Author Archives: Vivien Horler

Kingsolver novel sugars the medicine, but gets its message across

Review: Vivien Horler

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber & faber)

unshelteredIt’s hard to imagine a world in which belief in Darwin’s theories was considered to be heresy, and yet it is said that around a third of Americans still reject them today (the same research, reported in January 2015 by the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC, found that half the population did not believe in human-generated climate change either).

Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels and other writing will know she is an earth warrior, unashamed to use her fiction as a vehicle in which to drive her views on the dangers of human profligacy and ignorance.

Her last novel, Flight Behaviour, about the plight of migrating butterflies, or Prodigal Summer, about the unhappy interface between small-time farmers and coyotes (in the South African context read sheep farmers and leopards and/or caracals) both have strong moral lessons. Continue reading

The Khamas and South Africa’s shameful part in trying to stop the marriage

Review: Vivien Horler

Your People will be My People – the Ruth Khama Story, by Sue Grant-Marshall (Protea Book House)

ruth khamaThe story of the marriage of Seretse Khama, a Bechuana chief in waiting, and Lloyds of London clerk Ruth Williams, has been told many times, most recently in the film A United Kingdom which was released in South Africa in 2016.

Not only was Ruth’s father vehemently opposed to the wedding, which took place in 1948 in a London very different from the multicultural city of today, so were Khama’s uncle Tshekedi, regent of the powerful Bamangwato tribe, and the British government.

But one of the major themes of this compelling biography of Lady Khama, as she eventually became, was the wily behind-the-scenes involvement of the South African government in the entire affair. And it doesn’t emerge with honour.

In the late 1800s Bechuanaland, Basutholand and Swaziland, as they were then known, feared amalgamation into what became the Union of South Africa, and sent representatives to London to ask Queen Victoria to protect them from this fate. She agreed, and as a result they became known as British Protectorates.

But as late as the 1950s South Africa was still hoping to absorb the protectorates. And naturally the last thing DF Malan’s government wanted was to deal with a territory where the chief of the most powerful tribal grouping was married to a white woman.

South Africa was helped in its campaign by Sir Evelyn Baring, who was not only Britain’s high commissioner to South Africa, but also represented Britain in the protectorates. Baring played a major role in persuading the British government to do everything possible to prevent the marriage, including telling the vicar on the morning of the intended marriage that he was not free to conduct the ceremony.

The couple were eventually married in a registry office a couple of days later, leading to consternation in Britain, Bechuanaland and South Africa. The Bamangwato people eventually accepted the marriage, but South Africa did everything possible to lobby Britain to prevent the Khamas returning to the territory, and at one point the British government banned them from the protectorate for life. Later they were allowed to return, on condition that Khama renounced his claim to the chieftainship for himself and his heirs.

Taking their lead from the British government view of the marriage, many British officials working in Bechuanaland shunned the Khamas socially. This was not a major hardship for Seretse, but was tough on Ruth who had exchanged a busy life in London for a large dusty village which had none of the amenities she was used to and to whose people she was unable to speak because of the language barrier.

Behind South Africa’s attitude, the British government was told, was the fact “the very existence of white settlement in these territories depended, in view of the numerical inferiority and defencelessness of the white population, upon the principle that the native mind regarded the white woman as inviolable”.

The Transvaler wrote in a leading article that the British government “must know that there is no room or role for a native with a white wife and coloured child in the territories surrounding the Union”.

Seretse questioned whether the British government “was prepared to sacrifice the friendship of 60 million Africans for the doubtful friendship of Union Prime Minister Dr Malan”, but it was clear that in fact the British government was. This was partly due to the fact Britain very much did not want South Africa, her staunch ally in the recent World War II, to leave the Commonwealth, and partly to the strong personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts.

It was a shameful episode for all concerned – except the couple at the centre of the storm who behaved throughout with courage and grace. And as we know, the story eventually had a happy ending, with Seretse becoming the first president of an independent Botswana, and Ruth the country’s beloved first lady

Sue Grant-Marshall, a former reporter with the Cape Argus, grew up partly in Bechuanaland where her father, Peter Cardross, was a district commissioner. He worked in the Khama’s home village of Serowe, among other places, and became friends with the Khamas.

This gave Grant-Marshall the access to Ruth for the interviews on which much of this book is based. It was finished around 1984, and then languished for want of a publisher. Some felt the story was too romantic, others too political, and one London publisher told her no one was interested anyway.

But now Protea Books has published it and it is well worth reading, not only for the romance and the politics, but also for a glimpse into the history of the time.

