Book Reviews: Little Suns, The Battle For Cosatu, This Present Darkness & Emily Hobhouse

April 26, 2017



Little Suns by Zakes Mda                                        8

The Battle For Cosatu by Patrick Craven               7

This Present Darkness by Stephen Ellis                  8

Emily Hobhouse by Elsabe Brits                             8



Little Suns is a marvellous work of fiction, romance, history, myth and legend. Zakes Mda is a master of this genre, telling of a people – his own ancestors – exiled from Qumbu to Lesotho, and the tragic events leading up to that exile. It is primarily the story of Malangana, brother of a king, and his great love for a woman, Mthwakazi, of the abaThwa people, the great trackers. The factual history that underlies the novel is that of a British magistrate, Hamilton Hope, who overrides the sensibilities of a king in mourning and brings about his own assassination. It is then the story of tribal loyalties and the intricate web of custom and tradition, ripped apart by colonial arrogance and stupidity. Malangana is a man seeking in all things to keep true to his position and his upbringing and his own integrity. He is also deeply in love with and committed to Mthwakazi. They are separated by the conflict and his flight. He remains faithful. After 20 years he returns to find her. The narrative looks at his indomitable search as he drags his body, now limp and frail, through a countryside which is changed and unfamiliar, where much of value has been supplanted. This is an entertaining but also moving book. Highly recommended, especially to those who have not yet read any of Mda’s other work. – RH


Patrick Craven shows us the ugly side of politics in The Battle For Cosatu. The topic will interest those who wish to dig deep into politicians’ maneuvering to gain what they wish to gain, without any form of consideration for fellow politicians who have different viewpoints. This book tells the story of trade unionism in South Africa – the struggle to keep leadership control, the relentless in-fighting and  back-stabbing. In the end, one wonders how all this favours labour. The alliance between Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC is discussed in great detail, showing the shaky and troublesome bond between labour issues and politics. The rhetoric, an essential part of the book’s subject, shows up politics as it is practiced in real life. Reading this book is, in a way, a unique experience as one enters this world of “walking the talk”. Plodding through  meetings, one gets insight into the mechanism of top of the range South African politics, though there are constant questions as to where it will end. Will the alliance hold? Will the SACP remain the lackey of the ANC? The writer has many years of background experience in Cosatu’s top structures but has now disassociated himself, being disillusioned with the present leadership. – DB


Another title for this book could have been Nigeria: The Story Of A Failed StateThis Present Darkness exposes Nigeria, from pre-colonial times to the present, as a country that has institutionalised corruption like no other nation in the world.  Stephen Ellis has combined factual detail, using a vast variety of sources, with an interesting style of writing that makes this book informative and entertaining.  Could the British Colonial Office have made a change to traditional rites and values thatthey encountered on colonising this vast track of land? Could they have foreseen that the ancient practice of gift-giving would turn into large-scale bribery once independence was attained – that tribal rule would survive the High Commissioner’s land reform? These questions are unanswerable, but it is certain that Nigeria had a shaky start as an independent nation. In the 1980s, the country’s criminal element went global. It made Nigerians the number one operators in scams, fraudulent spiritual healing,  human trafficking, sex and drug trading, embezzling, money laundering and bribe taking, much of it associated with murder. The text shows how politicians at the top have been the main instigators for blatant self-enrichment, taking huge kick-backs from government contracts, from which corruption moved downwards to the lowest ranks and infected the entire nation. Much of this overview is almost unbelievable and one can not escape making comparisons with political realities in South Africa. If your mind is tuned to quality historical research, applied to modern African politics gone wrong, this book is highly recommended reading. – DB


The subtitle for Emily Hobhouse is Beloved Traitor. Elsabe Brits has written a remarkable book about a woman driven by conscience and passion, who defied the constraints of her class and sex to expose British war crimes in South Africa and the plight of displaced women and children, black and white, and then took on the cause of pacifism when the First World War loomed. She won the opprobrium of the British ruling classes and the title of traitor in the British press. The great memorial service marking the interment of her ashes at the Vrouemonument drew thousands of Afrikaners, farmers and their wives, politicians, churchmen and military leaders who came to pay homage to a woman had saved the lives of thousands of Boers and helped to some degree to turn the tide of British opinion against the Anglo-Boer War. Brits has drawn on much material previously unpublished, including personal letters and diaries. She has combed archives and found forgotten stories, weaving the material into a coherent and highly readable narrative. This is a full account of a life well lived. We understand clearly the family background, Hobhouse’s own childhood and upbringing, and the limitations of her education. Her remarkable personality and intelligence outweigh everything else. She involved herself in campaigning at national level against British military strategies in South Africa and then when it became apparent to her that her cause would only be served by personal investigation of the conditions in the concentration camps, she – against huge opposition – travelled to the Cape. Given limited and grudging access to camps, she discovered that conditions were far worse than she had realised and thereafter she assiduously gathered information which she used judiciously in attempting to persuade British politicians to curb Kitchener. She also raised funds and supplies to alleviate immediate needs, to improve the hygiene in camps and to ensure water and fuel supplies. She exposed the lies and propaganda relayed by the army, and brought huge pressure to bear on local camp authorities. All this entailed enormous personal sacrifice, physical suffering and perseverance and great courage. Brits wins the admiration of the reader for this indomitable woman. We also have insight into Emily Hobhouse’s deeply felt sorrow over war – any war – and the sorrow over the jingoistic press and the vilification poured on her by her own countrymen. It is a tragic account of the politics and bungling of a “great nation”. The book has a wonderful collection of photographs and autographs, shedding light on much of the historical account. I sometimes queried the design of the book, where fine black print lies on red, green, purple and blue pages, which is not always reader-friendly. The overall impact of the lay-out of the book, with its divisions of material is, however, powerful. Highly commended. – RH