Swans Commentary » swans.com November 18, 2013  



Who Was Laurens Van Der Post?
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



Read the first part of this essay.


(Swans - November 18, 2013)   The 1970s would prove to be a fertile time for Laurens as he made strong friendships with yet more Conservative leaders like Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. In the latter instance he had first met Thatcher in 1975 and soon became "both a personal friend and an unofficial adviser." As part of his bid to influence "our leader" (Thatcher) he penned a 7,500-word letter in February 1976 to make his radical opinions quite clear. In this letter:

He wrote about the loss of the will to work in British society, about irrational strikes, the estrangement of the young, the West's failure of belief in its own values, the resurgence of the tyranny of government, the vicious intellectual attack on the concept of individual freedom, the danger to traditional institutions, the absence of a sense of history -- the sort of thing which would go down well in any suburban golf club and which proved such an effective Conservative platform. Laurens concluded, bizarrely, that Labour was 'the party of privilege and power... Conservatives the party of the increasingly dispossessed'. He urged that Mrs Thatcher stand firm on the continuing threat from Russia which, not content with its vast empire in Europe and Asia, was now planning to move into Africa just as the West was dismantling its own African empires. As a result of Moscow's propagandist education programme, there must be by now, he said, at least 100,000 'carefully conditioned, brain-washed African agents of Soviet policies' (recalling [his 1955 novel] Flamingo Feather). (1) (p.340)

While Thatcher remained in Opposition, Laurens was counted among her near-neighbours (off the King's Road, Chelsea), and they "used to meet socially, usually at small and informal supper parties in Laurens's apartment on a Sunday evening." With such intimate contact Laurens was able to help his friends get sought-after meetings with Thatcher -- a notable one being the South African liberal politician, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who with his help met with Thatcher twice "when the South African opposition was struggling to get international attention." (2)With Laurens's interest in pursuing "a federal solution to South African problems," he similarly arranged for another friend, the Zulu leader and president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, "to dine with him and the Thatchers one Sunday evening in July 1985." He also took these opportunities to make known his opposition to international sanctions, a position he firmly held for the rest of the decade. Yet despite his commitment to a plethora of far-right political causes, his public persona was quite different, and during this period "he portrayed himself above all as a conservationist," and "in consequence of his energetic lobbying skills, he became quite simply the world's best-known figurehead, if not leader, of the fast-growing Wilderness movement." In these apparently green endeavours, Laurens's "closest and most effective ally was another South African, Ian Player." (3)

Ian Player, much like David Stirling before him, had been mightily impressed by Venture to the Interior, and after he first met Laurens in 1969 they "immediately became close friends." Player was already a big mover on the international conservation scene, having become famous for helping save the White Rhino from extinction. In addition, in 1957 he had founded Wilderness Trails, and by 1964 he became the chief conservator of Zululand's game reserves. In his continuing work with the Zulu's, Player's "right-hand man -- his mentor, his teacher, his friend -- was a... very old Zulu called Magqubu Ntombela." Following his strong ties to the Zulu's it is appropriate that Player would become increasingly entranced by the cause of Zulu ethnic nationalism. When he published his autobiographical study Zulu and Wilderness: Shadow and Soul (1997), Player thus dedicated the book to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, while the notorious plutocrat John Aspinall was invited to write the book's foreword. (4)

When Player read Laurens's biography of Jung in the 1970s he quickly "became a passionate Jungian," and in time he would prove "to be instrumental in the founding of a Jungian centre in South Africa, in close association with Laurens." (5)

But before then, following the success of his Wilderness Trails, he had set up an International Wilderness Leadership Foundation in 1974, followed by the first International Wilderness Conference, which was held in Johannesburg in 1977. The Foundation, always strongly supported by Laurens and on occasion financially by Ian's brother Gary, had a difficult beginning, but eventually spawned the Wild Foundation USA, the Wilderness Trust UK, and a similar organisation in Australia. In all this, Player's principle was that wilderness areas could become a fount of spiritual inspiration and a source of nurturing for future generations; he used to point out that over the ages the great prophets have gone out into the wilderness. This was a theme with which Laurens could wholeheartedly engage. (p.366)

