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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Jonathan Ancer’s Spy “destined to become a minor classic about apartheid’s ruinous path,” writes Peter Vale

SpyIn 1972 Craig Williamson, a big, burly, bearded man, walked onto Wits University and registered as a student. He joined the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), and was on the frontline in the war against apartheid. At one march he was beaten up, arrested and spent a year on trial. Williamson rose up through the student movement’s ranks to become the Nusas vice president.

After being harassed by security police and having his passport seized, he decided to flee the country to continue his activism with the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), an anti-apartheid organisation in exile. He was eventually appointed the Fund’s deputy director. As the IUEF’s money man, Williamson had access to powerful ANC and Black Consciousness leaders. He joined the ANC and formed his own unit to carry out clandestine work to topple the National Party government.

But Williamson was not the anti-apartheid activist his friends and comrades thought he was.

In January 1980, Captain Williamson was unmasked as a South African spy. His handler, Colonel Johan Coetzee, the head of South Africa’s notorious security branch, flew to Switzerland to bring him and his wife back home. Williamson was described as South Africa’s superspy who penetrated the KGB. Williamson returned to South Africa and during the turbulent 1980s worked for the foreign section of the South African Police’s security branch.

Two years after he left Switzerland he returned to Europe under a false name and with a crack squad of special force officers to blow up the ANC’s headquarters in London. He was also responsible for a parcel bomb that killed Ruth First in Mozambique and the bomb that killed Jeanette Schoon and her 6-year-old daughter Katryn in Angola. He left the security branch to join Military Intelligence and finally the State Security Council.

Apartheid’s spies didn’t have to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a lot of information about the spies has been buried, burnt or shredded. This episode of our country’s bitter past remains murky…

Here, Peter Vale, a professor of humanities and the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg, reviews Ancer’s remarkable book for the Mail & Guardian:

One can judge a book’s bleakness by the photograph on its cover. The Mephistophelean figure holding a teacup is Craig Williamson: police informant and apartheid spy and assassin. Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Ancer’s goal is clear from the get-go. He wants to expose the man on the cover in all his infamy to set himself free. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s no place in these pages for the political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil” — those who perpetuate terrible deeds are mostly thoughtless functionaries.

For Ancer, the man on the cover of the book — not apartheid, nor his handlers — was responsible for a two-decade career of falsehood, cover-up, betrayal and murder. They were Williamson’s choice, and his alone.

Class, rather than race

So who is (or was) Williamson? Born into an English-speaking Johannesburg family, he was schooled at one of the city’s great institutions, St John’s College.

Gently, Ancer opens to the idea that class, rather than race, may have been at the core of Williamson’s inability to tell right from wrong. Awkward and always overweight, the boy was bullied and, in turn, learned to bully.

Other writers might have been tempted to position a propensity for violence at the centre of their narrative. Ancer is near playful when discussing Williamson’s school days.

But trawling through old copies of the school magazine, Ancer discovers that, when Williamson’s politics emerged, they were of a raw, racist strain, which was integral to the search for a white South African patriotism after World War II.

In 1966, Williamson won a school debatecum-mock election by drawing on the racial ideology espoused by the (now long-forgotten) Republican Party, a right-wing splinter group of the National Party (NP).

If this was the direction of his politics, his “gap year” confirmed it: this national served not with apartheid’s South African Defence Force, as was the case for most young white men, but with the South African Police (SAP).

It was 1968. Maintaining domestic order and the travails of white-ruled Rhodesia were uppermost in the thinking of prime minister John Vorster, apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s successor. Their NP embarked on an offensive to charm English-speakers, an approach that drew on the pervasive anti-communism of the time.

So, young Williamson’s choice of national service in the SAP, which was then at the sharp end of racial repression, didn’t seem untoward, even in Johannesburg’s supposedly more liberal, white, English-speaking northern suburbs.

Student politics

After his year in the SAP, he enrolled to read politics and law at the University of the Witwatersrand. There Williamson began his decade-long career of subterfuge.

He immersed himself in student politics, first in the Wits Students’ Representative Council and, later, the leftist National Union of South African Students (Nusas).

