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Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris’s Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Munich
Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295
*****

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
 
 
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko

Munich

Book details

Book Bites: 22 October

Published in the Sunday Times

A Gap in the HedgeA Gap in the Hedge
Johan Vlok Louw, Umuzi, R230
***
Amnesia is a strange thing. How do you remember how to drive a car or make a casserole but you can’t remember what your own name is? In this novel it sometimes feels as if Johan Vlok Louw is leading us up the garden path as Karl gets closer to knowing who he is. The only clues to guide him are an old grey Ford, and a taste for Coke, whisky and Paul Revere cigarettes. As he proceeds, step by step, through his sleazy, bewildering world, you are either drawn along through curiosity or, if you are less indulgent, you leave him to his own devices. – Yvonne Fontyn

The Floating Theatre
The Floating Theatre
Martha Conway, Zaffre Publishing, R295
*****
When the steamer she is travelling on sinks, May Bedloe finds herself, for the first time, in charge of her own destiny. Joining a travelling theatre on the Ohio river, the divides between North and South and between freedom and slavery become apparent and divisive and May is drawn against her will into a dangerous war. She begins to realise that everyone makes a choice and those choices come with costs that can be hard to bear. The book starts off a little slowly, but May is captivating as she stumbles through her discovery of the complexities of life. A beautiful coming-of-age novel. – Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Did You See Melody?
Did You See Melody?
Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, R275
*****
Hannah easily transports you to sunny Arizona, to the Swallowtail – a sprawling resort spa with luxury three-bedroomed casitas surrounded by swaying cacti, sparkling pools and seemingly super-friendly staff. There’s an underlying atmosphere of menace and a group of dubious folks (residents, staff, police, and a talkshow host) – all with some sort of agenda. One of the twists is that there is no murder per se, rather a supposedly murdered girl named Melody who has been spotted by the unwitting heroine, Cara Burrows. Burrows herself has things to resolve as she has just run away from her husband and two kids in the UK. This novel works best as a binge read – Hannah is such an accomplished storyteller that solving the mystery of Melody becomes urgent. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

Book details

Prince Albert Leesfees: 3 – 5 November

Book lovers it’s almost time to head for Prince Albert in the Karoo.

The town’s sixth Leesfees takes place over the first weekend of November, with a list of writers, books and performers in a programme that offers something for everyone.

The theme this year is ‘The Soul of the Karoo ~ In die Gees van die Karoo’, with writers, poets, artists, musicians, a comedian and films in the lineup. The talks, presentations and stage experiences include discussions with crime and suspense writers, Rudie van Rensburg (Kamikaze) and Mike Nicol (Agents of the State), debut writers Mohale Mashigo (The Yearning) and Sara-Jayne King (Killing Karoline), as well as academic and novelist, Cas Wepener (Johanna).

Matters legal and political are the subject of Glynnis Breytenbach’s memoir, Rule of Law; she will be in conversation with Tim Cohen.

Our visiting author from Europe this year is Bart de Graaff whose book on the KhoiKhoin: Ik Yzerbek/Ware Mense (translated by Daniel Hugo) traces the experience of the earliest peoples of our land.

Artist Elza Miles has made a major contribution to the art scene of SA, with her historical works on various visual artists, she will be in conversation with writer and journalist Johan Myburg who will also speak about his new poetry anthology Uittogboek.

Rapper, Hemelbesem, Simon Witbooi will discuss his autobiography, God praat Afrikaans with Anzil Kulsen.

Joyce Kotzè and her translator, Daniel Hugo speak about her Anglo-Boer War novel: The Runaway Horses/Wintersrust, fiction based upon fact. Joyce relates how her forebears fought on different sides during the War. They will be in conversation with Carel van der Merwe, author of Donker stroom.

Local ornithologist Dr Richard Dean will launch his book, Warriors, dilettantes and businessmen – Bird Collectors during the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries in South Africa.

Karel Schoeman’s contributions to South African literature will be the focus of a panel discussion with Nicol Stassen and Cas Wepener (author of van Die reis gaan inwaarts- die kuns van sterwe in die werke van Karel Schoeman) co-ordinated by Prof Bernard Odendaal.

New food celebrity Nick Charlie Key will reveal banting tips and how to enjoy a healthy lifestyle whilst indulging in decadent desserts, from his book Jump on the Bant Wagon with food-lover Russell Wasserfall.

Poets Gaireyah Fredericks, Daniel Hugo, Johan Myburg and local raconteur Hugh Forsyth will read some of their favourite poems in English and Afrikaans literature.