Laurens's exceptional political connections proved especially useful when Player was organizing the first ever World Wilderness Congress in Johannesburg in 1977, which in lieu of international support was only able to be held because Laurens was able to persuade "his minister friend Piet Koornhof" to provide state assistance for the event. With the mysticism of Jung at the forefront of both Player and Laurens's minds it is fitting that they would subsequently choose to hold the third World Wilderness Congress (which took place in 1983) at the world (in)famous Findhorn community in Scotland. At the time of the Congress, one should note that Vance Martin served as a focalizer at Findhorn (which meant he acted as the coordinator of their environmental programs), while the following year he was rewarded for his interest in mumbo jumbo by being made the president of Ian Player's conservative conservation outfit, the International Wilderness Leadership Foundation (the WILD Foundation). (6)

Maintaining the focus on eco-mysticism, Laurens went on to serve as the founding patron of the Gaia Foundation; and considering Prince Charles's own esoteric interests, Laurens was no doubt upset that he failed to convince the Prince to attend the World Wilderness Congress at Findhorn. Laurens had first met the Prince in the early 1970s, and they had soon became close friends, sharing an "extraordinarily intense" relationship that eventually led to Laurens being made the Godfather of Charles's son, Prince William. (7)

Charles perhaps found in Laurens, in succession to his uncle Lord Mountbatten, a father-figure who would also become a mentor and a spiritual adviser, at a time when he seemed to need all three. Laurens found in the prince not only a gratifying disciple but a young friend he admired and loved. (8)

Whether one would like to have a future king of England count Laurens among his mentors is open to question. What is less open to question though is Laurens's fast commitment to right-wing politics. Thus it was just at the very moment that the apartheid regime came crumbling down that he strongly reasserted his politic beliefs. John Aspinall, the "eccentric and wealthy casino operator, zoo-keeper and 'honorary White Zulu'" proved to be a worthy ally in Laurens's bid to support the far right in South Africa, as Aspinall was already a good friend of Ian Player and had acted as a patron of his Magqubu Ntombela Foundation. "Through Aspinall, Laurens met other friends of his, who included Sir James Goldsmith, the tycoon, and Kerry Packer, the Australian media billionaire." With so many rich friends pumping money to Buthelezi's "impoverished Inkatha Party," the Zulu's political fortunes were looking up. Aspinall, in particular, lapped up "fantasies of a primitive Zulu nation" and "once explained: 'I stumbled across the Zulus when I read Rider Haggard... I took on board his heroic vision of that people. I like to keep it, but urbanisation has... deracinated and decultured them.'" Even the "distinguished British journalist Peregrine Worsthorne confessed in his newspaper column in March 1994 that at an Aspinall dinner Laurens's 'passionate and moving championship of [the Zulu] cause stirred even my thin blood into wanting to take up an assegai on their behalf.'" (9)


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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.  "Crucial" to the plot of Flamingo Feather "is the presumption of the survival of a black African primitive mentality and superstition as an inevitable facet of living closer to the natural world than do whites. It is a heroic adventure story in Ian Fleming's 007 mode of commie-bashing with a strong endorsement of British imperial social hierarchy and natural English fitness to rule." Wilmsen, "Primitive Politics in Sanctified Landscapes," p.210.

Notably in January 1974 Laurens "pleaded with" Piet Koornhof to get his old school friend and former head of the banned South African Communist Party, Bram Fischer, released from Pretoria's Central Prison . Bram was eventually released with serious health problems and died in May 1975. Jones, Storyteller, p.332.  (back)

2.  Jones, Storyteller, p.343, p.342. "This relationship with Laurens was part of her style of government: she had a group of unofficial advisers and friends outside the system, which included people like David Hart and Woodrow Wyatt as well as Laurens, whose private opinions and information she would employ in her arguments with her civil servants." (p.344)  (back)

