A Rainbow in the Night

The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa


By Dominique Lapierre

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In 1652 a small group of Dutch farmers landed on the southernmost tip of Africa. Sent by the powerful Dutch India Company, their mission was simply to grow vegetables and supply ships rounding the cape. The colonists, however, were convinced by their strict Calvinist faith that they were among God's “Elect,” chosen to rule over the continent. Their saga—bloody, ferocious, and fervent—would culminate three centuries later in one of the greatest tragedies of history: the establishment of a racist regime in which a white minority would subjugate and victimize millions of blacks. Called apartheid, it was a poisonous system that would only end with the liberation from prison of one of the moral giants of our time, Nelson Mandela.

A Rainbow in the Night is Dominique Lapierre's epic account of South Africa's tragic history and the heroic men and women—famous and obscure, white and black, European and African—who have, with their blood and tears, brought to life the country that is today known as the Rainbow Nation.


By Dominique Lapierre
Once upon a Time in The Soviet Union
A Thousand Suns
Beyond Love
The City of Joy
By Dominique Lapierre and Xavier Moro
Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
By Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
Is New York Burning?
The Fifth Horseman
Freedom at Midnight
O Jerusalem
. . . Or I'll Dress You in Mourning
Is Paris Burning?

To Helen Lieberman and to all those—whites, blacks, and coloreds—who put an end to apartheid oppression and brought about the triumph of freedom, unity, truth, and reconciliation

WHEN I WROTE A Rainbow in the Night, I did not set out to compile an exhaustive history of South Africa. Rather, I wanted to recount, as accurately as possible, a powerful human epic. Much of the information contained in this book is the product of extensive personal research and has not been published previously. I would like to point out, however, that to make the account more vivid, I have chosen to dramatize the proceedings of a secret meeting among the architects of apartheid. This reconstruction is nevertheless based on the historical record and grounded in careful research. For additional information on my sources and a list of selected readings on South Africa, please refer to the bibliography at the end of the book.
—D. L.

Each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushweld . . . —a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

