Monthly Archives: October 2022

Uprooted from paradise – and the fight to return

Review: Vivien Horler

The Last Colony: a tale of exile, justice and Britain’s colonial legacy, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Unless you’re Mauritian or have been playing close attention to cases before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, you may never have heard of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. You may not have heard of the Chagos Archipelago either.

It’s an astonishing story. When Mauritius was a British colony, Chagos, a series of specks in the ocean closer to the Maldives, was administered as a dependency of Mauritius.

The largest of the islands is Diego Garcia where, back in the 1770s, a Frenchman had a concession to run a coconut plantation, worked by slaves brought from Mozambique and Madagascar.

The population of the archipaelago, around 1 500 people, was descended from these slaves. One of them was Liseby Elysé who was born on Peros Banhos in Chagos in 1953 and lived there until her 20th year. Continue reading

Story of forgotten massacre wins Sunday Times non-fiction award

Vivien Horler

Cape Town writer Mignonne Breier has won the 2022 Sunday Times Literary Award for Non-Fiction for her searing book about a little-known massacre by police in East London’s Duncan Village almost 10 years before Sharpeville.

The book is Bloody Sunday: The nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre, published by Tafelberg last year. (Read my 22021 review here: Uncovering the terrible truth of a secret massacre)

It describes the lead-up to the killings that took place at an ANC Youth League event in November 1952 and their devastating fall-out. The killings were never formally investigated.

The award, presented in partnership with Exclusive Books, was given to Breier in Johannesburg on October 27.

Tshidiso Moletsane won the fiction prize for Junx (Umuzi).

Continue reading

Bedside table books for October

THESE are among the trove of books that arrived on my desk this month. Most have not yet been read. Some will be reviewed in full later. The top four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads for October. – Vivien Horler

Farm Killings in South Africa, by Nechama Brodie (Kwela Books)

Killings on farms account for less than half a percent of all murders reported in SA every year, and yet they are freighted with disproportionate weight in the national narrative on violence.

Having trawled through innumerable news reports, data, law cases and expert research about violence on farms, journalist Dr Nechama Brodie tells us that between April 2020 and March 2021 the police recorded 19 972 murders across the country – a terrifying average of 55 a day.

Yet farm murders make up a tiny proportion of violent acts. So why write a book on the subject, Brodie asks.

She describes the murder of 21-year-old farm manager Brendin Horner near Senekal on October 1, 2020 as a flashpoint, “a flare that highlighted the deepest fissures carved out by rage and simmering anger, a conflict about who belonged, about who got to feel safe”.

Brodie has been working on what she calls a broad homicide research project for almost 10 years, only to discover the growing claims of “white genocide” in SA were simply not true.

She discusses how South Africans see violence and each other, “and it imagines what we might learn if we took off the blinkers of our own prejudices and expectations and tried to understand these crimes as they are, not as politicians or social media accounts proclaim them to be”.

The very first section, which refers to Horner’s killing and then summarises the direction the book is going, is rather dry, but persevere – the second section about the land, and how white farming colonists removed San, Khoena (apparently the term Khoi is no longer used) and later other black land occupiers, is fascinating.

She sums up this section: “As a starting point to discussing the nature of violence and death on farms in South Africa, we need to dispense with the singular narrative of  heroic pioneers and acknowledge that in their very creation, farms began as places of violence.”

The Quality of Mercy, by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin Books)

Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean-born writer of dazzling accomplishment. She won the Sunday Times fiction prize in 2019 for the bestseller The Theory of Flight. She is a winner of Yale University’s 2022 Windham Campbell prize, is a writer, filmmaker and an academic with a PhD from Stanford University, and directed and edited the award-winning short film Graffiti.

The Quality of Mercy is the third in a trilogy, starting with The Theory of Flight (now a school setwork) and followed by The History of Man, but the blurb on the cover says this novel stands alone as it describes the history of a country moving from a colonial to a postcolonial state.

