Monthly Archives: April 2023

Searing tale of Rwanda, of hope and love

Review: Vivien Horler

All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse (Europa Editions)

Twenty-nine years ago this month, while the world was focused on SA’s first democratic elections, genocide broke out in Rwanda.

The United Nations had been warned by its own peacekeeping troops who pleaded for reinforcements, but the world body chose to do nothing.

Most Rwandans are either Hutu, the majority, Tutsis, or Twa. The Hutus turned on the Tutsis, and it is estimated between 500,000 and 700,000 were murdered in about 60 days. Most of the victims were Tutsis, but moderate Hutus and Twa also died.

The title of this extraordinary novel comes from the Catholic liturgy: “O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.”

Millions of Rwandans are scattered, including many in South Africa. Continue reading

Bedside table books for April

Bedside books April

These are some of the books that landed on my desk this month. The first two are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for April. A review of a third Exclusive Books novel, All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, is due to appear on this website on Sunday April 30. – Vivien Horler

Homecoming,  by Kate Morton (Mantle)

It’s been a long, blazingly hot Christmas Eve of 1959, and Percy Summers is heading home after helping clear fire-prone bush on a cattle station in South Australia.

He takes a shortcut through the extensive grounds of the Turner family home to the cool of the river, where he sees the Turner family, asleep on picnic blankets – mother, three children and the baby. Utterly still.

Years later, Jess Turner-Bridges is an Australian journalist living in London. She is called back home to Sydney where her beloved grandmother is seriously ill. While staying in her grandma’s house she finds a true-crime book telling the story of the Turner family murders.

And then, while reading, she discovers a link between her own family and this ghastly crime – one that has never been solved.

I think that sounds like a pretty good beginning of a doorstop-sized novel that spans a couple of generations.  I’m halfway through and enjoying it immensely.

The Library Suicides, by Fflur Dafydd (Hodder & Stoughton)

When the novelist Elena commits suicide, her distraught twin daughters, who work at the National Library, are convinced she was driven to take her own life as a result of a review by a literary critic, Eben.

Eben wants to clear his name, and asks if he can have access to Elena’s diaries, which are kept at the library. The twins see an opportunity for revenge.

They manage to lock the library, trapping their colleagues, readers and Eben inside. But the plan falls apart when a security guard starts freeing the hostages.

The cover blurb tells us this is “an intensely memorable and provocative literary read unlike any high-concept thriller you’ve read before”.

Harry Oppenheimer – Diamonds, gold and dynasty Michael Cardo (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

With the Ruperts, was Harry Oppenheimer the representative of “white monopoly capital” par excellence, or were things a bit more nuanced?

In a thoughtful introduction to his biography, DA MP Michael Cardo, shadow minister of employment and labour, says what struck him forcefully during his research was how, in the 1950s,  “nationalists of another stripe had focused their ire on the Oppenheimer family”.

He is of course referring to the Nationalists of 1948 and later, when Harry Oppenheimer became an MP for the United Party. “He represented an existential threat to Afrikanerdom: he embodied everything its leaders dreaded and detested.”

Oppenheimer (1908-2000), writes Cardo, was in many ways ahead of his times, in others he was a product of his era. He bankrolled the Progressive Party for decades, yet supported a qualified franchise until 1978.

And Cardo adds: “And even though Oppenheimer was an enlightened capitalist, certainly by the standards of his peers, on his mines the conditions above and below ground contributed to generations of black hardship.”

He was never any more than an accidental tourist down his own mines, remarking once to a journalist: “It’s quite amusing but I wouldn’t like to work there.”

Well no. And yet he was a brilliant entrepreneur and Anglo-American came to dominate the SA economy, “a $15 billion empire on which the sun never set”.

Cardo adds: “…his legacy is multifaceted, and he deserves neither obloquy nor hagiography”.

This One Thing: Journeying with Tutu, by Dan Vaughan (Sunlit)

Most of us remember Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with fondness and respect. He could be hilarious, he could be fearless and brave in defying the powerful of the day as well as murderous mobs.

But this is a memoir of a time before he became internationally famous, a time when he was head of the SA Council of Churches, when his path crossed with that of one Dan Vaughan, who became his deputy.

Vaughan was a young white man in 1948, the year the Nationalist Party came to power. He worked in an office in Cape Town, and life moved in a pleasant routine, he writes. Yes, there was an increasingly draconian crackdown on black people, but it didn’t really affect him. That was the way things were.

And then Vaughan felt drawn to being a missionary, spending time in what was then Rhodesia, and for the first time in his life felt he was “seeing, tasting and feeling Africa and its people”.

Later he began working for the SACC, not long before Tutu arrived. Eventually he became the cleric’s righthand man, travelling with him as Tutu confronted the apartheid government – a stance that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize – and bore witness around the world.

