Book Reviews: Verwoerd Empires, Or Messiah’s Light

October 28, 2023




Secret Empires by Peter Schweitzer

Verwoerd: My Journey Through Family Betrayals by Wilhelm Verwoerd

The Four Horsemen: Tthe Discussion That Sparked An Atheist Revolution by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

Christo Wiese: Risk and Riches by TJ Strydom

Light Through The Bars: Understanding and Rethinking South Africa’s Prisons by Babychan Arackathara


An established investigative journalist and writer, Peter Schweitzer also heads the Government Accountability Institute. Having been involved for several decades in exposing the abuse of capitalism, the misuse of tax money and other abuses of power and influence, he is well-respected in the field, hated by many and highly effective. Politicians and civil servants as well as corrupt individuals have been fined, jailed and disgraced. He brings his knowledge and experience to bear in Secret Empires, which probes in particular the more subtle issues of “corruption by proxy”. The transactions involved do not fall under disclosure laws and so are invisible to or, at least, hidden from public scrutiny. The setting in the USA is different from our local scene: politicians there, he observes, avoid overtly criminal or publicly embarrassing behaviour. They seldom today will take a direct payment from someone in exchange for a favour. The beneficiary will be a family member or a campaign donor or some party not required to make disclosures. Offshore deals offer great possibilities as many foreign companies are also not required to account for donations or considerations in the same way as American companies are. The globalisation of corruption blurs a politician’s perception of public and fiscal responsibility. He goes on to show how Joe Biden and John Kerry’s sons profited immensely from secretive deals they struck with Chinese companies connected to the Chinese government, some of these deals involving Chinese military and strategic interests. The then Vice-President and Secretary of State kept their hands clean, while their scions benefited by huge sums of money. The chapter on the Ukraine is fascinating: it gives a fresh and frightening insight into Soviet-American conflict over this territory. The Ukraine is Biden family territory. Mitch McConnell and his wife Chao are highly influential in Washington. Their personal wealth has grown exponentially in little more than a decade. It was a marriage of enormous financial advantage, as the newly-wed Senator was introduced into the highest echelons of the Chinese state. From China, with love. There is a whole chapter devoted to that notorious breed, the Washington lobbyists. Not all of these power-peddling individuals have achieved their influence through hard work. Some are born to the trade, the family members of elected officials. The legislation which once restricted their financial allure is long since gone. Washington is, of course, not the only centre of power which might be called out. Chicago has fitting heirs to that tradition and name: in particular Patrick Daley. Mayor Daley’s brother, by the way, was White House chief of staff. This illustrious family urged Obama to run as president and one suspects helped him with a little funding. Their Russian and Chinese-based business interests hardly bear scrutiny. Off such a base Obama begins his race for the White House. The mesh of intrigue, influence and affluence is frightening. But of course no-one can hope for the ultimate prize without huge resources. Another chapter deals with ‘Obama’s best friend”, Marty Nesbitt, confidante, husband to Mrs Obama’s gynaecologist, golf partner, vacation companion… They bank-rolled Obama’s campaign and now reap the benefits. The Trumps are an unfolding story. The princelings hold sway in many spheres, including Indonesia! Schweitzer ends the book with some practical suggestions, including a proposal for a Washington Corrupt Practices Act. There are so many loopholes to plug. Our South African politicians have much to learn in the field of finessed corruption, to replace the present blatant money-grabbing and benefit-broking, which we trust will be effectively curbed. We need, however, to have legislation which anticipates a more sophisticated United States model of political and financial intrigue. – RH


