q Book Reviews: Red Gangster Cows, Or Riding To The Longest Conclave - Bruce Dennill

Book Reviews: Red Gangster Cows, Or Riding To The Longest Conclave

March 31, 2021

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Red Earth by Tony Park

Holy Cows by Gareth Van Onselen

The Longest March by Fred Khumalo

Conclave by Robert Harris

The Ride Of A Lifetime by Robert Iger

Gangster State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh


Red Earth is a rip-roaring Tony Park book with all the elements of a contemporary African crime scene: rhino poachers, corrupt politicians, helicopter chases, game reserves and a new dimension in a suicide bombing, which sets off this enthralling saga. As always, the author has tracked every inch of the terrain he writes about. He knows that there is cellphone reception in a small Kruger camp only on a particular bench, under a particular tree! The book captures the feel, the smell and the air of the bush. A mysterious character is Suzanne Fessy, whose car is hijacked near Durban; with one of her attackers escaping with her baby. There follows a series of chases, ambushes, helicopter pursuits and gun battles. Nia Carras is the other female principal. She flies helicopters for a security firm, and becomes enmeshed in the rapidly developing story. She has back-up from highly trained men who know the business and the terrain. “Red earth” could well refer to the amount of blood spilled. This is an enthralling narrative, with twists and turns and unexpected alliances and enemies. Inevitably, there is also the story of entwined lives, a wounded lover and a new relationship. And then a beautiful romance blossoms between two young people from Zululand as a scholarly boy finds his manhood. Susan Fessy is both hunter and hunted, a dangerous mother. The climax is brilliant. Highly recommended for light and enjoyable reading. – RH


Smart, incisive commentators are often the closest thing remaining to a conscience in modern societies where corruption is the norm rather than a crime, and Gareth Van Onselen, through scores of columns in newspapers and on online platforms, has confirmed that his reliably cynical eye is likely to be seeing a clearer, more truthful picture of South African politics and culture than many of his peers and colleagues. Holy Cows is a collections of essays, some of considerable length, taking on a group of topics that variously matter to or annoy the author. Most uncover a level of breathtaking hubris in those being written about that is fascinating to read about if disconnected from the scenarios discussed, but nauseating to consider once you remember that many of the people or political parties in question are still your only choices at the polling stations. If there’s a weakness to the collection, it is in Van Onselen’s (merited, for the most part) take-down of the leader of the Democratic Alliance at the time the book was written, Helen Zille, and her inappropriate use of social media to make personal and/or idealogical points. Van Onselen has made no secret of the fact that he once had a job the Democratic Alliance, and it may be that the column inches he gives to Zille result from a relatively greater amount of institutional knowledge in that specific area. But after several pages of analysis of Zille’s tweets, the possible intent behind those messages and how important it is for a leader to understand the impact of what they share online, Van Onselen’s evaluations start to become repetitive – in tone and perspective if not in the exact messages discussed. This is a large chunk of the book – two essays on one topic, where everything else gets only a single outing – that rather stunts the momentum of the read. Still, there is enough to both interest readers and to, more importantly, motivate independent critical thought, and on that latter score, Holy Cows is a success. – BD


The Longest March is set in the turbulent period leading up to the Second South African War, when the goldmines of the Reef are shutting down and the mineworkers ordered to leave the city. A group of courageous Zulu leaders aided by Marwick, a remarkable white labour agent, marshal their countrymen for a perilous journey back to Zululand and Natal. The history comes alive in the intertwined stories of Xhawulengweni, a physically powerful man with a tormented spirit; Nduku, scion of Zulu royalty; and Philippa, a woman who can pass for white, but daughter of mixed-race parentage, engaged to Nduku and carrying his child. It is a well-told tale, true to the actual accounts we have of the march and traversing the tough terrain, reconstructing the threats faced and the help received. It reads well. Apart from the actual march, we have insights into the world of missions and mission schools, the tensions between strong family loyalties and tribal demands on one hand and the attractions of a different way of life, a new set of beliefs, and the thrill of European schooling on the other. The dignity of the converts and their adaptation of their core values within a new context are set out with understanding and empathy. In the story of Xhawulengweni, we see what can become of a boy – then man – who moves between these two worlds and also moves into the brutal urban context, all shot through with the horrors of racial enmity. Philippa is a highly capable woman who moves between white urban life and the second-class world of her lover. She endures the prejudice of both white and black because of their relationship, and is threatened by the extreme enmity of Nduku’s old friend and companion. Another strand is a deeply felt account of the sexual relations of men with men, born of the strictures of mine compounds. I enjoyed the book and learned from it, though the author at no time sets out to instruct – simply to tell a moving story. – RH


