Almost forgotten piece of South African history

Review: Archie Henderson

Afrikaner Sondebok? Die Lewe van Hans van Rensburg Ossewagbrandwagleier, by Albert Blake (Jonathan Ball)

Hans van Rensburg is one of the most tragic figures of South African history in a country that is full of them. And he was also one of the most mysterious.

The title sondebok means scapegoat.

Over the past 80 years or so, Van Rensburg has not had a good press; now he gets a sympathetic hearing. Blake’s book is no hagiography, but the author goes the extra mile in attempting to understand this strange man, what motivated him and how he escaped justice.

At the height of his popularity  – the war years of 1939 to 1945 – Van Rensburg led what was the most popular grouping of white people in South Africa at the time. The Ossewabrandwag (Oxwagon Sentinels) grew from the rise of Afrikaner nationalism around the time of the centenary of the Groot Trek. In 1938 there was a bitterness among many Afrikaners against anything British or English and strong generational trauma stemming from the Boer War that had deprived them of their two republics and plunged many into poverty. Continue reading

September’s bedside table suggestions

Bedside table September

These are among the books that have landed on my desk in the past couple of weeks. Some will be reviewed in full later.

A Pretoria Boy, by Peter Hain (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

South Africa-reared Peter Hain, in his efforts to fight apartheid by campaigning against South African international rugby and cricket tours, became known here as “public enemy number one” and in the UK as “Hain the pain”. But he and those who campaigned with him – and some of their campaigns were pretty dramatic – inflicted major damage on white South Africa’s soft sports-loving underbelly. Legendary rugby boss Danie Craven said during Hain’s Stop the Seventy Tour in the 1970s: “There will be a black Springbok over my dead body.” Well, we know how that turned out. This is Hain’s autobiography, starting with his boyhood in a family of both liberal and Liberal Party principles in Pretoria, where he attended Pretoria Boys’ High, to his departure with his family to the UK, his rising political profile within the Labour Party and the anti-sports tours campaign, to his becoming a Labour MP and eventually British peer, still fighting for justice. South Africa remains close to his heart, but he certainly doesn’t subscribe to the adage of “my country right or wrong”. He celebrated in 1994, but doesn’t pull his punches when assessing where we are today. Now 71, he is still fighting campaigns, and has given testimony to the Zondo Commission. He says (his italics): “I have learnt that if you try to do too much, you’ll end up doing too little, that if you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing. Better to focus on concrete objectives and not to get carried away with grand designs, ideological rhetoric or the supercilious purism of the armchair critic. Instead, as Alan Paton once counselled me, try to be an all-or-something person, not an all-or-nothing person.”

A Home on Vorster Street ­– a memoir, by Razina Theba (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Although Razina Theba lived with her parents and sister, every day she would find her way to the tiny flat occupied by her grandparents in Vorster Street, Fordsburg. The older couple had brought up seven children in it, and though by the time Razina came along, most had married and left, it was still the family HQ to which uncles and aunties and many cousins gravitated. All the residents in the block were of Indian descent, and lived together in loose neighbourliness, swopping cakes and snacks at Eid and Diwala. Theba has written a charming, often sad, occasionally frightening story of an Muslim family in the dying days of apartheid.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

A Brief History of South Africa – from the earliest times to the Mandela presidency, by John Pampallis and Maryke Bailey (Fanele/ Jacana)

The authors of this book, teachers and educationalists, have managed an astonishing feat – a compilation of South African history in just under 300 pages (although with pretty small print). As the subtitle indicates, the volume begins with the ancestors of the modern San over 10 000 years ago, but concedes little is known of  those societies. It is written in two parts: a chronological history and then a section on themes in South African history, such as the economy, the Bantustans, life under apartheid and the trade union movement. At the end of each chapter are a set of discussion questions as well as book titles for additional reading, and a list of online visual resources. The authors say they have not produced a comprehensive history, but are rather trying to present a progressive introduction to local history and to encourage critical thinking about it, because most South Africans, those who were schooled both before and after 1994, have scant knowledge of the country’s past. In his foreword, former president Kgalema Motlanthe says: “History is not just an account of past events. It is also an interpretation of those events and developments… It is for this reason history is deeply political.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak (Viking/ Penguin Books)