During these years, Williamson interacted with (and reported on) several generations of student leaders from almost every English-speaking university.

Interviewed by Ancer, several of them report that suspicions about Williamson abounded, but the liberal impulse to believe, forgive and understand stayed any serious investigations of a double life.

After Nusas, and purportedly without a passport, Williamson was catapulted (accompanied by his medical student wife, Ingrid) into the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). This Nordic-funded body fronted for liberation movements around the world, but particularly in Southern Africa.

This was when the police informant turned to espionage by passing information to apartheid’s notorious Special Branch.

Continue reading Vale’s review here.

This review first appeared in The Conversation.

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Thabiso Mofokeng has created a character who makes the reader pause and consider his plight – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Last Stop

This review was originally published in the Witness

THE central character of this short novel is Macko, an illegal immigrant who has been in South Africa for many years and who struggles to make ends meet by driving long distance taxis between Quaqua and Johannesburg.

As the popular stereotype of taxi drivers has it, he goes through stop streets and red lights, and in his unroadworthy taxi – the door keeps falling off – he is something of a menace to other road users and his passengers alike.

But Macko is not the villain of the piece.

His boss, Tabola, is the guy who is orchestrating taxi violence in an overtraded industry where to get rival organisations off the road means more cash for the winning bosses.

Tabola also has an interest in Macko’s girlfriend, so sending his driver off on badly-paid, dangerous long-haul trips offers him certain opportunities.

When the story begins, Macko is heading for the funeral of a child who was killed by a bullet meant for him.

He feels guilt and distress, and at the funeral, he seems to see the detective who has been investigating the killing, but the man vanishes.

And this is not the last time he sees someone who may or may not be there.

As these strange visions proliferate, they seem to give him a message: “Go home.” But where is home? It is many years since he saw his birthplace, and he no longer has contacts there.

Macko is rootless and lost.

The Last Stop
chronicles a life in meltdown, set in a world of casual violence, betrayal and despair, but a world that can also offer kindness and that can also offer kindness and generosity, particularly through well-drawn minor characters.

The novel gives a glimpse into something that many probably regard as a necessary evil as they try to get to and from their place of work, either as taxi passengers or fellow road users.

However, in Macko, Thabiso Mofokeng has created a character who makes the reader pause and consider his plight. He engenders pity as his life spirals out of control to a sobering conclusion.

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“Uneasy” is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Son

This review was originally published in The Witness

SOUTH African writer (and New Zealand resident) Neil Sonnekus tackles a tricky theme in this novel – what it means to be a white man in South Africa.

I have mentioned the author’s current home because emigration is a decision his central character, Len, wrestles with in the book and it’s not hard to see some personal connection between writer and character.

Len is a sub-editor on a Johannesburg newspaper in the Thabo Mbeki era. Recently divorced, he spends a good deal of his non-working time in pursuit of sex, usually with limited success. His attitude to women is deeply misogynistic, just as his attitude to his ancient father, who he reluctantly visits every weekend, is, at least at the outset of the novel, pretty unsympathetic. In fact, Len’s disconnect from the world around him is more or less total, though he does relate to his dog.

Sonnekus deals with the racial and sexual politics of South Africa in what is often a very amusing but also a melancholy way. The reader feels Len’s increasing despair, but also comes to see that his situation is not radically new: as he delves into his father’s past as a soldier and prisoner of war in Italy and as a policeman in apartheid South Africa, we begin to see similarities, not only between the two men but also between their lives.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the book moves with increasing speed – there are times in the first half where Len’s morbidly funny sex life and his sparring matches with his father seem to be going nowhere – to a shocking climax. Out of it comes, for Len at least, a degree of self-discovery and the possibility of a kind of peace, but it is only an uneasy one.

And uneasy is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down.

