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Archive for the ‘Pan Macmillan’ Category

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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Shortlist for 2017 South African Literary Awards announced

2017 marks the highest milestone of South African Literary Awards (SALA), as the shortlist includes, for the first time, the !Xam and !Kun languages.

Listed under the Posthumous Literary Awards, five legendary contributors are drawn from Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd collection of !Xam and !Kun narratives, verses, songs, chants, drawings and other materials consisting of over 150 notebooks running in some 13 000 pages which is considered a unique cultural and literary collection which has been recognised by United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Council (UNESCO) and entered into the memory of the World Register.

The materials deal with the land, the rain, the history of the first people, the origin of the moon and stars, animals, cosmology, beliefs, ceremonies, art and information of the
individual lives of the informants who had come to Cape Town as prisoners of the British Crown and were released into Bleek’s custody at his residence in Mowbray for linguistic and cultural research.

Also interesting is the shortlist list under the Translators Literary award consisting of William Wellington Gqoba: Isizwe Esinembali, Xhosa Histories And Poetry (1873 – 1888), DLP.Yali-Manisi: Iimbali Zamanyange, Historical Poems and The Thirstland Trek: 1874 – 1881. While the Creative Non- Fiction Award has The Keeper Of The Kumm: Ancestral Longing And Belonging Of A Boesmankind, by Sylvia Vollenhoven, My Own Liberator by Judge Dikgang Moseneke and Emily Hobhouse – Geliefde Verraaier by Elsabé Brits.

The shortlist goes on to list under the Lifetime Achievement Literary Award, South Africa’s legendary Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, who is largely respected for his predictions of world events, including the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001, the 1976 June 16 Uprising, HIV, Chris Hani’s assassination, load shedding and the ousting of President Thabo Mbeki. Mutwa shares the category with other literary stalwarts, Aletta Matshedisð Motimele, who is revered for her Sepedi works and Etienne van Heerden, an academic and prolific Afrikaans author.

“Indeed, as its main aim, SALA continues to strive to become the most prestigious and respected literary accolades in South African literature,” says Ms Sindiswa Seakhoa, director at wRite associates, founders of SALA, in partnership with the department of Arts and Culture in 2005.

Since its inception in 2005, to date, SALA has honoured 160 authors in 11 categories in all official South African languages. SALA also boasts legacy programmes including:
- The National Poet Laureate Programme and the Keorapetse Kgositsile Lecture, in honour of the Poet Laureate, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile.
- The Miriam Tlali Reading and Book Club, in honour of the late Miriam Tlali.
- Band of Troubadours, a publication comprising the work of the SALA recipients
- Africa Century International African Writers Conference and International African
Writers Day Lecture, established in 2012.

The conference is set to become a Mecca of who is who of the African literati, the Diaspora and the entire globe where the celebration of African letters occupies centre stage.

This historical gathering of literary intellectuals and authors from across the world, is, as the then-OAU’s Conference of African Ministers of Education and Culture (meeting in Coutonou, Benin, in 1991) resolved, “… to afford the African people a moment of pause within which to reflect on the contribution of African Writers to the development of the Continent”.

Both the 2017 South African Literary Awards ceremony and Conference will take place on the 7th November at Kgorong Building, UNISA. This is partnership by the wRite associates, the department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, UNISA.

The theme for the conference is “The Writer as a Drum Major of Conscience, Restoration & Transformation”, with the sub-theme being “The Establishment of the South African Writers Organization”.

Prof Zodwa Motsa, a Fulbright Scholar, a Researcher, Writer and Social Engineer, who has served as Head of the Department: English Studies (UNISA) from 2006 -2011 and currently serving as the Country Director at UNISA’s Ethiopia Centre for Graduate Studies in Addis Ababa, since 2012, will deliver the sixth International African Writers Day Lecture and Prof Nhlanhla Maake, an academician, novelist, dramatist, literary critic, and language activist will deliver the response. Prof Andries Oliphant, author, poet, literary scholar and cultural policy advisor, will lead the seminar on the establishment of South Africa’s writers’ organization.

