Book Reviews: The Last Seedy Father, Or Hold Sugar Man’s Leg

April 23, 2020

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The Last Road Trip by Gareth Crocker

My Father Died For This by Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata

Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan

Sugar Man: The Life, Death And Resurrection Of Sixto Rodriguez by Craig Bartholomew Strydom & Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman

The Seed Is Mine: The Life Of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper by Charles Van Onselen

Black Twitter, Blitz And A Boerie As Long As Your Leg (And Other National Treasures) by Hagen Engler


Ageing is tough, often brutally so. Old people are always misunderstood by someone, from youngsters with a completely different set of references to family members who become skittish as they consider the burden an infirm elder might be or become. The Last Road Trip sees a group of people, connected by frustration and ennui, decide to fill in some of the blank spaces, inspired by the passing of a shared acquaintance and the renewed focus on their mortality that results. Jack, Elizabeth, Rosie, Sam and Albert go on the adventure of their lives, which is saying something, as they have formidable experience between them, encountering and dealing with grief, romance and illness even as they enjoy themselves and laugh a great deal. For the most part, it’s a gentle, colourful story, though Crocker does ground it in reality with a couple of twists and regular dabs of pathos. It’s a great deal more engaging that Hollywood’s stabs at similar topics (The Bucket List, for instance) and it’s probably a mark of a target attained when, at you find yourself pulling for the characters, hoping that they’ll find the happiness, or closure, or understanding that they seek. – BD


The centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth stimulated much debate about ‘the struggle’ in South Africa. My Father Died For This, written by a husband-and-wife team of accomplished journalists, is a timely contribution to that debate. Above all, this political biography reminds us of how long, deep and acutely painful the struggle for freedom was. Lukhanyo Calata’s father, Fort Calata, was one of the ‘Cradock Four’ who, together with Matthew Goniwe, Sparro Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlawuli, was murdered by the apartheid security police in 1985. It was then a period of extensive civil unrest, compounded by several ‘states of emergency’, following the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983. The book also sustains the memory of how deep the struggle’s roots have been in the Eastern Cape, especially among certain families – and also, not without complications and contradictions, within the Anglican Church. Fort’s grandfather and Lukhanyo’s great-grandfather was James Calata, an Anglican Canon,  former secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) and a treason trialist. Fort obtained has name because his grandfather had been imprisoned at the Old Fort Prison in Johannesburg at the time of Fort’s birth. In 2008 Canon James Calata was awarded the Order of Luthuli (gold class). The authors conclude with coruscating anger that the great ideals of commitment, intellectual endeavour and struggle by heroes such as Lukhanyo’s father and great-grandfather have been betrayed by a loss of compass and moorings, resulting in self-interest, corruption and dishonour among the leadership that has succeeded these distinguished antecedents. While working at the SABC, Lukhanyo was among the eight journalists publicly to challenge the leadership style and policy of the then head of that organisation, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, in 2016. In his protest and anger, Lukhanyo is sustained by the rich and proud tradition of his forbears. This ‘lest we forget’ account of events is a valuable history lesson and moral enquiry. – NW


Written for a young adult readership, Hold Me Closer is a novel in musical form (or vice versa; it doesn’t matter) that is camp, clever and frequently profound. There is no easy way for a teen struggling with his or her sexuality to process their desires and the reactions of those to whom they open up. The protagonist here, Tiny Cooper, is no timid introvert, but as is the case in real life, outward confidence is no guaranteed marker of inward certainty, and Cooper’s daydreams and yearnings are behind each of the scenes and set-ups in what s essentially the script for a good musical, minus the actual music. There are some wonderfully funny one-liners, as often as not part of a conversation between Cooper and one of the objects of his desire. And almost without fail, these moments of hilarity help highlight the heartbreak someone in Cooper’s position – even someone as cheerful as he is – must regularly struggle with. In terms of tone, the story feels like an authentic fit for the theatre world it lovingly references, adding a level of appeal for older readers with an established passion for the stage. – BD


The Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman was the centrepiece of the telling of the now well-known story of folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, a down-on-his-luck musician working as a construction worker in Detroit while his music was soundtracking the lives of a generation of fans halfway around the world in South Africa and Australia. Sugar Man: The Life, Death And Resurrection Of Sixto Rodriguez, brought out in the wake of the film, is the story about the story, filling in a number of details necessarily glossed over on screen and exploring a number of additional perspectives on what happened and on the personalities involved. Enthusiastic, single-minded filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who directed the piece, is shown to be a maverick with heart, his story tinged with tragedy. Rodriguez himself doesn’t come out of proceedings smelling of roses – the men who sacrificed time, energy and money to seek him out and promote his work were often left short of the credit they deserved and frustrated by the musician’s fickleness when it came to making important decisions. In addition, there are many insights into the complexity of not only making such a film, but convincing others of its value and promoting it in such a way that appropriate interest is likely, if not guaranteed. There is likely no time, given Rodriguez’s now advanced age, for another major chapter in this peculiar rock and roll fairytale, and authors and fans Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman have done well to round out the saga with this book. You never know, though – watch this space? – BD


This is the second re-publication of Charles Van Onselen’s highly acclaimed book. The Seed Is Mine was first published in 1996. Re-publication is timely as the question of land strides the current political stage. Kas Maine was a South African sharecropper who lived from 1894-1985. His life coincided almost exactly with the period when apartheid’s iron grip took hold. By giving us this a carefully researched history of this particular sharecropper, Van Onselen lays bare not simply the iniquity, the cruelty and the hardship of apartheid but also the lies and myths upon which it was built. In the shadow of the Natives Land Act of 1913, vast swathes of South Africa’s agricultural land were reserved for whites. Sharecropping is often thought to be a form of tenant farming. This is not quite the case. Sharecropping is a system whereby one person is allowed to farm another’s land and, in lieu of leasing the land, the profits from farming are shared. In the shadow of the Natives Land Act of 1913, vast swathes of South Africa’s agricultural land were reserved for whites. Black farmers like Maine would often enter into sharecropping agreements with white farmers who were too poor to farm the land themselves. The arrangement would technically be illegal but the stratagem worked to mutual advantage. Self-evidently, the arrangement would be precarious. The scope for genuine disagreement would be large and for dishonesty, especially ion the part of the landowner, even larger. Maine sharecropped mainly in the area that used to be known as the ‘Vaal triangle’, a triangle of land created by the points of the towns of Bloemhof, Schweizer-Reneke and Wolmaransstad in the south-western corner of the former province of the Transvaal.  It was a notoriously conservative bastion of hardline support for apartheid. Maine moved with his family across the region between Botswana and Lesotho. It was here that Maine, an illiterate but highly successful farmer built a life and family. It is a beautifully told story, made all the more poignant by the fact that, for all the duplicitousness and hardship with which that life was confronted, there were friendships and acts of ordinary human decency between people of different races. Recorded here too were the familiar Jewish and Indian traders of those times. Maine’s farming activities straddled the drought and great depression of the 1930s, the war years, the industrial boom in the aftermath of the war and the apogee of apartheid. This brilliant South African classic deserves to be read widely. – NW


A slim volume, Black Twitter… collects a number of short observations on the broad theme of the events and characteristics that give South Africa its unique character. Author Hagen Engler is, though Johannesburg-based for many years now, a born and bred Port Elizabeth surfer boy, with the goofy, offbeat charm you might associate with that background. He is also, however, formidably intelligent and an excellent observer of all that is going on around him, and never afraid to cut to the core of a topic, regardless of the discomfort that might cause his readers. This title deals with a generally more positive mindset, with Engler celebrating a wide range of things – from the hairstyles of Afrikaans ladies of a certain age and the importance of the Soweto Derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs to birds’ nests on telephone poles and Johnny Clegg songs – that he feels help define what it means to be South African. If there’s one gripe, it’s with an occasional tone that implies that these choices are the definitive reasons to appreciate living in this country. Subjectively speaking, that simply can’t be the case, and it’s unlikely that Engler ever intended that to be the case. But in the same way that single-perspective media reports don’t tell the whole story about hard news stories, the conciseness of the entries here doesn’t allow for much balance, so you may slalom around between agreeing with Engler or shaking your head as you mentally suggest an alternative viewpoint. – BD[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]