I asked a friend, who worked closely with Tutu in the archbishop years, what he thought about This One Thing, and he said: “Its strength and uniqueness is that it’s the story of the conversion of a white conservative to the cause of liberation on religious grounds… Vaughan is a sweet man of great personal integrity.”

The Scholarship Kids – a memoir by Robert Gentle (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Robert Gentle and his twin brother Michael were small coloured boys living in Wynberg in Cape Town, just below the railway line, on literally the wrong side of the tracks.

Sometimes the family went to Cape Town harbour to watch ocean liners head to Europe. But the event that turned their lives around was the day the boys’ dad took them to the airport to see one of SAA’s newly acquired Boeing 707s.

“The sight of that plane triggered something in both Michael and me: a love of aircraft that would give our lives purpose and direction… A dream was born that day. Time would give it wings.”

But how were two young coloured boys in apartheid SA going to achieve their dream? This memoir tells their story.





History can take a long time to right the wrongs of the past

Review:  Vivien Horler

This Rebel Heart, by Katherine Locke (Alfred A Knopf)

Almost 70 years ago a movement, initially led by students, rebelled against Hungary’s puppet government – controlled by the Soviet Union – and staged a short-lived coup.

They imposed their prime minister of choice, Imre Nagy, who dissolved the AMH secret police, promised democratic reforms and, on November 1, 1956, withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.

It all came to a sticky end. On November 4 Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, leading to the deaths of 2 500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers. More than 200 000 Hungarians fled the country. Nagy was sentenced to death and executed two years later.

This is part of the background of This Rebel Heart, the story of a young Jewish woman, Csilla, who has lost almost all her family, mostly to the Nazis in World War 2, and her parents to the Hungarian secret police in the early 1950s.

She lives with her aunt Illona, in a small flat. The family’s apartment once occupied an entire floor of the building overlooking the Duna (Danube) river, but since the war it has been divided into four. Illona is terminally sad, as her whole family, including her children, died in the Holocaust. All who are left are Csilla and , Csilla’s aunt.

Csilla is a young typist for a local newspaper. Ever since her parents were murdered by the secret police, Csilla has known to keep her head down, in case she too is “disappeared”.

The family have lived, and died, in Hungary for generations, but now Csilla and Illona are ready to go. They have secreted enough money to leave, and have bought train tickets to Belgrade in Serbia, ostensibly to visit relatives. They are due to leave in 10 days. Continue reading

What the world beneath us teaches us about the world above

Review: Vivien Horler

Underland – A deep time journey, by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books)

When I was researching the life of my great-grandfather, a hard-rock miner, I wangled a descent into AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng, the deepest mine in the world.

Being 4km below the surface is unnerving – it’s humid, close to 30 deg C, and there is a sense of a lot of rock above you. It’s a pretty hostile environment and it is – I know this is bleedin’ obvious but still – bloody dark.

But man has been going underground for aeons, for three main purposes, writes Robert Macfarlane: “To shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.”

Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is a brilliant and lyrical British writer, mainly about nature and often about ancient pathways, and his books include Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

This title is a little different, and much of it, as the title suggests, is underground. Macfarlane, who is in his 40s, is not only a brilliant writer with a keen eye for what is around him, he is also impressively fit, brave, and occasionally – to my mind – reckless. Continue reading

How two men’s work in the wild led to trust and reliance

Review: Vivien Horler

Changing a Leopard’s Spots – The adventures of two wildlife trackers, by Alex van den Heever with Renias Mhlongo (Macmillan)

I was once on a game drive in the north of the country, and we stopped under a tree where a leopard was lolling in the branches. It was a brilliant sighting.

I had taken my sunhat off and hooked it over my knee, but it fell to the ground. I asked the driver if I could get down to retrieve it, and he said no, absolutely not.

He then got on the radio and called up another game drive vehicle, which arrived, parking in a wedge with our Landy, so that my hat – I was fond of that hat – was between the two vehicles.

The other driver then quickly got down and scooped it up.

I was struck by how seriously they took this – it would have taken me only seconds to grab it myself. But no. Continue reading

Memories of a lost world

Review: Vivien Horler

One Hundred Saturdays, by Michael Frank (Souvenir Press)

By July 1944 World War 2 had just 10 months to run, although no one then knew that for sure. But the tide had turned in the Allies’ favour.

Almost a year previously the Italians had surrendered to the Allies, and Allied troops, including South Africans, were fighting their way up Italy.

The D-Day landings had already taken place, and more Allied troops were fighting east across Europe towards Germany.

But these inconvenient truths did not stop the Nazis proceeding with their Final Solution. On July 23, 1944, a total of 1 700 Jews were rounded up on the Greek island of Rhodes for the first leg of their long journey to Auschwitz.

Around 70 years later Stella Levi, 92, and author Michael Frank were at the island’s port, where the Jews embarked. She mused: “We were old people and young women and children. Most of us had never been off the island in our entire lives, and that included me. It would have simpler to murder us all here and let us, at least, be buried with our own kind.” Continue reading