Ada Kazantzakis is 16, in her second-last year of school in north London. She lives with her father, Kostas; her mother is dead. She knows very little about her family history, only that her parents, one Greek and one Turkish, came from the now divided island of Cyprus. Her parents did not talk about their families or their youth, and when her mother died no one from Cyprus bothered to come to her funeral. But back in 1974, teenagers Kostas, who is Greek and Defne, who is Turkish, meet in secret in a tavern, a place where they are able to forget the sorrows and tensions of their island. In the tavern a fig tree grows through a hole in the roof, and the tree knows the teenagers’ secrets. It’s also there when Nicosia is destroyed and the teenagers have to part. Years later, the only link Ada has to her home is a cosseted fig tree growing in the back garden. Elif Shafak, a prize-winning British Turkish writer whose work has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has dedicated this novel to: “Immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless, and to the trees we left behind…”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

Such a Quiet Place, by Megan Miranda (Corvus)

Hollow’s Edge is a quiet community on the edge of a lake. Everyone knows everyone else, and they’re supportive of each other. But then one night Brandon and Fiona Truett are found dead, and their neighbour, Ruby Fletcher, is convicted of their murder. But after a mistrial she is freed, and she comes back to Hollow’s Edge, to the consternation of the community in general and of her old housemate, Harper Nash in particular. People start to turn on each other and it soon becomes clear that not everyone was honest about the events on the night the Truetts died. Harper realises it is time she tried to uncover the truth. The Observer has described this book as “An unnerving and extremely classy thriller.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.








Will it be third time lucky for Galgut in the 2021 Booker Prize?

Vivien Horler

South African literature still has a chance of snatching the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction, with Damon Galgut’s The Promise making it on to the shortlist of six announced in London on Tuesday September 14.

This is the third time he has been shortlisted.

Sadly, Karen Jennings, the other South African writer who was on the longlist of 13 for her novel The Island, did not make the cut.

The other five books on the shortlist are: A Passage North, by Sri Lankan Tamil writer Anuk Arudpragasam; No One is Talking about This, by American writer and poet Patricia Lockwood; The Fortune Men by British Somali novelist Nadifa Mohamed; Bewilderment by American novelist Richard Powers; and Great Circle by American writer Maggie Shipstead.

Maya Jasanoff, chair of the 2021 judging panel, said: “With so many ambitious and intelligent books before us, the judges engaged in rich discussion not only about the qualities of any given title, but often the purpose of fiction itself. We are pleased to present a shortlist that delivers as wide a range of original stories as it does voices and styles.”

And Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “(The judges) also proved that the best literature is elastic: both because so many different things can be seen in it, and because – as one of the judges said – the best of fiction can make you feel as though your mind, or heart, are a little bit larger for having read it.”

The Promise (Chatto & Windus), which spans a period of 40 years, is about the white Swart family who live on a smallholding outside Pretoria and is trying to come to terms with the new South Africa. It is based around four family funerals, and describes how the family unravels over a promise made to their long-time domestic worker.

Galgut told a Booker Q& A: “I do feel qualified to say a few things about white South Africa by now. The Swart family is a kind of amalgamation of everything I grew up with in Pretoria, I guess. They’re a mix of English and Afrikaans, and a hodge-podge of creeds and beliefs too. Not unusual for this part of the world. But what makes them ‘representative’ isn’t their characters, it’s the times they’re living through. The book is structured around four funerals, each in a different decade, with a different president in power and a different spirit reigning over the land. Although most of that material is background, it conjures a sense of time passing and of the larger country changing too.”

The Passage North (Granta) is an attempt to come to terms with life in the wake of devastation of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. It tells the story of Krishan who makes the long train journey from the capital Colombo into the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral. This is Arudpragasam’s second novel.







No One is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus/ Jonathan Ball) is described as “a delightfully profane love letter to the infinite scroll, and a meditation on love, language, and the human connection.

It is about a social media guru who travels the world, her existence overwhelmed by the internet. And then two urgent messages from her mother pierce her virtual bubble.

Lockwood told a Booker Q & A: “The internet – in the form of social media, at least – is much more like fiction than it is anything else.”

The Fortune Men (Viking) is a gripping novel, based on fact, about a petty thief in Cardiff, Wales. In 1952 he became the last man to be hanged there, after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman, isn’t too worried when he is arrested for the murder of a local shopkeeper – after all, this is Britain which is a country of justice. But eventually it dawns on him that innocence may not be enough.

His conviction was quashed 45 years later, in February 1998 – a true Pyrrhic victory.

Mohamed told a Booker  Q & A: “I knew I wanted to make the line between fact and fiction inperceptible.” This is her third novel. She becomes the first British Somali to be shortlisted for the Booker.

Bewilderment (Hutchinson Heinmann) tells the story of an astrobiologist, Theo Byrne, and his troubled son, nine-year-old Robin, who is about to be expelled from school for smashing a metal Thermos into his friend’s face. His father believes the only thing to do is take Robin to other planets, while helping him to save this one.

