Author Archives: Vivien Horler

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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Delicious legal gossip a feature of new account of the Jameson Raid

Review: Archie Henderson

Lawyers in Turmoil: The Johannesburg Conspiracy of 1895, by Owen Rogers (Stormberg)

The Jameson Raid of late 1895 was one of those seminal events that dramatically changes history. Even if not on the same global scale, think Pearl Harbour in 1942 or the Sarajevo assassination of 1914. The former brought the United States into World War 2, thus saving the democracies, and the latter brought most of Europe and all of the British Empire into World War 1.

The Jameson Raid was an early declaration of intention to wage war in South Africa in the late 19th century. It led to the Boer War – virtually South Africa’s white civil war – and set our history on a course from which it has still not quite escaped.

The raid, in its starkest terms, was the attempt by a multinational conglomerate (in this case Cecil John Rhodes’s mining interests) to usurp the sovereignty of an independent country. It was as if Exxon tried to take over Mozambique through naked military power to get at that country’s shale-gas riches (now threatened by a more shadowy force).

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Inspiration for shaded gardens


Inspiration for Shaded Gardens 

Review:  Myrna Robins

Gardening in the Shade in South Africa, by Allan Haschick (Struik Lifestyle)

Today, as many of us spend far more time at home than we used to before the onset of the Covid19 pandemic, interest in gardening has blossomed as never before, making this title extra-welcome.

This slim guidebook with its wealth of beautiful photographs is, by its very nature, a specialist title, fulfilling a need as most gardening books offer limited coverage of the subject of shade. South Africa, being the sunny country it is, means gardeners wrestle more with the problem of surplus sun rather than too little.

This compendium of solutions would have been so helpful during the decades we gardened on the slopes of Devil’s Peak  in Cape Town’s Newlands, where sun was patchy and disappeared behind the mountain all too early.

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On my Bedside Table for February

  • 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

Outlawed, by Anna North (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

I opened this book about 90 minutes ago, am now on page 91, and am riveted. One shout on the cover describes it as something of a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which seems unlikely but so far sounds about right. In a version of America in 1894, after the Great Flu and the collapse of the United States, Ada, 17, is married, but turns out to be barren. Amid allegations that she is a witch she flees, first to a convent and then to join a bunch of feminist outlaws in Colorado called the Hole in the Wall gang.



1986, by William Dicey (Umuzi)

In his author’s note on this crisp summary of the events of the pivotal year of 1986, William Dicey says he read Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart a couple of years ago and was astonished to see Malan describe it as a watershed year in South African politics. Dicey was halfway through high school at Bishops at the time, and remembers the headmaster, John Peake, giving the prize-giving speech at the end of 1985. “…only a few kilometres from our gates, there is to be found a scene of nightmare, of burning, looting, murdering. A negation of education.” Dicey has drawn on newspaper articles, memoirs and stories to create “a compelling diary of a very bad year”. I loved Dicey’s earlier book Borderline, about a canoe trip down the Orange River, and much more besides.

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is Texas in 1934, and all is well in Elsa Martinelli’s world of family and farm on the Great Plains. But then the drought comes, and the Dust Bowl Era makes the Great Depression a hundred times worse. Her husband leaves, and she has to decide whether to take her children to California and a possibly better life, or stay and fight for the land. Delia Owens, author of the bestselling Where the Crawdads Sing, describes The Four Winds as “A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself.” Kristina Hannah’s novel The Great Alone, about a family trying to make a life in unforgiving Alaska, was brilliant.


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

Norman Foreman and his friend Jax have a dream to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe when they’re 15. They’re a pair of wannabe stand-up comedians, and they’ve put up a poster of their five-year plan in Norman’s room. Jax says timing is everything, but then he goes and dies, which demonstrates pretty poor timing, Norman reckons. Norman’s single mother finds her heart breaking when she sees Norman’s revised plan, which is to look after her, try to find the dad he’s never known, and get to the Fringe to perform a one-night Jax tribute show. So Norman’s mum decides on a pilgrimage to Edinburgh, and on the way they’ll see if they can find Norman’s dad. This looks like a delightful read.

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

I’ve been on a number of narrowboat canal cruises in the UK which is a wonderful way to spend a slow week, so I couldn’t resist this novel. Anastasia, a narrowboat owner who is awaiting a life-saving operation, is joined on her boat by Eve, who has just left her 30-year career, and Sally, who has left her husband for a voyage through the English countryside. All three are vulnerable and the ups and downs of narrowboat life will draw them together – or drive them apart.



Life’s Not Yoga, or Is It? Finding love in the chaos of life, by Jacqui Burnett (Sophie Blue Press)

This is the non-fiction account of a troubled Cape Town teen who had a ghastly relationship with her awful father, a fraudster and a cheat. Later as an adult she goes to work for him, which turns out as badly as you might expect. There is a lot of detailed description, in capital letters, of their horrific shouting matches. Eventually, two failed marriages later, she goes to North America where I presume she reached the sunlit uplands referenced by the title of the book, but by that time I had been wearied by all the rage and had turned away.  (I was unable to download a cover picture to go with this entry.)


*All these titles – except Life’s Not Yoga – are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommendations for February 2021.


The quest to revive Sissinghurst

Review: Vivien Horler

Sissinghurst – an unfinished history, by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Sissinghurst is probably best known as the celebrated garden in Kent created by Vita Sackville-West, former lover of Virginia Woolf and also of Violet Trefusis.
Vita and her husband, the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson, had a famously open marriage, which was chronicled by their son Nigel in his book Portrait of a Marriage.
Nigel’s son Adam is the author of this book about the glorious estate on which he grew up, and which, like many great estates in the United Kingdom, attracted crippling death duties when Vita died.
One solution was to hand the estate over to the National Trust, an organisation dedicated to heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Vita, who had served on Trust committees, was vehement that the Trust would not take Sissinghurst in her lifetime. She wrote in her diary: “Never, never, never. … Nigel can do what he likes when I am dead, but as long as I live no Nat Trust or any other foreign body shall have my darling.”
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Unrelentingly miserable – and very, very good

Review: Vivien Horler

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Booker Prize-winning novels. Some are marvelously readable, like Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels (the third one was too, but it didn’t win the prize).

Then there are the more experimental novels, like George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, or Anna Burns’s Milkman, in which none of the characters is named and of which one reviewer said: “told in an unspooling, digressive, and fretfully ruminative manner”.

Shuggie Bain is much more straightforward than those, and while author Douglas Stuart does use a certain amount of Glaswegian dialect, it is perfectly readable.

It’s also unrelentingly miserable, and very, very good.

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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.

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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.