This massive, thoroughly competent history of South Africa has everything except the final, galvanizing spark of life. As Welsh shows, from the first stirrings of recorded history, South Africans have demonstrated a perverse genius for making the precisely wrong choice at every important historical moment. Apartheid was only the latest and most egregious example of this historical ineptitude. Although it wasn't formally enunciated until the late 1940s, its roots go far back. From the very first encounters between exploring Portuguese and the native pastoralists and nomads, there was suspicion and hostility. Apart from scenery, some fresh water, and a few safe harbors, South Africa had little to recommend itself to early explorers. The Dutch eventually settled Cape Town merely as a provision stop for ships on the long voyage to the vastly more important Indies. But colonists--Dutch and French Huguenots at first, later English--continued to trickle in, and started spreading north and east. Violence and war were endemic, white on black, white on white, black on black. And it only got worse and worse, with escalations on both sides. With the discovery of diamonds and gold, South Africa was transformed from a backwater at the bottom of the world into a regional powerhouse, and whites became even more ossified in their attitudes. It was only with the end of apartheid and the transition to a full democracy that South Africans at last seemed to have escaped their fatal historical incompetence. Welsh (A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong, 1993) has a great command of facts and details, and as a thorough and straightforward account of names, dates, and events, this is exceptional. But he has little feeling for the revealing details and telling anecdotes that illuminate the best histories.