Author Archives: Vivien Horler

A peaceful transition to democracy? No, it wasn’t


Review: Vivien Horler

Undeniable: Memoir of a covert war, by Philippa Garson (Jacana)

Everyone over the age of 30 or so remembers where we were the day FW de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements, the day just over a week later when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the day nearly four years later when we took part in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It was a heady period, the time of the Rainbow Nation, when our new multi-coloured flag replaced the unloved (by most South Africans) Oranje Blanje Blou, and when an ecstatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced the recently elected President Mandela to a crowd on the Grand Parade, saying excitedly: “Here he is! Our president – brand new, out of the box!”

It was South Africa’s miracle to have avoided civil war and the bloodbath that had been predicted for years, and emerge into the sunlit uplands of freedom.

Well, 26 years later we know how that turned out. But it did seem pretty miraculous at the time. Continue reading

Curious tale of the sons of spies

Review: Archie Henderson

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre (Penguin)

The names Oleg Gordievsky and Aldrich Ames are well known to aficionados of espionage. Gordievsky is the most famous spy of the Cold War and Ames its most famous American traitor.

They are contrasting characters in other ways too.

Gordievsky, whose father was a senior KGB officer and whose brother was a deep-penetration agent in the West, was a child of communism. But he became repelled by his family’s ideology. It began with the Berlin Wall which, as a young Russian agent posted to East Berlin he saw going up in 1961. Seven years later he was further appalled by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the Prague Spring of 1968. When a Czech friend from KGB spy school defected to Canada, Gordievsky decided to throw in his lot with the West. Continue reading

Can Hilary Mantel make it a hat trick?


Vivien Horler

Can Hilary Mantel make history and be the first writer to win the Booker Prize for a third time?

The longlist of 13 novels in English was announced this week.

The third in Mantel’s riveting trilogy about Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light, follows Wolf Hall, which won the prize in 2009, and Bring Up the Bodies, which won in 2012.

The Mirror and the Light takes the saga from the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536 to Cromwell’s own just four years later.

Only a handful of writers have won the Booker twice, including South African JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood and Peter Carey.

Of the 13 titles on the list, more than half are debut novels, but another favourite to make the cut is the American writer Anne Tyler with her Redhead by the Side of the Road.

The final book in another trilogy, by the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body, also made the longlist. The two previous novels are Nervous Conditions (1988), named by the BBC as one of the 100 books that shaped the world, and The Book of Not, published in 2006.

The Guardian reports: “Award-winning Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is in the running for This Mournable Body, a sequel to her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions, named by the BBC as one of the 100 books that shaped the world. Judges said This Mournable Body ‘drew an immediate reaction like a sharp intake of breath from all of us on the panel’.”

Margaret Busby, chair of the 2020 panel of judges, said of the longlist:  “Each of these books carries an impact that has earned it a place on the longlist, deserving of wide readership. There are voices from minorities often unheard, stories that are fresh, bold and absorbing.

“The best fiction enables the reader to relate to other people’s lives; sharing experiences that we could not ourselves have imagined is as powerful as being able to identify with characters.

“As judges we connected with these writers’ well-crafted prose, the mastery of detail, the arresting sentence, the credibility of the narrative arc, the ability to use to the full, the resources of storytelling. Unplanned, our final selection encompasses both seasoned favourites and debut talents – a truly satisfying outcome.”


The full list is:

  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)
  • This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (4th Estate, HarperCollins)
  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate, HarperCollins)
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCan (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)
  • Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus, Vintage)
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (Corsair, Little, Brown)
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Virago, Little, Brown)

The shortlist of six books will be announced on September 15, and each author will receive £2 500 (about R46 000). The 2020 winner will be announced in November and wins £50 000 (just over R1million.

  • On Friday (July 31) British writer and broadcaster Joe Haddow will host a podcast discussion of the longlist with some of the judges. It will be available on SpotifyiTunesSoundCloudEntaleDeezerand Stitcher.


Afrikaners surely deserve some opprobium – but we need to move on

Review: Archie Henderson

The Rise & Demise of the Afrikaners, by Hermann Giliomee (Tafelberg)

Not so long ago Afrikaners – and Afrikaans – were baas. Their culture and language were forced down everyone’s throats. It was done in desperation because Afrikaner nationalists were not confident when they came to power, especially the Hard Nats of 1948. It was understandable but was to backfire badly: their language was forever linked to the party’s racism, making redemption difficult. It was a great opportunity missed for a rich and beautiful taal.