Category: First-time Published Author Award

Amy Jephta, Kristalvlakte
Moses Shimo Seletisha, Tšhutšhumakgala
Mohale Mashigo, The Yearning

Category: k.Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award

Kopano Matlwa, Period Pain
Nthikeng Mohlele, Pleasure

Category: Poetry Award

Helen Moffett, Prunings
Ronelda S Kamfer, Hammie
Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu, Iingcango Zentliziyo

Category: Creative Non- Fiction Award

Dikgang Moseneke, My Own Liberator
Elsabé Brits, Emily Hobhouse – Geliefde Verraaier
Sylvia Vollenhoven, The Keeper Of The Kumm

Category: Literary Journalism Award

Don Makatile: His oeuvre
Phakama Mbonambi: His oeuvre

Category: Literary Translators Award

Bridget Theron-Bushell The Thirstland Trek: 1874 – 1881 (Afrikaans to English)
Jeff Opland, Wandile Kuse and Pamela Maseko William Wellington Gqoba: Isizwe Esinembali Xhosa Histories And Poetry (1873 – 1888) (isiXhosa to English)
Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko DLP.Yali-Manisi: Iimbali Zamanyange, Historical Poems (isiXhosa to English)

Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award

Nick Mulgrew, Stations
Roela Hattingh, Kamee

Category: Posthumous Literary Award

|A!kunta: Body of work (!Xam and !Kun)
!Kabbo: Body of work (!Xam and !Kun)
≠Kasin: Body of work (!Xam and !Kun)
Dia!kwain: Body of work (!Xam and !Kun)
|Han≠kass’o: Body of work (!Xam and !Kun)

Category: Lifetime Achievement Literary Award

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa: Body of work
Aletta Matshedisð Motimele: Body of work
Etienne Van Heerden: Body of work

Category: Chairperson’s Award

The recipient will be announced at the award ceremony

Book details



The Yearning


Period Pain







My Own Liberator


Emily Hobhouse


Keeper of the Kumm


The Thirstland Trek


William Wellington Gqoba: Isizwe esinembali


DLP Yali-Manisi: Iimbali Zamanyange





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Africa’s war on poaching spills over into new Tony Park novel


Author Tony Park has once more drawn on his real-life experiences in Africa and his background as a former army officer to bring a real-life “wildlife war” to the pages of his 14th novel, The Cull.

In the book, former mercenary Sonja Kurtz is hired by business tycoon Julianne Clyde-Smith to head an elite squad. Their aim: to take down Africa’s top poaching kingpins and stop at nothing to save its endangered wildlife.

But, as the body count rises, it becomes harder for Sonja to stay under the radar and she is targeted by an underworld syndicate known as The Scorpions.

When her love interest, safari guide and private investigator Hudson Brand, is employed to look into the death of an alleged poacher at the hands of Sonja’s team, she is forced to ask herself if Julianne’s crusade has gone too far.

From South Africa’s Kruger National Park to the Serengeti of Tanzania, Sonja realises she is fighting a war on numerous fronts, against enemies known and unknown.
Personal experience
Park has personally encountered Africa’s war on poaching and the people fighting it.

“I live half of each year in Africa and, near my house, on the border of South Africa’s Kruger National Park, there is a war being fought daily between anti-poaching units and heavily armed poachers hunting endangered rhinos,” he says.

“Elements of The Cull are based on reality. Ex-soldiers, like the fictitious Sonja Kurtz, some of them foreign veterans of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are currently working in Africa training and mentoring anti-poaching operatives in this wildlife war.”

Tony Park was born in 1964 and grew up in Sydney. He has worked as a reporter, a press secretary, a PR consultant and a freelance writer. He is also a major in the Australian Army Reserve and served as a public affairs officer in Afghanistan in 2002. He and his wife, Nicola, divide their time between Australia and Southern Africa.

Park, who served with the Australian army in Afghanistan, visited all-female anti-poaching unit the Black Mambas near the Kruger park. The Mambas, all members of the community near the reserve, provided the inspiration for an all-woman unit in The Cull called The Leopards.

The author is also a volunteer with an international NGO, Veterans for Wildlife, which pairs military veterans with anti-poaching units and conservation programmes in Africa.

Just like Sonja Kurtz, real-life female soldiers who have served in the Middle East are supporting anti-poaching efforts by passing on their expertise. One of the challenges facing the Black Mambas is to break down stereotypes in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession.

Park said the job of protecting wildlife was a high-risk, high-stakes business, with rhino horn now worth more than gold, diamonds or cocaine. It’s a life-and-death struggle for humans as well as animals.

“About 500 armed poachers have been killed in South Africa over the past 10 years in this ongoing battle. Every day, national park rangers, police and military take to the African bush and put their lives on the line in defence of the environment. It’s inspirational stuff,” he added.

