Book Reviews: Trump And Redeployment, Or God’s Answers to Brown V Leyds

September 9, 2019

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]By BRUCE DENNILL & NIGEL WILLIS


Trump & Me by Mark Singer

God’s Answers To Life’s Difficult Questions by Rick Warren

Brown V Leyds: Who has the King’s Voice? A President Scorned, A Chief Justice Dismissed and A Prospector’s Accursed Thirst for Gold by Derek Van der Merwe

Redeployment by Phil Klay


The genesis of Trump & Me was an in-depth feature Mark Singer, an experienced staff writer at the New Yorker, wrote about Donald Trump for the magazine in the late Nineties. It was re-released when its subject began his presidential campaign, supporting the view that many had then – and still hold now – that Trump is everything but presidential material. Singer writes with the control and focus of an seasoned hard news man, but finds Trump such a surreal person to work with – and to attempt to understand – that his serious story is soon as funny and irreverent as it is probing. What is now common knowledge (described in the sleeve blurb as the “insane, hyperbolic, smoke-and-mirrors world of the man who has everything, except an inner life”) was, when Singer wrote the original feature, as brow-creasingly odd as the result of the election seemed when the world woke up to Trump as the leader of the free world at the beginning of 2017. Singer’s writing tells a story that is, many will feel, too little explored nowadays, in a media climate often defined by “fake news”, a phenomenon Trump has proved himself an expert  at manipulating. What is almost certain is that no other US president in history has been described as a “swaggering buffoon” in a popular book by a credible author, shortly before his inauguration. This book and the feature that formed its foundation should have been warnings, but Singer can’t be blamed for his work not having enough of an effect to make any sort of difference to the elections – this book is just one example of what American voters chose to ignore, and indeed of the sort of sensible, clear-eyed journalism that gets relegated to the sidelines more and more in favour of more palatable but superficial alternatives. – BD


There are a number of peripheral factors that make God’s Answers To Life’s Difficult Questions a good investment. It’s direct in its approach, taking on 12 serious questions that everyone – everyone – will have to tackle at some point in their lives. These include “How Can I Cope With Stress”, “How Can I Be Confident In A Crisis?” and “How Can I Overcome Loneliness?”. Rick Warren is known for his combination of common sense and scriptural backing, and he takes on each question as a case study. So when there is a problem that a reader might be facing – depression, say – he finds a Biblical character who went through something similar (Elijah, in this case) and unpacks that person’s story using the references from the Bible as well as straightforward, easy-to-understand contemporary advice. It’s accessible, effective stuff, simple to read in a couple of hours and then to leave next to your bed to refer to repeatedly: this book will help when you’re in a tough spot, but it won’t necessarily stop you being in that same situation in the future, and you’ll want to have this comforting presence close at hand. – BD