Two music and word highlights will be Tribal Echo with Huldeblyk aan Adam Small/Tribute to Adam Small and Afrika my verlange/Afrique mon désir: Laurinda Hofmeyr, Schalk Joubert, with six West African singers, in collaboration with the Cape Town Music Academy.

Our programme includes two films. Director and producer, Roberta Durrant, will attend the Karoo premiere of her award-winning film Krotoa. Eerstewater is a documentary film set in and around Prince Albert based on Hélène Smit’s book, Beneath.

We’ll look at the state of children’s book publishing in South Africa, enjoy an evening in the company of comedian Nik Rabinowitz, enjoy delicious meals at the on-site restaurant and generally savour the Soul of the Karoo.

The 2017 Leesfees is a festival you cannot miss. The full programme can be found on the festival website - www.princealbertleesfees.org – and the Facebook page www.facebook.com/princealbertleesfees – offers daily updates on the people, books, poetry and experiences which make up this great cultural event.

Tickets can be bought online at www.princealbertleesfees.org and at the Prince Albert Library, Church Street, Prince Albert. Tel: 023 5411 014. For information and enquiries: princealbertleesfees@mweb.co.za and WhatsApp: 073 213 3797.

Agents of the State

Book details

 
 

The Yearning

 
 
 
 

Killing Karoline

 
 
 
 

Rule of Law

 
 
 
 

Ware Mense

 
 
 
 

Uittogboek

 
 
 
 

God praat Afrikaans

 
 
 

Wintersrust

 

Die reis gaan inwaarts

 
 

Jump on the Bant Wagon

“Without humour we would be doomed” – Trade Secrets contributor, Bobby Jordan

Bobby Jordan’s unfortunate childhood obsession with Tintin comics led to a career in journalism from which he has yet to escape. Hypergraphia (obsessive diary keeping) and an ill-timed rebellion against the family shoe business were also to blame. As a result he now spends most of his life stranded in traffic and news conferences, and turned to short stories as a way to stay sane. Although his journalism has largely passed unnoticed, his short stories are a major hit with his daughters who are still young enough to understand that entertaining fiction is the cornerstone of reality. His work has appeared in a variety of newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and his short fiction was short-listed three times for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award. This is the third time he’s made the Short.Sharp.Stories cut; his ghostly tale of lust and revenge, ‘The Uniondale Road’, was published in Adults Only, and his road trip odyssey ‘Shortcut’, in Incredible Journey, won the Short.Sharp.Publisher’s Choice Prize in 2015.

In your story, ‘Foul Hook at the Witsand Botel’, things get out of hand in the botel bar when gesuipte Giepie Steyn, a regular, and a visiting ‘tribesman’, square-off at the bar, dueling about whether a particular ‘fish’ will ever be caught. Did you have fun writing this rollicking tale?

Absolutely. Bars are the amphitheatre of the age and therefore a natural setting for all sorts of stories, real and imagined.

Does your botel actually exist as a setting? Will readers be flocking to Witsand to find the botel?

It is now called the Witsand River Lodge (I think), a refuge for both people and boats, hence the term ‘botel’, and is a gentrified version of its former self – its former, sleazier, more fantastic self in my opinion.

Apparently you have a thing in general about hotels. Can you tell us more?

Yes I suppose I do, and it all stems from the Witsand Botel with its mind-blowing setting (staring out the mouth of the Breede River). From there it was a natural progression to the Hangklip Hotel, the Fairie Knowe, Greyton Grand… In the beginning they were places of eternal holiday and fairy lights. Then later came adventure, love, loss, etc, etc. No wonder I’m still hung up on them. I’m in process.

What about your protagonist, Giepie Steyn – was he inspired by some such ‘wise’ person you know in real life? Will readers flock to the botel to ask Giepie’s advice?

Nobody in particular, although I did borrow quite heavily from somebody long since departed. I advise all readers to rather flock to their nearest hotel – the real thing, not the franchise imposter – to see if they can recognise Giepie Steyn. He gets around.

.. a tall tale about a big fish…

 
The ‘trade secret’ might have to do with fishing but it seems that the drunken duel is an underlying comment on society at large. Would you agree?

Yes, I would say so. My protagonist has checked out of the normal world with its annoying web of authority, rules, and rationality. But ironically he becomes something of an authority himself while slowly drinking himself to death.

Can you provide an idea of how Giepie’s ‘sense of authority’ carries the story, of how the story crescendos, as with the weather, to a thrilling climax?