In Search of a New Promised Land
PILLAGE, RAPE, MURDER: it was a sixteenth-century crusade against heresy so violent it was almost unique in history. Holland's northern provinces were engulfed in flames and blood, occupied by savage troops sent from pious Spain. Day and night, the stakes burned thousands who followed the new religion preached by the monk Martin Luther, who had just made his stand against Rome and its avaricious pope. Luther's revolt was swiftly followed by another, spread by an austere, long-nosed Picardian with a goatee and a tight fur collar. From his refuge in Geneva, the theologian John Calvin sent out hundreds of thousands of copies of his manifesto seeking to make the Bible recognized as the unique source of faith and as revealing that God had expressly chosen certain people to have dominion over the whole of creation.
The Bible! For men and women in the Dutch lowlands trying to wrest their freedom from the papist legions, it was already their beacon. And now came messengers from Geneva informing them that they were the new children of Israel, chosen by God to liberate their land, as the Hebrews had once won the land of Canaan. Nothing could have strengthened their will to survive more than this affirmation that they belonged to a chosen people. "For you are a people holy unto the Lord! Thou shalt not be affrighted for the Lord thy God is among you . . . His angel is fighting at your side!" recited the bearded iconoclast's emissaries in the churches that had been hastily turned into Protestant places of worship. Citing the Holy Scriptures, they told the rebels that after their subjection to the Spanish crown and the papal tiara, they were now ready, like the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, to conquer their promised land. "If Yahweh has chosen you," they proclaimed, "it is not because you are the most populous race on earth, but because you are the smallest." Then, quoting Deuteronomy, they exclaimed, "Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours, and there shall be your frontier."
Twenty centuries earlier God had sent the emperor Cyrus to release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. Now God sent William of Orange to liberate his captive people in the Dutch provinces. In half the time it took Joshua to seize the promised land, the Calvinist William rid his new homeland of its Spanish tyrants, transforming seven modest provinces into a vibrant republic and one of the world's most modern and powerful states. The prophet Calvin had not been mistaken. God had indeed chosen little Holland for a privileged destiny. The Batavian people would remember this grace for centuries until the day when their descendants, condemned to survive amid other people, would commit one of the greatest crimes in history. But in the early 1600s that fateful moment was still far off. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven," the psalm reassured the new Dutch Reformed Church congregations. Along the North Sea coast, in the lowlands and towns of Zeeland and Frisia, a golden age was about to dawn, and Amsterdam was its New Jerusalem. In less than twenty years Holland's capital would become the cultural, artistic, and financial center of Europe. Stimulated by the spiritual and intellectual energy drawn from biblical texts and Calvin's writings, it was open to all cultures, all trades, and all religions. Masterpieces (and what masterpieces!) soon evoked this era of vibrant optimism, reflected in the powerful canvases of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, and Bruegel. Life in Dutch society may have continued to bear the stamp of Calvinist Puritanism, but the austere facades of the new patrician dwellings concealed unequalled luxury. The somber clothing seemed to exclude all frivolity but was belied by the sumptuous silk and satin fabrics worn by the notables of the capital.
The small republic's economic prosperity became evident as large companies were established through the issuing of stock. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, secured a monopoly on trade throughout Asia, especially in spices—cloves, cinnamon, and pepper in particular. It was granted the right to open trading posts, deal with local rulers, and install armed forces wherever it wished to establish itself. Soon amassing 150 merchant vessels and some 40 warships, the Company became a state within the state that had absolute control over the greatest trading enterprise of its day. Its directors were a council of seventeen lords in black satin doublets and white silk collarettes, the Heeren XVII. Their headquarters was an imposing patrician-style building on the banks of the Kloveniers Burgwal canal. In the year 1653 alone, the value of the cargo they traded exceeded the budget for Louis XIV's France.
This commercial supremacy allowed Holland to enrich itself through colonial conquest. In 1651 the maps on the walls of the Council of Seventeen's chamber showed no shortage of territory to colonize, whether in Africa, America, or even Asia. A people reminded every Sunday of their God-given exceptional destiny did not question setting off to occupy some other corner of the globe, as they did when they seized the island of Manhattan and founded the city of New Amsterdam. To what new destination and on what mission would the Heeren XVII's caravels be headed at the end of that year 1651?
An energetic fellow, over six feet two, dressed in a sober black woolen doublet with an embroidered white collar, was about to find out. With a thick shock of brown curls falling onto his shoulders and a determined look under a wide forehead and bushy eyebrows, thirty-three-year-old Jan van Riebeeck exemplified the kind of adventurer Frans Hals liked to paint. The son of a renowned Amsterdam surgeon and a qualified surgeon himself, he had put down his forceps and scalpels to travel the world with his wife, Maria, and their children in the service of the Company. The Seventeen had just recalled him from his post as chief administrator in the Indonesian city of Batavia, which he had helped to found. They had new ambitious plans for their protégé. Jan van Riebeeck was thrilled to be setting off on another adventure. Having read the Bible and listened to Calvin's prophecies with patriotic fervor, he was ready to serve his country's grand designs. "Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage," the psalmist assured. The young Dutchman had no doubt that cold morning in December 1651: the Council of Lords would send him on a mission of conquest.