It all began with the fear of assimilation by the English, their conquerors in the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the previous century. The fear was genuine: in 1915, just 13 years after the war had ended, only 15% of Afrikaans children progressed further than standard 5 (grade 7) and only 4% were fluent in English. Afrikaners were worried their children would not be able to compete in an emerging modern economy, or would be overwhelmed by Milner’s policy of Anglicisation. Continue reading

Earmarked for death

Review: Vivien Horler

The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s insurgents, collaborators and the Security Police, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press)

To be in the Terrorist Album meant you were fair game.

Those are the words of the notorious apartheid spy Craig Williamson, who was behind the murders of Jeanette Schoon Curtis and Ruth First.

Or as author, academic and former journalist Jacob Dlamini puts it: “To be on its pages was to be marked for death.”

In 1993, a year before the first democratic elections, the apartheid government ordered the destruction of a huge body of state records and documents “in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitise the history of oppressive rule”, according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much was incinerated in Iscor’s industrial furnaces in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Among the documents burnt were 500 copies of the Terrorism Album, a folder of some 7 000 photographs of people the apartheid government deemed to be “terrorists”. In fact all you had to do to get into the album was to leave South Africa illegally. Copies were sent to police stations all around the country. Continue reading

If you don’t believe you are victim, can you be one?

Review: Vivien Horler

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)

In these times of the revelations of the appetites of the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and the #Me Too campaigns, My Dark Vanessa is a tricksy novel to get your head around.

In 2000 fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil Vanessa Wye has a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher. She is flattered, excited and convinced that she is in love – and is loved in return. But while she doesn’t believe their relationship is wrong, she’s savvy enough to know it has to be a secret.

The dilemma is: is someone a victim if she doesn’t believe she is one? Even 17 years later, as an adult, she still loves Jacob Strane, and doesn’t think he hurt her. And yet…

Continue reading

The mother who didn’t love back

Review: Vivien Horler

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south)

Very early in this brief journal-based memoir, Colleen Higgs writes: “My whole life has felt like a long deeply unsatisfying love affair with my mother.  She is the beloved who doesn’t love back.”

How hard it must be, to assume the care of a person who is not really interested in you, but demands a lot of you. And Higgs tries to be a dutiful daughter, while running a business – the publishing company Modjaji – and dealing with her not entirely satisfactory husband and her young (entirely satisfactory) daughter.

Continue reading

The joy of being beside the seaside

Review: Vivien Horler

Land’s Edge – a coastal memoir, by Tim Winton (Picador)

Any half-awake policeman based at Muizenberg has only to look out of a window of the splendidly positioned police station to know that that the regulations against going on to the beach under Level 3 are being widely flouted.

At first it was just the surfers, scuttling across the sand with board under arm to get into the waves, but now it’s everyone: walkers, sandcastle builders, paddlers, dog walkers, even, in late June, the occasional swimmer.

Maybe the police have better things to do, being out looking for murderers, gangsters and cigarette smugglers, or maybe they’ve just given up. Because it’s not easy, or even very sensible, to keep residents of a coastal city away from the sea.

The Australian writer and environmental activist Tim Winton would understand the drive to be in or near the ocean, to be close to its wildness and unpredictability, to feel the wind and swirling water at a time when nothing is guaranteed. Continue reading

Use your lockdown time to write a novel

Vivien Horler

Mike Nicol

When you read detective thrillers by overseas writers you can enjoy them, knowing your chances of bumping into the baddies roaming London or Los Angeles are pretty small.

Mike Nicol’s books are different. The Clovelly-based writer creates recognisable Capetonian baddies of the type you would not want to irritate on the M5 on a dark night.

Now Nicol, author of successful and chilling crime novels, biographies – including one of Nelson Mandela – and memoirs, is offering budding writers who want to end the tedium of the lockdown an opportunity to write a best-selling novel.

“The lockdown provides at least one of the critical elements of writing a novel – and that is the time to write,” says Nicol. Continue reading

Elsa Joubert – a writer who travelled life’s long journey


Vivien Horler

You can go a long way in 97 years, and Elsa Joubert did.

Born in Paarl in 1922, Joubert grew up in an orthodox Afrikaner family, and at first embraced their beliefs. In fact in her early years she felt her father was not sufficiently committed to the Afrikaner cause.

In 1938, when Afrikaners celebrated the centenary of the Great Trek, 16-year-old Elsa was in the crowd when the Cape Town wagon, on its way from the Mother City to Pretoria, passed through Paarl. The oxen were unhitched for the night and Joubert was one of the proud young Afrikaners who placed the yokes over their shoulders and pulled the wagon to the showgrounds. Later she wrote in her diary: “I shall never forget this day.” Continue reading