Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: The List

If anyone is going to write a novel based on the South African security services during apartheid and since the first democratic elections in 1994, Barry Gilder is a very good candidate. He spent years working for the ANC Intelligence services, and then in the amalgamated intelligence service of the newly-elected Government of National Unity under President Mandela. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. And he is very clear in his Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”
This is true. The whole story is based on a premise, a rumour which, as far as I am aware has never been proved. It is said that President Nelson Mandela was given a list, by the National Intelligence Service (the South African equivalent of MI5) naming all the apartheid agents in the ANC. It is also alleged that President Mandela was so magnanimous that he did nothing with the list, if it existed. If this is true, it would be for the very good reason that the source was tainted and that none of the information could be trusted. The list, if it exists, would have been written with the intention of sowing distrust and destroying reputations.
It is also true that the “Sunset Clauses” left dedicated supporters of apartheid in post, and in roles where they could do damage. There is no doubt in my mind, as a long-standing anti-apartheid campaigner who has visited South African many times since the ANC Solidarity Conference in 1993, that this has been happening. One of the key chapters in the book, Chapter 25, describes Mandela arriving at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg to acknowledge the ANC Victory in the first democratic election in South African history. He talked about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)and was quite clear that no-one could participate in the Government of National Unity if they were opposed to that plan. I remember this very well. I was there. It was a very sobering moment. That very evening, I had been arguing with ANC friends that they would have to defend the RDP because it was all that they had got, and that it would be attacked from the very outset. It was. The attack came from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the RDP was watered down to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, and that also proved too radical.
So, the premise of this book is that old, retired, loyal ANC members from the Intelligence Services are asked to investigate the existence of the List, and come across some terrifying information about how the tentacles of the apartheid state have reached into the new democratic regime.
The story is carried along by the sympathetic characters that we meet and, indeed, it is supposed to be written by Jerry Whitehead, an ANC intelligence officer who rose to be Deputy Director General of the post-apartheid intelligence service. I am tempted to imagine this Jerry Whitehead as the Barry Gilder character, if only for his intimate knowledge of Kilburn, but the caveats of the author, quoted above, have to be born in mind. It would be wrong to seek to identify each character with a real person, and given the denouement we can only hope that this is not the case.
This is a story that will have chills running up and down your spine. Gilder shows how easy it is to entrap someone, to corrupt them. There is a chilling scene where Gilder shows the apartheid security police relaxing at a braai (barbecue) and I know that the attitudes of white South African right-wings males have not changed. I have sat through braais like that. Gilder shows that the British security police were keeping a watchful eye, both to ensure that nothing untoward happened and to collaborate with their anti-communist allies in the South African security. He shows that agents in the National Intelligence Service were planning for change because it was obvious that apartheid was unsustainable. The system had to go but white privilege had to be maintained. This is what is at the heart of the planning by Otto Becker, in the book. And I am sure that it was at the heart of the planning of many white South African bureaucrats in the years of transition from the mid-1980s to the years following the 1994 elections.
Whilst this is a novel, it dissects a frightening truth. This is a truly disturbing story.
I have one quibble. Salusbury Road in Kilburn is not mis-spelled. It is not named after Salisbury, but rather after the Salusbury family, Welsh gentry who were cousins by marriage of Elizabeth Tudor. Katheryn, Lady Salusbury, was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville, the only illegitimate child of Henry VII. She was the richest heiress in Wales and her money was used to acquire lands in, I believe, Kilburn. This matters because it is the kind of mistake that an intelligence officer should not make. The assumption about the mis-spelling however is that of Jerry Whitehead not Barry Gilder.
This is an extraordinary book, a revelation. Please God, do not let it come true.