Grant-Marshall says of Seretse: “I thought he was incredible, with a wonderful sense of humour, no bitterness and a gorgeous personality.

“But I was much closer to Ruth, especially after Seretse died. She became like a second mother to me. She had a sharp wit, was incredibly intelligent, and as a young woman was beautiful. And when I think of her, the word that comes to mind is courage.”

Sadly, Ruth did not lived to see the book’s publication as she died in 2002. But Grant-Marshall is “over the moon” that her work has finally been recognised, and feels that she has been true to the passion that both she and Ruth put into it.

  • A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 17, 2019.

 

Military historian does a fine job remembering a forgotten campaign

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

South Africans versus Rommel: The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War II by David Brock Katz (Jonathan Ball)

saffers vs rommelErwin Rommel gets more play in the title than in the book itself. That’s because David Katz’s original publisher, the American group Stackpole, which specialises in military books, believes that Rommel sells, just as Montgomery does, or Patton.

Stackpole might be right and now Jonathan Ball has published a paperback version that is likely to do well on the South African market. Katz’s book lives up to the first part of its title in drama and detail, of which there are plenty of both.

To be flippant for a moment about a serious book, if the title sounds a bit like a sports fixture, Rommel wins two-nil. His Panzer Army destroyed a South African brigade during the battles around Sidi Rezegh in Libya in the northern winter of 1941, then he captured an entire South African division at Tobruk six months later. The two events were among the greatest three disasters suffered by South African soldiers, Delville Wood in World War 1 being the other. Continue reading

Why centuries of indignities meted out to Muslims endanger us all today – and an element of hope

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

The House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain (Bloomsbury)

house of islamIslam often gets a bad press. Isis, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other terror groups, murderous dictators such Muammar Gaddafi, Sadam Hussein and Bashar al-Asad are to blame. All have exploited a benign religion for vicious sectarian purposes, but are they any worse than bigots and extremists of Christianity, Hinduism and, of all people, lately the Buddhists of Myanmar?

We live among Muslims, enjoy their food and hospitality, respect their beliefs and think we understand them. Maybe we don’t, and this is where Mohammed (Ed) Husain can help.

Husain is the kind of person we seldom hear about, a liberal Muslim. Once a committed Salafist, he later became a Sufist and brilliantly explains the difference between these two strands of Islam in this book.

Salafism is the equivalent of the religious bigot – the puritanical Muslim and part of an Islamic faction supported by Saudi Arabian proselytisers and funded by the kingdom’s oil riches. Husain, in his interpretation of the Shi’ite-Sunni split in Islam, helps explain just how hypocritical the West – and especially the US – is about Muslims; the murder of Jamal Khashoggi being only the most recent example. It’s all right to bomb one Muslim country while excusing gross human-rights violations in another.

The book helps us understand what is happening in the world’s most recent forgotten war, the one in Yemen, and the conflict between Jews and Palestinians over Israel without falling for both sides’ propaganda.

Husain, who has embraced Sufism, which he estimates to be the faith and culture of 80% of Muslims in a world population of almost two billion, puts the anger of the other 20% down to centuries of indignity suffered by Muslim people, especially those in the Arab world.

Since the demise of European imperialism, however, there is a chance of a renaissance, according to Husein – even an accommodation with Israel. For that to happen, Muslims need to remember what it means to live and coexist in a free world – much as they did in the days of Mohammed 1 400 years ago.

There is a glowing blurb on the cover of the book I read. It’s from Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, a history of the world from a Persian perspective. “This should be compulsory reading,” says Frankopan and for once it’s a valid endorsement.

A tale of adventure, courage and bitter failure in the polar seas

Review: Vivien Horler

Erebus – the story of a ship, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson)

ErebusThree years ago a 68 870 ton cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, sailed through the icy waters of the almost mythical Northwest Passage.

For well over a century Europeans had hoped to discover a route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago which would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and provide a shortcut to access trade with the Far East.

Scores of sailors and explorers, many of them British, died in the efforts to find what was the inpenetrable ice-choked passage.

Now, thanks to global warming, the passage is open to cruise liners carrying more than a thousand passengers. Continue reading

Teaching English in South-East Asia – with difficulty

There Goes English Teacher – a memoir, by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books)

VIVIEN HORLER

english teacher

Karin Cronje with her book.

Anecdotally it would seem that hundreds of young South Africans have gone to South-east Asia to teach English. The money is good, prices are cheap, and the social life with South Africans and other expatriates is fun.

Karin Cronje did it too, but she was 49, she went to a small village in South Korea where virtually no one spoke English – her Korean was non-existent – and there were few expatriates with whom to bond socially.