In the topsy-turvy world of the Witsand Botel, Giepie is an anti-hero whose flawed character ultimately triumphs in a showdown with the powerful outsider. I think what I’ve tried to do here is offer a glimpse of a place where authority is conferred according to a different set of rules, not conventional notions of power and status. The more one is absorbed into the ‘pecuilar-ocracy’ of the Witsand Botel, the more one identifies with Giepie and begins to understand (possibly) why it is that people are cheering for him. I think the magic and the weather and the tribesman all serve to underscore the point that there are some things, like identity, that just can’t be broke, or at least not without a moerse drama.

Is humour an important facet of your writing? It certainly is in this exuberant story!

I think without humour we would be doomed. The question of how it operates is probably beyond my salary bracket, but most important for me is how it can hook people and drag them along with the story. There is a shared sense of humour to be utilised. Again, I don’t know how universal it is, but in my experience humour often lies at the heart of a good story. I think too much humour can also be disastrous, so it does concern me a little that I may be laughing things off rather than grappling with them. On the other hand comics would say laughing things off can be a way of dealing with them. Really, I don’t know.

You’ve been published thrice in Short.Sharp.Stories collections. Congratulations! Fantasy (along with humour) seems to be a common thread. Once the reader gets into the rhythm of the telling, the characters and stories transform from the ordinary to being somewhat magical. Do you write with this aim in mind?

No, I don’t. But when it happens I am always grateful, because it suggests I haven’t lost touch with that aspect of life – the ordinary transformed into somewhat transcendental.

What is it about the short story form that appeals to you?

I like to travel. Shorter stories, shorter visits to more worlds. Maybe I’m just scared to commit.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Reality is a plaything at the Witsand Botel, as it is in the hands of the writer. To me that is the trade secret at the heart of this story and our profession.

Trade Secrets

Book details

 
 
Incredible Journey

 
 

Adults Only

“I was a child during the state of emergency so in this specific passage, the story became personal” – a Q & A with Trade Secrets contributor, Linda Daniels

Linda Daniels has worked for many years as a print and radio journalist in the commercial media field. In 2014 she entered the not for profit space as a trainer.

She works with young people who use media as a platform for expression and dialogue in the communities in which they live.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Linda recently discussed Linda’s story, South Africa’s violent past, humanising apartheid perpetrators, and the wobbly process of writing fiction:
 
 

Your story, ‘Mr X’, uses atrocities of the past as a point of reference. The reclusive and mysterious Mr X has many secrets, which are revealed over time. What was the inspiration for creating this character?

The story and the creation of Mr X was an attempt to identify the people who had quietly slipped through time… from – in his case – supporting Apartheid as an assassin into democracy; the ordinariness of getting on in years, faithfully tending a garden and being someone’s neighbor, etc. I was struck by that privileged continuum of life which followed anonymously, and without atonement or justice for his victims.

The reader is led to imagine that perhaps Mr X is simply a warped pervert, but he is more ‘evil’ than that. Is his neighbour, the young woman whom he watches, ever aware that something is amiss? Do people have a sixth sense about evil?

The neighbor has a sense of duty that she has imposed on herself to be polite not only to him but in her general interactions with people. She’s young and working things out. But she is also uncomfortable around him. She has no evidence for this feeling, but you know she is also distracted by her own life to give it too much thought. He is a bit abstract to her.

Did you have Mr X work in his garden as a way to humanise him?

I really struggled with this because I wanted everything about him to be bad! But as I began writing, he turned out to be a keen gardener. And a really attentive and focused gardener. For me, his fixation on keeping his garden alive and thriving and beautiful represented the conflict between his now and then. It is in his garden that he suffers his most vivid flashbacks to his inhumane past.

“…his fixation on keeping his garden alive and thriving and beautiful represented the conflict between his now and then.”

 

The flashbacks to apartheid violence are very real. Are these scenes from the imagination? Or based on reports?

I was a child during the state of emergency so in this specific passage, the story became personal. I remember feeling scared and confused. Aspects of the scenes described are real.

Were they difficult to write? How did you put yourself in the shoes of Mr X and bring back his memories?

I had done a bit of research on the topic and this had helped to write Mr X’s memories. It felt uncomfortable writing from his perspective. I felt compelled to write it nonetheless so stuck it out and kept writing… I can’t say I slept well! I was so relieved, when I finished writing this story! He was such a difficult character, a character I didn’t like.

After an act of violence, a poignant line reads: ‘Then, a woman – always a woman – releases a plangent wail, an unyielding siren.’ Is it routinely (now and then) the women who are witness to violence?