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For the Joy of Reading: Down the Rabbit Hole

If you make your protagonist the spoiled 12-year-old son of a Mexican drug lord, then you have the outline of your story already. Add to the mix that this son wants to become the proud owner of a Liberian Baby Hippopotamus, and you have a bizarre, surreal plot that beggars the imagination.
The choice of a 12-year-old as the narrator decides the way in which the story is to be told. As it says in the introduction, a 12-year-old understands the world but not necessarily everything about the world in which he lives. He will have his obsessions such as being a samurai warrior and therefore wearing his dressing gown all the time. He understands that his father is a gang leader, but he does not understand how dangerous that is. He therefore does not understand why there is an arsenal in the house or, more importantly, why he is not told about it. Nor does he understand why there is a tiger loose in the grounds.
He is also spoiled. When he says that he wants a Liberian Baby Hippopotamus, his father flies him to Liberia, accompanying him with armed guards, and illegally buys and arranges of the shipment of a male and a female back to Mexico. It does not occur to Tochtli that this is not normal, involving as it does bribery and corruption not to mention considerable risk.
TochtlI is aware that his father’s business associates can end up dead, sometimes beheaded like Louis XVI. Tochtli is fascinated by the guillotine. He considers it the epitome of French civilisation that they can cut off heads with one blow and relatively little mess. He is, after all, a 12-year-old boy. He has not understood the moral implications of his father’s involvement in the illegal drugs trade. It does not really touch him, except when he cannot get what he wants. For instance, he cannot leave what he describes as his father’s “palace” because it is really a fortress and his family is under siege.
He is a 12-year-old Michael Corleone. He is going to be sucked in to his father’s world. That is what this book is about.

