Our Poisoned Land, its history, and life under a bridge

Jeremy Gordin reviews three books on South Africa starting with Jacques Pauw's

I was thinking that for some reason we who live according to the Gregorian calendar, or any calendar for that matter, tend to feel we should start the so-called new year afresh, leaving behind the stuff that was supposed to have been completed in the old one.

Well, before we can say Thuma mina or “whoopsie doodle, how’s your poodle?” we’re going to find ourselves, or at any rate our bodies, in 2023. And there’re quite a few books I’ve wanted to review this year but haven’t managed to get to.

So, while the going’s good (more or less [i]), I want to offer readers one review of three books, a sort of “omnibus review”. The books are: Our poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw; New History of South Africa edited by Hermann Giliomee, Bernard Mbenga, and Bill Nasson; and Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways by Sean Christie.

Reviewing three books in one shot obviously means a truncation of individual reviews. While this might help concentrate my wayward mind, it seems a bit unfair to the individual books, one of which is, for example, 696 pages long (not that I mean to confuse quantity with quality). Anyway, I am aware of this, regret it, and mean no offence to authors, publishers, or readers.

1. Our Poisoned Land: Living in the Shadows of Zuma’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw. 460pp. Tafelberg, 2022.

A favourite moment of mine took place during the Nugent Commission of Inquiry into Sars. Evidence emerged that erstwhile Sars commissioner Tom Moyane – presumably planning to sue Jacques Pauw for defamation (or to do something worse) – had paid an attorney some R300 000 to read Pauw’s book, The President's Keepers (2017).

Judge Robert Nugent was heard to exclaim irascibly [ii]: “Well, what is this book, for heaven’s sake? Is it [Tolstoy’s] War and Peace?”

It wasn’t; and nor is Our Poisoned Land much like War and Peace. What then is it?

If you scan the Internet and other similar places, scrutinizing reviews, ads, and marketing stuff, and look at the book itself, Our Poisoned Land might seem like a sequel, the expected “follow-up,” to The President's Keepers. It might smell [iii] like a sequel, seemingly behave like one, and even quack like one.

But it’s not. While Our Poisoned Land is indeed about living in the land poisoned by Zuma and his keepers (we’ll get to this), it is to a surprising extent premised on and built around the life and “adventures” of J. Pauw.

Or – to be more accurate and fairer – it is constructed around what happened to Pauw when and after The President's Keepers was published. In fact, such events are the binding narrative for most of Our Poisoned Land [iv].

So, if you were expecting fresh revelations – further unveiling of (formerly) hidden SARS, State, cigarette trade, or Zuma secrets, you’re not going to find them in this book [v]. But this doesn’t, in my view, overly affect the value of the book.

What the reader does encounter is the story of what happened after The President's Keepers came out – the events, their ramifications and relevance – and then, and this is the important part, interwoven with this narrative are a series of detailed and thoroughly researched chapters covering the landscape of corruption, malfeasance, and dirty dealing that took place during the Zuma reign and, in some cases, continue even now.

Pauw covers the “take-over” of the state security agency (SSA) and the “story” of Arthur Fraser; the story of Roy Moodley and JZ; SA’s “own’ Guptas in Prasa; the frightening rot in SAPS, NPA and the Hawks; what’s been happening in the Western Cape SAPS (the Jeremy Vearey story); the KZN violence; the story of Bheki Cele; Adriano Mazzotti; VBS bank, Julius Malema, and Floyd Shivambu; and so on.

Some carpers might suggest that this book does in places editorialize a bit too much and that, at 460 pages, goes on for too long. Maybe; but what we have here is a very thorough, proficient (and sometimes entertaining) compilation – what my late colleague Andrew Walker and I used to call a “pull-together” [vi] – of everything you need to know about the poison in the land and the poisoners.

At the risk of repeating myself, however, there’s nothing in this book that you wouldn’t know about if you followed these matters day in and day out and had a first-rate memory. But most people have other things on their minds and also forget things (there is so much of this stuff in this country) – and what Pauw has usefully done is put as much as possible between two covers.

As David Bullard remarked in his column this week, this book might not be an easy read [vii] but at least “you don’t need to wade through the whole Zondo report because Pauw has done that for you”. 

I once saw a photograph of author Kingsley Amis in his study. Whereas most authors are pictured with a backdrop of shelves of many disparate books, Amis sat in front of only the 20 volumes (maybe there were only 18 then) of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Seems to me that if you want a handy and succinct reference library to corruption, state capture, and suchlike, all you need on your desk is Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, Ferial Haffajee’s Days of Zondo, Jacques Pauw’s Our Poisoned Land, and of course a subscription to Politicsweb [viii].

2. New History of South Africa edited and compiled by Hermann Giliomee, Bernard Mbenga, and Bill Nasson. 696pp. Tafelberg, 2022.

In recent decades, there’s been such an emphasis on electronic communication, including of course eBooks [ix], that these days one seldom reads comments about so-called “production values” (unless one is an art book aficionado).

This book, however, the second edition of 2007’s New History of South Africa, is gorgeously made – from its cover and endpapers to its illustrations and printing. It’s a really sumptuous production; kudos to Tafelberg for having put in the energy, care and money to produce it. (I.e., even if you don’t read it, you ought to have it on your bookshelf.)

Editorially, it also seems to me to be very fine. The editors/compilers remark in the preface that the underlying idea was “to present the development of South Africa ... as a rich story” – a “general history” that is moreover “readable” and covers SA “from its deep past in the mists of time right up to the present”.