The description was really about the ways people had to, and still do, organise amongst themselves in communities to survive. In the scene described it was the women who had organised themselves to mark the deaths of the young men and they did it in a way that was pretty powerful. These young men were the children of the community – not just the children of particular mothers – and the cry was signaling that.

Is Mr X, in the final equation, a victim himself?

I’ll leave that up to the reader. Though I resisted this outcome when I set out to write the story.

This is your first published short story. Are you inspired to write more?

For sure. I have to write. I have always entertained the idea of writing fiction but never pursued it until recently when I began sending my work out. It’s still a wobbly process, as I write in between raising a young family and a full time job. Writing represents a space of freedom and I can’t help but do it.

As a new voice what writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Try not to hold on too tightly to an outcome of a story idea, sometimes the writing process itself can take you down a path you might not have considered. Be open to the possibilities of where your characters may lead you.

Trade Secrets

Book details

Floating on words and beauty

Published in the Sunday Times

Nirox Words provides a space where the spoken word is presented as an art form, writes Kate Sidley.

You know those relaxation exercises where you’re told to imagine you are in your beautiful, happy place? Well, if the new Nirox Words festival is as good as its programme promises, it’ll be just like what I imagine my happy place to be – in a gorgeous garden, sipping something delicious, with brilliant conversation, and the burble of a river and strains of guitar in the air.

Nirox Words is a festival themed around words, their meaning, their beauty and their power to move and transform us and our world.

“Words traverse all the arts, all genres,” says Benji Liebmann, founder of the Nirox Foundation, and the man behind the festival. “They are integral to music, to performance art, to literature and to visual arts. This festival fully integrates literature with all the other arts.”

The aim is to weave the genres together, says Batya Bricker, who co-ordinates the book-related programme: “Books exist in the entertainment and art space, as opposed to the purely literary space.”

Music, sculpture, poetry, film, conversations, food, sometimes in combination – food with books, books with music. Words are there in every incarnation: written, spoken and sung – informing, questioning, entertaining and enlightening. The programme is diverse and surprising.

SOUND AS THUNDER

In the music line-up, for instance, there’s something called “Words in Memoriam”, recreating the words – and music – of visionaries and activists who are no longer around. Shotgun Tori sings Leonard Cohen, Tidal Waves plays Bob Marley classics. Urban Village pays tribute to Miriam Makeba’s music, and Chris Chameleon performs Ingrid Jonker’s poems.

Nirox itself is a drawcard – 15ha of parkland, meticulously landscaped to look like a vision of natural beauty – sweeping green lawns, winding pathways and hidden corners. The outside venue has informed the choice and format of events – relaxed, and more conversation than presentation. So the bookish chats will take place in fresh air, and be more about conversation than presentation.

The landscape also showcases the visual arts programme, which centres around sculptor Willem Boshoff, the recent winner of the Villa Extraordinary Award for Sculpture 2017/18. “Words are a fascination of his and have been a thread running through his work. He uses words of all kinds, including Braille, in a mischievous kind of way,” says Liebmann.

There are a number of firsts and one-offs on the programme. Excerpts from Mazisi Kunene’s epic poem Emperor Shaka the Great will be presented in SA for the first time, performed by his daughter, Lamakhosi, and others, in English and Zulu, and accompanied by Mazisi’s brother Madala Kunene, renowned Zulu guitarist. You can also catch a screening of Inxeba (The Wound), SA’s Oscar hopeful, with a preceding talk by director John Trengove.

POEMS ARE WORDS TOO

There’s poetry, curated by poet-in-residence and Sol Plaatje Poetry Award Winner Atholl Williams. Bring your own (or someone else’s) words to the open mic Poet Tree (Poet Tree/poetry, geddit?). And there’s a kids’ programme, which includes Gcina Mhlope, everyone’s favourite storyteller.

And when you’re all out of words, head for one of the programme’s most intriguing offerings – a wordless performance of Othello in the ancient Indian tradition of Kathakali, which relies on gesture to tell the story. Because, as Liebmann says: “I’m not sure that words are always the best way to approach the world. You engage through intellect rather than emotion or instinct. So we deal with words in their absence as well as their presence.”

Enough said.

Nirox Words take place on October 21 and 22. A day ticket is R320, R480 for the weekend. For information, go to www.niroxwords.com.

The reluctant president: an extract from Mandla Langa’s Dare Not Linger

Published in the Sunday Times

Nelson Mandela never finished the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom. Using his draft, notes and a wealth of archival material, Mandla Langa has completed the chronicle of Mandela’s presidential years. This is an edited extract from Dare Not Linger.