For the Joy of Reading: The Stripping of the Altars

It is a long time since the first publication of “The Stripping of the Altars” and in that time it has become a classic account of the spirituality and religious practices of 15th century England.
On re-reading it, there is a nagging doubt in my mind. There is only passing reference to the political background in which this spirituality developed. In the period from 1399 to 1509, there were eight kings of England. Three of them were deposed and murdered (Richard II, Henry VI and Edward V). Two died prematurely creating a succession crisis (Henry V and Edward IV). One of them was killed in battle (Richard III). Henry IV reigned from 1399 to 1413, having usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, and Henry VII reigned from 1485 to 1509 having killed his predecessor, Richard III, in battle. The fate of England was decided at major battles at Shrewsbury, Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury and Bosworth. It was also a period that saw the final defeat of England in the 100 Years War. This was a period of political turmoil and it is hardly surprising that people turned to the consolation of religion. This is barely mentioned.
Two of the more extraordinary cults that developed during this period were those of Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, and of Henry VI. Archbishop Scrope was executed after taking part in a rebellion against Henry IV, and Henry VI was murdered after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. In both cases they became the objects of intercessory prayers, their help being requested to deal with specific problems. In both cases this happened when their political enemies held the monarchy. It may be that the north Yorkshire centre of the cult of Archbishop Scrope was too far away from royal authority, but the cult of Henry VI was centred on his birthplace, Windsor which is still one of the great royal centres of England. It does seem unlikely that Edward IV was unaware of the cult of his deposed and murdered predecessor. Exactly what this tells us about the bravery of the individuals concerned and the limitations on the power of the monarchy, I do not know. It is, however, certainly an interesting indication of the situation in fifteenth century England and, as spirituality develops in part from the situation in which people find themselves living, I expect some comment on this background. It is not there.
Another factor defining the development of spirituality in the fifteenth century was the Black Death. The worst ravages of the disease had taken place in the latter half of the fourteenth century, but it was endemic, and quite clearly a factor in the development of the religious approach to life. There are three mentions of the Black Death in the Index. Now it has to be said that it is probably not possible to quantify the effects of royal instability and the Black Death on the growth of spirituality in fifteenth century England. What Duffy produces is more than ample evidence that the spirituality of the time centred on the Crucifixion, not the Resurrection, on the wounds of Jesus and Mary standing at the foot of the cross, not the rolling away of the stone and the Assumption. It is a religiosity that is centred on pain and sacrifice and death, as the means of obtaining eternal life. It is a culture centred on Purgatory and indulgences as a means of escaping Purgatory. It saw prayer as a means not of approaching God, but of escaping punishment for sin. The question then becomes this: is this a culture that could withstand the onslaught of the proclamation of justification by faith alone?
What Duffy demonstrates is that in the pre-Reformation period there was a vibrant Christian culture in England based firmly around the liturgical year of the Church and the cult of death. Presumably the Black Death had concentrated minds on the latter because thousands upon thousands of people had died unprepared and, more importantly, unconfessed and unshriven. A whole culture developed around the idea that, to put it crudely, God could be bribed to forgive the dead for their sins. Primers and prayer books were published which stated quite clearly that the saying of so many Paternosters or Abe Marias or other suitable prayers would reduce the time of the departed in Purgatory. To be even more mercenary, the Church could be bought to say Masses for the souls of the dead. It was this kind of sordid transaction that earned the fury of Martin Luther and of his predecessors John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. [There is a well-documented connection between Wycliffe and Hus, possibly brought about through the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II]. The church authorities in England, under the guidance of Archbishop Arundell of Canterbury, responded be passing the act De Haeretico Comburendo (Of the burning of Heretics) through Parliament. Fortunately, only two or three dozen people met their deaths in this way, and the act went into abeyance until the reign of Queen Mary. This was possibly because the threat from Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, was not that great. In Bohemia the church authorities launched crusades against the Hussites, having burnt Hus to death, despite his safe conduct, at the Council of Constance. These crusades were defeated, and Bohemia became the first Protestant state. Duffy does not discuss this European dimension.
England however, as Duffy rightly points out, remained quietly and confidently Catholic until William Tyndale, copying the Lutheran example, translated the Bible into English. This merits two mentions in the whole book, including one in which it is stated that the Tyndale translation was made illegal. The fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of these bibles were smuggled into the country is glossed over. This was the beginning of the Reformation in England and it took place before the marital troubles (or rather succession difficulties) of Henry VIII came to a head. The essentially conservative king took the Byzantine view of the connection between the monarchy and the church, with the King as the Supreme Head. This, of course, led to the rejection of the role of the Papacy and that in turn led to the King seeking allies amongst those who would support the Royal Supremacy. Henry VIII was essentially cautious about embracing Protestant ideas.
There were two areas in which he definitely did so. First, saints like Thomas Becket who had supported the idea of the Papal supremacy against the power of the King became persona non grata, no longer to be venerated. This caused many churches where he was specially venerated, not least Canterbury Cathedral, some difficulty. Secondly, the King authorised the translation of the Bible into English, insisting, not necessarily successfully, on the introduction of the Myles Coverdale translation of the Bible to churches across the land. This was to be decisive because it introduced the concept of Holy Writ in a language as Cranmer put it in the 1549 Prayer Book “understanded of the people”.
What is significant, and Duffy does not discuss the reasons for this, is that the Catholic uprisings when they came were in remote areas of the country and did not threaten the centres of power. This is not to undermine the importance of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in the reign of Henry VIII, the Cornish uprising in the reign of Edward VI nor the Rising of the North in the reign of Elizabeth I. The latter, indeed, could have had very serious consequences if they had managed to release Mary, Queen of Scots and proclaim her as the rightful Queen of England. They did not. The Wyatt Rebellion in Kent, on the other hand, in the reign of Mary I came close to overthrowing the Queen.
What is interesting as Duffy demonstrates with a large number of examples is that, rather than destroy vestments, missal books etc following the instructions from Edward VI’s regency council, people hid them and when Mary I, an inveterate Catholic became Queen, they were brought out of their hiding places to be used again. Duffy does not make the analogy but it was like a country under occupation. People conformed outwardly to survive, but secretly they preserved what was banned.
Another interesting point is that there were no mass persecutions to death. There were high profile victims such as Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, but it was not until Mary I revived the statute De Haeretico Comburendo that hundreds of people went to the flames for their religious beliefs. This, of course, was recorded in detail in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It is hardly mentioned in Duffy. We hear a great deal about the attempts by Bishop Bonner and Cardinal Pole to reimpose Catholic orthodoxy. It would be interesting for their to have been some discussion of why they thought that the Fires of Smithfield, in Bonner’s own diocese, assisted with this process. Nor is there any discussion about how, when the Protestants returned from exile in Frankfurt and Geneva in the reign of Elizabeth I, that these fires coloured their actions when, in turn, they reimposed Protestant orthodoxy on the Church of England.
Despite all these criticisms, Duffy has written an important book. The Church in the reign of Henry VII was not moribund. The introduction of printing had led to the blossoming of the availability of primers, prayer books, books of hours, lives of the saints and many other religious works. Many of these were printed in English, and some in English and Latin. I do not know enough about the life of Tyndale, but I can only wonder if the availability of prayers in English, based on Biblical texts, set him on the dangerous path of translating the Bible into English. Archbishop Arundell, back at the start of the 15th century, had persuaded Parliament to make this illegal, and to condemn it as heresy.
It seems to me that it was the work of Tyndale and Coverdale in translating the Bible into English that was the key factor in the transformation of the religious life of 16th century England. It was significant that, when the Rising of the North took place in 1569, the leaders ordered the burning of English bibles, as Duffy notes, and that their followers refused to do it. As with the vestments and missal books in the reign of Edward VI, English language bibles were hidden. By then, they had been in use in churches for 30 or more years. They had become part of the religious fabric of England.
Duffy is right. Religious practice cannot be changed by decree. It is embedded in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. If Elizabeth I had died of smallpox and Mary, Queen of Scots, had succeeded to the throne, we do not know what would have happened. Elizabeth’s longevity was an important factor in deciding the religious life of England, but in my view, it was the translation of the Bible into English that was decisive