Wilhelm Verwoerd’s Verwoerd: My Journey Through Family Betrayals, an account of family betrayal, reconciliation and citizenship is bracketed by two pictures. On the one side, there’s a painting by Ronald Harrison, depicting Albert Luthuli as a black Christ, crucified by Hendrik Verwoerd. On the other, there’s a photo of a smiling, avuncular Verwoerd holding his grandson, the author, as a baby. These two visuals are a metaphor for the book: how can you honour and hold dear the memory of a family member when you know the same person is responsible for the pain of an entire nation? Wilhelm Verwoerd’s life revolves around his wrestling with this question. It forms his entire identity, not only as an individual, but as a citizen. And yes, this is as painful and confusing as it sounds, particularly when the challenge is made more complex by excommunication from the family (but, then again, this brings forth other questions: is this a family that one can be a part of, in good conscience? And what kind of allegiance is it owed?) I once read an article about a descendant of one of the high-ranking Nazis, who felt impelled to change his surname not only as a form of self-protection, but to emotionally distance himself from the actions of his forefathers. As a Jew, I was fascinated by this, and its meaning in terms of family bonds. Does adopting a new name absolve you of those sins? To what extent do those sins belong to you, in the first place? When does ‘guilty by association’ no longer apply? When certain beliefs are a part of your family fabric, how is it possible to stop them from sinking into your skin? Wilhelm Verwoerd chose to go a completely opposite route. He owned his family name – in fact, it’s no exaggeration to say he becomes an apologist, as evidenced by his attendance at the removal of a statue of his infamous grandfather. His narrative goes a long way to explaining these, and other questions. This is not an easy read, however, and the emotional fallout on both sides is hard to grasp. A fascinating, if intellectual, look at what it means to be South African. – LW


Richard Dawkins is a name with which most readers of this publication will be familiar. He was the author of The God Delusion. Daniel Dennett is professor of philosophy at Tufts University, Sam Harris wrote the bestseller The End of Faith and Christopher Hitchens was the author of God is Not Great. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens are The Four Horsemen to which the title of the book refers. They are self-proclaimed as New Atheists. ‘New Atheists’ are atheist who proclaim their convictions without the apologetic reserve that so often previously was associated with this set of beliefs. These four came together at a conference of atheists held in September 2007 in Washington DC and held a joint conversation that was recorded and filmed. The transcript of that conversation makes up most of this book. There is a foreword written by Stephen Fry, the British actor and television personality. Included is a short chapter by each of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris. Whether or not one believes in God is an important question for most of us and is one that could have significant implications for how human society goes about its business in future. For all the hullaballoo that accompanied the ‘explosion’ of the ‘new atheists’ onto the world stage, the arguments for and against atheism have become rather damp. You either believe that life is a naturalistic accident, without there being any transcendent spirit, or you do not. Most reasonably intelligent, well-educated people today believe in the broad outlines of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Even Pope Benedict described it as ‘more than a theory’. It is now accepted across a broad spectrum that evolution operates to give the appearance of design when, in fact, there may be no designer. Nevertheless, there remain large questions as to whether or not there is transcendence (or ‘God’). For example, there are huge, inexplicable quantum leaps in evolution, there is the conundrum of ‘multiple co-ordinated mutation’, there is the riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg, the innumerable little mysteries of life, not to mention the experiences in the lives of ordinary people. There is also the seemingly unalterable fact that there is ‘intelligence’ within the design, even if the design may have grown and developed through a process of evolution. There remain ‘signals of transcendence’ like mathematics. The four horsemen have had their ‘day in court’ and become rich through all the publicity. They have certainly attracted legions of followers. But whether they have indeed led us into a new and higher consciousness is doubtful. The fact that this book is so exquisitely boring makes a powerful point. – NW