3.  Jones, Storyteller, p.345, p.365. Jones writes that during the 1980s Laurens "became increasingly and dangerously attracted to the Zulu cause of Chief Buthelezi in Kwazulu-Natal." (p.365) As Jones notes elsewhere: "Van der Post introduced Buthelezi to the prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, in August 1985. This meeting, he assured her diary secretary, would be 'extremely important not only for Britain and South Africa but the world'. Gatsha, he went on, would be the key element in the South African situation, so long as he was not assassinated by the ANC. 'This could be one of the most important meetings ever held between a British prime minister and the leader of the biggest nation in South Africa,' he wrote. In this same month, Van der Post introduced Buthelezi to Prince Charles, Charles Powell (the private secretary at number 10) and the foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe." J.D.F. Jones, "More Myth than Man," The Guardian, September 22, 2001.  (back)

4.  Jones, Storyteller, p.366.

Zululand Wilderness was also dedicated to Player's longtime friend and fellow conservationist, Nick Steele, who had died in 1997. The two had first worked together in the Natal Parks Board from the mid-1950s, and Steele had played a central role in Player's world famous Operation Rhino. Eco-mysticism was not for Steele, and"he spent his entire conservation career in uniform in a paramilitary 'war' in defence of nature." In this way it is fitting that "Steele's conservation mission coincided with the security interests of the apartheid state along the Mozambique border, as well those of its loyal critics in Buthelezi's KwaZulu in the early 1980s." Steele also became "embroiled in controversy around his work in Ingwavuma for having security links with the South African state. It was suggested that his Bureau's '"special services" may have played a part in the assassination of social anthropologist David Webster'." One should add: "There appears to be evidence of an intimate relationship between the apartheid regime's Defence Force and Inkatha which involved the use of KwaZulu's conservation resources, including their reserves and intelligence." On this point Draper cites the following report, Nature Conservation and the Military (Durban, Network of Independent Monitors, 1997). Draper, "Zen and the Art of Garden Province Maintenance," p.821, p.818, p.821.

For a useful critique of racist conservation activities in South Africa, see Sylvain Guyot, Green Disputes? (pdf) (2007). This report is based on Guyot 's doctoral thesis L'environnement contesté: la territorialisation des conflits environnementaux sur le littoral du KwaZulu-Natal (Kosi Bay, Mabibi, St Lucia, Richards Bay, Port Shepstone) -- Disputed environments: territorialization of environmental conflicts on the KwaZulu-Natal coast (Kosi Bay, Mabibi, St Lucia, Richards Bay, Port Shepstone) -- Ph.D. Thesis, University of Paris, 2003.  (back)

5.  Jones, Storyteller, p.367. Other than Laurens another Jungian analyst who strongly influenced Player was Gloria Gearing. For a related Jungian treatise of wilderness and apartheid in South Africa, see Graham Saayman, Modern South Africa in Search of a Soul: Jungian Perspectives on the Wilderness Within (Sigo, 1986). Laurens wrote the foreword for this volume.

Much as "Jung's ideas are a major influence on a popular variant of ecofeminism" -- see for example, Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (Rider, 1992) -- Player "has the atavism of the contemporary 'Wild Man' or 'Green Man' in the Northern hemisphere so scathingly referred to by Andrew Ross, who sees this stereotype as 'likely to become the neo-Jungian complement to the Earth Mother in coming years...'" Draper continues noting how Player "rejects unmitigated western Enlightenment science and identifies with post-modem social thought which features amongst the current reading in his personal library. In the end, however, Player owes to Jung and van der Post an essentialist view of culture. It is this conceptual limitation and fault-line which is identified by a wide variety of profeminist writers in a broadscale attack on the Mythopoetic men's movement." On this issue, Draper cites a useful text edited by Michael Kimmel, The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men's Movement (and the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer) (Temple University Press, 1995).

