Monthly Archives: January 2021

Adventure in the desert turns to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Six Years with Al Qaeda ­– the Stephen McGown story as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies (Maverick 451)

When Steve McGown and his wife Cath decided to return to South Africa after some years in London, Steve saw an opportunity to realise a life-long dream: to ride a motor bike through Africa.

He bought a Yamaha XT, and started studying routes. The east coast route, covered by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in Long Way Down, put Steve off; they had, he figured, “made it look like vanilla”.

There was also a central route, through Algeria and into Niger which was well known, but had a reputation for bandits and danger. Since Steve had “zero interest in being kidnapped”, that was out.

This left the west coast route: Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and into Burkino Faso. He was particularly interested in the equatorial countries further south where he could see amazing birds, fish in rivers off the beaten path, admire giant trees and ride along jungle tracks.

But the desert was as far as he got.

Cath gave him six months for his adventure – he promised to reach Joburg by March 31, 2012, the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. The six months turned into almost six long years.

On October 13, 2011 Steve set off for Morocco via Gibraltar. At campsites he would meet other overlanders, including Dutch couple Sjaak and Tilly in their Land Rover and Swedish bikers Tommy and Johan. Seeing they were all taking a similar route, they banded together, and were staying in the same guesthouse in Timbuktu when their lives changed forever.

It had been a last-minute decision to go to Timbuktu – other overlanders told them how fabulous it was, and that it was safe; although Al Qaeda was active in Mali, there had been no attacks or incidents in the city.

Well, there’s always got to be a first, and Sjaak, Johan and Steve – and another tourist, Martin from Germany –  were it.

Armed men came into the courtyard of the guesthouse and marched four of the men out to their bakkie at gunpoint. When Martin yelled and struggled, he was shot dead in the street. This was a powerful incentive for the other three to shut up and do as they were told.

They were tied up and driven north-west to a remote desert region. One of the worries torturing Steve on that frightful drive was his brand new British passport.

And he was right to be concerned: when Al Qaeda discovered it, they clearly felt they had hit the jackpot. You got a lot more publicity for kidnapping a Brit, and Britain had been involved in too many incursions in Muslim countries such as Libya and Iraq to make members of Al Qaeda warm to them.

To this day Steve believes the fact that his captors saw him as British – even though he had been born and raised in South Africa – was one reason he became Al Qaeda’s longest-held hostage.

The first few months were a nightmare. Actually it was all a nightmare, but the early months were among the most terrifying, as Steve and his fellow prisoners never knew if they would be summarily executed, shot as Martin had been, or beheaded. Even the odd child in the camp would approach the prisoners with sly grins and draw their fingers across their throats.

Being terrified every day for six months does strange things to your body and mind. Johan converted to Islam, and was immediately treated better. Steve didn’t know if conversion would save his life, but even though it was a tough decision, it was worth a try.

The Muslim name suggested to him was Lot, and Steve thought: “Wasn’t Lot the guy whose wife was turned to salt and he never saw her again?” Was the choice of name a hint that he would never go home?

But now life changed for the better: he was now seen by his captor as a brother. “I was still a prisoner, but now I was human and had a basic right to dignity and respect.”

And so the years dragged on. The three prisoners never gelled as friends. Johan was very bright, and contemptuous of everyone around him, or as Steve puts it, he was all IQ and zero EQ. Sjaak, who was about 20 years older than the other two, was easier to get on with, but in Steve’s opinion became increasingly unhinged.

Steve/Lot taught himself to speak and write Arabic, which made life a bit more bearable. He also learnt many skills not needed in an urban life: how to slaughter animals, how to milk camels, how to weave a rope from grass, track and hunt rabbits, and make sundials to tell the time.

Understandably, Steve suffered from constant anxiety and depression. But he realised he needed to make the best of the hand he’d been dealt, and not be ground down. So he tried hard to find joy and meaning in every day.

Meanwhile on the outside, the families worked unceasingly to get the prisoners freed. The McGowns were supported in part both by the British and the South African authorities, but it took the involvement of Imtiaz Sooliman and Gift of the Givers to really get things moving.

In July 2017 he was finally released, and flew home to Joburg to find his mother had died just weeks previously.

This book was very much better than I had expected. Stephen McGown is a thoughtful man, and his reactions are rarely kneejerk. He was determined, if at all possible, both to survive and come out of the ordeal a better person. His reflections on one of the world’s most feared terror organisations are perceptive and nuanced.

And he found a sensitive, sympathetic writer in Tudor Caradoc-Davies. This is a thoroughly worthwhile read.




Rising above the effects of a corrosive childhood

Review: Vivien Horler

Just Ignore Him, by Alan Davies (Little, Brown)

You know Alan Davies on the hilarious British programme QI – the permanent panel member with curly hair, who is warm, empathetic and clever, with a slightly silly sense of humour?

How that delightful performer and comedian grew out of the boy in this memoir is hard to fathom. The boy whom Davies chronicles is sad, angry, lonely, disruptive, rebellious and mutinous.

Until he was six he lived in a happy family, the middle child of three and particularly close to his mother. But then she died of leukaemia, and everything changed. His father, an accountant, was authoritarian and apparently permanently irritated by young Alan, frequently telling his brother and sister to “just ignore him”.

