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REVIEW: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood

fields of bloodFields of Blood  

Karen Armstrong 


REVIEW: Sue Townsend

“Political differences can be resolved. Religious ones cannot.” So said a commentator on the most recent outbreak of fighting in the Middle East.

Fields of Blood can be thought of as a determined, carefully argued rebuttal of the sentiment expressed in that comment. Armstrong says, on the first page of this book: “In the West, the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident.”

Armstrong, once a Catholic nun, now a commentator on religious affairs, begins her argument in prehistory. Starting with cave paintings, she writes that through most of human history, people have chosen to integrate religion (of some kind) with all their other activities, including, notably, how they are governed, “because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance,” she says.

Within the major religions that we consider today – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the more Eastern Buddhism and Hinduism – she considers the tension between violence and aggression on the one hand, and pacifism and justice on the other. Contrasting medieval crusaders and modern day jihadists with the pacifist teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, she insists that the violence almost always begins with the state and spills over to religion, rather than the other way around. This, she says, is because any government, whether democratic or tyrannical, peace-loving or expansionist, “was obliged to maintain at its heart an institution committed to treachery and violence,” and because violence and coercionlay at the heart of social existence.

“As an inspiration for terrorism,” she writes, “nationalism has been far more productive than religion.”

Armstrong then goes on to discuss examples of violence involving each of the major faiths, from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century to the Islamist (and other) extremists of the 21st, including ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. In most of these cases, she argues, violence that originated elsewhere (with nationalism, territorial skirmishes, resentment at loss of power) could be perceived as “religious” but really had little to do with faith or religion.

Referring to colonisation she writes: “Once colonized, a people often depends heavily on their religious practices, over which they still have some control and which recall a time when they had the dignity of freedom.” This is extrapolated to an attempt to explain connections between the heated American faith-versus-science disputes on evolution, same-sex rights and climate change, to world events a century ago.

Armstrong is at pains to show that in modern times Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all atheists, and that the power behind the Holocaust was ethnic rather than religious hatred. An overemphasis on religion’s damage can blind people to the ‘unholy’ terrors that their states inflict.

This is a dense, serious read that should make us think more deeply about our preconceived ideas.



REVIEW: Inspired



Jennifer Lindsey-Renton


ISBN: 9781770103801

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

South Africa is blessed with the number of people who care deeply about their country and its fate, particularly since 1994.  The Gordon Institute of Business Science (under the auspices of the University of Pretoria) has commissioned this collection of conversations between Jennifer Lindsey-Renton and a variety of successful South Africans.  The aim is to inspire others to emulate these successful people and in so doing achieve their own potential while uplifting the nation as a whole.  As Professor Nick Benedell (the founder of GIBS) says in his introduction: ‘[T]he key differentiator of successful countries in transition comes down to a potent mix of institutions and leadership.’

This collection focuses on the leadership aspect, and, in particular, interrogates the leadership traits of the various people interviewed.  Binedell goes on to say the ‘…all leaders essentially learn to lead in two different and equally important ways.  The first is the have to find their own rhythm and come to terms with their own values; they have to understand their own style and the contribution they can make.   At the same time, that style and approach have to find fertile ground at the right place and at the right time.’  As I read, I was reminded of Michael Young’s satirical take on modern society (written in 1958!) which suggested that you need intelligence rating, qualification, experience, application, and a certain calibre to achieve status. In a word, one must show merit to advance in the new society of tomorrow.  His notion is now often taken to be in praise of ‘meritocracy’ when, in fact, he was deploring meritocracy – favouring as it did the people who are luckiest in their genes and health; family support; education and career opportunities so that these people reap the largest reward.

A common thread running through these stories shows that this is seldom the case.  Carol Boyes explains that being ‘…in the right place at the right time, and … how important of word-of-mouth is for any business to grow’.  Robbie Brozin (he of Nando’s fame) tells young entrepreneurs that they think they are working for themselves but they are always going to have partners like the bank, an investor, your wife or your clients.  However, if they have a product, they can be master of their products destiny.  Bobby Godsell’s father was a boilermaker and his was a working class upbringing but he was an intelligent, curious child and encouraged by his parents to have an open, tolerant outlook on life, with values that he could subscribe to.  Wendy Luhabe’s family were forcibly removed to Daveyton when she was eight; her parents encouraged her to be the best she could be.  Other influences were her schooling at Healdtown in the Eastern Cape and leaving South Africa in the 1970s to study at the University of Lesotho.   Then there is Herman (named Highman because his grandfather decided he was going to be special!) Mashaba – the boy with holes in his shoes.  Brought up by his extended family in the rural areas after the death of his father, he comments that ‘I was fortunate to have teachers who liked me and made time for me.’ This is the man who eventually used his intelligence and street smarts to found and develop the Black Like Me brand and built the Phatsima Group and Lephatsi Investments ‘…a leading non-racial entrepreneurial and socially responsible company … at the forefront of the economic empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups in South Africa.’