For the Joy of Reading: John MacLean

John MacLean is one of the folk heroes of the West of Scotland, and he should be better known than he is, internationally. Henry Bell has tried to restore that balance by writing a short, accessible, well-researched and well-argued biography of the man.
So, who was he? That is not a question that has any easy answers. He came of Highland stock and it is likely that both his parents spoke the Gaelic, but he was brought up in Glasgow and he did not. His parents both came to Glasgow because their families had been expelled from their homes during the Highland Clearances of the mid-nineteenth century. His parents were both staunch, churchgoing Presbyterians and they brought their children up very firmly within the Christian ethic that you should “love your neighbour as yourself”. This was a message that was to stay with him all his life, and it can be argued that his politics were based on that ethic.
John MacLean was, to put it very simply, a political agitator, a revolutionary, a communist. His name is mentioned in the annals of the early twentieth century along with Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and a host of other revolutionaries who brought down the dynasties of the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs. He very much wanted Glasgow to be a centre of revolution in the same way as Petrograd in 1917 and Kiel, Berlin and Vienna in 1918. He wanted this because he knew, from personal experience, the appalling conditions in which ordinary working people in Glasgow and the rest of Scotland lived at the time. On his 6-mile daily walk from his home on the south of the River Clyde to the Scottish Labour College in Woodlands Road he would have seen the slums in which ordinary people lived and the houses of the rich along the hillside of that road. This was what convinced him to learn about and then to teach Marxism. This was what convinced him to become a revolutionary.
What follows is an account of the events on “Red Clydeside” and the significant role that John MacLean played in them. John MacLean delivered an extraordinary speech from the dock, accusing capitalism of crimes. He was then sent to prison leaving a wife and two daughters to fend for themselves. This was repeated by Nelson Mandela when he delivered his speech from the dock, accusing apartheid of crimes, and was then sent to prison leaving a wife and two daughters to fend for themselves. In one of his speeches at the end of the war John Maclean predicted that British and German capital would find it necessary to go to war again. MacLean said in fifteen years. He had underestimated it by five years, but his analysis was correct.
John MacLean campaigned against bad landlords and evictions in Glasgow just as the “Living Rents” campaign is doing now. John MacLean campaigned for the 40-hour working week, which is currently being undermined by people working long hours, and the government’s austerity programme. He wanted to see people properly fed and hated the “charity” of soup kitchens, which we now call food banks. If we compare his campaigns with what is happening now, things have not changed a great deal. That is why this book is important.
If I go into John MacLean’s career in any more detail, I may spoil the book for those of you who know nothing about him. There is one thing however that does have to be mentioned: did he have a nervous breakdown in Peterhead Prison, where he was incarcerated for several years. He certainly accused the prison authorities of poisoning his food, which could be proof of paranoia. It is certainly possible that his food was laced with bromide to reduce his sexual urges, as this seems to have been a common practice at the time, especially within the armed services. What we know is that some of his comrades said that he suffered a nervous breakdown and that he was not the same man when he came out of prison. They only did this after he had a political fallout with them, so their motives can be called into question. The British Secret Service also spread this story, and there can be no doubt that their motive was to undermine MacLean. The problem is, whatever the motives of those who said it were, it does not mean that it is untrue. What we know is that the prison doctors refused to certify him as insane. This was, possibly, because that would have meant that their treatment of him, especially force-feeding, may have be brought under scrutiny. What we do know is that MacLean had respiratory problems all his life, that his health was seriously undermined in prison and that this was probably a cause of his early death.
John MacLean is remembered on the left in Scotland as a man who was committed to the liberation of the working class, as a man who would not compromise his principles, as a man who fought the good fight with all his might. It is fitting to end with a quote from one of the songs about him – “The Freedom Come All Ye” by Hamish Henderson:-
“When MacLean’s wi’ his frends in Springburn
A’ the roses and geans shall turn tae bloom”.
And we still live for that day when the roses and cherry blossom bloom, and the working class shall be treated with respect.

