Book Reviews: A Kudu In Deep Water, Or Okavango Tobacco

January 8, 2022

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In Deep Water by Sam Blake

Life Is Like A Kudu Horn by Margaret Jacobsohn

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Presents: The Donald J Trump Presidential Twitter Library

Planet Okavango by Hannes Lochner

Dirty Tobacco by Telita Snyckers

American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19 by John Fabian Witt


At times one wonders if a story could be told in half the number of words and half the number of pages. In Deep Water is one such time. The story is padded with fringe detail and elaborate peripheral text that becomes a bit annoying if you start noticing it. The narrative deserves better, being an interesting missing person hunt with all the forensic and investigative police work that goes with it. Cathy Conolly, better known as Cat, is a garde (Gaelic for detective) and her best friend Sarah Jane goes missing after leaving her job at a restaurant. Cat takes the lead and we get to know her as a determined sleuth, a kick-boxing champion and a girl not to be messed with, opening a can of worms in the Dublin CBD. The story plays out in Ireland, which adds to its charm. And in spite of the above remarks, I liked the story and getting to know Cat. – DB


I suppose for those of us living in Africa, it’s easy for your eyes to become dim to the magic of this continent, especially if you’re city-bound. Life Is Like A Kudu Horn is a memoir by a conservationist – who chose to eschew all trappings of modern life in favour of a deeper connection with the earth – and a perfect antidote to such jadedness. Margaret Jacobsohn’s life makes Percy Fitzpatrick look like a novice. A former writer, she first ventured into the Namibian Kaokoveld as a post-grad student researching the Ovahimba people. Her recounting of her time, learnings and experiences with this community makes for fascinating reading – but that’s just a small part of the book. Like the kudu horn for which the book is named, her life follows various twists after her first encounter with the country, and she ultimately becomes a pioneer for a groundbreaking approach to conservation, a career which brings her into a variety of situations most of us could never imagine. Jacobsohn’s memoir veers from the hilarious – like the time her partner attended a prestigious awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace, decked out in his veldskoene – to the chilling (think of run-ins with potentially dangerous political figures) and the downright terrifying, like being charged by a hungry lion. If ever you’ve longed to quit your day job and embark on a wild adventure (but can’t, because there’s a mortgage to pay), this is the book for you – a glimpse into a life that most South Africans have, at one stage or another, wished they could lead. – LW


The joke in The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Presents: The Donald J Trump Presidential Twitter Library is a simple one: that Donald Trump’s literary heritage will be his Twitter account, rather than a repository of useful knowledge or policy stored in an elegant building somewhere. In that Trump’s manner of using social media is unprecedented for a US President (or indeed any head of state anywhere), it’s an interesting – if obvious – angle for satirists like Trevor Noah and his Daily Show team to attack. The problem with this approach – in this format – is that it’s a single joke, already well-worn (the man never stopped, and his Twitter account was public), and even with the reliably sharp observations from Noah et al, there’s a limit to the appeal and effectiveness of mocking something that was already generally terribly easy to ridicule. And even when the analysis notes the serious or influential import of some of  Trump’s social media output, the subject matter’s ubiquity (outside of the book) rather dilutes the impact of the publication.


Good coffee table books are an ever rarer phenomenon with many readers being happy to find their reading matter online. But everything not available in the digital space – texture, heft, the scale of a photograph spread over two A3 pages – is beautifully combined in photographer Hannes Lochner’s Planet Okavango. Lochner is interesting in that he is known for conceptualising or imagining many of his images before he actually takes them. That seems like a nearly impossible ideal in a field where the subjects of the photographs – the wild animals who inhabit the Okavango’s plains, swamps and rivers – are hugely unpredictable. But with time and patience, it is possible (the proof is in these pages) to achieve such goals, and Lochner’s success in doing so is a large part of what makes this book a literal work of art. The magnificent photography – incredible sunsets populated with elephants and hyenas; close-ups of lions and wild dogs take by using camera traps; extraordinary incidents like arguments between leopards and lions or hippos killing impalas – is supported with publishing details like the rich grain of the flyleaf or the spot gloss area on the cover that makes the shape of a brightly coloured carmine bee-eater leap out even more effectively. Lochner lets his images do the bulk of the talking, but his text is also strong, briefly explaining the environmental concerns he and others have around the Okavango, as well as explaining how he was able to take some of the pictures or sharing interesting personal experiences. Planet Okavango is a volume that will bear repeated visits and make its readers as enthusiastic about wilderness areas and their importance as Lochner is.