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Watch Trevor Noah’s acceptance speech for the Booksellers’ Choice Award

The Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award this year went to Trevor Noah for his memoir Born a Crime and other stories, published by Pan Macmillan. Noah was not present to receive the prize at the convivial awards evening on the 22 August, however his publishers were there, bursting with pride. Andrea Nattrass, Noah’s publisher at Pan Macmillan had arranged for him to record a short acceptance speech, which was shared with the audience at the awards. Noah thanked booksellers, publishers and the sponsors Nielsen Book for the award, along with his English teacher who inspired him to read.

Watch Trevor’s speech here.

PS – Trevor has also been shortlisted for the Thurber Prize for American Humor!

Born A Crime

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Trevor Noah wins the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award

Trevor Noah was announced as the winner of the 2017 Nielsens Booksellers’ Choice Award for his autobiography Born a Crime and Other Stories on the 22nd of August.

The award is bestowed upon a local author for a South African published book that booksellers most enjoyed selling or that sold so well that it made a difference to the bottom line of booksellers across the country.

The books are voted for by members of the South African Booksellers Association all of whom are booksellers; the booksellers vote for the book they most enjoyed selling during the year. The winner receives R20 000.

The following books were shortlisted for this prestigious award:

· Emily Hobhouse: Geliefde verraaier by Elsabe Brits (Published by Tafelberg)
· JAN: A breath of French Air by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Published by Struik)
· Kook saam Kaaps by Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker (Published by Lapa Uitgewers)
· Koors by Deon Meyer (Published by Human & Rousseau)
· My own liberator by Dikgang Moseneke (Published by Picador Africa)


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Under a harrowing spell: Hannah Kent’s new book tells a dark Irish fairy tale, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

It is as well that young Australian writer Hannah Kent ignored the old canard to “write what you know”. Her first book Burial Rites was set on a farm in remote northwest Iceland in 1829. It tells the tale of the life and death of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Relentlessly but exquisitely bleak, it was a rare imaginative debut.

Her second novel The Good People is also set in the 19th century and, like the first, is based on a true story. In a valley in Ireland in 1825, a farmer, Martin Leahy, drops dead. His wife Nóra is undone by his death.

The villagers are uneasy that he died so unexpectedly at the crossroads where they bury their suicides. They are poor, uneducated folk, half-starved on a diet of potatoes, milk and poitín (the Irish equivalent of witblitz), trying to control the unknowable with rituals and spells, navigating their destinies by signs and signals from the natural – and supernatural – world.

“I avoid the word ‘superstition’, as I think it implies stupidity and ignorance,” says Kent in an e-mail from her home in Adelaide. “A lot of folklore is filled with wisdom, as much as it might operate on a system of logic or rationality that can seem bizarre or nonsensical to outsiders. I have great respect for Irish folklore and folk beliefs.”

Sure enough, misfortune begins to pile up in the village. The cows’ milk virtually dries up, a baby is stillborn and a woman accidentally sets herself on fire. And then there is Nóra’s small grandson Micheál, who she is raising, and who she tries to keep hidden from the community. He is “a scragged boy, with a loose, mute jaw”. His skin has “a thinness to it, like the pages in a priest’s holy book”. He drools and screeches and gurns incessantly, and because he was a normal baby, Nóra begins to believe he is a changeling, that the Good People have stolen the real Micheál away and left this “poor cratur” behind. The villagers believe he has cursed the valley.

The “Good People” are, of course, the fairies, and are hardly good. Forget any idea of twinkling, benign little folk. The fairies of Irish folklore are darkly capricious, even evil.

“The fairies were (and, in some places, still are) thought to be the cause of both inexplicable luck and misfortune,” explains Kent. “They were capable of bestowing great gifts and favours on people, and just as quickly ‘striking’ or inflicting harm on others. It’s understandable that people therefore spent a lot of time trying to stay on the right side of the fairies, to protect themselves from their malice as much as possible. They might pour out beestings (new milk) for the fairies, warn them before throwing out dirty water (so as not to catch them in the downpour), or refer to them as ‘the good people’ or ‘the gentry’ out of respect and deference.”

Nóra turns to Nance Roach, a healer and “handywoman”, a midwife. Some call her “the herb hag”. She’s a scrawny, decrepit old woman, steeped in the old ways and loathed by the village priest.

“I didn’t want to portray Nance as the oversimplified all-knowing mystic,” says Kent, “the imperturbable mother-earth, I-am-one-with-nature healer, so I tried to focus on her flaws, on her doubt, on her mistakes. Yes, she lives in a semi-wild state, but her isolation isn’t romantic, she is poor and vulnerable.”