POOR VAN RIEBEECK! Farming lettuce! That was his mission on the southern tip of the African continent. The Company explained that its crews aboard the spice ships were being decimated by scurvy, a scourge even more murderous than pirates, corsairs, and rival countries. If unchecked, this blight would paralyze the world's premier naval fleet and Holland would be ruined. Van Riebeeck knew from experience what terror a serious outbreak of scurvy could cause on ship decks and in their sleeping quarters. The specter of poor wretches bleeding and feverish with their gums swollen and spongy, their limbs rigid as iron bars, still haunted him. He knew that a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and fresh meat would prevent the fatal illness.
Still, the young Dutchman was keenly disappointed. From Calvin's teaching, he knew God had chosen his native people for great work. Now he was being told that this would not be his vocation. The five caravels under his command would not be carrying cannons or powder kegs or soldiers, but only a few muskets for self-defense. Their cargo would be spades and picks, lettuce seeds, rice, and wheat for planting, and butcher's knives to cut up locally raised sheep and goats. The men in black satin doublets and white collarettes did not dream of colonial conquest. To console their frustrated protégé, they told him what the sixty shipwrecked people off the Nieuw Haarlem, one of the Company's three-masters, found during their enforced stop near his African destination: an abundance of fresh water, fish, wild antelope, domestic cattle, and even, at certain times of the year, herds of seals and whales. In short, it was a kind of earthly paradise. This idyllic description did little to satisfy Van Riebeeck. What stance would he take toward the local population? The response was emphatic: he was to avoid any contact with the indigenous people beyond offering them gifts and trinkets to barter for fresh meat. No other relations, no attempt to educate, convert, or subjugate. Above all, no fraternization. The native people were "foreigners" and should remain so. Holland's only objective was to gain a foothold on a small piece of supposedly uninhabited southern Africa and supply its ships sailing to the Indies with fresh produce. He should carry out this mission "with his back to the rest of the continent." There was nothing heroic about it. The disappointed young Dutchman setting out to plant lettuce could never have imagined he was about to write the first chapter in the history of a country, which did not yet exist: South Africa.
"TABLE MOUNTAIN ONE MILE TO PORT!" The lookout's cry from the observation mast of the Drommedaris caused a commotion on deck. Jan van Riebeeck's caravel had sailed from Amsterdam 105 days previously in the company of four other four-hundred-ton ships. On the morning of April 6, 1652, a miraculous calm prevailed around the African peninsula, which the Portuguese, who had lost so many men on its rocks, had named the Cape of Storms and later the Cape of Good Hope. Even the "Southeastern," the brutal wind that darkened the sun with black clouds and sent the Indian Ocean's swell crashing against swells of the Atlantic in gigantic peaks of foam, was surprisingly calm. The new arrivals dropped anchor beneath the majestic table-shaped mountain whose sides plunge into the transparent turquoise waters of the bay and were struck at once by the beauty of the natural world that greeted them. This narrow peninsula was a pristine realm of forest and flowers, ferns, and aloe bushes. Inhabiting this tropical paradise were hordes of exotic multicolored birds. Even more astonishing were the animals they encountered. "This morning we chanced upon a family of lions in the process of devouring an antelope," Van Riebeeck wrote in one of his first letters.
For the first few weeks, the Khoikhoi herdsmen they saw tending their animals at the foot of the flowering escarpments of Table Mountain eluded the Dutchmen. Van Riebeeck was eager to exchange the baubles and ornaments brought from Europe for cattle, but the natives shied away. Their suspicions would not be overcome with feather and metal fripperies. The Heeren XVII sent Van Riebeeck an order from Amsterdam to build a fort and surrounding wall to protect the settlement. They also sent a high-level engineer named Rykloff van Goens to assess the possibility of digging a canal across the Cape Peninsula to separate it from the rest of the continent and make it a piece of Holland, geographically independent of Africa. This extravagant project was greeted with enthusiasm by the Dutch settlers. Soon, however, they saw its impracticality. How could a hundred or so poor men with picks and spades divide Africa in two? The idea was pure madness! Unless, of course, thousands of Khoikhoi would give them a hand. Van Riebeeck could see no solution but to countermand his superiors' orders. Once more he sent emissaries to the black herdsmen sighted around Table Mountain. The jewelry, mirrors, and finery he had brought from Europe must finally dispel their mistrust. But none of the natives would agree to serve the white men who had come into their land like thieves. The Calvinists' tentative incursion on African soil had made an inauspicious beginning.
