Decency in a time of hateful chaos

memory-against-forgetting_1500

IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.
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My mother’s dignity, my society’s shame

Judasbok

BETRAYED as a repository for sins: the Scapegoat.

A BEAUTIFULLY CRAFTED tale of loyalty and values learned and imbibed, Dalene Matthee’s novel Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) translates with a true sense of Klein Karoo grit into an Afrikaans-language radio drama you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s an extremely sensitive and intelligent radio-adaptation that will haunt you with all the moral decisions you’ve made that you would change if you could. And while its live broadcast was hosted a few weeks ago, this is the kind of work you will want to listen to again and again.

Karel (Dean Balie) and Lillian (Danielle van der Walt) are engaged to be married. They’re on a 1 300km road trip, to visit Karel’s mother, Ou Bet (June van Merch) in Wolwedans, the farm on which Karel grew up. They’re planning to leave the country; it’s a farewell visit. Sounds idyllic? It is, until you take a step back in terms of context. It’s 1982. It’s South Africa. Apartheid is rumbling like a destructive force through society, breaking hearts, confusing beliefs and smashing values in its wake. Andries Treurnicht, a government minister, is in the process of carving out a place in South African politics for the Conservative party. Bad things are happening everywhere.

And, yes, Karel is not white. Lillian is. Technically, their relationship, under the apartheid jurisdiction, is illegal. Ou Bet, whose the general factotum in the house and has raised the farm’s family as best she can, believing herself to be a part of it. She knows that Karel has a “Lillian” in his life, but the two women have not yet met. This roadtrip is infused with the ghosts and memories of Karel’s past, the beauty of the farm in Lillian’s unsullied eyes, and deep, difficult crossroads to encounter and confront for the mom. And there’s the memory of the farm’s dam which too contains mixed understandings of what skin colour means.

Along similar lines to Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels, it’s a play which contemplates the horrors of being ‘different’ in a society that promulgates very specific race and class and gender values. Containing revelations about the past that will make you tremble, it’s a story that wrenches an old woman from her sense of where she fits in, in her everyday world, and one of bravery and beliefs in the face of disbelief.

The first adult novel penned by Matthee in the 1980s, it’s a book which contains all the energy and verve, the rich and complex understanding of an Afrikaans-speaking community who are not white-skinned and where they fit into the society in which they exist. As you listen to the crisp and solid tones and scene changes in this work, so do you melt, under the tough sway of the story’s impact, but also the way in which the environment is conjured by words and references, music and the twittering of birds. It’s a must-hear and a must-have.

  • Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) is written by Dalene Matthee and adapted for radio by Anton Treurnich. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, it features technical assistance by Ricardo McCarthy is performed by Dean Balie, Susan Beyers, Danielle van der Walt and June van Merch, and debuted on RSG on November 17. It is available through the rsg website as a podcast.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on http://web.sabc.co.za/digital/player/1.0/rsg/index.html#listenLiveTab

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams

bare-ground-peter-harris

YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).

A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.

Why there are stories in this world

Reimagined

VERY OCCASIONALLY, THROUGH the course of living, reading and looking, you may come across something so overwhelmingly perfect that will reaches you so directly simply you have to have it, at whatever cost. And then, having acquired this thing of great beauty, it doesn’t matter, whether you sit and ponder its treasures every day, or whether you never look at it again, but just rejoice in the fact of your ownership, because that ownership attests to the fact that something as wise and beautiful as this actually exists in the world. This is what Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal will  trigger for you.

Impeccably designed, this over 300-page foray into the life’s work of easily contemporary Jewish art’s most unexpected giant, will touch you deeply, whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about the magic of metaphor and the cross pollination of ideas that infiltrates everything from the kind of angelology that infused the thoughts of German Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the pre-World War Two years, to the political value of ritual objects to the ways in which ritual values can splay into shocking and unexpected directions.

A man who can turn the eight-branched candelabrum, traditionally used by Jews in the celebration of the festival of lights, Chanukah, into a series of sinister railroad tracks; or a child’s noise-maker into a gallows, Podwal (b. 1945) is an unexpected giant because he wasn’t trained to be an artist and nor did the trajectory of his career take the expected twists and curves in this kind of road.

Podwal was educated as a physician. He is not a religious man. His unique handling of line and metaphor, with wit and intellect, mysticism and astounding simplicity begs comparison, to an extent, with the line work of American-Lithuanian artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the imagery of Belorus-born artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and yet, nothing jades the scalpel like sharpness of Podwal’s reflection on everything, from the Golem of Prague to kabbalistic overtures. He makes Hebrew letters dance with a robustness that enables you to hear the jollity of hassids of yore, and an instinctive knowledge of colour and line work that takes hold of you, eyeballs first, and sucks you into the kind of mad, death-defying conflation of superstition and truth, politics and history, that make you believe you can reach the ineffable, just by looking at these drawings.