Neil Sonnekus’s exploration of the role of Len Bezuidenhout in the angry, violent and intolerant society that South Africa seems to be becoming offers little to comfort the reader, even at the end. - Margaret von Klemperer


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Sarah Nuttall reviews The Shouting in the Dark: Elleke Boehmer’s most exciting bio-fictional work since her debut

The Shouting in the DarkBy Sarah Nuttall

This book is for me Elleke Boehmer’s most exciting bio-fictional work since her debut novel Screens Against the Sky (1990). If that first book drew its energy from the depiction of an obsessional mother-daughter relationship, this one burns with an intense and destructive father-daughter relationship. Ben Okri calls it “a secret duel to the death between a father and daughter” and it plays out in a vividly historical sense. Boehmer’s narrator, who the reader has much difficulty not thinking of as herself (much like the narrator John in JM Coetzee’s Boyhood) becomes undone by her – in many ways – terrible father. What drives this story is Ella’s hatred of him, her desire to kill him, her wish for his death, her longing to be an orphan altogether.

Boehmer writes her way into the eruptions and emissions of intense emotion in this book, set in Durban in the 1970s, in ways she hasn’t before. That is, she inhabits her character’s affective life to a degree unreached in previous writing. Ella’s disgust at her father, and her derision for what she sees, as a girl, as her mother’s weakness, animates the prose. Her father spews and spills, every night on the verandah, his vitriol, his right wing politics, the pain of his shattering wartime experiences in the Dutch navy during World War II, his grief for the woman he in fact loved, her mother’s dead sister. Boehmer needed to find a prose form that could enter a highly charged and unrestrained emotional space, and she has done it brilliantly, in a highly crafted way.

If Coetzee’s Boyhood is, as with his other fictional and biofictional works, written with deep, if very restrained, emotion, brilliant verbal economies and narrative taughtness, Boehmer’s The Shouting in the Dark taps into a more expressive turn, which mirrors and mines the affective charge of a South African cultural and public life now avowedly post-TRC and shaped by new orders of private and public feeling, force and anger.

These are extracts from a longer piece that Sarah Nuttall is writing about Boehmers The Shouting in the Dark.

Related stories:

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A Collection of Articles and Reviews of Thando Mgqolozana’s Unimportance

UnimportanceThando Mgqolozana launched his third novel, Unimportance, earlier this year. The stream-of-consciousness novel is an allegorical look at the way we choose our political leaders.

Charl Blignaut from City Press called the book’s release “the best literary news of the week” in April and Fikile Moya from Pretoria News wrote that the book “delivers more than the words and the images on the pages”. Read these and other articles collected by Jacana Media from print sources:

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Christopher Webb Gets to the Heart of Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer

MarikanaIn a post for Africa Is a Country, Christopher Webb reviews Marikana: A View From the Mountain and a Case to Answer and finds that it “proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that NUM, the police and Lonmin management are to blame for the slaughter”.

Webb delves into the details of the book and shows the meticulous research and interviewing skills that went into collecting a rounded view of events, from the six weeks following the shootings. He says that the authors of the book note that it would be an introductory tome for future researchers. What the book notes is stark: “From worker testimony, it is clear that what ensued is nothing short of premeditated slaughter, as the majority of those killed were hunted down across the veldt. “People were not killed because they were fighting,” notes one striker, “they were killed while they were running away.””

The day after the police shot 34 miners at Marikana a small group gathered outside the gates of parliament in Cape Town. Barely 100 people, holding signs calling for answers and justice, we marched to the police station on Buitenkant, across from the District Six Museum, to deliver a petition calling for the arrest of Nathi Mthethwa, National Chief of Police. The march, for South African standards, was small and made stranger by the fact that few joined us as we passed the rush-hour crowds outside Cape Town station. Commuters looked away as they rushed to their taxis. Later that day I went to a dinner in the very-white, very-gated southern suburbs where the massacre was discussed as if it were a police briefing: a violent mob of uneducated thugs, fuelled by muti and brandishing all manner of weaponry had attacked police who responded with necessary force. A local ANC activist expressed similar sentiments to me a few days later, as he urged me not to place blame until truth had been established.

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  • Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer by Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell, Bongani Xezwi
    EAN: 9781431407330
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Alex Lichtenstein Commends Marikana for Giving the Miners a Voice

MarikanaAlex Lichtenstein has reviewed Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He calls the book a “courageous independent investigation of Marikana” and says that it is extraordinary for many reasons, one of which is its demonstration of what academics and activists can achieve when they work together.