Another thread that runs through all the conversations is the determination of these remarkable South Africans to empower and uplift others.  Herman Mashaba has vowed to spend the rest of his life fighting discrimination; Yogavelli Nabiar was brought up to value being liberal, generous and open-minded. These values have stood her in good stead as the creator of the Enterprise and Development Academy at GIBS where she has focused on her mission to assist those from disadvantaged (why do we still write ‘previously disadvantaged?) communities to improve their lives and those around them through entrepreneurship.

Most of those profiled have also led fairly active political lives, but not all.  Sport stars like Francois Pienaar have set up charitable trusts (his is Make a Difference – MAD) which raise funds for bursaries and academic mentorship for academically gifted young South Africans. All of those who remember that World Cup final in 1995 will be amused to learn that he would simply like ‘6’ to be on his tombstone.

Now we come to the ‘unfortunately’ part of this review.  Having given a taste of the conversations recorded here it must be noted that each conversation follows the same formula (clearly the identical questions were asked).  The writing is pedestrian and, at no point, is there any analysis nor are any conclusions reached.  I expected more from an institute such as GIBS.

REVIEW: Congo – The Epic History of a People


CCongo – The Epic History of a People

David van Reybrouck

Fourth Estate

ISBN: 9780062200112

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

A potted history of the largest country in Africa would read thus: the 15th century Kingdom of the Kongo at the mouth of the great Congo River is “discovered” in the 1870s and proclaimed as the personal possession of King Leopold 11 of Belgium. It is “set free” when it becomes a colony in 1908. In 1960, under Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu, it gains sudden independence. The two factions start fighting and murder and mayhem ensures. In 1971, Mobutu Sese Seko africanised the Republic of Congo to Zaire, and in May 1997, Laurent Kabila renamed it the Democractic Republic of Congo.

But there is so much more to the history of this fascinating, complex country which straddles the middle of the continent from the west coast to the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Angola and Zambia to the south and ‘French’ equatorial countries (Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, and Central African Republic) to the north. And Van Reborouck has done this story proud.

Van Reybrouck is a Belgian cultural historianarchaeologist and writer, holding a doctorate from Leiden University. His father spent five years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a railway engineer immediately after independence and the Congo inveigled itself into Van Reybrouck’s blood as a child and suffused his dreams, just as it did with millions of his fellow countrymen. His love for the country runs through the book, breaking through the horror and regret in passages about music or forgotten heroism or simple humanity.

Van Reybrouck chooses to tell this story in his own phrase,  from “the bottom up”.

The majority of the book comprises the testimony of ordinary Congolese, dramatically brought to life by his masterful prose. Opening with 128-year old Nkasi who was alive when the first white traders and missionaries trudged into that immense forest, through Jamais Kolonga the man who dared to ask a white woman for a dance, Zizi Kabongo the cameraman who captured Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, Ruffin the child soldier, Masika Katsua the rape-victim and many more tell their country’s story. A few “good” Belgians also contribute, most memorably the personal tailor of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko talking of his former employer as “a nice person”(!). Van Reybrouck weaves his way through the dark comedy with poetic agility. Personal stories, memory and philosophy are intercut with breathless factual narrative – lyrical and at the same time authoritative.

The previously recorded history is short, dramatic and one-sided. In 1874, The New York Herald and The Daily Telegraph of London financed Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer and journalist, to travel the length of the Congo River from the source to the coast. Stanley finally arrived at the river’s mouth on the Atlantic coast in 1877. He was subsequently financed by King Leopold II of Belgium who wanted a large slice of Africa and got it the Belgian way: Congo would be a free trade buffer between other colonial interests. Some villagers rose against the whites because they were white as bones therefore they must have come from the land of the dead. Suspicion of Europeans persists to this day. Traders and missionaries followed in Stanley’s footsteps. A third of the early Baptist missionaries died in the field and it was the Catholics who mostly won out. Catholic schools, Scout troops and sports clubs provided the basis of the Congolese elite and French became the operating language.

Leopold got it right – Congo was a treasure trove of raw ingredients for the rapidly industrialising world. For example: Dunlop’s invention of the inflatable rubber tire created a demand for Congolese rubber. The profits went to build Belgium at the cost of Congolese lives. Murder was casual. Since bullets were in short supply, there was a habit of cutting off the hands of those who had been shot as proof that a bullet had been used to shoot a person and not been wasted on an animal. It was worse than slavery: not quite genocide or a holocaust Van Reybrouck says, “but it was definitely a hecatomb.” And then there were the horrors of the first and second Congolese wars, and, more recently, the entry of China into Congo.

Along the way, we learn that “Belgian colonialism contributed to the spiritual dimension of reggae” by helping to return Ethiopia to Haile Selassie in 1941, and that Mobutu’s pathetic attempt to launch Africa’s first ever space rocket in 1978 produced only a “parabola of soot”.

The depth of research; the passion; and the inventiveness in Van Reybrouck’s writing are a perfect delight to all who care about Africa. Seamlessly translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett this is a masterful work.