Alan Davies

And the natural response of one who is being ignored is to be even more bumptious.

But there was more. When he was eight his father began coming into his bedroom in his white Y-fronts, stripping him naked and stroking his buttocks. This was Alan’s “special cuddle”, a cuddle of course to be kept secret. This continued on and off for years, until Alan was around 13.

He responded by becoming both a show-off and withdrawn, a shoplifter and thief, stealing money and items from his family and various childminders.

He was lonely both within his family and at school. Being disliked, he says, prompted a calming wave of familiarity.

Continue reading

Books on my Bedside Table January 2021

  • THESE are some of the titles that landed on my desk in the past few weeks. Not all have been read yet, and some will be reviewed in full. – Vivien Horler

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

Encouraging news for anyone battling to get a novel published: fashion designer and writer Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain was rejected by 32 US publishers and 12 British ones before going on to win the 2020 Booker Prize. The American independent publisher Grove Atlantic took the winning chance on it. Shuggie Bain is set in working-class Glasgow – where Stuart grew up – of the 1980s and 1990s, and the Booker Prize judging panel said it was destined to be a classic.


How I Learned to Understand the World, by Hans Rosling (Sceptre)

The late Swedish doctor, academic and public speaker Hans Rosling wrote a bestseller Factfulness in which he proposed that most of us have a dubious and out-of-date view of the world, which is not borne out by the facts. Things are actually better than you’d think. This new book is a memoir, and unlike Factfulness, “is about me” and “very short on numbers”.



Unconventional Wisdom – Adventures in the surprisingly true, edited by Tom Standage (The Economist Books)

So you think the world’s population is rising uncontrollably (see review above)? Well, according to the United Nations, not. The body has reduced its predictions, suggestion the world will contain a little over 9.7bn in 2050, a total of 37m fewer than it forecast two years ago. One reason is that birth rates are falling faster than expected in some developing countries. This book is full of unexpected and intriguing facts, such as the effect a ghost in a property can have on house prices, why Easter is dangerous for dogs, and why US Republicans eat more meat than Democrats.

six years with al qaeda

Six Years with Al Qaeda, by Stephen McGown, as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies (Maverick 451)

In November 2011 Steve McGown was on an epic motorbike journey through Africa, riding home from London to Johannesburg. In Timbuktu he was taken captive by Al Qaeda and held in the desert for six years, with no idea whether he would live or die. Thanks to huge efforts of those of at home, including Gift of the Givers, led by the indomitable Imtiaz Sooliman, he survived and came home to his wife  and father, though not his mother who died while he was in custody. He taught himself French and Arabic, converted to Islam and decided to live his life as a better human being.


Dark Tides, by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster)

In her Fairmile series, historical novelist Philippa Gregory has moved away from the Tudors to the 17th century and the world of the newly restored monarchy of Charles II. The action takes place between restoration London, Venice and the American frontier, and is a story about love, wealth, and the search for a child. Tidelands was the first in the series, this is the second.

  • All these titles are among Exclusive Books’ recommended monthly reads for January 2021.


Doorstopper of a JK Rowling thriller may be too big for its plot

Review: Vivien Horler

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

This is the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/ Robin Ellacott series written by JK Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and it’s had a lot of negative publicity.

Last year Rowling aired her views on gender, and in particular, transgender people, objecting to the replacement of the word “women” with the phrase “people who menstruate”. At the risk of being pilloried, I’m with her there. Not all women menstruate, certainly not much after the age of 55, which makes them no less women.

One of her remarks was: “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”

She was accused of being transphobic and of being a “TERF” – a “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”. Along with many others, the three young stars of the Harry Potter films turned their backs on her. Continue reading

Empathetic social history of our most famous national park


Review: Archie Henderson

Safari Nation, by Jacob Dlamini (Jacana) 

The Kruger, Dlamini reminds us in this social history of the national park, is as much about people as it is about animals. 

Ever since Paul Kruger had the idea of preserving wildlife in the Sabi River area to the official establishment of the park in 1926, people and animals were in conflict over who should be given preference. The animals won.

This was not such a bad thing, but the conflict has never been properly settled. A shadowy land claim deal of R1billion some years ago for the MalaMala area, adjacent to Kruger, is testimony to this continuing conflict. So is the rampant poaching, especially from the Mozambique side, that has never been resolved.

The park’s first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton, who is credited with establishing the Kruger National Park in its present form, had no qualms about forcing people off land where they had lived for hundreds of years so that the wild animals could thrive in that space. Not for nothing did the people he moved give him the nickname Skukuza, which means “destroyer”.

In 1935, Bantu World, a black elite newspaper, gave its opinion on the forced removals: “The preservation of animals … is a noble thing, but nobler still is the preservation of human life, be it white or black.”

This part of the park’s history has often been suppressed, especially in the early days when South African Railways, then in charge of promoting tourism, was trying to sell the country to foreign visitors. According to Dlamini, “The country had to know itself first as a nation before it could project itself as a tourist destination. But the country never did settle these questions, meaning that it sold itself to the world without resolving its basic political contradictions.”

