Book Reviews: Of Rhinos And Rage, Or An Instrumental Safari

March 25, 2020

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Instrumental by James Rhodes

A Rhino In My Garden by Conita Walker

Becoming Iman by Iman Rappetti

The First Safari: Searching For François Levaillant by Ian Glenn

Rebels And Rage: Reflecting On #FeesMustFall by Adam Habib


A broken kid, raped as a child, grows up burdened by his experience and escapes the past (partly) through his passionate love for music. Instrumental is a disturbing book, moving from brutal and destructive to sublime and creative, but always showing that rape does not ever end with the event itself, but remains a psychologically traumatic nightmare right through life. Rhodes’ autobiography is an honest account of what he lives through, becoming a world-renowned concert pianist. The only three things that he really loves are his son, his wife and the piano, and these give him joy in later life. Parents, do not ignore the symptoms of abuse that show up clearly. Protect your children in a world that has greatly ignored or only mildly dealt with the scourge of paedophiles.  That is the message I get from this horrific tale. – DB


A Rhino in my Garden is the story of an extraordinary woman, born to German missionary parents who, after surviving the bombing of Berlin in World War 2, returns to southern Africa, and marries a conservationist of passion and vision. The book tells of their early married life, the birth of their sons, and the momentous decision to move to the Waterberg. It relates how a housewife and mother takes on the care of baby rhinos, then of a baby hippo. Enormous resourceful and completely dedicated to the business of rhino conservation, she not only hand-rears vulnerable youngsters, but is engaged in introducing them to their natural habitats through ‘re-wilding’. Obtaining the right baby food is a saga in itself. She is constantly in touch with veterinary experts, learning about the diseases and health hazards that plague her wards. The narrative is highly personal, recalling long days and nights spent feeding and nursing orphans, of the life of the family, and the huge calls made on author Conita Walker in so many spheres. She entertains streams of visitors, involves herself with the planning and building of new facilities and contributes to the education of local children. This is also the narrative of a couple who with amazing partners establish the Lapala Wilderness Reserve. Clive Walker becomes an increasingly important figure on the national and international conservation stage. The challenges are enormous, and poaching becomes an increasing threat. There are major setbacks and forced closures, and the courageous decision to begin again. The book is highly readable. It blends day-to-day life, anguish and exhilaration with insights into the politics of conservation, amazing bush-lore and a lifelong romance. I enjoyed every page. – RH


The title Becoming Iman suggests a life story, which is exactly what this book is about. Iman Rappetti takes us from her childhood years through teenage times to becoming a prominent journalist and radio and television celebrity. In that walk through life, we get to know her private feelings about “coloured” life in apartheid years, her religious sentiments, her marriage to a Muslim preacher, and her adopting his faith and lifestyle. The latter is a life-changing experience that separates her from her family, who did not accept the drastic turnaround. The dos and don’ts of her new life are demanding and need to be rigorously followed. Iranian society, from a woman’s point of view, is nothing less than an eye-opener for Western-thinking minds. Rappetti’s detailed description gives the book an informative and interesting cultural twist. Never has the maxim “East is East and West is West” made a more profound impression on me than when reading this book. – DB


Birders are familiar with François Levaillant, at least to the extent that they know that there are Levaillant’s cisticolas and Levaillant’s cuckoos that may reward their sorties. He was the greatest individual contributor to ornithology in South Africa and ranks with the heroes of the world in the field. His legacy lives on not only in onomatopoeic names like the brubru, the boubou, the bokmakierie, the tchagra and the Diederich’s cuckoo but many others like the bateleur, the chanting goshawk and Klaas’ cuckoo, which he named after his Khoikhoi friend, assistant and travelling companion. Not even a sentimental Victorian novelist could contrive the story that envelopes the naming of the Narina Trogon. He was an acute and astute observer of birds, recording his observations in extraordinary detail, even writing musical scores for their notes. He even detected, for example, that the call of the Diederich’s cuckoo became more intense when the male was sexually aroused. But there was much more to Levaillant than ornithological enthusiasm. He was a traveller, a hunter, an explorer and an adventurer. He was also a social and political commentator as well as a social anthropologist. He wrote beautifully about what he saw and experienced, remarking that so many people “Look but do not see.” He was an artist too. His paintings are not only beautiful but also delicate and intriguing. They rank as fine works of historical art. His Travels Into The Interior Of Africa Via The Cape Of Good Hope was first published in French in 1789 and then translated into English in 1790, Dutch in 1791, Russian in 1793, Swedish in 1795, Danish in 1797 and Italian in 1816. It was a best-seller. Few books in the history of the world, never mind South Africa, can match this record. Levaillant was an archetypal Renaissance man. He was born and grew up in Surinam, then known as Dutch Guiana, of haute bourgeois parents who had eloped and found a sanctuary there. As a result, he was fluent in both French and Dutch. His command of Dutch facilitated his being able to come to the Cape and travel there. He was also spoke German and learned Khoi while he was in South Africa. Ian Glenn’s book The First Safari is not entirely a biography. It is a social and political commentary too. Levaillant deserves a larger reputation in South Africa.  Glenn contributes splendidly to making good the lacuna. There are several reasons for Levaillant’s obscurity in our country. The first is that, influenced by the ideas that spawned the French revolution, he was critical of both the Dutch administration of the Cape and the attitude of the colonists on the issue of race. As a result, his memory was cooled by most of their descendants. The second is that, ironically, he has been seen as emblematic of colonialism. The third is that although some of his work was translated into English, most of his literature was written in French, in which few South Africans are truly fluent. He has received a bad press for writing about the extended labia or “apron” of Khoikhoi women at the time. His knowledge thereof derived not from voyeuristic exploitation but intimacy. He is now recognised as having correctly attributed the phenomenon to cultural practice and not biology. He wrote sensually about Narina, a Khokhoi woman in his company with whom he spent much time. He acknowledges his “temptations of the flesh” and leaves the reader to guess. Glenn refers to Levaillant’s own record that he named the Narina Trogon using the Khoi word for “beautiful” to question the legend that he named the bird after the South African woman of his dreams. Here I disagree with Glenn. One needs only a slender acquaintance with Levaillant’s writing to perceive that he relished word-play as much as foreplay. Both the bird and the woman were beautiful. Levaillant’s zest for life extended to his sexual appetite. He loved a number of women, fathering at least ten children. Levaillant was probably the first liberal intellectual to be well acquainted with South Africa. This may partly explain why Harry Oppenheimer built up the finest collection of “Levaillantiana” in the world, including first editions and the original plates of birds used to illustrate Levaillant’s publications. We are fortunate that these are housed in South Africa, in the Brenthurst Collection, available for sumptuous research like that appearing in Glenn’s book. – NW


