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#STBooks: Five Books in 500 Words by Ben Williams

By Ben Williams, Books Editor for the Sunday Times

For me, nothing sparkles like a felicitously-turned 100-word review

As an Alan Paton Award judge this year, I compressed a lot of reading into a short time, and here’s my stab at delivering up the award’s shortlist on the leash of a tight word count. How did I do? Tweet me a report card.

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Endings and BeginningsEndings and Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi (Jacana Media). This is the book Alan Paton would have written if he was reincarnated as a woman from Soweto. It flies liberal colours, depicting a place where evil is alchemised, through love, into good. But behind the story of Mabegzo – the gangster who changed Tlhabi’s life by revealing his tender side – lies an indictment of South Africa’s appallingly illiberal regard for women. To be gang-raped, like Mabegzo’s mother was, is to be alchemised into human scrap. Tlhabi’s book is a mirror flashing distress signals at us.

  • Endings and Beginnings is published by Jacana Media

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Rat RoadsRat Roads by Jacques Pauw (Zebra Press). Ostensibly, Pauw’s book is a parable about the human spirit, telling the story of a Rwandan freedom fighter who goes AWOL after the genocide, walks to South Africa – it takes him seven million steps – and, triumphantly, becomes an attorney here. But Rat Roads is also the most important work of history on Africa’s Great Lakes region in years, offering a credible take-down of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, including an on-the-record claim that Kagame blew up the plane whose crash set off the killings. It’s a bombshell of a book.

  • Rat Roads is published by Zebra Press

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Killing for ProfitKilling for Profit by Julian Rademeyer (Zebra Press). We are under siege from rhino conservationists, who never mention that South Africans are actually quite thrifty with their wildlife. As we learn in Rademeyer’s book, the local white rhino population increased from 3800 in 1984 to 18800 in 2011. The author doggedly documents why the numbers are going backwards now. Although his book runs on fumes towards the end, at its best it conjures southern Africa as a modern-day Silk Road of poaching, travelled by the motliest crew of traffickers, who pursue their slaughter via methods and alliances that beggar belief.

  • Killing for Profit is published by Zebra Press

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BikoBiko: A Biography by Xolela Mangcu (Tafelberg). A biography whose subject only enters the story properly after 100 pages might benefit from reclassification. Mangcu’s book is, in fact, more an academic thesis. Its central thrust, that Biko’s activism was in keeping with the Xhosa peoples’ long tradition of political resistance, is well-argued, but it doesn’t deliver a rich sense of Biko’s lived days. You do learn a fair bit about the author, though, who hustles a place for himself among the intellectuals he writes about. As a source text, his book is invaluable; as a literary work it leaves opportunity for the next biographer.

  • Biko: A Biography is published by NB Publishers

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The Last Afrikaner LeadersThe Last Afrikaner Leaders by Hermann Giliomee (Tafelberg). Presumably, the title Three Brownshirts and Two Verligtes would have been too glib? That’s a joke, of course – born of the frustration that a scrupulously researched work can elicit when finally it loses the wood for the trees. Giliomee meets apartheid’s architects on their own terms, a fatal mistake: they come off as vexed by great intellectual problems, rather than seized by a pathology of their own design. Apparently, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and FW de Klerk’s foibles were worse than those of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha. In fact, they weren’t.

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