Monthly Archives: March 2021

Humbling account of a foreigner who is saving South African lives

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boy Who Never Gave Up, by Emmanuel Taban, with Andrew Crofts (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The fourth of six children, Emmanuel Taban born on the floor of a mud hut to a newly divorced woman. They lived in a village in what is now South Sudan, and their prospects were poor.

When Emmanuel was eight he was sent to buy bread, and on the way found the equivalent of $20 on the track leading to the shop. His delighted mother told him God had given him the money, and after that he regularly prayed that God would send more to help his mother feed the family.

Years later he reasoned that “hoping for an unearned windfall in this way was part of accepting that I was unable to earn money for myself… It did not occur to me that there might be another way. Every grown-up I knew was praying for the same thing, with the same lack of success.”

But somehow this small boy rose above the circumstances life had thrown at him. Today he is a successful pulmonologist practising in Centurion, and the pioneer of a risky treatment – according to the World Health Organisation – which has saved the lives of at least 51 Covid-19 patients whose conditions were considered to be terminal. Continue reading

The desperation of the Dust Bowl laid bare

Review: Vivien Horler

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

In the winter of 1934-35, snow stained red by dust storms blowing east drifted on to the fields of New England in the US.

This was the time of the Dust Bowl, when huge areas of the Great Plains, including parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and neighbouring states, experienced an appalling 10-year drought, exacerbating the effects of the Great Depression.

Terrible dust storms, made up mostly of precious topsoil, swept across the country. Crops died, farms were ruined, and people suffered from both malnutrition and an ailment called dust pneumonia, caused by breathing in dust-laden air.

Between 1930 and 1940 around 3.5million people, not all of them farmers, left the Great Plains and headed west; according to Wikipedia it is said that 12% of today’s Californians have so-called “Okie” heritage.

The horror of the times is the subject of The Grapes of Wrath, the classic by John Steinbeck. Now brilliant contemporary US writer Kristin Hannah – author of such sweeping novels as The Nightingale and The Great Alone – has turned her attention to this dreadful period in US history. Continue reading

On my bedside table in March

  • 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

The Smallest Man, by Frances Quinn (Simon & Schuster)

At 10 he was the size of a two-year-old, and was sold by his butcher father to a duke. A shilling changed his life. In 1625 Nat Davy was hidden in a pie (it must have been quite a big pie) so he could be given as a gift to the new queen of England. He became her friend and also saved her life. This historical novel was inspired by the life of Jeffrey Hudson, who became court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1. In an author’s note Frances Quinn says Hudson was a celebrity, “thanks to his tiny size, doll-like looks and ready wit”.

Girl A, by Abigail Dean (HarperCollins)

Girl A is Alexandra Gracie, one of seven children whose parents kept them locked up as prisoners in what they call the House of Horrors. But one day Lex and her sister Evie escape, which brings an end to their suffering and a jail term for their mother. The novel opens with Lex, now a New York-based lawyer, visiting the prison where their mother has just died. The children have inherited the House of Horrors, which Lex wants to turn into a force for good. But first she has to stop running from the past she and her siblings shared. One of the shouts on the cover describe Girl A as “terrifyingly gripping”.

The Prophets, by Robert Jones jun (riverrun)

Two young male slaves on a Deep South plantation provide the loving mutual warmth that in every other way is lacking in their lives. They look after the animals in the barn, and made the space their home. But then an older slave starts to speak for the master, and the slaves turn on each other, with developing tension culminating in a major reckoning. Author Marlon James describes this novel as “epic in its scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty. The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do, and can be”.

The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little ((H Review)

Coco Chanel said a girl should be two things, “classy and fabulous”. She and her sister Antoinette certainly were. This is a historical novel about Antoinette and Gabrielle (later Coco), who changed the face of French fashion. They were abandoned at a Catholic orphanage as children, but dreamt of a glittering future, and began singing in cafes and music halls. Later in Paris they had a small hat shop on the rue Cambon, the beginning of the Chanel empire and legend. The story is told in the voice of Antoinette.

  • These titles are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommendations for March 2021.

His daughter called him an Uncle Tom, but Abdullah Abdurahman fought for his principles

Review: Dougie Oakes

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s first elected black politician, by Martin Plaut (Jacana)

Even in the late 1800s, enough was known about attitudes that prevailed among the rulers and their supporters of the British Colony on the southern tip of Africa to suggest they would have stopped at nothing to crush the political aspirations of a grandson of a slave couple.

Abdullah Abdurahman, who had risen to become one of Cape Town’s greatest city councillors (for District Six), had more than just the racist attitudes of white rulers ranged against him and the organisation he led – the African Political Organisation (APO).

Ranged against him too were other prominent members of the coloured community who showed what often seemed a puzzling disposition to fight among themselves – with many continuously seeking to put their trust for political salvation in the hands of white Afrikaners (or Dutch-speakers), British expats, or members of the Crown in faraway Britain.

Those who saw salvation in alliances with one or other white grouping – and Abdurahman was one of them – were invariably betrayed, sometimes shamelessly so by those they regarded as partners.

In many ways, Abdurahman was a complex character. He was outspoken. He was fearless. He was charming. And yet, there is little evidence to suggest that he ever attempted to call the other sides’ bluff – or at least to see if they were bluffing.

His weakness was that he was always the one to blink first, and this was why he was slated by the (albeit fractured) left, especially of South Africa’s political movements.

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s First Elected Black Politician is a modest 220 pages (including, from page 179, extensive notes, a select bibliography, and an index.