It tells the story of Spokes Moloi, a policeman who is about to retire and whose final crime investigation involves the possible murder of Emil Coetzee, head of the sinister Organisation of Domestic Affairs, who disappears on the day a ceasefire is declared and independence is on the horizon.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris (Hutchinson Heinemann)

According to Wikipedia, England’s Indemnity and Oblivion Act of 1660 was an act of parliament providing a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English civil war and Commonwealth period, with the exception of people who had committed certain crimes including piracy, buggery, rape and witchcraft, and those named in the act as having been involved in the killing of King Charles I.

In this historical novel, that same year Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe cross the Atlantic on the run, wanted for the murder of the former king. In terms of the Act of Oblivion they have been found guilty in absentia in London of high treason.

One Robert Nayler, the Privy Council’s secretary of the regicide committee, is ordered to track down the fugitives, dead or alive.

This is a thriller describing a chase and an epic journey across continents.

In an author’s note Robert Harris says it is based on a true story about the greatest manhunt of the 17th century across New England. Events, dates and locations are accurate, and almost every character is real, apart from Richard Nayler.

“I suspect there must have been such a person – you cannot sustain a manhunt without a manhunter – but whoever he was, his identity is lost to history,” writes Harris.

This looks like a cracker.

The Last Gift of the Master Artists, by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus)

This novel by Booker Prize-winning Nigerian-born Ben Okri has an unusual history. Set just before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, it was first published in 2007 as Starbook, but has over more than decade been reworked by Okri.

The cover blurb explains: “He has sought to bring to it a greater simplicity, to make the political and historical implications of the story clearer…. This is a work still more dazzling and unforgettable, and more relevant to our world than ever before.”

It begins with the meeting of a couple on a riverbank in Africa, who have no idea their world and culture are about to end. On the horizon, beautiful ships with white sails are waiting.

Bamboozled – In search of joy in a world gone mad, by Melinda Ferguson (Melinda Ferguson Books)

I mentioned this memoir last month, but at that stage I hadn’t read it. Now I have.

It starts off promisingly: writer, writing coach, publisher, recovering addict and petrol head Melinda Ferguson finds the pandemic lockdown difficult, depressing and disruptive, and decides she needs to move out of the city and find a home in the mountains.

One day, house-hunting near Tulbagh she finds it, on a small exclusive estate at the end of a long gravel road. It has views forever and is perfect. Her offer is accepted.

But just days before transfer, her neighbour, whom she has not met, is strangled in the house just two doors from hers. And her immediate neighbours are tied up and robbed, although not hurt.

Ferguson is appalled and frightened, and wonders if a neighbour’s murder is grounds to cancel a sale.

Ferguson has written several other books, mining for copy her unhappy childhood, the death of her father when she was four, her poisonous relationship with her alcoholic mother, and her own appalling descent into addiction, during which she took crack and heroin when pregnant with her sons.

Eventually her mother-in-law steps in, sends her husband for rehab and removes the two small boys. Ferguson spirals into a horror story of the drug dens of Hillbrow, always comforting herself with the thought that when it gets too bad she can jump down the middle of the Ponte Tower.

But her own family step in, and she is eventually able to shake her habit.

Roughly 20 years later, living in Cape Town with her partner, Soul-Mat, she starts taking psilocybin mushrooms – reportedly not addictive – and is liberated by what they teach her.

Doors that have remained stubbornly shut through years of 12-Step meetings and therapy suddenly open in a blast of understanding. Issues become clear.

And then, quite frankly, she goes off-piste – in my humble opinion anyway. Governments have too much power, and populations around the world are battling to take it back. People like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are persecuted for telling the people the truth.

Popular uprisings like the Arab Spring and others are ruthlessly crushed. The people are becoming too noisy, too clever, too powerful.

And then comes this paragraph: “So – #DeepBreath – could it be possible that a ‘deadly virus’ was allowed to escape a lab in Wuhan ‘by accident’, precipitating a global lockdown? Creating a scenario in which emergency laws could be introduced, people’s movement could be restricted, and new surveillance and medical legislation could be instituted? Extreme measures that granted unprecedented control over all of us, to those who were pulling the strings of our world in order to re-establish and ‘reset’ the power ‘balance’?”