A bunch of old men with a constrained perspective, stuck in a church precinct and running an election. This hardly sounds like the premise for a thriller, but when the old men are cardinals, the church precinct is the Vatican and the election is the emergency choosing of a new pope, it all becomes rather more intriguing. Much of this interest has to do with author Robert Harris’ superb research – something the writer is known for in all of his historical novels – as well as his pacing and plotting. What is also fascinating, however, are the machinations of men, church leaders all, whose desire to either ascend to the papacy or avoid it, for reasons both personal and political (scenarios echoed in the excellent film The Two Popes). Given the enduring power that comes with heading the Catholic Church, it’s understandable that vying for the position would involve some dubious tactics. That supposed spiritual leaders would endorse such manoeuvring is – regardless of your own beliefs as a reader – disappointing and disillusioning. It is this tension, plus the possibility of the winning candidate actually making a positive difference in the world, that makes Conclave a gripping, captivating read. –BD


In The Ride Of A Lifetime, The CEO of the Walt Disney Company has given us an engaging and polished account of his career in the media world, his involvement in major take-overs and his own philosophy of leadership. It is actually as good a text-book for business students and entrepreneurs as any I have come across in my limited reading in the field. It is autobiographical, but each chapter is underpinned by observations and maxims, not necessarily original, (‘If You Don’t Innovate, You Die’), but fully understood and put into practice by a shrewd, far-sighted and energetic executive. To assist the reader who wants that sort of guidance, there is a good appendix in which he sets out those maxims. But they need to be read and assimilated as part of the real-life story. He begins, as he began, at the bottom, working his guts out on the studio floor, prepared to tackle any job that came his way. He made opportunities of what others would have regarded as tasks. He made his way steadily up through hard work and determination rather than qualifications or patronage. He gives huge credit to some of the people he worked for, acknowledging their qualities and vision. His ability to do so gives some clue to what they in turn recognised in him when they gave him bigger and more interesting challenges. Iger is obviously a man who demands much but gives much in return. ‘Recognising Talent’ is a two-way traffic. The inside story of some of the biggest films and series in history is well-told: for example, his cooperation with Steven Spielberg and the decisions he had to take about trusting a genius. The balance between management, financing and creativity is hugely complex. He saw Spielberg’s greatest successes and greatest failures, a real roller-coaster ride, holding the director’s hand and sharing the blame while attributing the successes to the artist himself. He describes also those moments when the guy in charge must, having weighed up all the information, “go with his gut”. There are visionary decisions that take an enterprise beyond bean-counting. His rise within the entertainment and media world saw a huge boost when Disney acquired ABC. He personally had to adapt to a new and different corporate culture. Rising to become second-in-command of Disney, he had an uneasy relationship with his boss, who viewed him as a challenger. Having to perform while sometimes being distrusted was a challenge. One of the best aspects of the book is the candour and the grace with which he writes of others. Another maxim in his leadership philosophy is the power of respect for others. When it became clear that the CEO no longer had the confidence of shareholders and board, Iger believed he should actively campaign for his own appointment. This was an arduous and difficult chapter, since many board members and certainly many pundits on Wall Street dismissed him as a potential appointee. He was regarded as a man who had for ten years been an integral part of an executive team that was now failing. He would not bring about the necessary innovations. He did convince the board, and he did bring in the innovations. The second half of the book is about just that: innovations, new visions, new directions and a new style of leadership at the top. The first change was dismantling the Strategic Planning group, which had long dominated all decision-making and stifled executives, who were simply not allowed to tackle the projects they believed necessary. This change had an immediate and positive response from the whole corporation, apart from Strat Planning! “It was as if all the windows had been thrown open and the fresh air was suddenly moving though.” The deal with Steve Jobs on the Disney/Pixar collaboration was a technical and corporate breakthrough, giving Disney an enormously valuable platform. The delicate and lengthy negotiations led to a deep and significant friendship between Iger and Jobs, and the real trust they had in each other, made the deal work. The most important aspect of the deal was the guarantee Iger gave that the Pixar team would remain to all intents and purposes an independent and creative entity, not submerged in Disney. This was not corporate raiding: it was a partnership which allowed an amazing entity to thrive. The acquisition of Marvel Entertainment and Lucas Film was the means to bringing new life to the moribund Disney Animation. This meant access to hugely creative resources, both technical and human and also Star Wars, Captain Marvel and a galaxy of other characters. The purchase of BAMTech and the launching of ESPN were further successes. Iger realised that innovations on this scale would disrupt and demand, and he was careful to be present for his people and making sure they knew he was accessible to them, returning ‘phone calls, replying to e-mails, making the time to talk through specific problems, and being sensitive to the pressures people are feeling. There were on several occasions massive challenges, including the disaster of a terrorist attack in Orlando, which it transpired might have actually been enacted in Disneyworld itself, but for the obvious security presence. It is small wonder that Iger was being canvassed as a serious Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential elections. Few people could have been a more stark contrast to the previous incumbent of the White House, who infamously tweeted his criticism of Iger’s firing of Roseanne Barr over her attack on a former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. In the event, Iger decided against entering that world. This is a story of a highly successful man who created a monopolistic corporate: one has to weigh up whether this is “success” and whether it is good for the consumer. Much to be said about the freedom of media, our freedom of choice, the opportunity for small and innovative companies, against the huge investments which are needed for delivering entertainment on the scale we have come to expect. – RH