A colourist as much as a draughtsman of lines both bold and cross-hatched, historical doodles and the jigsaw puzzle of shtetl geographies, Podwal is an entity unexplored by conventional art historical scholarship. This book is a magnificent celebration of the litany of his work. [The review is premised on a pdf of the publication and for this reason does not comment on the quality of the printing or the texture of the paper]. The layout of the book is conventional and elegant. While you may not believe that an occasional use of bold blue background is a good unifying idea for pages in a tome of this nature, when Podwal’s line art is juxtaposed in this context, it glimmers with an effervescence that makes you remember why there are stories in the world.

This is not an academic tractate celebrating the art historical contribution of Podwal to visual culture. Rather, it is an event all of its own – it’s an experience which you will want to visit and revisit, haunted as you will become by a curiously witty metaphor, by that beard that has turned into a fish, by the city that sits on top of the Golem’s head, like a crown; by the cry of a woman that pours from her mouth, palpably, by the sense of surreal possibility that Podwal evokes with his lines and crayons, just as Polish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) or Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) make magic happen with their words and stories.

Along the lines of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), which features a mentaculus – a kabbalistically-inspired probability map of the universe – the body of Podwal’s work, from his liturgical illustrations to his tapestry designs, plays with the simple complexity that feels both obvious and so deep and rich you can lose yourself in it.  This is the kind of book that overrides ownership of a whole library of texts. It embraces the universe at its core.

  • Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal features a foreword by Elie Wiesel, a preface by Cynthia Ozick and an essay by Columbia University Professor of Jewish Studies, Elisheva Carlebach. It is published by Glitterati, London (2016).

Bra Gib warrants more

Kente

AN UNDERSTANDING OF the contribution of South African theatre-maker Gibson Kente (1932-2004) to local stage history cannot but be an important addition to the reading list of any SA theatre lover. And accordingly, Robert Mshengu Kavanagh’s book A Contended Space tries hard to be everything to every reader with these priorities in mind. Sadly, he makes so many promises in this book that it is the legacy of Kente himself that ends up being compromised.

Arguably, Kente’s vision was central to the amorphous beast we recognise as SA township musical theatre. It vies from a European avant-garde reflection on narrative, audience and other formalities and weaves into the ideas of performance espoused by German 20th-century theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It’s independent and unapologetic, playing to majority audiences and influencing many significantly. Kente, who was a contemporary of writers such as HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo and Sam Mhangwane, penned political theatre at its richest.

“No”, shouts Kavanagh, arguing that there is a difference between political theatre and theatre for the people. And he’s entitled to his opinion. The thing is, whether you feel Kavanagh’s definition of political theatre is too wide or too narrow, becomes academic: the book is so riddled with writing errors you emerge feeling battered even if you’re a champion of Kavanagh’s approach.

The first great sin in this book is the omission of an editor (whose brief is the content’s flow) and a sub-editor (who fixes grammar, spelling, consistency and style). Instead, you get visual errors, spelling errors, errors in the language’s flow and errors in repetition that make what could have been a beautiful and informed read, tortuous.

This reflects a shoddy understanding of the final product: A Contended Space is not a blog post which can be fixed anytime: it’s the fruit of years of work. It bears the stamp of a publishing house. It’s meant to last forever. The least you deserve, as the reader, is attention to the visual presence of the thing to say nothing of the focus of the language.

And alas, as you feel roughly trod on by this book’s errors, so are you are offered promises which do not deliver: Examples plunge into too much detail too quickly, leaving your head spinning in an inchoate understanding of Kente’s work and influence.

Other detail is skirted around. When mention is made of an “Israeli who penned a play called Sola Sola”, for instance, you might be curious to know the name of this person, but nay, ‘tis lost among lots of facts.

Indeed, on the topic of facts in this book, expect to be assailed by them in the form of shopping lists. Armies of them. Pages and pages of references to plays with their dates of performance are shoved before your eyes – so many examples that the basic assertion they illustrate is lost. There is insufficient use made of footnotes in this material.

And all of this happens before you reach the focus on Kente himself. Indeed, you’re subject to four sections (that’s 11 chapters) describing what Kente is not. Granted, you do, eventually get to read his context, but this happens after more than 100 pages of comparison, contemporaries and other asides. One or two well-placed tweaks in the flow of this books focus would have turned it around.

Try as you might to go head to head with the density of the text, the third hurdle you encounter is voice. The writing slips between third and first person all the time. Yes, it’s a problem when the verb tense of the material is inconsistent; the casualty is clarity. But when suddenly Kavanagh himself pops into the thus far formal descriptive, historical narrative as a character – be it as someone in Kente’s audiences, or a fellow playwright in a given programme, festival or season – something else happens: it’s no longer clear who this book is written for or what it aims to be.