For the Joy of Reading: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela

This is an extraordinary book, giving an insight into the man over the 27 years that he was imprisoned. It also gives an insight into the small-minded, petty, vicious officialdom of the prison regime of the apartheid state. There are basically four types of letter: those to friends and family, those to universities whose degree subjects he was studying, those to prison officials setting out their legal obligations to prisoners, and those dealing with the affairs of the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member. The letters are all signed appropriately, depending on who he was writing to. Mandela was a man with many names. His birth name was Rolihlahla, his school name, given to him by his teacher, was Nelson. His circumcision, or adult name, was Dalibunga, and his clan title was Madiba. The letters are signed using any of these names, except Rolihlahla. He was also Tata (Dad) and Tatakhulu (Grandad).

The letters to his family, and especially to Winnie, are deeply personal and show the difficulty and frustration that he felt in trying to be supportive and to give guidance when he was in prison, and could not be of any effective help. They are full of compassion and concern, and express his horror at the levels of harassment to which she was subjected, which included physical attacks on her and her home, threats to the children, arrest, torture, solitary confinement, prosecutions and internal banishment. The letters to the children are more about their need to pursue their education, and quite remarkably he was as insistent upon the importance of education to the girls as well as the boys. He wrote to Makaziwe, his eldest daughter, by his first wife Evelyn, encouraging her in her wish to study mathematics, telling her that it is a difficult but important subject, and that it is good that she wishes to specialise in it. There are similar letters to Zenani and Zindiswe, his daughters by Winnie. The two boys, Themba and Makgatho, by his first wife, are advised against giving up their studies to earn money, which is advice that neither of them took, because of their financial responsibilities to the family.

The letters that are the most heartrending are the letters of thanks to the people who organised the funerals of his mother, Nosekeni, and his son, Themba. Mandela was refused permission to attend either funeral, and they happened within ten months of each other. This is an illustration of both the cruelty of the apartheid state, and of its fear of Nelson Mandela. They did not want to give him a public profile by letting him honour his dead.