The Messiah’s Dream Machine begins where Jennifer Friedman’s Queen of the Free State left off, with the sad journey to boarding school humorously described. The actual experience of boarding school in Cape Town is one of horrific meals (“armpits and meatballs”), stark, Spartan living and a boarder mistress from Hell, raising eyebrows and giving plenty of entertainment. The blend of romance, the introduction of future husband to her Free State world and Uncle Les in particular, the girl now grown up and living free of her mother: this is all insightful and great fun. The wedding is a bend of Jewishness and farm families and an introduction to the mother-in-law, whose Mercedes followed them on honeymoon. Deaths and funerals and returns to the Free State could have been edited. There is endless, often tedious narrative in dialogue form. The humour  and the bathos is lost in too many drawn-out conversations. The book takes us to Israel and the setting up of a business, the return from Israel and the departure for Australia. The sombre account of terminal illness, of family and friends, turns again with a visit to the farm and the favourite cousin, nicknamed Messiah, and the books ends quietly and peacefully. – RH


In the aftermath of the Steinhoff debacle, Christo Wiese: Risk and Riches, a biography of Christo Wiese is timely. What kind of person could become involved in so massive a miscalculation, one in which so many people lost so much money? This book provides no real answers. Wiese is not an ‘open book’. He has an elusive quality. This notwithstanding, he has never been far from the glare of publicity and has seemed to enjoy it. Undoubtedly, the boy from modest beginnings in Upington has always wanted to ‘make good’ and live ‘the good life’. He is a person of great charm, has a keen intellect and a restlessness of spirit. He has dabbled in politics, law, mining, retail – most notably Pep Stores, Shoprite and Steinhoff. Along the way, he was chairman of Boland Bank, the Industrial Development Corporation and a director of Sanlam and the Reserve Bank. He has owned wine farms and diamond mines. He has indeed lived ‘well’ by any material standard. The book disappoints, largely because the author does not get a ‘grip’ on his subject. – NW


The author of Light Through The Bars, Babychan Arackathara, has  been a Roman Catholic chaplain to prisons in Southern Africa for some 20 years. For much of that time he was based in the Western Cape, ministering to some of the most hardened criminals in prisons. In that province, the rate of serious crime is among the highest in the world. Having been born and raised in India, Arackathara gives us the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. He reminds us that crime is one of the scars of a society that was deeply damaged by apartheid. He recognises that there are no easy solutions. Much of the ground that he covers has already been trodden by criminologists. The value of the book is that, as Trevor Manuel says in his foreword, it is a reminder to us all not to forget those in prison, to hate the crime but not the person responsible for it and to try to build a just and caring society. Arackathara makes legitimate calls for measures to be taken to minimise the number of prisoners awaiting trial and the expedition and facilitation of bail. So, too, he makes appropriate appeals to improve conditions in prison and to facilitate the spiritual development of prisoners, so as to motivate and train them. Correctly, he recognises that ‘putting people behind bars’ is a largely inadequate solution to the scourge of our high rates of crime. We shall, for example, have to tackle the root causes of gang culture, the lack of positive ‘ties that bind’ like family, and community activities like sport and recreation. At times, Arackathara is overly idealistic. The hard truth we need to face, not only in South Africa but in almost every country in the world, is that although socio-economic circumstances may largely – but not entirely – explain criminal conduct, certain serious offenders are so damaged in their mental states that they need to be put in prison and kept there by reason of the fact that they constitute a danger to society. This fact has to be grasped honestly. There is justifiable anger within society when criminals, who have committed heinous crimes, are released from prison, only to commit a similar crime soon thereafter. On the other hand, we need to have an intelligent debate in our society as to whether persons who do not constitute a danger to society should be sent to prison at all. Crime must not ‘pay’ and there should be no perception that it does. That must be addressed. But  putting people in jail not only comes at enormous financial cost to society but also scars the individuals and, ultimately society as a whole in a number of ways. The idea of appropriate non-custodial sentencing is not new. A large part of the problem is that our criminal justice system lacks the resources to make appropriate recommendations and to monitor the progress thereof. Furthermore, as a society we have become so distracted by the scale of our problems to hand that we have neglected a large, politically unexciting issue that haunts us all. If Arackathara pushes the momentum in our society in the direction of a sensible debate about appropriate sentencing, his contribution to south Africa will have been enormous. – NW