Conceding that the virus obviously did exist and had killed people, she says this is not the point…. “Perhaps I was really losing the plot, but in my desperation for clarity and answers, this notion felt entirely plausible…”

In short, we’ve all been bamboozled.

Eish, man.

Melinda Ferguson publishes her own books. Would anyone else?


Immigrants – and the ties that bind and divide

Review: Vivien Horler

The Halfways, by Nilopar Uddin (HQ/ HarperCollins)

My family came to South Africa from the UK when I was two, and all my life I’ve felt slightly torn, not quite South African and not quite British.

I’m grateful for my British passport, grateful I live in Cape Town, but I’ve never felt quite settled.

And this is one of the themes of The Halfways, focusing on a Bengali family who live in Wales, and the various ties that bind and separate them.

Nasrin and Sabrina are British-born sisters who grew up in Wales’s Brecon Beacons where their father Shamsur runs an Indian restaurant and pub. The parents came to England as immigrants, and while  Shamsur has more or less assimilated, mother Jahanara retains her ancestral ties and is a devout Muslim.

The daughters are brought up to be well-behaved and modest, but they know from annual summer holidays in Bangladesh how much freer they are than their cousin, Afroz, who lives in the old country in an unhappy arranged marriage. Continue reading

Sri Lankan writer wins 2022 Booker Prize

Vivien Horler

Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, who has won the 2022 Booker Prize for Fiction, may not be a prolific novelist, but he’s all quality.

His first novel, Chinaman, published in 2011, won the Commonwealth prize, the DSL and the Gratiaen prize, and was selected for the BBC and The Reading Agency’s Big Jubilee Read.

Now he has won the Booker with his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which tells the story of a photographer who wakes up dead in 1990 in a sort of heavenly  visa office. Continue reading

Restoring the reputation of a Brit leader at Spion Kop

Review: Archie Henderson
Charles Warren, by Kevin Shillington (Protea)

First a confession: I did know about Charles Warren but had written him off as insignificant and the man who messed up (on the British side) at the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.

Of course, I should have known better because in 1996 a colleague at The Argus, Owen Coetzer, had proudly revealed that his meticulous exoneration of Warren was soon to be published. Kevin Shillington has used much of Coetzer’s work to substantiate a new defence Warren. If only Owen was with us today to share a bit of Shillington’s limelight. Continue reading

Don’t mess with me – Smuts in World War 1

Review: Attie Hendricks
General Jan Smuts and his First World War in Africa 1914-1917, by David Brock Katz (Jonathan Ball)
They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but it’s hard not to be drawn to this one: Jan Smuts stares at you from the bookshop shelves, as if challenging you to disagree with him. It’s a photograph for which the author apparently paid a hefty sum and is not a conventional picture of a man who was to become the subject of later paparazzi.
Smuts was 48 at the time and the photograph was taken in 1917, soon after he joined David Lloyd George’s imperial war cabinet in London. In the team picture, he sits in the front row, the only man in uniform, having recently returned from the frontline in East Africa. Continue reading

It takes fiction to get under the skin of war

Review: Archie Henderson
Tenk, by Pieter Stoffberg (Penguin Random House SA)

In the closing weeks of 1987, the South African army – with some critical help from a daring air force in the face of enemy MiGs – fought the first of a series of battles that would culminate in the controversial Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a stalemate but which persuaded Fidel Castro to pull his Cuban troops out of Angola and agree to talks that led to the independence of Namibia in 1990.

The battle is often portrayed as a triumph of “forces of liberation” over those of apartheid, which it was not if the histories of the conflict in Angola from 1975 to 1988 are studied with dispassion.

It left all the combatants with bloodied noses and could well have persuaded the National Party of PW Botha that the game was not worth the candle, that appeasement was better than apocalypse. Continue reading