The novel is set in South Africa, home to five distinct populations: Bantu (native Black tribes), Coloured (the result of generations of racial mixture between persons of European descent and the indigenous occupants of South Africa along with slaves brought in from Angola, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and the east Coast of Africa), British, Afrikaner, and Indian, Chinese, and other foreign workers. The novel traces the history, interaction, and conflicts between these populations, from prehistoric times up to the 1970s.
Michener writes largely from the point of view of the Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers and French Huguenot immigrants who traveled to South Africa to practice freedom of worship in the Calvinist tradition, and other European groups (such as the Germans), all of whom were absorbed by the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch Reformed Church. The Afrikaners, whose Dutch ancestors first established a trading and refueling stop at Cape Town in the 17th century to service ships moving between Holland and Java, and whose ranks were augmented by Huguenot and other northern European immigrants, considered themselves the "New Israelites". They found in the Old Testament verification for their belief that God favored their conquest of the new land.
Their strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible supported them through the Great Trek of the 19th century; battles against Zulu and other Bantu tribes, who also laid claim to lands to the north; the Anglo-Boer War (when after the British won the war on the conventional battlefield and took all the main Boer towns and cities, a few Boer Commandos or guerrilla bands of a few hundred Afrikaner farmers continued to hold out in isolated pockets of the veld till the cessation of hostilities, despite tens of thousands of British regulars combing the countryside in pursuit of them); and their institution of Apartheid in the 20th century, when they insisted on racial purity, separatism, and white supremacy, per the moral expectations of the God of Israel in the Old Testament and their own determination to keep political power in the hands of Whites of European descent.
Michener suggests that the Afrikaner oppression of Blacks was partly due to Dutch animosity towards the English, who assumed political and financial control of southern Africa in 1795 and fought against the traditional way of life, including slavery, pursued by Afrikaner farmers, or Boers. As one Bantu character observes, "no matter whether the English or the Dutch win, the Blacks always lose."
Both historical and fictional characters appear throughout the novel. The experiences of the fictional van Doorn family illustrate the Dutch and Huguenot heritage of South Africa, and in the 1970s also illustrate the differences between liberal and conservative Afrikaners. The fictional Saltwood family represents the English settlement of the area. The Nxumalo family illustrates the area's black heritage and culture. African Zulu leader Shaka appears in the novel, during the chapter on the Mfecane.