The reluctant president

‘My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me much against my advice’
- Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent the night of the inauguration at the State Guest House in Pretoria, which would be his temporary home for the next three months while FW de Klerk was moving out of Libertas, the presidential residence — Mandela later renamed it Mahlamba Ndlopfu (“The New Dawn” in Xitsonga, meaning literally “the washing of the elephants” due to the fact that elephants bathe in the morning).

At about 10am on May 11, the day after the inauguration, Mandela arrived at the back entrance of the west wing of the Union Buildings, accompanied by a security detail of the as-yet unintegrated units of the South African Police and MK. Two formidable women — Barbara Masekela and Jessie Duarte — who were at the heart of Mandela’s administration as ANC president, stepped along as smartly as they could, laden with paraphernalia for setting up office.

Forever in the shade, the temperature in the corridors was one or two degrees lower than outside, forcing a somewhat conservative dress code upon the staff and officials. Previously, when Mandela had met with De Klerk, the corridors had always smelled of coffee brewing somewhere. This morning there was no such smell and, except for the few people Mandela met at the entrance to the building, the place seemed deserted and forlorn, devoid of human warmth.

How Mandela charmed apartheid personnel

Executive Deputy President De Klerk had taken the whole of his private office with him, leaving only the functional and administrative staff.

But conviviality and sartorial elegance were the last things on the minds of Mandela’s staff, whose main business on May 11 was the finalisation of the cabinet of the Government of National Unity and the swearing-in of ministers. It was a small team, composed of hand-picked professionals, which had to deliver an urgent mandate.

As Duarte observed, Mandela was not passive in the selection of staff. When he sought to enlist Professor Jakes Gerwel as a possible director-general and cabinet secretary, she remembered that Mandela “wanted to know everything there was to know about Jakes. He asked Trevor [Manuel] … before he actually sat down with Jakes and said, ‘If we win, would you come to my office?’

“He also spoke to quite a number of activists [about] who this Gerwel chap was; who … would go into government with him.”

A competent cadre in the president’s office was needed to make up for the gap left by the withdrawal of the 60 people on De Klerk’s staff. At Thabo Mbeki’s prompting, a team headed by Department of Foreign Affairs official Dr Chris Streeter took on the role, with Streeter becoming Mandela’s “chief of staff” until the director-general was appointed.

Mandela was quick to dispel the illusion that he would be getting rid of the old personnel. He made a point of shaking hands with each member of staff. Fanie Pretorius, then-chief director in the office of the president, remembers the occasion: “He started from the left and he shook hands with every staff member, and about a quarter along the line he came to a lady who always had a stern face, though she was a friendly person. When he took her hand, he said in Afrikaans, ‘Is jy kwaad vir my?’ [‘Are you cross with me?’], and everybody laughed and the ice was broken.

He continued and gave the message to all the staff. There was nothing more and everybody was relieved. He was Nelson Mandela at that moment, with the warmth and the acceptance. Everybody would have eaten out of his hand — there was no negative feeling from anybody after that in the staff, at least that we were aware of.”

Mandela’s personal warmth towards people from all walks of life, from gardeners, cleaners, clerks and typists to those in the most senior roles, did not go unnoticed. Those who came across him in the course of their work described him as generous, self-effacing and easy-going; a man who knew “how to be an ordinary person”, with a sincerity demonstrated by his “greeting everybody in the same way whether there is a camera on him or not”; “there is never the feeling that he is up there and you’re down there”.

Mandela was respectful but not in awe of the world in which he found himself. Like all confident people who take their capability for granted, he was unhesitant about the road he needed to take to strengthen South Africa’s democracy.

Throughout his political life, he had never shirked responsibility, no matter how dangerous, as evidenced by his role as the volunteer-in-chief in the 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws — inspired by the sentiment contained in his favourite poem, Invictus, “the menace of the years” had found him “unafraid”.

One term only — that’s the deal

Imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century, Mandela had become the world’s most recognisable symbol against all forms of injustice. He was initially reluctant to become president, perhaps feeling that he had accomplished what he’d set out to do with his stewardship of the heady period from release to the elections.

“My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa,” he writes, “was imposed on me much against my advice.

“As the date of the general elections approached, three senior ANC leaders informed me that they had consulted widely within the organisation, and that the unanimous decision was that I should stand as president if we won the election.

