Book Reviews: Afrikaner Thunder, Or Mystic Prayer

April 3, 2023




Catching The Thunder by Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter. Translation Diane Oatley

Bank Robber by Allan Heyl

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

For Friends and Family by Nicky Stubbs

The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners by Hermann Giliomee

The 49th Mystic and Rise of the Mystics by Ted Dekker


It’s terrible! Not the book. Catching The Thunder is very good. It’s the story it tells that makes you blood as run as cold as the freezing Antarctic waters where most of the story happens. When I first examined the book I was a little put-off by the ‘Boys Own’ look and the ‘thriller’ writing style made me wonder if the authors had deliberately tried to reach a broader audience. (The cover features an illustration of a looming boat and the quote proclaims that it “reads like a gripping crime novel.”) But halfway through the first chapter it is clear that it really does read like a crime novel and by the time you get to the end of Chapter Two the cliffhanger will make you forget about turning off the light until 5am. The book tells the  serious story of (mainly but not exclusively) two larger-than-life characters, Captain Peter Hammarstedt and Paul Watson. Watson leaves Greenpeace because he thinks they aren’t militant enough (yes, really!) and they go on a journey searching for The Thunder, a fishing vessel of highly questionable heritage. The journey covers just about the entire globe (including South Africa) and culminates in a chase in the treacherous waters of the Antarctic. The prize is the Patagonian toothfish found in ice cold waters at great depths. Of course it is a delicacy and of course it’s endangered and of course this is not about one fishing vessel. Hammarstedt and his crew are fighting organised crime. The book is an A-Team collaboration by award winning Norwegian-based journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter and expertly translated by Norway-based Diane Oatley. The translation is seamless, and the narrative which I initially thought was over the top turns out to be understated when the extent of the plunder and the international network of the world’s most evil criminals is described. It’s a book that teaches the landlubber reader how vast the oceans are, how deep organised crime is entrenched in every fibre of society, and how fast the window to save the planet is closing. – VP


One assumes that Bank Robber‘s subtitle ‘My time with André Stander’ is a deliberate marketing effort to make the book more saleable but it isn’t necessary. In the great tradition of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Heyl is a villain entirely capable of standing on his own feet. This book entirely dispels (wittingly or otherwise) the idea that Allan Heyl was merely André Stander’s noch shlepper. In the first place, he was already an experienced bank robber, with two convictions by the time he met Stander in prison. Throughout the book, Heyl does not minimise his criminal activities, but right from the start there is always an excuse – “the devil made me do it!” is an underlying theme. For instance, his debilitating depression leads to his unemployment, which leads to him falling behind on his rent, which naturally leads, as everybody knows, to robbing banks. What gives the book significant value are Heyl’s descriptions of his time in jail. While the de rigueur tales of brutality and deprivation are thankfully disclaimed, the austerity and humiliation is real. Even for a smooth operator like Heyl, prison is not a nice place to be. Very interesting, too, is the ease with which the Stander Gang robbed banks, often without much planning or forethought. “We’re short of money.” “Let’s rob a bank.” “Okay.” “Which one?” “That one across the road.” “Okay.” The book cannot be seen as a document of the times because it is light on facts, particularly in the earlier sections. Most of the time, the names of the banks are omitted, so are the companies Heyl worked for. Even the surnames of many characters he interacted with are left out. Heyl’s comment in the introduction that he distances himself from the Stander movie and its implication that André Stander was somehow an apartheid victim is pleasing. Reading the book, I kept thinking Heyl’s story could be a fun movie if it starred Rowan Atkinson, Ricky Gervais and John Cleese. The book is an amusing read, with the reader having to spot if and to what extent the storyteller is schmoozing them as they read! I couldn’t decide. – VP


Khaled Hosseini is of course the author of The Kite Runner and a several other books set in the troubled Middle East. Sea Prayer is a different book, both in content and presentation. There is an interplay between the text, which is brief, and the illustrations, which are magnificent. A father is on a beach in the moonlight, cradling his sleeping son, a child. He speaks to the boy of the land they have left, and specifically of the city of Mosul, as they flee the bombers and the terrors of civil war. They are refugees, people who have lost everything but memories, family bonds and faith. And courage. He is conscious of the thousands who have perished on the same journey they are now making, but he promises the boy, “nothing bad will happen”. And the boy sleeps on. This is a moving, beautiful little book. – RH


Anyone who pages through a copy of For Friends and Family will immediately wish that they were one of the friends who has been fortunate enough to sit around Ms Stubbs’ table and indulge in her delectable dishes. Even before happily noting that the vast majority of the ingredients are already available at home, the warm family photos and the comforting displays of the various meals have already created a foodie utopia. As a beautifully balanced mix of old favourites and new challenges unfolds, one’s soul is also fed as the author shares the personal meanings and memories behind each recipe. If the best test of a cookbook is the desire to suddenly jump into the kitchen regardless of what time of day (or night) it is, then this one has shot the lights out. Pity though, as it’d be trickier to cook in the dark. – KD