Together Nóra and Nance will try to “put the fairy out” of Micheál. It is a fascinating but harrowing process that will culminate in a court case. It was the report of this court case in a centuries-old newspaper that inspired Kent to reimagine the story.

The Good People is an enthralling book, queer in the original sense of the word, densely atmospheric. It sings with the cadences of the people, and pulses with the natural world. .@michelemagwood

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Burial Rites

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Nielsen Booksellers Choice Award shortlist announced

The Nielsen Booksellers Choice Award is bestowed upon a local author for a South African published book that booksellers most enjoyed selling or that sold so well that it made a difference to the bottom line of booksellers across the country.

The books are voted for by members of the South African Booksellers Association all of whom are booksellers. It is the Booksellers Choice award, thus the booksellers vote for the book they most enjoyed selling during the year.

The shortlist this year includes previous winner, Deon Meyer, who makes it with his book Koors, a son’s story of his father’s murder. The much-loved comedian Trevor Noah joins him with Born a crime and other stories. Other shortlisted authors include Elsabé Brits who traces the fascinating life of Emily Hobhouse, from her tireless campaigning for women’s rights to her outspoken opposition to injustice, in Emily Hobhouse: Geliefde verraaier. My own liberator by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke plays homage to the many people and places that have helped define and shape him. Meanwhile JAN: A breath of French Air by Jan Hendrick van der Westhuizen is a memoir and celebration of the renowned eatery JAN, a South African restaurant in the South of France. Kook saam Kaaps by Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker continues the culinary theme with an easy-going home cookbook with ‘food from the heart’ recipes.

Last year’s winner was Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew. On accepting the award Sally commented: “I am so honoured to win the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award 2016; booksellers are heroes – up there with librarians in my estimation. Reading can entertain, challenge and educate. It takes us to places and ideas we don’t normally visit. It can even open our hearts and uplift our souls. Thank you, booksellers for this gift you give to us all”.

Stephen Long, Global Managing Director, Book Discovery and Commerce at Nielsen said, “With the help of members of the South African Booksellers Association, the number of submissions for this year’s event has been incredible. We wish all this year’s shortlisted authors the very best of luck.

The short-listed books for 2016 are:

· Born a crime and other stories by Trevor Noah (Published by Pan Macmillan)
· Emily Hobhouse: Geliefde verraaier by Elsabe Brits (Published by Tafelberg)
· JAN A breath of French Air by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Published by Struik)
· Kook saam Kaaps by Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker (Published by Lapa Uitgewers)
· Koors by Deon Meyer (Published by Human & Rousseau)
· My own liberator by Dikgang Moseneke (Published by Picador Africa)

The winning author will be announced on the 22nd of August at the Sefika Awards Dinner in Durban and will receive a cheque from Nielsen for R 20 000.


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Born A Crime


Emily Hobhouse


My Own Liberator


JAN - A Breath of French Air


Kook Saam Kaaps

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“Hamba kahle, Emma!” Doyenne of South Africa’s trade union movement passes away

Prominent trade union veteran, women’s and human rights activist, and former Restitution of Land Rights Commissioner Emma Mashinini has passed away in her home in Pretoria at midnight last night at the age 87.

Mrs Mashinini is regarded as the doyenne of the trade union movement in South Africa, serving as a shop steward on the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW) and a founder of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) in 1975. She was integrally involved in the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

Mrs Mashinini played several prominent roles in the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Funeral arrangements are being finalised and details will be communicated in due course.

Terry Morris, MD of Picador and Pan Macmillan, paid homage to this remarkable woman:

The feisty and inspirational Emma Mashinini has passed away at age 87. Emma’s memoir, Strikes Have Followed me All my Life was originally published by The Women’s Press UK in 1989 and republished by Picador Africa in South Africa in 2012 with a new foreword by Jay Naidoo.

It was a privilege to publish her book and to have her as an author on our list.

Hamba kahle Emma!

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Custody and consultation: Karin Schimke talks to Marcus Low about his debut novel Asylum

Published in the Sunday Times

Marcus Low’s bleak debut novel is set in the near future, but describes the world as we already know it, writes Karin Schimke

Marcus Low (Picador Africa)

In Asylum, Marcus Low’s unsettling debut novel, the narrator Barry James writes in his notebook about the endless coughing caused by the imagined – but not unimaginable – disease around which the book is built: “…you cough up the past, cough up everything you’ve done … until one day when it is all out, you have nothing left to do but turn into one of those serene corpses the staff are so determined to clear out as soon as possible.”