“I urged the three senior leaders that I would prefer to serve without holding any position in the organisation or government. One of them, however, put me flat on the carpet.

“He reminded me that I had always advocated the crucial importance of collective leadership, and that as long as we scrupulously observed that principle, we could never go wrong. He bluntly asked whether I was now rejecting what I had consistently preached down the years. Although that principle was never intended to exclude a strong defence of what one firmly believed in, I decided to accept their proposal.

“I, however, made it clear that I would serve for one term only.

“Although my statement seemed to have caught them unawares — they replied that I should leave the matter to the organisation — I did not want any uncertainty on this question. Shortly after I had become president, I publicly announced that I would serve one term only and would not seek re-election.

“At meetings of the ANC,” Mandela continues, “I often stressed that I did not want weak comrades or puppets who would swallow anything I said, simply because I was president of the organisation. I called for a healthy relationship in which we could address issues, not as master and servants, but as equals in which each comrade would express his or her views freely and frankly, and without fear of victimisation or marginalisation.”

The ANC — or, more precisely, President Mandela — needed to think clearly and plan well. Without this capability, it would be difficult to synthesise the old, security-oriented, bureaucratised civil service, a carry-over from the insular legacy of apartheid, and the new, somewhat inexperienced personnel, some of whom had recently graduated from overseas academies where they had received crash courses in administration and the rudiments of running a modern economy.

While De Klerk had a functioning administrative office staffed by people who had worked with him for years, Mandela and his deputy, Mbeki, had to start from scratch.

Gerwel was the first senior appointment, bringing gravitas to the presidential staff.

He also brought his extensive political background as a leader of the United Democratic Front and his engagement with the ANC in exile.

As vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, a position from which he was about to retire, he had led the transformation of an apartheid university into an intellectual home of the left. Mandela’s endorsement of Professor Gerwel shows the high esteem in which he held him. It’s even more remarkable that Gerwel came from the black consciousness tradition and wasn’t a card-carrying member of the ANC.

At the time he appointed Gerwel, Mandela had formed a reasonable idea about how he wanted his office to look. Like all obsessively orderly people — at one point he wanted to make his own bed in a hotel — he couldn’t function without a solid base.

Having Gerwel at the helm served this purpose. He respected Gerwel and would take his advice. Masekela later commented on this aspect of Mandela’s character.

“I think it requires a certain amount of humility and self-interest to want the best advice and to take it. He was a little too much admiring of educated people, I would say. He really was seriously impressed by degrees, and so on, and if you expressed some scepticism about someone like that it would be very difficult to convince him.”

Joel Netshitenzhe was a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and national working committee with a strong background in communications and strategic analysis. Deceptively casual and with an aversion to formal dress, Netshitenzhe — working with media liaison officer Parks Mankahlana, who’d come from the youth league — operated a brief that went beyond writing Mandela’s speeches: he was also the unofficial link to the various ANC and government constituencies.

Trusted by the media, mainly because he exuded confidence and candour — and was known to have the ear of the president — he worked hard to simplify the more complex policy positions in various forums.

But Mandela needed more than the cold, crisp analyses of his advisers; he also drew on the counsel of others in the ANC.

Having started a practice of marking Mondays as “ANC day” in his diary, he would spend that day at the ANC head office with the top officials and others, also attending NWC meetings. He had no set timetable, however, when consulting other ANC leaders close to him, like Walter Sisulu.

“Me, in particular,” Sisulu said, uncomplainingly, in a 1994 interview, “he likes to ring. He wakes me up, one o’clock, two o’clock, doesn’t matter, he’ll wake me up. I realise after he has woken me up, this thing is not so important — well, we discuss it, but it didn’t really require that he wake me up at that time.”

Mandela’s involvement in cabinet, however, changed over time.

Early in his tenure, he was more hands-on, keeping himself informed on almost all aspects of policy in order to maintain the coherence of the ANC in the GNU, a measure demanded by the intricate process of transformation.

100 days of meetings

Manuel remembers how, on the eve of cabinet meetings, Mandela convened ANC ministers and their deputies in an ANC cabinet caucus at his Genadendal residence in Cape Town. This he did, Manuel says, “so that we could caucus positions that we wanted to take and be mutually supportive. It afforded comrades [an environment] to have a discussion that was quite free”.

In his first 100 days in government, Mandela held meetings to guide the ministers or get their support for positions he held. He maintained a continuous interest in matters concerning peace, violence and stability.

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma observed, “I think for me he was more engaged at the beginning, but maybe it was because I engaged him more at the beginning because I myself was not experienced.”