Refusing to be discouraged, Van Riebeeck consulted the small Bible he always carried in his pocket. He chose a verse from Deuteronomy to reassure his companions. "And I will give their kings into your hand and you shall make their name perish under the heaven," he exhorted them and reminded them how, according to the psalmist, the God of Israel brought his people out of darkness: "For he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron." He then came up with an idea for separating his companions from hostile blacks whom he believed destined by God for damnation. Unable to excavate a canal, he planted a double row of wild almond trees across the narrow peninsula. Four centuries later, the scent of honey and camphor issuing from the long bluish flowers of the offshoots of those trees still perfumes the countryside south of Cape Town, a distant echo of the first act of racial segregation perpetrated by whites against blacks in South Africa.
WITH THEIR SMALL FORT and their few dry stone dwellings set amid fields of carrots, cabbages, and lettuce, in a few months Van Riebeeck and the settlers succeeded in establishing a modest refreshment station. The tiny European enclave had no relation to the African people or the land surrounding them and was devoted solely to fattening up goats and chickens and supplying passing ships with vegetables. In Amsterdam the company notaries swiftly ratified the ownership of this African settlement with an official deed, with no one venturing to raise an objection about its legitimacy. How could a few sandy lettuce patches be regarded as a territorial conquest? The Heeren were euphoric. This tentative venture at the tip of Africa promised to achieve their goals precisely. Spice ships were already heading for the small base to load up with the fresh produce to protect their sailors from scurvy.
Van Riebeeck was keen to convince his backers that this small settlement should be expanded. If they would grant him permission to have a few slaves brought from West Africa, the Indies, or Indonesia, he would do his best to multiply its undertakings tenfold. Their response fell like an ax. The Heeren rejected their representative's dreams of expansion. They absolutely did not wish to expand their small African base. It was to remain limited and self-sufficient and, above all, cost the Company nothing. But aid came to Van Riebeeck unexpectedly. The Southeastern, the African wind unknown in the canals of Amsterdam, brought him the additional workforce he needed when the Dutch ship Amersfoort, which had earlier captured a Portuguese three-master and taken 250 of its Angolan slaves on board, shipwrecked off the coast. Many perished, but more than 150 managed to reach shore. Their owner was among the survivors, and Van Riebeeck immediately bought them from him. At a stroke his numbers doubled and thus his capacity to increase the acreage for his crops and the extent of his poultry and sheep farming. Good-bye to scurvy! Lettuce, carrots, and fresh meat would be permanently available on the tip of the Cape.
Trouble arose when young slave women attracted the attention of the colony's bachelors. Though Van Riebeeck banned his companions from having sexual relations with the shipwrecked girls, the community soon buzzed with the murmurings of illicit love. Called after their places of origin—Mary of Bengal, Catharina of Batavia, or Suzanna of Mozambique—unless they had biblical names like Rachel, Ruth, or Eve, many ended up sharing impetuous Dutchmen's straw mats. The Heeren XVII were beside themselves with indignation when they heard about it. Instead of recalling the guilty parties, however, they used a trading initiative to punish them. Holland had just set up a second mercantile company, the Dutch West India Company, and gave it a monopoly on trade with America and exclusive rights to the African slave trade throughout the world. The new company ordered that all the women from the Amersfoort be handed over, dealing a severe blow to the men sharing their lives with them. Especially since preparations were under way for a remarkable event: the official wedding of a thirty-five-year-old Dutch citizen to a twenty-four-year-old slave woman from Equatorial Guinea, Catharina Antonis. She spoke a few words of Dutch and knew the rudiments of the Christian faith. These marriage plans scandalized the Company administrators in Amsterdam. It was contrary to their business ethics. By marrying one of their employees, the young African woman was actually acquiring the right to her freedom. For the Heeren, always mindful of their profits, the sacrifice of two hundred guilders for the liberation of a slave was intolerable. Happily for them, this was to be an almost unique case. Most of Van Riebeeck's companions maintained pitiless master-servant relations with slaves of either sex. They called them kaffirs, a term that would become akin to "niggers," and assigned them the hardest and most menial agricultural and domestic work. Van Riebeeck subjected them to draconian rules. Any slave out after ten o'clock at night must signal his presence by carrying a lantern, unless accompanied by his owner, and present a pass if his work required him to travel beyond a certain distance. To prevent thoughts of escape, no black could have contact with another black working for a different white. Simple offenses such as theft, disobedience, or running away were punishable by flogging, branding, or even hanging. The mere act of raising a hand, armed or not, to a superior could bring a slave agony on the wheel, an instrument of torture that would break his bones and dislocate his limbs without necessarily causing immediate death. A woman who had accidentally set fire to her employer's house was impaled in the smoldering building and burned alive. Corpses of slaves were left exposed on the site where they had been put to death, to be devoured by vultures in plain sight of everyone. A servant girl guilty of letting her baby die was condemned to have both breasts torn off with white-hot tongs. In an upsurge of Christian charity, Van Riebeeck issued a reprieve. The poor girl was then tied in a sack and thrown into the open sea off Table Mountain.