As for making friends with Koreans, that was a pretty hopeless task. “It’s just too foreign. The society is fundamentally different from the way we are. They won’t let you in, you will forever be this outsider to whom they are mostly very polite, and that’s it.”

Cronje had planned to stay in Korea until what she calls her decrepitude, building up her pension, saving money to put her son through his architecture degree and also raising money for her former domestic worker’s pension. “I was going to make loads of money and spend a substantial chunk of my life there, like 15 years or so.”

She discovered that while the money was good for young people who had just finished their studies and needed to pay off loans, it wasn’t really enough for a woman entering her 50s who had more extensive goals.

In fact she stayed for just two years, returning to South Africa in time for the publication of her second Afrikaans novel Alles mooi weer.

“There’s a line in English Teacher that says you have to go home before home isn’t home any more. I saw expatriates in Korea who had completely lost touch, with home and with themselves. They never settle there properly, and they become floaters. One woman who had been in Korea for five years summed up the danger – she said she was not at home in her own country any more, and she was certainly not at home in Korea.”

One of the aims Cronje wanted to achieve in Korea was to rewrite Alles mooi weer, whose protagonist, Hilette, was so obnoxious even Cronje couldn’t stand her.

“It’s one thing to have an anti-hero – I enjoy anti-heroes more than beautiful heroes – but I had such a deep hatred for Hilette. Every negative feeling I had about myself and my culture I projected on to Hilette, and I thought going away would help me change the tone of that woman. In that sense Korea was a success story because I started to have some empathy with her – I must have been feeling more at ease with aspects of myself.”

And the book, when it appeared, was critically acclaimed, winning the Jan Rabie / Rapport prize.

There were, says Cronje, beautiful moments in Korea. She became close to Dae-ho who taught meditation and with whom she connected on a spiritual level: “Without that man, that gentle man, I don’t know how I would have survived.” She also made a couple of Korean friends.

But the work wasn’t satisfactory. Her first job was at a private after-care centre for children whose parents were paying a premium for them to learn English, and the children would be there till all hours of the night after a full day at government schools. There was far too much emphasis on rote learning and ticking off boxes, and too little on really learning to speak English.

Her second job was at university which was better, but a she was unnerved by what she calls the cesspool of gossip among the expats. As a result of trying not to stand out like a sore thumb among the tiny and reserved Koreans, and not getting involved in expat politics, Cronje increasingly isolated herself and shut herself down.

She returned home to Cape Town and had to find somewhere to live as she had tenants in her Newlands home. Then followed an unsettling period staying with various friends, trying to find her scattered boxes, and coping with some of the dodgy friends her son Marko had made in her absence.

She had changed, but her friends hadn’t and relationships suffered. She worried about money, about getting older, about her relationship with Marko, and whether she would ever have sex again. One night, while staying in her friend Dorrian’s cottage, she had a meltdown. Her description sounds like a nervous breakdown but Cronje says no, it was a breakthrough.

“There had been the two years in Korea where I had to be silent and make myself small. Then back here people messed me over while I was trying to fit in and not connecting, making me not me, and on top of all that being exhausted. And then that night in Dorrian’s cottage I thought, f*** that! I found my voice again. That’s what broke through.”

After years of staying in other’s people’s houses, renting here and there, today Cronje lives in a light, bright house she has bought in Simon’s Town with sweeping views of False Bay. Marko is married to a wonderful woman and Cronje now has two small grandchildren. Life is looking good.

There Goes English Teacher is both highly readable and brave. Not many of us would lay ourselves open the way Cronje has. But she has no regrets.

“I was happy to reveal the Korean experiences, even though I was writing about personal and intimate things. But the stuff I wrote about life after coming back – that gave me sleepless nights.

“However, the worst thing that can happen for me is self-censorship. If I start censoring myself then I don’t want to live any more. I expect the world to do that, but bloody hell, if I start doing that to myself, it’s like cutting out my tongue.”

  • This review/interview also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday January 27 2019.