South Africa is a rich field for the growing of both grafty politicians and crafty investigative journalists. ‘Crafty’ in the best sense of the word, because they need to look behind the official records, the media releases, the press reports and the fiscal records. They need to look at the solids left when the smoke has drifted away and the mirrors are shattered. Myburgh is a master of the craft. He is also masterly in his clear presentation of his findings. Much of Gangster State will be reflected in court hearings and in the work of commissions of enquiry. Those are often difficult to follow. This lucid, readable and in a sinister way entertaining. But also frightening. How did it happen? What more has happened that has gone unnoticed, except by those impoverished and frightened by their overlords? And how will it end? Will this and the work of other journalists, whistle-blowers and activists turn the tide? What is my role as a reader and citizen? Back to Myburgh and Magashule. We begin with a brief biography of Magashule and his rise to power, with his claims of activism and involvement in the liberation movements. Necessary fictions for any one contending for political power in the ANC. Astute as a politician with personal ambition, he looked for the best way up the party structures: certainly not grassroots involvement but clambering through the branches and up the top. He early learned to manipulate, eliminate and obfuscate. And so to the Party’s Free State centre, from where he soon controlled the appointment of mayors and municipal managers. Here he chose duplicitously to support the Zuma faction against Mbeki. Here he worked tirelessly (such energy, such acumen for criminal purposes) to have the Scorpions disbanded. He served Zuma and served himself well as he was already under scrutiny. The foundations of his power well established, we then follow the looting of the public purse in one scandalous deal after another. Assassinations were essential where criminals fought over the loot and where good guys tried to intervene. Some good men were lucky and were simply dismissed. Polokwane was a good moment. The arrival of the Guptas was a hell-sent opportunity to improve on the already appalling list of plundered funds and failed projects. “Failure” is of course of no consequence to those who have made a profit. Most ingenious of all the criminal ploys our politicians have used is the establishing of consulting companies. Here Magashule is indeed an ace. It’s difficult to decide just which of the schemes Magashule has espoused is the most heinous. Does one measure by the poverty of those further impoverished? By the amount of money which has been ghosted away? By the number of those kicked out of the way to ensure the project goes through? By the damage to the communities in terms of loss of natural resources? By the sheer despair which reigns amongst the disempowered? Yet with all this, the ANC Elective Conference gave the extraordinarily power position of Secretary General to Magashule. I once quoted Macbeth in concluding a review. I do so again. Remember the dialogue in Macbeth between mother and son, after his father had been killed? Prince: What is a traitor? Lady MacDuff: Why, one that swears and lies. Prince: And be all traitors that so do? Lady MacDuff: Everyone that does so is a traitor and must be hanged. Prince: And must they all be hanged that swear and lie? Lady MacDuff: Every one. Prince: Who must hang them? Lady MacDuff: Why, the honest men. Prince: Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them. – RH

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