In many ways, Abdurahman’s story is one of triumph, tragedy and betrayal.

His triumph centred on his rise in a Wellington-based family of slaves, to university in Scotland, to being capped as a medical doctor, to slicing through the colour-bar by marrying a Scottish woman, to forming one of the most influential political groups in SA – the APO – and becoming the country’s first elected black politician: the city councillor for District Six.

His tragedy was that, despite his best efforts, ranging from begging to threatening, to travelling to Britain to argue the case for black people, he was never able to persuade those who wielded power that the key to South Africa’s future centred on non-racialism.

Finally, his betrayal was seeing some members of coloured communities throwing in their lot with the racism of people such as JBM Hertzog for monetary reward.

Plaut points out – and it is an interesting observation – that hardly any information (for example, private letters) on Abdurahman’s life was available to him when he began compiling this biography. He had already started writing the book when material from Abdurahman’s life finally emerged, in the private papers of the educationist Dr Edgar Maurice.

Unfortunately, most of this had been damaged, and was unusable.

Consequently, Plaut was forced to rely, perhaps too heavily (but understandably so), on Gavin Lewis’s seminal work on the coloured people, Between the Wire and the Wall and on material compiled by other writers, such as JH Reynolds, Yousuf S Rassool, Mohamed Adhikari, Crain Soudien, Bill Nasson, Richard van der Ross and Patricia van der Spuy.

One major question that emerges in the life and times of Abdurahman is this:

“Was the biting criticism of the politics he practised fair?”

If cognisance is taken of the attitudes of the period, the answer must be “No.’

And yet.

There were times he was slated across the board – especially by the left, even though its proponents were as unsuccessful as he was in confronting the prevalent racist attitudes of the white administrators of the country.

At the height of anti-Abdurahmanism, even his daughter, Cissie (later to become the firebrand politician Cissie Gool), referred to him as an “Uncle Tom” and as one who had “betrayed” his people.

Others, such as the trade unionist and Communist Party member John Gomas, described him as a “lackey of the white ruling class”.

Van der Spuy attacked the lack of success of the non-European conferences in which he led the APO from 1927 until the early 1930s, attributing this failure to his refusal to “admit confrontational tactics into their repertoire”.

Abdurahman’s weapons in the fight against white racism hardly changed throughout his political career. He believed that petitions and peaceful protest, accompanied by radical rhetoric and alliances with other groups fighting white domination, might resist the advance of segregation and racism.

He was wrong. And this was perhaps the main reason he was criticized so heavily in some quarters.

Adhikari, though, was more sympathetic.

“There can be little argument,” he wrote, “that in the four decades before his death on 20 February 1940, Abdurahman was far and away the most influential and popular political leader within the coloured community (and the outpouring of grief that followed his death was proof if this).”

Abdurahman’s biggest disappointment was the defeat of both his APO and his allies, the SA Native National Congress (later the ANC) to the segregationists of the north in the run-up to the establishment of the Union of South Africa.

It was a defeat that was described by the black activist AK Soga as “treachery”. Even the usually mild-mannered newspaper proprietor John Tengo Jabavu was moved to write that the terms of Union introduced “immoral colour distinctions among the King’s subjects”.

The author, Olive Schreiner, described the debate that ushered in Union as “without exception the most contemptible from the broad human standpoint”.

Abdurahman was furious.

When the Cape Town City Council met to discuss plans to discuss plans to spend £4 000 on festivities to commemorate the creation of the Union of South Africa, he refused to vote for the expenditure. “No coloured man can feel happy,” he said. “No coloured man, I hope, will sing God, Save the King on that day. I know I won’t.

“How can any man find anything to celebrate?”

But the new, white rulers of a new, white Union were as far away from their black countrymen as it was possible to be.

Louis Botha, first prime minister of the Union said black people were not fit to sit in parliament and “no self-respecting white man would sit next to a coloured man in parliament”.

In 1924, in a sign of things to come in coloured politics, when an even more rightwing Pact Government led by JBM Hertzog came into power, a prominent coloured politician, NR Veldsman, sent him a letter of congratulations.

His reward was to be made Inspector of Coloured Labour in Cape Town Docks.



Delightful novels of pilgrimage

Review: Vivien Horler

Three Women and a Boat, by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman, by Julietta Henderson (Bantam Press)

Two novels about what are essentially pilgrimages, but which are very different in their approach.

I loved Three Women and a Boat, although, like a narrowboat cruise on England’s canals, not much happens. I have had several canal holidays, and they are slow, beautiful, with just enough activity to keep you moving, but essentially wonderfully relaxing.

There is a strict speed limit on the canals – you’re not allowed to create a breaking wash – which means you travel at walking pace, about 5kmh. Once, after we’d been chugging along for about three days, we had a small mechanical problem and had to call the boatyard; they were with us in 20 minutes.

In this novel elderly Anastasia lives on a narrowboat, the Number One, but is ill and needs life-saving surgery. Trouble is, she is in London but the Number One needs to get to Chester in the north of England for an overhaul.

She meets two women on the towpath: Eve, who has resigned from a 30-year corporate career to have a new life, and Sally, who has just left her husband and grown-up children. Both women are at a loose end while they ponder their futures, and they agree to take the Number One north, along with Anastasia’s dog Noah.

It doesn’t matter that neither has any experience with narrowboats or canals – as anyone who has hired one knows, the boatyard staff will see you through your first lock and then you’re on your own.

England’s canals preceded the railways and were used to move goods around the country. The problem of getting loaded boats over hills was solved by tunnels and an ingenious system of locks.

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