Category Archives: Guest Reviews

Visual history of post-colonial Africa, honest and in your face

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Museum of the Revolution by Guy Tillim (MACK and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris)

museum of revolutionPublished to coincide with his exhibition in Paris  at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Guy Tillim’s book, Museum of the Revolution, is his record of Africa post-colonialism.  It’s a “new reality” of “rebuilding and enterprise”, one that reflects the changes that have taken place. Tillim, the recipient of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson 2017 Award,  was in Paris for the opening of the exhibition, which runs until June 1.

The winner of several other awards  such as the Daimler-Chrysler and the Robert Gardner Award from the Peabody Museum at Harvard, Guy Tillim is considered to be the leading photographer of Africa as it is today. The book is a result of five years to 2018 spent walking the streets of Africa, from Johannesburg to Dakar and Dar, Luanda to Maputo.

As a photojournalist in the 1980s and1990s in Africa, he captured political events, gruesome and very real, for local and international media such as Reuters and Agence France Presse. His documentation of, for instance, teenage soldiers in Rwanda, civil war in Congo, the mayhem that was Angola, resulted in exhibitions and in publications detailing Africa perhaps at its worst. Continue reading

Will Markus Jooste ever serve time? Author doubts it

Review: Archie Henderson

Steinheist, by Rob Rose (Tafelberg)

steinheistRob Rose can read a googly as well as he can a balance sheet, especially the leg-spinner’s wrong ’un out of the back of the bowler’s hand, or the crooked accountant’s one trying to disguise a fraud.

It’s his skill in deciphering company figures rather than spinning balls on the cricket pitch (where he captains and opens the batting for his team) that Rose brings to bear in this remarkably entertaining book. If you thought balance sheets and accounting practices were boring, Steinheist will change your opinion.

Rose brings another, vital, element to his story of Markus Jooste and the biggest case of white-collar chicanery in South African history: his dogged reporting skills. Hell, he even interviewed the Hermanus whale crier to get a sense of Skelm Markus. Continue reading

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.

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

 

 

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

Tackling the big issues of African wildlife – and some babies of the bush

Review: John Yeld

A Rhino in my Garden – Love, life and the African bush, by Conita Walker (Jacana)

CLIVE Walker of Lapalala Wilderness fame is one of southern Africa’s best-known conservationists, his name synonymous with that of rhinos, the Endangered Wildlife Trust andenvironmental education in the African bushveld.

So the old adage of “Behind every successful man stands a woman” probably applies here, right? The answer to that is a definite “No”, because Conita Walker stands firmly alongside her husband of 50 years, as this wonderful story of her life and of her adventures, achievements, successes and heartaches – some shared with her husband, some intensely personal – makes clear.

Extrovert Clive had a clear headstart through his work as wildlife artist, writer and game ranger in the Tuli Block, among many other strands in his Continue reading

Flawed but often fascinating account of activities of 4 Recce in the Border War

Review: Archie Henderson

Iron Fist From the Sea: Top-Secret Seaborne Recce Operations (1978-1988) by Arnè Söderlund and Douw Steyn (Delta Books)

iron fist from the seaIf this book looks familiar, it’s because it is. Helion & Co of Solihull in the UK first published it and Delta Books, part of Jonathan Ball, has republished it and smoothed over its rough edges. The new version has given it a more coherent structure and the editing has made it an easier read.

The authors are a navy man, Söderlund, and an army man, Steyn. They have clearly had access to classified information not available to the usual researcher and have fully exploited this advantage. Too bad, then, that much of their prose reads like operational reports.

Nevertheless, they have some fascinating stories to tell. Their telling, often cluttered with unnecessary detail, does not detract from the tension on occasion. One such is the failed attack on an ANC camp near Luanda in 1987. It is interesting to consider what might have happened to delicate negotiations between the ANC and the South African government at the time had the attack been successful. It might well have set back peace negotiations and a peaceful transition to democracy. Continue reading

Murder can be a deadly dish

Review: Myrna Robins

Death Cup,  by Irna van Zyl (Penguin Random House)

death cupHow could I resist? A thriller sub-titled Murder is on the Menu, set against an Overberg background dripping with fickle foodies, on-trend restaurateurs and self-important chefs, followed by a series of deadly dishes and human corpses.

This is Van Zyl’s second detective novel and is translated from the Afrikaans original, titled Gifbeker. I was impressed by the author’s culinary knowledge of gastronomic contests, trends  and top restaurants. Having raced through the book, I came across pages of generous acknowledgements where she listed cookbooks that afforded her culinary knowledge both trendy and basic, chefs who shared their passion and expertise, especially with regard to foraging of  both seafood and fungi and techniques like open fire cooking in the kitchens.

From page one the tension is tangible, as a well-known and not always popular food blogger keels over in a top restaurant and dies – a highly poisonous mushroom proving responsible for her untimely death. Continue reading