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Bill Nasson’s South Africa at War, 1939 – 1945 Launched at Protea Bookshop Rondebosch

Bill Nasson

South Africa at War, 1939-1945South Africa’s experience during the Second World War has not received a lot of attention in history books, but Bill Nasson’s South Africa at War, 1939 – 1945, launched on Saturday at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, seeks to remedy this situation.

In local history writing, WW2 is seen mostly as the background to other developments, for example the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, Nasson explained at the launch.

In the most recent international tomes on WW2, such as Antony Beevor’s The Second World War, South Africa is scarcely mentioned. “Compared to Beevor’s book mine looks anorexic,” Nasson jokingly said of his slim volume, part of Jacana Media’s Pocket Series. However, the difference is that Nasson’s book focuses entirely on South Africa’s experience – military, political, economic and social – during WW2, showing the deep impact that the war had on South African society.

Nasson, born in 1952, the immediate post-war generation, grew up with the spectre of the war still hanging over the country. He shared with the audience his memories of the cars with WW2 badges he admired as a boy, the photo his mother had of two French sailors standing in their garden and her admonitions that he should eat all the food on his plate because she had experienced wartime scarcity.

Weaved into Nasson’s account of South Africa’s involvement in WW2, are references to interesting people and circumstances that he associates with the period, for example General Hertzog, General Smuts, Ouma Smuts, Oswald Pirow, Just Nuisance, rice queues, Italian prisoners of war and the author JJR Tolkien who was a trained codebreaker.

Nasson dedicated his book to the late author and academic Stephen Watson and managed to add a passage on walking boots, which Watson, an avid walker, would have appreciated.

In the postscript Nasson writes about Clarks desert boots, which are based on a design that Nathan Clark picked up from WW2 soldiers in South Africa – probably one of SA’s least acknowledged wartime contributions! It is a brand of shoes that is still being worn worldwide today. In fact, Nasson was wearing a pair of Clarks at the launch.

The piece on Clarks boots also afforded Nasson the opportunity to work a reference to Bob Dylan into his book, as Dylan also wears these shoes. “So this is a book on South Africa and WW2 with Bob Dylan in the index,” Nasson proudly stated. “If you buy it for no other reason, buy it for that!”

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Carolyn Meads livetweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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