Although Mandela had intended to announce the appointments only after the inauguration, his hand was forced by the media, which had got wind of the debate around the position of the deputy president, with the announcement of the cabinet being made on May 6 1994. It was an incomplete list and some of the names and their corresponding portfolios would be changed.

Setting up the cabinet was not uncontentious, with De Klerk piqued at inadequate consultation in the allocation of some portfolios. However, Mandela’s personal touch was unmistakable. Some of the processes, appearing haphazard at their genesis, ended up bearing fruit. A few of the cogs in the wheel of the machine geared to advance Mandela’s dream were blithely unaware of their importance and how their own lives would change

Dare Not Linger

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Feuding Faiths: Elizabethan England provides the intrigue-filled setting for Ken Follett’s latest blockbuster, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Ken Follett and a sculpture of himself in the Plaza de la Burulleria in Vitoria-Gasteiz, northern Spain.
Picture: © Mikelcg Wikimedia

 

A Column of FireA Column of Fire
Ken Follett, Macmillan, R350
****

‘This struggle for religious tolerance is the foundation of the range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today.’

On the downside, Follett does take his own sweet time to deliver. On the upside, he is not one for half measures. For the fans of the enormously popular Kingsbridge series of historical fiction novels it has been a decade-long wait for the third volume, A Column of Fire. All 750 pages of it hit the market with the momentum of a brick going through a glass window.

There is nothing modest about the scope of Follett’s work. The first Kingsbridge novel, Pillars of the Earth, covers the lives of the inhabitants in the eponymous town during the 12th century, as they erect its iconic cathedral.

The second, World Without End, carries the tale into the 14th century. The latest novel revisits the townsfolk’s descendants after a 200-year gap, in tumultuous 16th-century England, with plots to dethrone or assassinate Elizabeth I, the plague of the Black Death, the Gunpowder Plot, and the threatened invasion of the Spanish armada.

It’s a rollicking saga of love and death, violence, intrigue and treachery, tracing the roller-coaster fortunes of two families, the Willards and the Fitzgeralds. The backdrop is the religious turmoil that followed the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I to the throne and set all of Catholic Europe against England.

It was the battle between these two religions that made the period an attractive subject, says Follett. “The conflict between tolerance and fanaticism has echoes, has a resonance, in the extremism and religious warfare of today.”

Follett is sceptical, however, of the potential for learning lasting lessons from history or literature. “[But] we do get a wider perspective from history and historical novels. Once one knows about the past, has spent time imagining it, one really can’t come up with such simple views and simple solutions that one otherwise might be tempted to do.”

In A Column of Fire, it is when personal and political worlds intersect that the complexities become especially acute. Families and communities are torn asunder, as power seesaws between the contesting Protestants and Catholics.

While both the Willards and Fitzgeralds are prominent Catholic families in Kingsbridge, the latter are more doctrinaire and have great social ambitions for their daughter Margery. It makes the Fitzgerald clan determined to thwart the love between her and Ned Willard. This divide becomes a yawning gulf when Ned enters the service, while Margery is forced to marry a scion of the aristocracy. Over the next 50 years, while Ned and Margery cling to their individual beliefs, their love apparently doomed, England and the Continent are in a state of upheaval.

One of the determined young Queen Elizabeth’s earliest moves is to set up the country’s first secret service, to neutralise the plots of her many enemies. Young Ned becomes one of her spymasters.

For Follett, who made his name as a writer of espionage novels before making the historical genre his own, it’s something of a full circle to combine the two. “I like writing about spies,” he enthuses. “There are always two stories: the official version that governments tell us and the actual one, the truth behind it all. Spies are interesting, because they know the true story.”

Follett is proud of the historical veracity of his writing. While there are authors who twist history for dramatic effect, and Follett says he has no issue with such creative licence, it is not for him. “I will not violate history. It means sticking to the truth, as best we know it.”

In a narrative that encompasses four centuries of history, in thousands of pages, this is no easy task. Just his draft, outlining the plot and characters of the book, is as long as a shortish novel.

“It is easy, with a minor character, to forget small details, like whether they have blue or green eyes. Readers, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the same problem, and are quick to point out the errors.” He uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track, so the character’s age will automatically be updated by the program as the story progresses through the various chapters.

Accuracy is paramount. The manuscript is submitted to three or four professional historians, whom Follett pays “very well” to scrutinise for anachronisms and dubious interpretations of events.

He works a conventional nine-to-five workday week and says he is not unusual in his approach. Even the “bad boys” of writing, with reputations for carousing, tend to have a disciplined, measured approach to their work.