The letters to the various ministers and officials of the apartheid state are a different matter entirely. They are dignified statements of the rights of prisoners, under the law, and insist that the law should be adhered to. They object to the petty whims and spitefulness of the prison officials being the basis on which the lives of the prisoners are governed. They are forceful assertions of human dignity, in the face of the arrogance and racism of the prison officials. There are complaints that letters have been withheld for long periods, that letters have been mangled by the censors, that letters have not been delivered. It has to be remembered that prisoners were not allowed to send or receive many letters in the first place, and that the failure to deliver many of the letters sent and received had a profound impact on relationships. This was especially the case when Winnie too was imprisoned and the children were effectively orphaned because they did not have access to either parent. If it is difficult to grasp the full impact of the malign viciousness of the apartheid state all you have to do is remember that this is just one instance.

The letters to various academic bodies are mainly about the difficulties of studying in prison. The lack of access to books on recommended reading lists was an obvious difficulty, especially as the prison authorities interfered in the access to books on what appears to be an arbitrary basis, even though Mandela was purchasing these books from his own funds, through Juta, a South African publisher and bookseller. Fortunately, the University of London and other academic bodies were much more understanding of Mandela’s predicament in this regard than the apartheid prison authorities and he eventually completed his law degree, in the late 1980s. [It may be significant that by the time he completed his law degree that Mandela was involved in “talks about talks” with Kobie Coetzee, the Minister of Justice and that there was a loosening of restrictions, but the letters do not indicate that].

The letters about the Thembu Royal Family, of which Mandela was a member of a cadet branch, show how seriously he took his position as a counsellor and show how much of a traditionalist he actually was. There are times when he fell out with members of the Thembu royalty, as when his nephew Kaiser Matanzima led the Transkei Bantustan into so-called “independence” which was a clear breach with ANC policy. He clearly sided with the King, Sabata Dalindyebo, who opposed the move. There are also surprises, like cordial letters to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of Inkatha (later the Inkatha Freedom Party). Mandela clearly regretted the breakdown in the relations between the ANC and Inkatha that occurred during the 1980s. One of the things that becomes clear is that Mandela looked back to his childhood in Mvezo and Qunu with fondness, and he recognised his debt to the Prince Regent, Jongintaba, who took on responsibility for his upbringing when Mandela’s father died. Another thing that becomes clear is that Mandela took his duty of initiating his sons and grandsons into manhood, through the rite of circumcision, very seriously and, even though he was in prison, he did his best to fulfil his responsibilities in this regard. This view of Mandela, as a traditionalist supporting the customs and ceremonies of the Xhosa, is not one that is generally recognised in the West.

I think that my favourite letter is one to Winnie in which he extols the importance of women leaders. He names a few of these female leaders – Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth of England and Catherine the Great of Russia, and then adds “how great she really was, I don’t know”. He also mentions the Batlokwa Queen Mantatisi, the enemy of Shaka, the Zulu King and Moshoeshoe, the Sotho King. He then says that all of these women gained their thrones through heredity. [This was certainly not the case with Catherine the Great who usurped the throne, murdered two of her predecessors (Peter III, her husband and Ivan VI, his cousin) and held power for 30 odd years, launching wars of aggression in which Poland was destroyed and annexed by agreement between its neighbours.] He then goes on to mention modern women rulers such as Indira Gandhi, Simone Weil and Margaret Thatcher and says of Britain “Despite the collapse of her world-wide Empire & her emergence from the Second World War as a 3rd-rate power, Britain is in many respects still the centre of the world. What happens there attracts attention from far & wide”. This is an assessment that we need to remember.

Why I like this letter is simple. It shows the range and depth of Mandela’s knowledge of history and the world in general. It shows his ability to make an accurate political assessment. It shows, through his praise of women leaders, how modern and forward thinking he could be. It also shows his humanity in his relation to his family, with the references to his daughter, Makaziwe, and to his son, Makgatho. It shows us the man.

One final thing to say about these letters: many of them were not delivered. If you want to know how afraid the apartheid state was of Mandela, even though they had him locked up in maximum security prisons, then the evidence is there in that simple fact. They did not dare to deliver many of these letters. They did not want him to communicate with the outside world. They did not understand that the very fact that he was there in prison was all that the outside world needed to know.