Over the lockdown, did you feel sympathy for the legitimate tobacco trade? Believe that tens of thousands of people were unemployed because of the ban on tobacco products? Blame Minister Nkoskazana Zuma because she was reputed to be on the payroll of a big name in the illegal tobacco trade? There are legitimate questions about the reasoning behind the cigarette ban. Did it really make a difference to the mortalities from Covid19? Or ease up the pressure on scarce hospital resources? The jury is out on those issues. But Telita Snyckers, a lawyer formerly working for SARS, now an international management consultant, with huge experience here and abroad, has written a scorching expose of the tobacco industry, making it clear that the dividing line between licit and illicit is not even fine: it is possibly non-existent, certainly hazy and smoky. The heart-wrenching advertisements we read in the newspapers, pointing out the huge losses to the fiscus and the even worse loss of employment, were hardly different in content and style from the careful propaganda that the industry has been exhaling for decades: we are the good guys, the illicits are the bad guys; we are fair traders; we are the partners of government in attempting to stamp out the heinous underground trade. Trust us. Don’t trust them. Support our just cause. Dirty Tobacco assembles a vast array of damning evidence of malfeasance on an international scale. Chapter and verse, document after document. Snyckers has collected documentary evidence gleaned from the internal memoirs of the big manufacturers and traders. There is a range of affidavits from employees and ex-employees. There are the logical conclusions to be drawn from published trading figures, excise documents and press statements over the years. Let’s look at just a few statistics: globally, big tobacco controls more than 80% of the world’s tobacco market. An estimated 98% of all illicit cigarettes are believed to come from legal, licensed manufacturing facilities. If you doubt the figures, read the book. Why would big tobacco connive at, in fact feed the illegal trade? Simple: tax evasion and profit. Cigarettes are a bigger criminal enterprise than drugs. Believe Glenn Agliotti. In addition the excise duties actually paid, and the actual taxes on company profits, are far below any reasonable revenues accruing. – RH


The author of American Contagions is a Professor of Law and History at Yale University. Dreadful though the COVID-19 pandemic may be, it is useful to gain perspective, viewed through a lens held up by so distinguished a scholar. As the title suggests, Witt’s focus is the experience of contagions in the USA but universally relevant insights may be gained therefrom. Smallpox, brought to America by the Europeans, literally decimated the native, ‘Indian’ population. Successive waves of it wreaked havoc and dreadful hardship for many years to come.  So, too, has the US been haunted by yellow fever and cholera and, in more recent times, the threats poised by HIV and the outbreak of Ebola. The useful contribution of this book to all discussions about pandemics and contagions is that it illuminates the political dimensions that are acutely but often darkly apparent in attempts to deal with disease. An obvious tension arises between the right to freedom, on the one hand the duty of governments to protect safety and security of the people (salus populi), on the other. ‘Freedom’ embraces freedoms like those of movement, vocation, religion, and association. Witt documents well how these tensions have played themselves out, not only in political debates but also in court cases. Witt argues ably that there is a difference between what he calls ‘sanitationist’ measures, on the one hand, and ‘quarantinist’ solutions on the other. Sanitationist measures are those aimed at improving the health of the population in order to combat the spread of diseases. Vaccination is, par excellence, a sanitationist measure. ‘Lockdowns’ are a typically quarantinist solution. The author contends, correctly, that those who pay the highest price for quarantinist measures are the poor. Conversely, those who stand to gain the most from sanitationist measures are the poor. Increased public health care is one of the most efficient economic measures to improve the standard of living and quality of life of the economically disadvantaged. In his introduction, Witt refers chillingly to what Ernest Freud described in 1904 as the ‘police power’ of the State. It is the power ‘to secure and promote the public welfare… by restraint and compulsion.’ Unfortunately, Witt lets his party-political biases get the better of him from time to time. With regrettable oversimplification for a scholar of such repute, he is dismissive of Republicans as a reactionary force. Undoubtedly, quarantinist measures are often motivated by reactionary prejudice. But faith in ‘lockdowns’ is often manifest in those who present a ‘progressive’ face to the world. The historical record makes it clear that Republicans have led the campaigns to maintain freedom in the face of the threat of disease. The threat to freedom posed by lockdown measures is real enough. Concerns about this issue are not confined to ‘conservative’ forces of ‘reaction’. It is irritating when educated people are as unnuanced in their analysis of complex social problems as this author has been. Nevertheless, the book contributes to our understanding of the underlying forces at work in the processes of ‘epidemics and the law’. – NW

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