The story takes place in South Africa in 2022 in a high-security sanatorium for the doomed: people with “pulmonary nodulosis” for whom there is no cure and who are kept separated from the rest of South Africa by fences and security guards to contain the risk of pandemic.

When I first read the story, I thought it was the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I had ever read: a landscape withering under the onslaught of climatic change, the spread of an uncontrollable superbug, the posturing limpness of politicians and the vague helplessness of well-intentioned but under-supported medical staff.

In an interview with Low, I am set right: the novel may be set in the not-too-far future, but it takes its energy from what has already happened. He refers me to a feature article from 2008 in the New York Times, which quotes Siyasanga Lukas, an inmate of the Jose Pearson TB Hospital in Port Elizabeth, where patients with multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis were kept behind high security fences which they often tried, and sometimes succeeded in, breaching in order to be with their families for Christmas and other special occasions.

“I’ve seen people die and die and die,” Lukas is quoted as saying. “The only discharge you get from this place is to the mortuary.”

So much for dystopia.

Low’s novel is mostly written in the first person by an inmate of the Pearson quarantine facility in the Great Karoo who is recording his uneventful wait to become a serene corpse. When other inmates become involved in a plan to escape, he goes along in a spirit of what seems to be more curiosity and boredom than hope. Between the journal entries are notes by an unnamed commentator looking back on James’s record of the experience of incarceration with the cold distance of an academic or researcher.

The story might very well have been a kind of medical or escape thriller, a high-tension, hopeful adventure in which the double victims of disease and imprisonment become victors of both. Instead, Low has chosen the quiet, literary route, one that is nothing if not bleak.

Low says he is drawn to “the undercurrents of madness and a certain perspective on human dignity that you find in old Russian writing”. Indeed, the seeds for Asylum lie not only with the recent reality of quarantined TB sufferers, but also in a particular literary tradition. The story, with its textural hopelessness, references Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three characters are locked in a room together, and Albert Camus’ The Plague in which an entire town is sealed off to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague.

The author’s interest in “disease as metaphor” also has roots in his own life. Low is currently the editor of Spotlight, a print and online publication about TB and HIV, and worked for many years with the Treatment Action Campaign, arguably the most powerful lobby group ever to have worked in South Africa and whose tireless activism lead to tectonic shifts in government policy regarding the treatment of HIV/Aids.

And, in the most intimate realm of understanding his own subject matter in Asylum, is the fact that Low has a degenerative, genetic eye condition known as Stargardt’s disease.

“I can’t read print anymore. I can’t drive. And I sometimes walk into things,” says Low. “I do sometimes have the odd feeling that, in terms of my vision loss at least, I am living a metaphor for some undefined thing or other.”

In an article entitled “The False Hope Industry” on the website Quackdown, Low wrote in 2011: “When it comes to finding cures, hope is irrelevant.”

Reading up about Kafka after our interview, I find a Kafka quote for which I cannot find the source: “A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.” James, the protagonist of Asylum watches the not particularly enticing world beyond the fence of his prison and writes in his journal, “I look at it and it calms something inside me. I think it’s the harshness that does it.”

This connects what, for me, is the source of Asylum’s (admittedly understated) consolations. And Low confirms that the novel’s tone of desolation is an aperture into something a little more sanguine than is obvious.

“It’s a kind of ‘staring into the abyss’”, says Low. “It’s painful and it’s sad, but if you do it, the natural response is to take better care of others.”

He speaks about his admiration for Camus’ world view, which he describes as “an honesty about the bleakness in the world offset by a deep humanity”.

There is always, he says, a tension between hope and denial, and confronting that dilemma in a hopeless situation can lead to greater self-awareness and, hopefully, one is more open to compassion for others.

“Though, of course,” he adds, “many people just prefer denial.”

What then are the consolations? Whether Asylum is read as an allegory for the current state of the world, or whether it is a meditation on a loss of liberty due to the inescapable prison of disease, it does have its comforts. What, for Low, are they?

“The main consolation,” he says, “is finding our common humanity, not just with humans, but also with animals.

“The other consolation, but it is secondary, is that there are things that are beautiful in the world. Like nature. Like music. Like books.”

Follow Karin Schimke @karinschimke

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