Lichtenstein talks about the importance of capturing the oral histories of the miners in a timely fashion, before the official statements from various parties are used to form a dominating narrative of the events. He says that the book “offers the most detailed reconstruction to date of the events leading up to and including the massacre of August 16″ and that it “speaks directly to a longstanding debate in South Africa about the nature and exercise of working-class power”.

Less than five months after South African police shot down 34 striking miners at Marikana, North West Province, on August 16, 2012, life goes on in South Africa, although perhaps it would be an overstatement to say that things have returned to normal. As Peter Alexander and his colleagues note in their stunning and timely postmortem investigation of the massacre, in South Africa “one has to go back to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 to find an example of government security forces murdering more protestors than at Marikana.”

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  • Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer by Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell, Bongani Xezwi
    EAN: 9781431407330
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

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James Whyle Explains How Cormac McCarthy Influenced The Book of War

The Book of WarLitnet’s Janet van Eeden interviewed James Whyle, author of The Book of War, and reviewed the book, calling it “a masterpiece of exquisite prose”.

Whyle explains how Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian inspired him to look up first hand accounts of South African wars that had occurred over a hundred years ago:

James, you give full credit to Cormac McCarthy for inspiring your harrowing novel, The Book of War. What made you decide to pay tribute to him in this novel, and how did the marriage of your “kid’s” journey coincide with the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars? What made you choose this era in particular?

The point was not to pay tribute to McCarthy. A homage to Blood Meridian without a Judge Holden figure would be a bit like a homage to the Mona Lisa without a smiling woman in it. The point was to try and understand and bring alive South Africa and its history. McCarthy opened a door on to a way of doing that. The era is/was a hundred years before I was born.

When I learnt that Blood Meridian was based on first-hand accounts of events occurring a hundred years before McCarthy was born, I wondered what a parallel search would throw up in South Africa. I came upon two accounts of what has been variously called – as South Africa contorts itself about its history – The Eighth Kaffir War, The War of the Prophet, The Eighth Frontier War, The Eighth War of Freedom and The Eighth War of Dispossession. The books I discovered were: What I Saw in Kaffirland by Stephen Bartlett Lakeman and Campaigning in Kaffirland: or Scenes and Adventures in the Kaffir War of 1851–2 by William Ross King. (It must be noted that both titles contain the Arabic word for “heathen”, the word that Osama bin Laden used about George Bush, a word as toxic in present-day South Africa as the Latin word for “black” is poisonous in America.)

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Janet van Eeden “Intereview”: Lauren Beukes and Zoo City

Zoo CitycarrotJanet van Eeden chatted with Lauren Beukes about Zoo City, which van Eeden calls “a parallel reality on speed”. Beukes talks about keeping her word-muscles flexed, precognition and writing dystopian South Africa. Van Eeden also reviews the book, giving it a straight up carrot:

Your writing is exceptionally descriptive. You create images which drip with cool street-smarts. For example, your description of Vuyo when Zinzi first meets him is that he is wearing “pointy shoes like shiny leather sharks”. We know immediately that this is a man not to be trusted. I deliberately don’t read other reviews or interviews about a writer or the book I’m reviewing so I don’t pick up things by osmosis, as it were. I know you were a journalist and write for an animated series which I’ve seen, but your acutely accurate use of words makes me think you have a background in advertising. Maybe the best way to frame this question is to ask you how you got into writing in the first place and what made you decide to write novels set in a dystopian South Africa?

Advertising?!? You cut me deep. I’ve never worked in advertising. (Apologies – it’s just that you make every word earn its keep, as advertisers do. JvE) It’s more the case that I’ve been writing professionally, practically every day, for the past 13 years. Those word muscles have had a lot of flexing (and I type like a dervish on amphetamines).

With Zoo City I was very much influenced by noir’s president-for-life, Raymond Chandler, who packs a ton of information into a couple of words of character description.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was five, and I found out it was a viable career, that you could get paid to make stuff up. I took a detour along the way into journalism and I still juggle script-writing with novels, but I think that’s only helped my fiction, both in terms of journalism exposing me to strange and interesting things and developing an ear for dialogue (nothing like transcribing hours and hours and hours of interviews) and trying to keep my scenes short and punchy and filmic.

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