The British Empire Library

Last Boat for Africa: A District Officer's experiences during Swaziland's run-up to Independence in the 1960's

by J P Miller

Courtesy of OSPA

John Wilson, MBE ('Malamulela') (Swaziland 1954 -1968)
The early Livingstonian ideal of African politico-social organization based on the ubuntu principle (lit: human-ness, ie. kindliness and solidarity) as it is beautifully expressed and epitomised in McCall Smith's novels set in Botswana and here cited, fits nicely with current Swazi political orthodoxy. The author admires the late King Sobhuza II for having circumvented or outmanoeuvred the relatively weak (but potentially disruptive ) political parties. He builds a strong argument for the suitability of this traditional model for a mono-tribal state such as Swaziland, but describes sympathetically the personalities and political aims of the new parties and their leaders.

At post-independence 1973 (not covered in the book), the said political parties won a couple of seats and were promptly banned, while the policies of Sir Brian Marwick, last but one Queen's Commissioner and most associated with the imposed constitution (which was abrogated and parliament suspended), were disavowed. This left the job of political opposition to the trade unions, which were never seriously contested, oddly enough.

This is a personal record of the author's first tour as an admin cadet, from Devonshire Course (then limited to Oxbridge - no more London) to his ultimate engagement in the matrimonial sense. The daily routine, mainly in the districts, with switches of postings to cover long furloughs, gave a rich and varied administrative experience, exercise of responsibility, and scope for initiative -- albeit limited always by budget. In this work the author thoroughly immersed himself, gaining personal insights into the Swazi and settler/business communities which he translates into character sketches, including his colleagues (occasionally off the mark and even crossing the line of good taste). But his book is based on notes off the cuff and letters home, and makes an interesting chronicle of this phase of colonial history, a multiracial society in microcosm seen against the then very divergent SA polity. The blackballing of his coeval Jeremy Varcoe by the Manzini social club was not typical of Swaziland, but is prophetically and amusingly illustrated by the said Varcoe's fancy dress photo as a gate-crasher on the eponymous boat out. Among other admin colleagues, Mark Patey stands out, a bluff avuncular Cambridge college oar and Leander member, "affectionately known to his friends as 'puff puff. Swazi sobriquets aka's are also listed and analysed. (Mike Fairlie's Mavukela could refer to his early rising habit, or to his 'acerbic' temperament (the author's term); 'suffers fools ungladly'in Rawlins'description).

Brian Marwick's 'nit-picking' attention to detail might with benefit have been applied by the author, since the book needs some editing ("a gratuitous supply of fresh fish"; "it bode well"; Hugh vs Huw). He sometimes felt a lack of recognition, but then management training had not yet caught on, with its cardinal principle: "Tell me how I am doing".

As for Brian Marwick, his was not a wealthy family so in order to study he shared the hard grind which is the lot of many Swazi in similar circumstances, in order to eventually produce his monumental monograph. The author acknowledges his kindliness, charm and quiet personality, given sometimes to spells of intense cerebration when he seemed cut off from the world ("John, one must remember this is the RC's show", hissed Bunny Teale in my ear when I tried to break the silence, when seated in a Chief's kraal on a horseback tour in Sipocosini!).

In fact many looked back on this time with nostalgia as a Camelot era. Beside the "Zebras" tennis club, the Mbabane Choral Society perhaps deserves mention - for its G & S operettas brilliantly staged by Mike Fairlie and costumes by Betty Wilhelm, attracting the attention of the Rand Daily Mail.

The book gives a good perspective on the ecological/conservation scene. It raises the land tenure issue in face of an awkward squatter eviction sensitively handled and recounted. Photo portraits and well chosen illustrations illuminate the text, plus a map, siSwati and other terminological and social glossary, lists of key historical events, animal species, select reading and a detailed index all make this a most useful vade mecum.

British Empire Book
J P Miller
Librario Publishing Ltd
1 904440 68 1


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