Is it an academic overview of Kente, the man and his work? If so, why is there a comment that goes “I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Kente’s house was robbed”? Betting of bottom dollars or clichés of this nature sit curiously with academic writing principles. Maybe A Contended Space is an informal overview of the man and his work, plus the author and his work? Maybe. This feels kind of in line with the crusading lines Kavanagh takes, writing about “white” and “black” theatre, and reflecting upon the injustices of apartheid in a reductionist capacity.

Wade through this and toward the end of the book, you will be rewarded with detailed readings of several key Kente works, including Lifa, How Long, Too Late and Sikalo. Here, you may want to heave a sigh of relief, but alas the problem doesn’t end: Kavanagh plunges head first into character analyses, offering great chunks of quoted text from the plays in question; he doesn’t really explain why. Is this book meant to be a textural analytic tome? Maybe, but it doesn’t do this convincingly.

The book’s final sin is the dismissal of the principle of ‘show and tell’ in the writing. Kavanagh tells you things about apartheid, about the challenges of theatre in the 1970s in South Africa, about Sharpeville, without showing you the broader trajectory. If you don’t know the basics of the history, you may well feel abandoned in a morass of roughly sketched scenarios.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel: the further into this book you read, the more developed its approach becomes, but you have to steel yourself against its focuslessness quite heftily. Ultimately, you emerge with a modicum of appreciation of the giant Kente was, but it’s a messy read, which could have been a fine contribution to Kente scholarship, under a good editorial pen.

  • A contended space: The theatre of Gibson Mtutuzeli Kente by Robert Mshengu Kavanagh is published by Themba Books, Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo, London (2016).

The super spy you love to hate

spy

YOU WILL BE hard-pressed to pause in Jonathan Ancer’s critical biography of one of apartheid’s most notorious spies, Craig Williamson, once you start reading. From the start, this book presents a fully-fleshed terrifying character who is at once a blend of John le Carré-like intrigues mixed with ethical and deeply South African ponderables. It’s a meaty read, but one that will sweep you off your feet as you hear your pulse roar in your ears and feel your heart bleeding for the family of Williamson’s victims.

Notorious high apartheid spy, Williamson (b. 1949) was always big. He was also always something of a bully, but furthermore something of a wily strategist. Not a stupid man, but one with a fraught understanding of moral and human values, he was perfect grist for the apartheid goverment’s mill. Blend all this with time in the South African Police service, an offer under the table by the powers that were and the volatility of anti-apartheid tensions at their angriest peak, and you have a recipe for someone unstoppably lethal in the context that formed him.

Is the man an unmitigated psychopath? Is he the embodiment of quintessential evilness? Is he a manifestation of what political theorist Hannah Arendt describes as the banality of evil in her thoughts about Nazi Adolf Eichmann? Is Williamson a man who should be allowed to hide behind an avuncular image in contemporary times, or should his demons be exposed for all the world to see? Maybe he should be seen as simply one of apartheid’s foot soldiers? A man who was in the right – or wrong – place, at the right – or wrong – time? Ancer writes around these issues with simple journalistic brilliance. His work is crisp and to the point and while it is unapologetically in the first person, it never stumbles into being self-congratulatory.

As a result, you have a book which is unequivocally important for an understanding of the South African narrative. It’s very far from being a simple angry bruising attack on a man, or an academic treatise. Rather, it is alive with the words and opinions of sources, as it uses acute and careful descriptions of Williamson’s life and times, based on exhaustive research, to serve as a cipher to give his victims the fleshed out dignity they warrant.

For instance, we get to meet Neil Aggett, a medical doctor who was headlined as having died in detention in 1982. A victim. Ancer reflects him as a man with his values intact and his brave sense of priorities refined and honed, before the apartheid regime broke him into a million tiny shards.

Jenny Schoon (nee Curtis) and her six-year-old daughter Katryn have oft been similarly relegated to the footnotes of a contemporary understanding of the great ponderous beast of apartheid history. Ancer brings her sense of humour, her beautiful friendships and her values into the frame, reflecting potently on who she was, as a librarian, a wife, a reader, a Yeoville resident, before she was rendered a bloody statistic by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, with little Katryn.

Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, who too was slain by a Williamson-driven parcel bomb in the 1980s, is also pivotal in an understanding of his brutality and is, too, presented as a real person, with fears and priorities, who loved and believed, who wore a white skirt on that fateful day.

By and large, Williamson kept his hands clean and got others to do his dirty work. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he rose through the structures of Wits University student politics and was up there with the National Union of South African Students’s leadership, cosying up with the thinkers and opinion-makers, listening, waiting, disclosing, betraying … and shocking myriads when he was revealed as a spy and then rapidly defected to the ‘other side’ of aggressive South African politics.

It’s a well-structured and balanced work which should be a must-read for the generation that’s coming of age, as we speak. Without being didactic or formulaic, it explains how binaries of black and white/good and evil are meaningless as it offers insight into the rich and messy texture of apartheid that is vital for any South African, or anyone wishing to know more about an era soiled with political assumption and legislated hate.

  • Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).