Malcolm Draper, "Zen and the Art of Garden Province Maintenance: The Soft Intimacy of Hard Men in the Wilderness of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, 1952-1997," Journal of Southern African Studies, 24 (4), 1998, p.812, p.814.  (back)

6.  Jones, Storyteller, p.368. The Findhorn Congress "was another success, even though one of the keynote addresses by Laurens's close friend and Jung's oldest colleague, Dr Fredy Meier, on the 'Wilderness Within...', was brilliant but incomprehensible to many of the delegates." (p.368) In the 1990s, "During these years Laurens gave his name and support to a host of other environmental organisations, such as Robin Page's Countryside Restoration Trust in England, Ed Posey and Liz Hosken's Gaia Foundation (which with Laurens's backing organised such causes as the defence of the Forest People of the Amazon), and the group of people who fought a long and finally victorious campaign to stop the mining by international corporations of the mineral sands of the St Lucia wetland in South Africa." (p.369)

The Countryside Restoration Trust was founded in 1993 by Laurens, Gordon Beningfield, and Robin Page. It is interesting to observe that Page, who writes a weekly column for the conservative broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, formerly served on the Council of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, and after Goldsmith's death (in 1997) he joined the similarly right-wing UK Independence Party (only leaving the party in 2009). Among a host of green capitalists who support Page's Countryside Restoration Trust, the latest addition to their board of trustees (as of February 2012) is Robin Maynard, an individual who in 2009 resigned as the campaigns director of the Soil Association.

For more detailed criticisms of Ian Player and the WILD Foundation, see Michael Barker, "When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder," Swans Commentary, January 26, 2009; and more specifically for criticisms of both Player and Prince Bernhard, see Marja Spierenburg and Harry Wels, "Conservative Philanthropists, Royalty and Business Elites in Nature Conservation in Southern Africa," In: Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy (eds.), Capitalism and Conservation (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp.179-202.  (back)

7.  Jones, Storyteller, p.392.  (back)

8.  Jones, Storyteller, p.391. "It has often been assumed that Laurens was introduced to Prince Charles by Mountbatten. But Laurens and Mountbatten were never close; after serving under him in Java in 1941-47, Laurens subsequently exaggerated his role as 'Personal Representative'." (p.391)

Laurens first took Prince Charles on five-day expedition to Kenya in March 1977. Then in March 1987, after completing official business the Prince joined Laurens "briefly in the Botswana desert. Laurens took great pains to ensure the success of this trip, enlisting the help of his friend the mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer (whose Anglo American Corporation provided back-up helicopters and other services) and his nephew Judge Chris Plewman, who knew the Kalahari far better than Laurens." (p.392) In earlier years Oppenheimer had been the "most charismatic figure" of the South African Foundation, "a well-funded lobby, established with the encouragement of the apartheid government to enhance the country's image overseas." The Foundation's first president was Sir Francis de Guingand. Yates and Chester, The Troublemaker, p.236.  (back)

9.  Jones, Storyteller, p.420, p.421. "Buthelezi, always desperate for funds, played up to his millionaire patrons' fantasies of a primitive Zulu nation: for example, Aspinall and Goldsmith sometimes flew down to Natal by private jet for a weekend. Buthelezi attended their parties and provided tribal dancers in skins and spears: in effect, he was willing to play the traditional Zulu for them." (p.420) "The interest in Natal of Laurens's right-wing friends was not entirely cultural. Goldsmith, Aspinall and Packer formed a consortium to bid to develop the Durban Point waterfront. They were unsuccessful." (p.421)

"Aspinall is reported to have met Buthelezi in about 1986 through a mutual friend, the late tycoon, Sir James (Jimmy) Goldsmith. ... In November 1990, Buthelezi was guest of honour at a London dinner hosted by Aspinall and attended by Goldsmith and Marc Gordon, director of the International Freedom Foundation, a 'right- wing think-tank' with close links to Inkatha. Goldsmith was attracted by Buthelezi's commitment to capitalism; so was Margaret Thatcher (a contemporary of Aspinall's at Oxford), who had been effusive in her praise for Buthelezi over the years, no more so than during a visit to Natal and Zululand in May 1991." Malcolm Draper and Gerhard Maré, "Going in: The Garden of England's Gaming Zookeeper and Zululand," Journal of Southern African Studies, 29 (2), 2003, p.555.  (back)


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Published November 18, 2013