Durban - Fact really is stranger than fiction.
That was the comment from author Nick Dall about how a black man had more rights in 1854 than any other time for the next 140 years in South Africa.
That was a key point worth pondering for authors Matthew Blackman and Dall ahead of delving into research for their new book Spoilt Ballots.
Coming off the back of their highly successful Rogues Gallery, which stayed firmly on the best-seller list for most of last year, Blackman and Dall, in their lively style, take a journey from the early 1800s when Shaka ruled his vast kingdom to the general elections ahead in 2024 and the passing of the mantle of power through SA’s tumultuous history.
The book opens with the early days in the 1800s, “when South Africa was a jumbled collection of kingdoms, colonies and republics with zero consensus on how leaders should be elected ‒ or who should elect them”.
Part one sets the scene for the turbulence ahead. From Dingaan, who took control after Shaka was assassinated and the Cape’s first non-racial democratic constitution, which allowed men of all races to vote in 1854, to the face-off between “Oom Paul” Kruger and “Slim Piet”Joubert in 1893.
Then onto the machinating Cecil John Rhodes in the 1898 elections, which are described as “the most fiercely contested, the most corrupt and the most libellous in the Cape’s history”.
Part two focuses on The Union of South Africa in the early decades of the 1900s, with politicians and characters on either side of the divide, including the “bromance” between Hertzog and Smuts, striking miners on the Rand and the influence of Nazi sentiment, among other factors along the rocky road to apartheid.
In part three, The Republic of Verwoerd, Black Consciousness and White Denial are chapters which take a deep dive into the politics and personalities during the apartheid era.
As the foreword reads: “Apartheid itself is often thought to have been an entirely Afrikaner nationalist project, which it was at first. But without a popular majority of white voters, the system would never have taken hold”, while “for decades, white voters and politicians conveniently ignored the fact that excluding the majority from any form of representational democracy would only end in disaster”.
Chapter four explores the birth of a new South Africa in 1994: “But as our newly baptised ‒ and nearly drowned ‒ nation emerged from those elected waters, a new (but entirely familiar) politics of confusion and corruption surfaced under the ANC. Not for the first time in our history, the ruling party’s internal squabbles and elections took precedence over the will of the people, and the country’s politics are currently as confused as ever.”
This week, Dall said: “We wrote the book because we wanted to tell the long and troubled history of democracy in South Africa using key elections as inflection points.
“It was really important for us that the book was as much about the people who could vote as it was about the many millions who could not vote. The book was, in many ways, an attempt to understand why a black man at the Cape had more rights in 1854 than at any point in the next 140 years. Fact really is stranger than fiction.”
He added that the book, which includes comprehensive detail, took about 18 months to write and research.
It is an entertaining, easy to read style, which will attract readers who want to delve into South Africa’s troubled past and all the drama and colour which that encapsulated.
Or, as the authors said: “Spoilt Ballots wouldn’t have been as fascinating to research (and, hopefully, to read) without the often despicable acts of our forebears.”
Matthew Blackman has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia, and as a journalist, has written widely on corruption, art, literature and history.
Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town and has worked as a journalist, but now focuses on history books.
Spoilt Ballots is available on Amazon.com
The Independent on Saturday