Powers told a Booker Q & A: “The astrobiology and neuroscience in Bewilderment – two fields undergoing rapid and dramatic revolutions – are really ways into much older and more intimate human passions.”

This book is Powers’s 13th novel and the second to be shortlisted for the Booker prize.

Great Circle (Transworld) is the story of a daredevil woman pilot who delivers Spitfires in World War II and in 1950 sets off on an ultimately doomed north-south circumnavigation of the Earth. And it is the story of a spoiled young actress who is chosen to play her in a Hollywood biopic.

In a Booker Q & A, Shipstead said: “I’m sadly incapable of planning my books. I wish I could, but instead I just have to leap and then hope I’m able to resolve all the problems I create.” Great Circle is her third novel.

The winner of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced in London on November 3.


Thoroughly satisfying novel in which the city of Florence is a main character

Review: Vivien Horler

Still Life, by Sarah Winman (4th Estate)

Two chance encounters in and near Florence in 1944, as the allied forces retake the city, will shape the life of a young British soldier forever.

Private Ulysses Temper – whose father named him after a winning greyhound – first meets British art historian Evelyn Skinner a few nights before Florence is liberated. She has come to the area to make contact with the Allied Military Government and help salvage art treasures which have been hidden all over the countryside.

Ulysses gives Evelyn a lift in his jeep to a villa where his boss, Captain Darnley, and various other troops have uncovered not only a number of art treasures, but also a cellar full of wine the Germans had overlooked. Continue reading

Forgotten story of a historian let down by history

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Sights, Sounds, Memories: South African Soldier Experiences in the Second World War, edited by Ian van der Waag (African Sun Media publishers)

Eric Axelson is a forgotten figure of South Africa’s wartime history. He was so often at the frontline that he might even be a forgotten hero. Axelson was a soldier, but he was mostly a historian. Ian van der Waag, himself a military historian, has given a small nudge towards Axelson’s resurrection.

The book is a compelling story in a collection of war stories that includes one of South Africa’s own Private Ryan, white women in the Union Defence Force, South Africa’s black soldiers in captivity and the story of a historian let down by history.

By 1943, Axelson was an established historian at Wits University where he was an expert on Portuguese Africa history. He had followed other academics, among them Leo Marquard and Guy Butler, into uniform and became an information officer in the Union Defence Force (UDF).

He was serving in the Middle East by the end of 1943 when he was posted to Italy where South African soldiers, regrouped after the battles in North Africa into the Sixth SA Armoured Division, were being deployed. Continue reading

Two women who never meet, whose lives become entangled

Review: Vivien Horler

Two Women in Rome, by Elizabeth Buchan (Corvus)

Lottie Archer is a London archivist who meets Tom at a wedding and falls in love. He lives in Rome, where he works for the British Council.

He hears of a job for an archivist in a private Rome archive, one that collects the papers of hundreds of British and American ex-pats who have lived and died in the city.

Lottie gets the job, and melts when Tom asks her to share his home. She was abandoned as an infant and has never really had a home. Within nine months of their meeting, they are married.

Much of the material in the archive is damaged and musty, and needs to be sorted. Among the first files Lottie starts work on are those of an Englishwoman, Nina Lawrence, who died in Rome in 1978 aged just 38. A note on the file says Nina had “no known contacts. No known issue. No claimants”. Continue reading

Why honing your bullshit detector matters

Review: Vivien Horler

Fake History: Ten great lies and how they shaped the world, by Otto English (Welbeck)

The trouble with fake history – like fake news – is you end up not knowing what to believe.

Everyone needs a bullshit detector, but even quite good ones can let you down from time to time. Otto English (the pen name of one Andrew Scott) is a British blogger, author and journalist who says we get our history from dimly remembered school classes, things that happened to our families or “the generally agreed notions” of what we all believe is true. And very often they aren’t.

So by the end of this book, after the debunking of scores of wonderful but apparently untrue stories – he says the better the story, the more likely it is to be false – you start to doubt yourself.