 

Radical revisionist history of part of the Anglo-Boer War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson
The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed by Hugh Rethman (Amberley)

natal campaignJust when you thought you knew everything about the Boer War, along comes Hugh
Rethman. His book is a radical revisionist history of that war fought at the turn of the
last century and which so dramatically shaped South Africa.
None of the usual suspects come of Rethman’s book well. Paul Kruger,
puritanical Old Testament president of the ZAR (the Transvaal) and General
Redvers Buller, the indecisive commander of the British forces, we expect, but Jan
Smuts? And even Louis Botha? The latter pair, heroes of the Union of South Africa,
are treated dismissively by Rethman. And Denys Reitz’s father, FW Reitz, who has Continue reading

Unsung SA photographer’s (almost) forgotten world

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Constance: One Road to Take – The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larabee (1914-2000), by Peter Elliott (Cantaloup Press)

 

Title: Ndebele Design. Contained in Constance Stuart Larrabee photographs, 1935-1988Ndebele DesignNear Pretoria 1946. EEPA 1998-060388, 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution 

Constance Stuart Larabee, raised in South Africa from soon after her birth in Cornwall, is perhaps one of South Africa’s least known photographers,  and sadly so. This may well be because she left little of her oeuvre here. And that’s a pity, for the photographs that Elliott has chosen to illustrate this valuable addition to South African art and its artists show what an outstanding and evocative

portraitist she was.  

After studying in England and Germany,  Larabee returned to South Africa, where she had already shown that she was serious about photography when she was 16, taking the honours at the Pretoria Agricultural Show in 1930. With an interlude when she left to cover World War II in parts of Europe as South Africa’s only female war correspondent, she lived in South Africa from 1936 to 1949.

Title: Ndebele Child, Near Pretoria 1947 EEPA 1998-060411, EEPA 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The book chronicles three distinct periods of her life – all encompassing Southern Africa, the war in France and Italy, and the United States (the beauty of Chesapeake Bay in particular). It was in America that  she married and lived for the greater part of her life, becoming eventually more a custodian of her prints and negatives and arranging exhibitions (two in South Africa in 1979 and 1983) than continuing her photography.  

It is, of course, the  section on Southern Africa that is the most compelling. It’s as diverse a portrait of the region  as one could wish for, in pre and early apartheid times – the Ndebele, the Lovedu, Sotho, the British Royal visit to Basutoland, the Xhosas, the San, the people of the Bo-Kaap, Afrikaners and the English speakers, poor whites, Alan Paton and his milieu, the rural and urban, Johannesburg’s street and townships, the miners and much more. It illustrates the divisions that existed in the country, and on which she was, perhaps normal for the time, silent on the disparity which even then was obvious. A white woman photographing, though not exclusively, the black community, surely must have caused some interest and required some comment.

Elliott has managed to unearth vast amounts of information about her, a woman who guarded her privacy and revealed little even in letters to her husband. This book, he notes, is an attempt “to reveal her approach to photography and, and to unravel some of the stories she developed in order to keep her questioners at bay”. He writes of her confidence that she had “an eye” which enabled her to get just what she was after in just a handful of shots of one subject; he  writes how Noel Coward said she never posed her subjects but allowed them to pose themselves, resulting in just the right shot. This is a book of both historical and social value, comprehensive and well researched with detailed notes and sources, and it makes one regret deeply that Larabee, at her death and with an estate of nearly $2 million (in 2000), left her Southern African work to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and her American work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, also in Washington, and a handful of other museums and institutions.   

There are, Elliott says, some prints in  collections in South Africa – at the US Consulate General  in Johannesburg and the Brenthurst Collection (a couple of dozen prints each),  while the Pretoria Art Museum and the SA National Gallery in Cape Town have a few. Other prints that have come to light more recently are at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Bensusan  Photographic collection. Although the online links that Elliott provides to the collections in the US are for researchers, hopefully his book will stimulate increasing interest in the work of this amazing photographer.

Elliott can be contacted at peter@peterelliottbooks.com

 

 

Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved. Continue reading

Why Joburg’s roads kink and other interesting stories of our history

Review: Adelle Horler

The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep: 20 Tales about Curious Characters from Southern Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

game ranger bristowHave you ever wondered why all the roads running north to south in Johannesburg’s CBD have a kink in them? Did you know that former prime minister JB Hertzog was named after Dr James Barry, a woman who spent her life posing as a man?

Those are just some of the intriguing nuggets in this brilliant collection of curious stories from David Bristow – which will make an excellent Christmas gift for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life, whether they’re local or a visitor.

This eclectic selection meanders from early European history in Southern Africa to the present day, with some fascinating detours into the ancient geology of the Karoo Basin and the back story to australopithecus africanus, or Taung Child.

Some stories are more well known, such as the title tale of Harry Wolhuter who dispatched a lion as it was carrying him off for dinner – but it’s beautifully and dramatically retold. Or Krotoa, the Khoi woman who worked for Jan van Riebeeck and whose life bravely bridged two cultures, ultimately ending on the fringes of both. Continue reading