me at St.
Michaels: David Sibeko, the "Malcolm X of South Africa," and Bernard
Magubane, a professor of anthropology at New York University. In the
1960s Sibeko worked for Drum magazine, the rambunctious parent
of Post newspapers, before running afoul of the South African
government and being thrown into jail. Tried and acquitted of sabotage,
he fled the country and became a leader of the Pan African Congress
(PAC)in exile, its permanent observer at the United Nations. Sibeko
was a charming passionate man devoted to freeing his people and it was
sad to read less than a year later that he was assassinated on a street
three days in October were as illuminating for me as for Jim. "It all
goes somewhere deep inside to join with a personal sense of tragedy,
of frustration, of impatience - and perhaps a silent guilt at not having
done more than one did," I wrote afterwards in a note to Michener. "One
is not naïve: the path that they see leading them to victory is,
ultimately, a harsh, violent way. Perhaps there is still a five year
period of grace in which to talk, but it seems clear that by then the
burden of the past will overtake present conciliation."
and I agreed on the appointment of a second legman in Cape Town, specifically
to work on apartheid and black issues.
Roger Kenyon, my deputy editor
at Reader's Digest who'd also become a freelancer, did excellent
work ferreting out material for the apartheid chapter, digging up records
of some of the most egregious cases of discrimination and racism.
Errol Lincoln Uys All materials are from my personal
archives, unless indicated otherwise. No items may be reproduced without
permission. Web site illustrations added to material.