In the second last chapter, he tells an incredible story about Donald Trump. In a speech on Independence Day in July 2019, he claimed that during the US War of Independence in 1775, George Washington’s troops had had air supremacy and taken over the airports. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for August


These are a few of the books that landed on my desk recently, and some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Fake History – Ten great lies and how they shaped the world, by Otto English (Welbeck)

Remember the great comeback from Winston Churchill when British Labour MP Bessie Braddock him: “You’re drunk!” To which he replied: “And you’re ugly, but in the morning I’ll be sober.” Apparently Boris Johnson, Britain’s current prime minister and a great Churchill fan, has identified the very spot in Westminster where the exchange took place. But journalist Otto English says it probably never happened. It was first related by English writer Augustus Hare in his diary about an encounter between two unnamed British MPs in 1882, when Churchill was eight years old and Braddock not yet born. This is just one of English’s fake-history put-downs in this fascinating book that exposes myths of World War II, the adventures of Christopher Columbus (who never set foot on the continents of north or south America), the belief that Britain’s royal family is German, that Abraham Lincoln believed all men were created equal and that ancient people thought the Earth was flat (they knew it wasn’t).

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.


Afraid of the Light, by Douglas Kennedy (Hutchinson)

Veteran novelist Douglas Kennedy, who has been described as the “maestro of family noir”, has written about one of big divisive issues of our time: abortion. An Uber driver has to drop off a retired professor at the abortion clinic where she volunteers, and is caught up in a violent vortex of protest. Afraid of the Light is described as “a novel of high suspense and considerable moral complexity”.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.



Two Women in Rome, by Elizabeth Buchan (Corvus)

Lottie is an archivist at Britain’s National Archives at Kew when she meets Tom at a wedding. He lives in Rome, and within nine months persuades her to marry him. A whole new life beckons for Lottie when she secures a job as an archivist in the eternal city. She discovers a valuable 15th century painting, and decides to explore the life of Nina Lawrence, the woman who left it behind. Nina had gone to Rome after World War II to restore gardens that had been devastated by war. But when she died in 1978 no one attended her funeral and Lottie is puzzled by this. She uncovers a complicated love story set in the turmoil of post-war Italy, and what she finds will come to affect her own future. Elizabeth Buchan is a best-selling prize-winning British novelist and Two Women in Rome looks like a wonderful read.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.

The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris (Bloomsbury)

Twenty-six-year-old Nella works as an editorial assistant at a New York publishing company. But the job isn’t great in that she’s the only black employee, and she becomes tired of loneliness and what she sees as her colleagues’ micro-aggression. And then Hazel, another black woman, joins the staff, and Nella is delighted. They hit it off, but a series of events follow which leave Nella under a cloud of opprobrium while Hazel is seen as the office darling. Shortly after this, nasty notes appear on Nella’s desk saying she should resign. Is Hazel writing them? What is going on? Soon Nella realises there is more than her career at stake. This novel has been described as “dark, funny and furiously entertaining”.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.


Comrade Editor – on life, journalism and the birth of Namibia, by Gwen Lister (Tafelberg)

Anyone who followed the news of the struggle in Namibia in the 1980s would know the name Gwen Lister, who first worked as a journalist in Windhoek with the maverick Hannes Smith on the Windhoek Advertiser and later the Windhoek Observer, and then founded her own newspaper, The Namibian, in 1985. Feisty, brave and intolerant of cruelty, she exposed atrocities of the SA Defence Force during the Border war. She was born in East London, studied at UCT and went to what was then South West Africa when she was just 21as a reporter for the Windhoek Advertiser. This is her account of the tumultuous years of Namibia’s struggle for freedom, and the many dramatic stories that accompanied it.





Entertaining memoir of a career in aviation provides almost too much information

Review: Vivien Horler

Secrets from the Cockpit, by Robert Schapiro (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

I am not a nervous air passenger. I have every faith that the pilots know what they’re doing, and ditto for air traffic control and the maintenance staff.

Now I’m not so sure. In a flying career spanning over 30 years, with the SAAF, SAA and eventually Japan’s Nippon Cargo Airlines, Rob Schapiro discovered all sorts of things could go wrong.

One of the most terrifying was over Alaska when his heavy cargo 747 and a formation four US F-15 fighters found themselves on a collision course in heavy cloud.

To make things worse, the captain on the flight, an ex-British RAF type who always believed he knew better than anyone else, refused to obey frantic instructions to descend and actually tried to climb. Continue reading

Booker longlist choice a great satisfying novel

Review: Vivien Horler

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)

In her acknowledgements at the end of this marvellous novel, author Maggie Shipstead thanks her editor for “paring down an unwieldy thousand-page manuscript into this slender wisp of a thing”.

Well, Great Circle, is not really a wisp of a thing, running to 589 pages, but quite frankly I enjoyed it so much I would happily have settled for the 1 000-page version.

A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere. The equator is a great circle, as is every line of longitude.

Marian Graves is an early female aviator, and her dream is to fly around the world, north to south and back. In her flight log she writes she was born to be a wanderer, “shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave”. Continue reading