“It’s a fascinating, challenging, completely absorbing task. There’s an enormous satisfaction taking every bit of knowledge, wisdom and skill that one has, and turning that into novels that millions of people enjoy.”

He has already embarked on the drafting of his next book, although he is cagey about what it is, “mainly because it is early days and I don’t yet know whether it is going to work out”. However, he leaves the door open for a continuation of the Kingsbridge series.

After all, “this struggle for religious tolerance that we see just starting in the 16th century is really the foundation of the wide range of freedoms that we enjoy in many countries today”.

“That’s because once you have the right to make up your own mind about your God, you can’t help but wonder why you shouldn’t make up your own mind about the king and the laws.” @TheJaundicedEye

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Jacket Notes: Frans Rautenbach on how a conversation with his son motivated him to write South Africa Can Work

Published in the Sunday Times

South Africa Can Work
Frans Rautenbach, Penguin Random House, R250

My son’s statement hit me like a blow to the gut. We were enjoying dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We debated the #FeesMustFall movement, and I ventured the view that the problem was the government’s economic policies. I reiterated my mantra that free enterprise was the way to go to save South Africa.

That’s when Stefan said it: “I no longer believe in your arguments. Trickle-down economics does not work…”

While I battled to suck air into my lungs, protesting that I had researched the topic for years, Stefan added that I only read that which confirmed my prejudices.

I realised that no sensible continuation of the discussion would be possible without a thorough re-examination of my premises. Thus the book was born.

The soul of the book is freedom, in particular economic freedom – a policy many might see as less than politically correct. So shoot me, I’m a contrarian. In the introduction I confess: “As a lawyer I still marvel at the beautiful words of Lord Justice Megarry in the case of John v Rees: ‘As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not: of unanswerable charges which, in the event, were completely answered; with inexplicable conduct which was fully explained …’”

As in law, so in life. But while often against the mainstream, I am not so just for the sake of being otherwise. As a student politician I relished the thought of pulling both apartheid and capitalism from their pedestals. Intellectually the former proved easy, but nowadays the thought of defending communism or socialism fills me with despair.

People often ask me how I managed to spend so much time and energy writing a book arguing that a free market will save South Africa. My best answer is that I cannot do otherwise.

Seeing our society being led to serfdom while the evidence of a better way is so abundant, is like observing a patient with a mental disorder self-inflicting pain, day by day. I cannot keep quiet…

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Book Bites: 15 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Late Show
Michael Connelly, Orion, R275
***
Fierce, flawed and fallen from grace, Detective Renée Ballard now works “The Late Show” – the graveyard shift at the LA police department. Every night she opens cases and every morning turns them over to an investigating unit. Then she lands two cases she’s determined to keep – a multiple shooting and an assault on a transgender prostitute. Although Ballard senses the presence of “big evil”, she can’t know that her investigation will loop back to her department. Ballard is not as nuanced or compelling a character as Harry Bosch, and Connolly is perhaps too eager to show us he’s done his research, describing every detail of police paperwork and procedure, but this is nit picking. The book is fast-paced, clever, and delivers a gritty view of LA’s seedy underbelly. – Joanne Macgregor @JoanneMacg

Believe Me
Eddie Izzard, Michael Joseph, R340
****
This is not a shock-horror celebrity memoir; there is no profanity, gossip or exaggerations. It’s a story of damn hard work, passion and determination. Eddie Izzard knew from a young age that he wanted to be a performer. It took 12 years for him to officially break into the entertainment world. Out of each failed attempt, his determination grew, until he became the international celebrity he is today. At the same time, Izzard knew his sexuality was not easy to define. Being a self-proclaimed “action transvestite” has meant that he has taken on a unique view of the world and presents this in his performances and daring fashion choices. His well-deserved self-confidence is inspiring and catchy. – Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

The Rhino Whisperer
Evadeen Brickwood, Sula Books, R250
***
Brickwood turns an observant eye on Southern African problems, setting much of her story in the fictional Shangari Safari Park. When rhino poaching and murder come to Shangari, it’s like the serpent entering the Garden of Eden. We are given a cast – Tom and Sofia, who run the park; Barry the alcoholic vet; Sofia’s best friend Gugu, and Gugu’s dodgy billionaire boss Stan Makeroff (think Sol Kerzner meets Radovan Krejcir) – with the suspicion that one of them is Mr Big, the criminal mastermind behind it all. Delightfully exuberant, but needs editing. – Aubrey Paton

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