Dlamini approaches Kruger with his usual intellectual rigour and sympathetic dispassion. He revealed that quality early in a journalism career with the Sunday Times. As a young reporter, he did not settle for the mere murder of Winnie Mandela’s driver. He followed the story and arrived at the office on the following Tuesday having found and interviewed the driver’s family. His Terrorist Album, a book on state killings during apartheid, was the result of following up evidence given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Safari Nation is less grisly and is the result of a PhD thesis completed some years ago when Dlamini enlisted in a Kruger Park game-ranger’s course to better understand the issues he would write about. 

Kruger’s history is filled ambivalence, irony and contradictions. He not only sorts it all out, but debunks some myths. One of the myths, espoused by some of the country’s leading academics, was that black people were not allowed into the park during segregation and apartheid. This might have been underpinned by JG Strijdom’s objection to black people using the same roads as whites in Kruger. At the time the second apartheid prime minister was minister of lands in DF Malan’s National Party cabinet.

A poignant part of the book is how black people dealt with visits to Kruger and how officials in the park had to reconcile the National Parks Act of 1926 with apartheid legislation. The latter usually won. An Indian doctor could attend an international medical conference in the park because he was light-skinned but not his darker-skinned wife. When the Department of Indian Affairs complained about the poor condition of “Bantu toilets” in Skukuza (at the time the only place where black tourists could stay, albeit in a segregated compound), authorities cut a hole in the fence surrounding the white toilets and turned a blind eye.

By 1974, the National Parks Board resolved that only the more benign National Parks Act of 1926, and not apartheid legislation, could apply in Kruger. But it was only in 1980 that elements of petty apartheid began to disappear.

Kruger is now firmly established as one of the world’s most iconic wildlife sanctuaries, but Dlamini’s history shows that we can never take this for granted.  It will need constant protection. “The black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation in principle,” he writes. “They opposed injustice.”

All the usual suspects

Review: Vivien Horler

50 People who F***ed Up South Africa – The lost decade, by Alexander Parker &  Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro (Mercury)

Authors Alexander Parker and Tim Richman are clearly feeling bolder since they’ve changed their series title from 50 People Who Stuffed Up (South Africa in 2010 and The World in 2016). Now they’ve upped the ante from “stuffed” to “f***ed”, although as someone  once pointed out, if you want the questionable shock effect of “fucked”, why not just say so?

This fourth volume in their best-selling series focuses on the period between 2010, when we were cheered by the success of the Soccer World Cup, and this devastating pandemic year of 2020.

Like its predecessors, despite its zany cover and Zapiro cartoons, this is not a funny book. In fact it’s deeply sobering. In their introduction the authors say that much of what ails South Africa “marches in step with international trends”, such as inequality, the urban/rural divide, crony capitalism and the fact that across the word black people are generally poorer than white people. But, they add, “there is a distressingly tumultuous South African amplifications of all this fraught political upheaval”.

Hapless Cyril

Narrowing the list to the 50 here represented was “impossibly tricky”. All 50 in the book have done great damage to an already struggling country. “Their greatest collective crime is the squandering of hope and potential.”

So who are they? A skim of the index reveals all the usual suspects, from Shaun Abrahams to Mosebenzi Zwane, and including the likes of Bathabile Dlamini, she of the “smallanyana skeletons”, Malusi Gigaba and his willie, John Hlophe, Markus Jooste, David Mabuza, Ace Magashule, Julius Malema, Andy Marinos, Baleka Mbete, Brian Molefe, Lucky Montana, Hlaudi Motsoeneng , Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma.

We know many of these people have been really bad, but there are others who would seem less culpable, like Cyril Ramaphosa, of whom they point out: “…President Ramaphosa pretty much nailed it when he described the waste of the Zuma years, his presence at the man’s right hand through so much of it notwithstanding.”

Another of the not-so-bad is the grim-faced Dlamini-Zuma, whose track record is “a patchwork of mediocrity, fleeting competence and occasional disaster”. The Covid-19 crisis brought out the worst of her authoritarian nature, and the authors point out we now have some understanding of the bullet we dodged when Ramaphosa beat her to the presidency of the ANC.

There’s a delightful quote from former Sunday Times editor Mondli Makanya, dated May this year: “A recent study by a reputable research institute compared the number of times [NDZ] smiled with the number of times former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus told the truth. The research, soon to be published in an academic journal, found that Niehaus told the truth more often than Dlamini-Zuma smiled.”

As for Carl Niehaus, while most of us see him as a running political joke, in some ways he is one of the more tragic of the 50 in this book, “someone who sacrificed much for the moral high ground in his young days, and who then sacrificed his reputation entirely with his subsequent behaviour. In so doing he represents the greater reputational downfall of many in this party.” They something of the same regarding Gigaba.

I’m not sure I’d rush out to buy this book, because we know so much of it already, but it does provide a useful summary of all that’s been going on. It’s not funny, although there are some funny moments, and the writing is light as well as hard-hitting.

The authors say it is an indignant book. Most South Africans are good and decent, “but politics being what it is, the real bad buggers have found their way into power”. Now things have to change, and that is up to us.