REVIEW: Esther’s House

rdphouses (2)

EHEsther’s House                      

Carol Campbell                     


ISBN: 9781415207406

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Carol Campbell in this, her second novel, has tried to bring to life the depressing, dire situation in which many, if not most, of the ordinary people of South Africa find themselves. She is showing us what it’s like to be decent people living in an indecent world, what it’s like to have no food to feed hungry children at night, what it’s like to be a helpless person faced with official corruption and utterly unfairness. We have all read the stories of the endless housing lists, the endless waiting, the endless despair, the utter hopelessness of poverty – whether of opportunity, money, resources access to infrastructure, or, in fact, of everything.

Esther is a mother, a wife, a reformed drunk, a good friend to her neighbours and – most importantly – thoroughly ticked off with the situation she finds herself in. Husband Neville is a waistrel, daughter Liedjie is trying to pass matric at night school while son Jaco has, unbeknownst to his mother, dropped out of school.  Their friend Katjie, who is also living in a backyard shack, is managing to keep body and soul together (just) as well as deal with her no-good daughter Shireen and Shireen’s two little girls.

And so the story begins with Katjie’s shack burning down, killing Shireen, and Esther trying to care for Katjie’s family as well as her own. Without wanting to spoil the ‘surprise’ of the unfolding dramas and traumas, things do not improve from here onwards.  Although – (warning – here comes a spoiler) – they do almost all come right in the end, at least for Esther.

The aangaanery in the lokasie and the newly built RDP houses is described in a mixture of Afrikaans, English and South African vernacular without any recourse to italics or a glossary.  This is fine for us South Africans but could be a little confusing for others.  In fact, the language is pretty plat. Despite this, the protagonists often express unusually insightful thoughts which are, unfortunately, not very nuanced; they could all have come from the same person.  On the whole, this is the problem with Campbell’s book.  The intentions are admirable and Campbell clearly has done her homework on Oudtshoorn and other Karroo towns and has knowledge of the townships that hide behind their hills as well as an ear for some of the language.  But the characters, even when behaving feistily, come over as one dimensional.  The various deaths, and there are a number, are dealt with in a matter of fact manner and then the story simply moves on.

The shenanigans involved in Titty’s acquisition of a house when not even on the housing list (nor having been born when Esther and Katjie put their names down) is treated in a fleeting manner which is a pity because, I think, this was the premise that Campbell was pointing to when writing her novel – the corruption and graft that is going on in South Africa to the detriment of all. But, eventually, the ending is almost fairytale-like.


REVIEW: It’s a black/white thing


It's a blackwhite thingIt’s a Black White Thing 

Donna Bryson                             


ISBN: 9780624065180

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Donna Bryson has written a thought-provoking book. Given our obsession with race (and that’s what this book is all about), it should be mentioned that Bryson is an African American journalist who has lived in South Africa – in the late 1990s and again from 2008 – 2012. She brings her own experiences to the table as well as many interviews with students, academics and administrators at the University of the Free State.

Using the infamous Reitz video as her peg, she explores the attitudes (both changing and unchanging) at that University; extrapolating her findings to discuss the racial tensions; the attempts to diffuse them and the strategies employed by UFS in the last five years to achieve genuine integration – both in the lecture halls and the residences.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Rector of UFS, is a well-known figure to most thinking South Africans. In 2010 he instigated a programme in which dozens of first year UFS students travel abroad to experience university life in another country.   Bryson followed a number of these students to Texas A&M University and has held extensive interviews with them, as well as with the students and staff with whom they interacted. Contextualising all her discussion within the history of segregation and enforced integration in the USA in the 1960s and drawing on the similarities in post-Apartheid South Africa, she skilfully uses this as a microcosm for South African society today.

Having taught in South African schools that defied the Nationalist Government and opened their doors to children of all races as long ago as 1976, I was particularly dismayed to realise just how verkramp the UFS was when it was forced to accept students who were not white or Afrikaners when South Africa was liberated in 1994 – and how this history still haunts its corridors. But then, as Bryson quotes Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Forgiveness is not for sissies”. It takes hard work and much determination on the part of leaders to move towards genuine integration. Bryson has also interviewed the Rectors that preceded Jansen, both of whom took great strain as they paved the way for his inspired determination to turn UFS into a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled land.

An interesting snippet, in the light of the ongoing debate around our own University of Cape Town’s admissions policy, in 2008 a white student sued Texas A&M, claiming that she had been discriminated against on racial grounds. The USA Supreme Court ruled that any university should have substantial leeway ‘both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity’s benefits and in deciding whether its specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.’

Jonathan Jansen deserves the final word: ‘I absolutely enjoy being here’ he says. ‘I’m completely at ease with the whole of myself.’ And he predicts that UFS will not see a race crisis like the Reitz video ever again. I hope he is right; the struggle is far from over, not for UFS, not for Bloemfontein and not for the country.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times