The general reading public should definitely not consider this book a musty legal tome, even though its central event is the case of Brown V Leyds, with which all South African lawyers are familiar. This was the case in which the Chief Justice of Die Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (the old Transvaal) stood up to President Paul Kruger and said there are certain things that neither the government nor the legislature can do and that the court had a ‘testing power’ in respect thereof (the power to decide to intervene and strike down their offending acts in appropriate circumstances). The case was a sensation. Kruger dismissed his chief justice in response. The value of the book – indeed the excitement that leaps from almost every page  –  is the social history that forms the background of events. Author Derek Van der Merwe understands full well that law cannot be understood independently of its social context. Our lives and times are shaped not only by personalities but also by complex social forces. The size of the population of the old Transvaal a little over a century go is remarkable. There were no formal censuses in those days but, from the information to hand, it would appear that the whole population at that time, black and white, could be fitted into a medium-sized town like Bela-Bela today. The ideal for the Boers living in the old Transvaal was a sort of ‘participatory democracy’ in which all the white males would come together to decide weighty matters of state. Poor infrastructure was a problem. At a primary level, communications were fraught with difficulty. Roads were largely non-existent, as was suitable accommodation. Travel by horse was relatively slow and even slower and discouragingly expensive by ox-wagon. Above all, the farmers were, for the most part, too desperately poor, struggling to make a living to attend conventions of the kind envisaged. The idea was a failure. It is sobering to read how impoverished the state was. It battled and often failed to pay the salaries of its meagre civil service on time. Not only was money a problem, but the state had insufficient educated people in it to function effectively. To this end, talent was often recruited from the Cape in the form of persons who had not been ‘trekkers’. John Kotzé, the chief justice who became the bane of Kruger’s existence, was one of them. He was an archetypical ‘Cape Afrikaner’, well-educated both in South Africa and England, who came from a well-to-do family. Other skilled men were also imported, as a general rule, from either from Holland or Germany. Willem Leyds, the Secretary of State, who was the defendant in the celebrated case, had previously been the state attorney. He had been invited from Holland to perform the task. Today we take for granted the clear delineation of powers for the executive, legislature and judiciary – at least in theory. We are astonished to read quite how primitive administrative law and procedures were not so very long ago. Kotzé, in the judgment that lead to his downfall as chief justice, admitted that he had changed his views on the separation of powers from those which he had expressed in an earlier judgment. In this, he was clearly influenced by American jurisprudence, especially the famous case of Marbury v Madison. Kotzé was certainly no maverick. He was subsequently knighted and appointed a judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in South Africa. The plaintiff in the case was Robert Brown, a mining engineer from the United States of America, who had come to South Africa to seek his fortune by prospecting for gold. He had pegged off claims to prospect for gold, quite lawfully, on the farms Witfontein and Luipaardsvlei. The executive council passed a resolution that would have disallowed Brown’s claims. This gave rise to the case.The book deals with a political issue that has bedevilled South Africa under successive governments since minable mineral deposits were found in this country. Mining not only has a speculative character that can generate fabulous wealth for those who prospect and own the mines. It is also a potential source of hugely useful revenues for a state that is struggling financially. Viable mining nevertheless requires the mobilisation of financial, human and physical capital, on a scale that governments, generally, cannot afford. For this, foreign investment is required and it will not come on terms that governments can dictate. There is thus a tension between sovereign independence and growing rich as a nation. That is what the drama in this fascinating book is all about. Legal conundrums are secondary and arise from acutely sensitive socio-political dynamics. The tension is not peculiar to South Africa. Britain, once the dominant imperial nation in the world, now faces precisely the same conundrum in its current agony over Brexit. As the colloquial expression has it: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it.’ The book should be read if only to embed in one’s consciousness an awareness of the fact that ‘they more things change, the more they remain the same’. It is a captivating read. – NW


Many readers enjoy fiction for the sense of escape it brings. Phil Klay’s fiction allows no such luxury. Having served as a Marine in Iraq, Klay’s knowledge of the intricacies of life on the front and – just as brutal – life back in the States afterwards brings both authority and intimacy to Redeployment, a collection of short stories. Happily (for the reader, not the characters) – and valuably – Klay is not interested in perpetuating the myths that make all soldiers heroes and fighting a misunderstood enemy a pursuit where honour is guaranteed. There are none of the tropes that make so many war stories, and particularly those about Americans, so predictable and often difficult to believe. Here are tales told from a number of realistic and unburnished perspectives, with each protagonist obviously flawed and, as a result, difficult to intimately connect with, even if it is possible to relate to those shortcomings. Klay’s writing is so good, his detailed evocations of the settings in which his characters operate and the emotions they feel so viscerally real, that if this collection was sold as non-fiction – as the cutting, intense memoirs of a number of military men – it would be just as believable. These stories will make you hate the wastefulness of war, weep (figuratively or literally) for those irrevocably damaged by their military service and admire the strength, or the effort made to seem strong, of those whose values don’t allow them to shirk responsibility for their actions, feelings or memories. It’s writing that grips your intellect and your sentiments, sometimes difficult to stomach but always gripping to read.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]