For the Joy of Reading: House of Stone

Gukurahundi is not a word that is known in this country, at least not in the way that we know the words Holocaust or Genocide or Massacre. It is, however, a seminal event in the history of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It was when Robert Mugabe sent the fifth brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, a brigade that had been trained by the North Koreans, into the area around Bulawayo and murdered thousands of his political opponents in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). It was an event that set Zimbabwe along a path of repression from the mis-1980s until last year when Mugabe was forcibly removed from power. It is an event that stills hangs its shadow over Zimbabwe. It is an event that is central to this book, although the book is not set in the actual time of the massacres. It is set in the present day, looking at how Zimbabwe and particularly the people around Bulawayo are dealing with the consequences of what happened.

Bukhosi has gone missing. His parents, Abed and Agnes, begin to look for him. It gives nothing away to say that Bukhosi has fallen a victim to those opposed to his secessionist politics. This is made clear from the start. It is just that Abed and Agnes do not realise this, and do not look in the right places. What follows is a story of deception, of power plays and of people struggling to do the right thing, if only for themselves.

To describe the main character as manipulative gives no real idea of how self-serving and self-obsessed he actually is. His whole purpose is to make sure that his life is a comfortable as it possibly can be, even if that means lying about the whereabouts of Bukhosi, which he does with consummate skill.

I will not say any more about the plot. Let us look at the language. There is no doubt that Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a skilled writer. She uses language that sweeps you along with the story, and she never lets you forget that Gukurahundi is the underlying theme of the story, the motor on which everything else depends.

There is one difficulty with the language. There is no glossary for the Ndebele words that are peppered throughout the tale. This was not a problem for me because I have spent a considerable amount of my life around the offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I know what words like bhundu (the sticks) and mfana (boy) mean. Most people will not have a clue, and that will make it difficult for them to understand some parts of the book. This, however, is a fault of the publisher and not of the author. It would not have been difficult to provide a glossary, and it should have been done.

Apart from that, however, anyone who wants to understand what is happening in modern Zimbabwe, or even modern Africa, should read this book. It will give you an insight that others will not have.

For the Joy of Reading: Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains

Oliver Tambo is deserving of a biography. He is the man who held the African National Congress (ANC) together throughout all the years of exile, when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He is the man who ensured that there was an organisation in place for Nelson Mandela to lead when he was released from prison. He is the man who nurtured and encouraged the resistance to apartheid both in South Africa and throughout the world from 1962 to 1990. He is the man who encouraged generation upon generation to believe that we could win, when the world told us we were wasting our time.

He is certainly deserving of a biography. This one is not new. It was first published in 2004, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa. One of the questions that I have to ask myself therefore is this: Why has it taken me so long to read this book? Part of the reason is that the book was quite difficult to get hold of in this country. But that is an excuse. I worried that I had been too close to the events, and I had only really been on the periphery, and that it would be difficult to make an objective judgement. It is now 25 years since Oliver Tambo died, and I think that I am in a position to make that judgement.

I should explain. I was chair of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee in the 1980s. I met Oliver Tambo on a few occasions. It would be untrue to say that I was acquainted with him, although I spoke to him directly on occasion and I think that he was aware of who I was. I was certainly known to his wife, Adelaide, and to his children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane. I played with his grandchildren, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver on occasion. I was a volunteer at the ANC Office in 28 Penton Street and at the Department of Information and Publicity Office in Mackenzie Road. This latter was a secret office, and you really had to be trusted to be allowed to work there. I attended the ANC International Solidarity Conferences at Arusha in Tanzania in 1987, and in Johannesburg in 1993. I worked as a volunteer in the ANC Office in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, during the 1994 election. I cannot claim that I was neutral, and this is why I was worried about reading this book.

Of course, I did not need to worry. Oliver Tambo may have been a self-effacing man and certainly not self-promoting, but he had an acuity of mind that made his judgement good. If Oliver Tambo thought that Luli Callinicos was a suitable person to write his biography that is simply because she was. It is a task that she takes on with sensitivity and understanding, recognising his merits and dealing with the difficulties that arose, of which there were many.