Hermann Giliomee grew up embedded in the Afrikaner nationalist tradition. Long before Afrikaner intellectuals travelled to Dakar to meet their counterparts in the ANC, he had been critical of apartheid. A distinguished historian, who has published prolifically, he has much legitimacy and credibility when he writes about the Afrikaners. He is probably the foremost commentator today on their state of being. That Giliomee established a good rapport with Afrikaner leaders like John Vorster, PW Botha and FW De Klerk enables him to give an especially perceptive view of the Afrikaners’ internal political dynamics in tragic drama that has been apartheid. All the chapters in The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners, except the last, have previously been published in newspapers and academic publications over several decades. The book therefore presents a valuable retrospective on the forces acting upon Afrikanerdom and the ideas that were played out within it over this period. Important political lessons emerge. Deng Xiaoping was the only political leader of any prominence who not only understood the law of compound interest but also explained it to his people in a way that they could understand and thereupon mobilise their society accordingly. The law is that small, often scarcely perceptible changes, when compounded over time, act counter-intuitively to produce dramatic results within a relatively short period. The law applies not only to economic growth and decline, wealth-creation and its loss, but also in fields such as education and training, health, aging, musical and sporting accomplishment, political and social ‘consciousness’, demographics and much else besides. The dividend that China has reaped as a result of Deng’s brilliance has been richly rewarding for that country. Reading Giliomee’s book one is left aghast at how Afrikaner nationalist intellectuals played with this plan and that model to circumvent an obvious truth: they would not be able to retain control of a country in which they were a minority. Delusion is perhaps the greatest political vice. We see it today in British politicians who conjure with smoke and mirrors to make themselves and their followers believe that Britain can separate itself from the EU but retain the benefits of membership thereof. Giliomee mentions demographics as a factor that operated against apartheid. Radio and television, trade and travel, education and ‘consciousness’ gathered momentum too.  The Fall of the Berlin Wall features in Giliomee’s analysis. FW De Klerk reasoned that he could take advantage of it because the support which the Soviet Union had given the ANC would be reduced. On the other hand, the western powers, no longing fearing, as they once did, communist influence in South Africa became less indulgent to white South African remonstrations that black majority rule would change the global balance of power. But the fall of the wall had a massive consequence that South African political commentators, including Giliomee, tend to downplay: politicians, diplomats, business executives and ordinary citizens of the world concluded that if the might of the ‘eastern bloc’ could not maintain a wall separating the Germans from one another, what hope did a white minority in South Africa have of separating themselves from blacks? Giliomee has severe criticisms of FW De Klerk arguing that, in agreeing to the transfer of power, he conceded much more than he needed or ought to have done, especially when it came to the issue of ‘transformation’ and protecting the Afrikaans language. The criticism is unfair. Legitimate debate may arise as to whether transformation has been too fast or too slow. That it is a political imperative is not something against which any persuasive case can be presented. De Klerk could not have controlled the pace of transformation ‘from the grave’, as it were. The Soweto uprisings were a recent memory. They had been a protest against Afrikaans being taught in schools. Many blacks described it as ‘the language of the oppressor’. Against that background, it is difficult to see how it would have been politically possible for Afrikaans to have been conferred a special status in the new constitutional dispensation. Giliomee ends his book with scathing criticisms of the language policy, in favour of English, adopted at the historically Afrikaans universities. The emergence of England from its ‘merrie-ness’ may be traced to the reign of Elizabeth I. At that time, English was spoken by three million people. Today, it is the home language of almost half a billion people and is spoken, as a second language, by several billion. The law of compound interest, rather than any conspiracy, is manifest. The phenomenon of the widespread usage of English has little to do with its intrinsic merit and has much to do with the rise of the British empire followed, almost immediately thereafter, by the economic, political and cultural dominance of the USA. Increasingly, universities in Europe are offering their instruction in English. There are three main reasons for this: (i) knowledge and research are being published in English at an exponentially increasing rate; (ii) students, who will be the leaders of their countries in the next generation, will need to be fully conversant in English and (iii) drawing students from around the world builds networks that benefit host countries. ‘Demise’ in the title of the publication is a terminological inexactitude. The Afrikaners may have lost power, their influence may be waning, their language may no longer be that of intellectual discourse in the courts and the universities, we have begun to see the emergence of some poor whites once again but, in general, Afrikaners are alive and well and living in South Africa. Travel in the rural areas of the Western and Northern Cape illuminates a potent irony. Afrikaans has a vitality and a resonance among the community most easily described, albeit somewhat offensively, as ‘Coloured’.  Linguistic historians tell us that it was this community that gave us Afrikaans. It is they who will carry it forward. This book is likely to be controversial.  It is a fascinating read. – NW


Ted Dekker’s Circle tetralogy (originally a trilogy until the addition of Green five years later) introduced readers to Thomas Hunt and the Circle world, as well as the possibility of connection between it and Earth as we know it. In the Beyond the Circle duology, adventure and tension in and between the two worlds continue. Although Hunt does feature, the main protagonist here is Rachel Matthews, who lives in a too perfect town called Eden, Utah. Blips begin to appear in the perfection however, and true to Dekker form, she is quickly swept away in an unraveling of reality as she understands it. Asleep in one world means that she is awake in the other, and as exhausting as that sounds, it is nothing compared to the mounting desperation she experiences as she realises that the fates of both worlds has come to rest solely on her shoulders. Hailed as the long-anticipated 49th Mystic, she must discover and unlock five seals, staying one step ahead of the evil Vlad Smith, in order to bring peace forever to the Circle world. If she fails, all will be lost to eternal darkness. Dekker infallibly excels in the arena of the cosmic battle of life, light and truth versus death, darkness and deceit, and The 49th Mystic and Rise of the Mystics deliver supremely. – KD