IN MAY 1657 THE GOATEED FATHER of the doctrine of predestination must have been turning for joy in his Genevan grave. His beloved little Holland had once again confirmed its preeminence among men. "The Lord be praised!" wrote Jan van Riebeeck to his superiors in Amsterdam. "For the first time wine has just been pressed from the grapes we planted on African soil." This was an unexpected development after the lettuce, chickens, and goats. "Send me farmers who know how to grow vines," he implored. "The land is admirably suited to this undertaking. We could make a killing selling our wine to passing ships." Despite this appeal to their commercial appetites, the Heeren XVII held faithful to their policy of restricted settlement and refused to send more workers to their little outpost in Africa.
But the king of France Louis XIV suddenly forced their hand when he revoked his grandfather Henri IV's Edict of Nantes, which gave Protestants freedom to practice their faith and sent several thousand Huguenots, French Protestants, into exile. These men and women sought refuge in Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. For Van Riebeeck it was a miracle. The Company agreed to give some fifty families their passage to the Cape, granting each a few hectares of land and providing them with the necessary tools. In return they had to swear fidelity to the Company and to remain on the land for at least five years.
In April 1688, 175 Huguenots landed on the tip of the Cape. Twenty had perished during the crossing. They came from the French provinces of Provence, Aquitaine, Bourgogne, and Dau - phiné. Their names were Villiers, du Plessis, Labuscaigne, and Dubuisson. For the most part they were farmers and vine growers, but there were also among them a few craftsmen, three doctors, and even a clergyman, Pastor Pierre Simon. Company agents saw to it that they were immediately integrated with the settlers of Dutch descent, known locally as Boers, or "farmers." As a result the appearance of the French language and culture at the extreme tip of Africa was only fleeting.
Yet the arrival of this small wave of Europeans radically changed the character of the agricultural refreshment station the Heeren XVII had conceived in their misty Holland. The simple base providing spice ships with fresh supplies of lettuce, dairy products, and meat turned into a full-fledged trading establishment. But a local development was to trap Holland into the colonial venture it had always rejected. After several seasons of quietly growing their vegetables, one day nine of Van Riebeeck's companions expressed the desire to break officially with the Company and farm their land and raise livestock for themselves. To the Dutchman's surprise, Amsterdam agreed to the request. Maintaining a hundred settlers at the bottom of the world was extremely expensive, and the Company was not sorry to reduce its costs and increase its profits in this way. So it agreed to let these nine Boer families have their freedom, on condition that they would sell the Company all their agricultural produce at a price fixed by the Company. Van Riebeeck carved off nine six-hectare plots at the edge of his trading post and distributed them to the people who from then on would be known as free burghers, "free farmers." He loaned each of them a few animals, some tools, seed, and materials to set up a small farm, hardly cause for them to reach for the stars and dream of becoming conquerors. And yet without realizing it, distant Holland had just opened to a handful of its children the doors of a continent on whose soil they would soon, by dint of sacrifice and willpower, write the most grandiose and ferocious of colonial epics.
IT WAS AN EPIC BORN OF A FIT OF ANGER. The land they had been given was too poor for the free Boers to make a decent living for their families. What was more, the price set by the Company for their produce was too low to make it worthwhile for them to keep up their experiment as independent farmers. Some preferred to pack their bags and leave on the next ship passing on its way to Amsterdam. Others looked to the Bible for reasons to persevere. And there, sure enough, in the book of Joshua, was Moses's successor calling out to them. "Have I not commanded thee be strong and of good courage?" asked the prophet. "You shall go in to possess the land, which the Lord your God giveth you to possess it." God's land? Was it the steppe they could make out on the horizon, yellowed by the austral winter? That empty, arid landscape stretching away to the north? Were pastures for their herds somewhere out in that vast, torrid expanse?
Certain of being the elect of God's new covenant, the Dutch farmers loaded their wives, children, slaves, and meager possessions onto narrow, big-wheeled, ox-drawn wagons and headed north. Despite the heat and the dust, the women wore their embroidered headdresses and ankle-length cotton skirts. The men walked alongside their teams, singing battle songs of their native Holland, their round hats with turned-up brims shielding them from the relentless sun. At any moment they were ready to grab muskets and powder horns from the wagon lockers. There was danger everywhere in these hostile expanses. When night fell over the great plains that the Boers called the veld, and when heaven and earth merged in lightning-streaked blackness that swallowed up the savannah, the caravans came to a halt. They formed laagers, wagons positioned in tight circles for protection against raiding tribesmen or wild animals. Then, beneath the brightest night sky on earth, began the day's only meal: flanks of grilled antelope or wild boar, washed down with swigs of mampoer


On Sale
Nov 3, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Dominique Lapierre

About the Author

World-renowned humanitarian and international bestselling author of The City of Joy and coauthor of Is Paris Burning? and O Jerusalem, Dominique Lapierre‘s books have been read by more than ten million people around the world. He lives in France.

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