Callinicos begins with his upbringing in the village of Kantolo, district of Bizana, in Pondoland on the far east of the then Cape Province (now the Eastern Cape). Tambo was born into a traditional Mpondo family. His father had a number of wives, and children by all of them. Oliver had his mother and his “other mothers”. The community lived by farming, until the introduction of the Poll Tax which necessitated the men to go away to earn money in order to pay the tax. This was disruptive and some of the men were injured or, in the case of one of Oliver’s uncles, killed because of the unsafe conditions in the mines. Oliver’s father was determined that his son would be educated so that this would not happen to him, and so his son was sent away to missionary schools. By then, he had already learned the tradition of African leadership, of listening to a discussion, of summarising it at the end and of leading people to a decision. This tradition of ubuntu after an indaba was something that he was to practice throughout the whole of his political career.

The other major factor about Tambo’s character was his deep commitment to Christianity and specifically to the Anglican Church. This partly came about through the education that he received at St. Peter’s school, a Community of the Resurrection school, in Johannesburg. It is also partly because of his enduring friendship with Trevor Huddleston, a member of the Community, and a deeply passionate campaigner against apartheid. It was mainly, however, because of his deep spirituality and the strength that he gained from this belief, which helped him to lead the ANC through all the difficult years of exile.

I can only really comment on the accuracy of the description of events that happened in London in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer in the ANC Offices. They do seem accurate to me. I was aware of events simply because I was in the ANC office when things happened. If you see Thabo Mbeki on the stairs, then you know he is in London. If you are asked to make a cup of tea and take it in to Dirk Coetzee, you know he is in the ANC Offices talking to someone. I knew things that I probably should not have known, and I can say that the description of those events is accurate. I therefore assume that the description of events in Africa and elsewhere are also accurate. They are certainly detailed. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who do not agree with the interpretation, or who may have nuances that they want considered.

It is interesting that when Tambo faced difficulties, he did not try to impose his will. He required that ANC to take a decision as an organisation. That is what led to the calling of the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences, and for the extended consultations with the NEC and other relevant bodies. It was his style of leadership. It was not that he did not lead. He involved everyone in the decision-making process. He listened and then advised on what was to be done. Almost inevitably, this meant that the decision went his way. And there were difficulties. Those who wanted to keep other races out of the ANC were faced down at Morogoro, and those who wanted to keep other races off the National Executive Committee were dealt with at Kabwe. The excesses of the ANC security at Quattro in Angola were brought under control. The need to prepare for the future was dealt with by decisions like the appointment of a group to work on a constitution for the new South Africa. And there were the daily difficulties of running the organisation, making diplomatic representations, feeding and clothing people, weeding out infiltrators, training and equipping an army, campaigning for the release of political prisoners, maintaining underground links to the organisation in South Africa, and everything else that was needed.

For this, Tambo sacrificed both his family and his health. His wife, Adelaide, set up home in London with the three children and, although he visited, his schedule simply did not allow him to live there. His base was first Dar-es-Salaam and then Lusaka. Adelaide was the subject of spiteful remarks. It was said that she lived in a big house in Muswell Hill, in north London. This was a matter of perspective. If, like me, you were brought up in north-east London, it was not a big house. If you were brought up in a township or rural area of South Africa, it was enormous. It had one large reception room which was used to host diplomatic events for the ANC, especially when Tambo was in London. It was said that Adelaide sent her children to boarding schools. She did. This was after a man was found in the garden looking up at the room of a 12-year-old Thembi. It was said that he was a “Peeping Tom” but he could have been an apartheid agent. People forgot that the Tambo children were under daily threat of kidnap. I know that these things were said, because they were said to me and got very short shrift. So, with the whole range of issues pressing upon him, Tambo had to deal with difficulties like this as well.

What we have is a remarkable story about a remarkable man. He was patient and kind. He was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He never insisted on his own way. He was not irritable or resentful. He did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. He bore all things, he hoped for all things, he endured all things. Oliver Tambo made a significant and indelible contribution to the liberation of his country. He was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.