Adam Habib has many excellent qualities. He has a fine mind. He is articulate, analytical, passionate, engaging, energetic, on the right side of history and genuinely wants to contribute to the progress of South Africa, particularly in tertiary education. He is very often right. He can, however, be irritatingly self-righteous. Modesty and self-effacement cannot be attributed to him, without some sacrifice of veracity. This dichotomy of personality traits looms large in this book. As vice-chancellor of Wits University, Habib’s Rebels And Rage is, par excellence, an insider’s account of the #FeesMustFall movement that gripped South Africa for some three years from 2015 to 2018. It began as a protest against the extent of the increase in university fees and spiralled, almost out of control, into an often misdirected rage concerning not only the whole question of how tertiary education has been funded but also access thereto and the general state of affairs within the country. Habib presents a detailed chronicle of the events that occurred in this deeply traumatic chapter in our troubled recent history. It is fascinating. He also analyses the situation with commendable insightfulness. The book could have been subtitled “My struggle with the far left”. Habib does not really succeed in analysing the “far left”, a phrase that recurs with almost tedious frequency. Sometimes, it seems that he uses the expression as a shorthand for those sympathetic to the student protests who disagree with him. Nevertheless, one derives a keen sense of the overall difficulties that he had to experience in a constituency with which we are all familiar but which is difficult to define. The infantilism of certain “progressive” stances is not unique to South Africa. Karl Marx himself excoriated it brilliantly in his Critique Of The Gotha Programme. Quite why this phenomenon has been so pervasive in so many countries and over so long a period of time requires detailed analysis. It eludes ready understanding. Perhaps it has to do with a deficiency of moral lodestars other than “the Struggle”. A refrain in Rebels And Rage is the duplicitousness not only of many within the student leadership but also among some academics, church leaders and politicians across the spectrum, from the government to the two main opposition parties. The reason for this is that there are some hard, unpalatable truths when it comes to resolving our problems in South Africa, but to speak the truth is to court not only unpopularity but also villainisation. We have to make hard choices in South Africa and few are brave enough not only to say so but also to say what these choices might be. But, as Habib himself contends, countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe give us ready, contemporary examples of how easy it is to slide into an abyss, when the truth is addressed by intellectual infantilism, masquerading as progressive ideas. Habib gives a valuable critique of the issues facing a fair, progressive and successful education policy in South Africa and the downside of almost every immediate attempt to address them. It is particularly helpful, for example, to read his careful and restrained assessment of the report of the Heher Commission. The report was the product of diligent effort by able people of integrity. Nevertheless, Habib argues well that the experience in other parts of the world amply demonstrates that student loans can result in crushing burdens for young people and, moreover, one has to find the money to lend, right here and now. It is not readily to hand. Habib concludes his book by perceptively extrapolating the lessons which the #FeesMustFall movement generates for the problems within our society as a whole. As the recent feature article on South Africa, published in The Economist so cogently demonstrated, the mathematics of our economy reveal a depth and breadth to our problems from which we shall only surface if we apply a balanced and carefully thought out programme, steadfastly and incrementally implemented over a period of about 30 years. But progress can be made immediately. Rebels And Rage is a sobering read indeed. – NW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]