In short, the goal of the New History is to present SA “in a balanced, judicious and empathetic manner. [I]t sets out to do what history books should help us to do, which is to understand,” say the editors.

Presumably there exist “expert” historians who might carp about his/her area of expertise – saying that this detail or that one is not quite correct or has been over- or under-emphasized – but as far as I can tell (and obviously I haven’t read every word or even half the words, yet) this book does live up to its aims.

It’s also pleasing that the editors/compilers (and for this new edition, it seems Nasson has been in the driving seat) refuse to have any truck with political correctness or political point-scoring.

From the get-go they make it clear that this book eschews old-fashioned traditional white historiography, nor does it accept that other “leap of wishful imagination,” that the country was completely “empty” prior to the Voortrekkers of the 1830s travelling northwards – that it had been completely depopulated by the pre-colonial upheaval of the Mfecane.

But at the same time, the editors don’t accept “the historical validity of any black African claim to the entire landmass that today constitutes SA”. For such a claim obviously overlooks the complicated twists and turns of real history.

“Silence about such tangled aspects of the past may well be the most desirable course for politicians fond of drumming up their own versions of ancestral heritage for present purposes. [But] [f]or their part, historians have an obligation not to be silent, for their job is to remember – most especially – those things which make the course of the past uneven”.

The editors are also not prepared to indulge what they call the “lip-curling habit of mind” that views “the national past as a simple story of who or what to praise and who or what to blame” – as a tale of goodies and baddies.

In the view of the editors, to do that is to fall into a “profound misunderstanding” of past history. “Indeed, as we hope this book will illuminate, the human complications, paradoxes and ambiguities of SA history are, in many respects, the most characteristic thing about it”.

But enough tub thumping (on behalf of the publisher and editors) from me; it’s just that I do grow excited when I encounter a subject being handled by a group of apparently competent, rational and well-informed folk.

Talking of which, and leaving out the editors, nearly every major SA historian one can think of seems to have contributed words to this book: Richard Elphick, Jeff Peires, Heribert Adam, Luli Callinicos, David Welsh, Milton Shain, Albert Grundlingh, Tom Lodge, and Lawrence Schlemmer.

And there are guest appearances (so to speak) by Richard Mendelsohn, Benjamin Pogrund, Howard Barrell, William Gumede, Politicsweb’s James Myburgh, and (even my old friend) Jan-Jan Joubert (see endnote vi). The only historian I do not see is Charles van Onselen; perhaps he does not take part in “group projects,” I don’t know.

And, of course, as readers will have gathered, the book covers our history from the beginning (whenever that was) right up to yesterday, if not today.

3. Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways by Sean Christie. 242pp. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2016.

Three brief anecdotes. In May/June 2013 a reporter from the Mail & Guardian came to do a story about the Daily Sun, of which I was then the publisher/ de facto editor. His name was Sean Christie, and I was very impressed with him – because of his approach.

He could have written stuff about a bunch of bozos obsessed with tokoloshes; he could have written about the bumptious laaitjie (me) who thought he could get his feet into Deon du Plessis’s shoes; and so on. But he didn’t (you can find the story he wrote here[x]).

Instead, he got into the spirit of the Daily Sun, trying hard (and succeeding, in my view) to understand it; and, as you can read in his story, he chose to participate in the Sun’s famous or notorious “editing process,” as if he were any other staffer.

No. 2. Some years ago I went to visit the late Jonathan Ball in the Cape to discuss a book written by a friend. En passant Ball said he was obviously under pressure not to publish books that clearly weren’t going to break even, let alone earn a rand or two, and then remarked, “But there’re some books, of course, that, even though you know they won’t make money, you must publish,” and he mentioned Sean Christie’s Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard.

No. 3. Some weeks ago I was watching TV when loadshedding kicked in. But I had a magneto lamp close by and, because I didn’t feel like moving, I reached out a hand to the nearby bookshelf to take whichever book my hand landed on.

It was Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard which, for no particular reason, I simply hadn’t read previously.

I was mesmerized, and continued reading, long after the lights came back on, until the wee hours – not least because Christie is simply such a wonderful writer. This is truly extraordinary journalism; the man has the gift.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is not about our contemporary times, viewed via corruption, politics, and the present government, as in Pauw’s Our Poisoned Land, nor is it about our history viewed across the centuries, as in the New History.

It’s about a tiny chunk of South African life that the majority of us surely didn’t know about – and that might, by the way, not even exist anymore. The events, people and Christie’s experiences in his book pre-date its publication (2016) and at the end Christie suggests that what he described and took part in had pretty much disappeared [xi].

But what a small slice of our national life it was! The book’s about the community of stowaways (they came off ships, usually giant cargo carriers, on which they’d stowed away), mainly east African young men, who lived – from about 2010 to 2015 – under Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela Boulevard, on the foreshore.

They called themselves Beachboys and had their own species of communal life happening at the bottom end of Cape Town, unbeknown to you and I travelling back and forth on the highway above them.

Christie’s no bleeding-heart liberal. He’s simply one of those extremely rare people who is able to accept other people as they are, on their terms, and who simultaneously manages not to pose any threat to others, even if he’s completely “different,” i.e., white and “educated”. (Cf. anecdote one above.)

In other words, Christie is clearly one of the least judgmental people in the world – and the Beachboys felt this and allowed him into their lives. In particular, Christie made friends and a long relationship with one Adam, around whom and whose family much of the book revolves.

In the prologue, Christie writes, “In place of a choice between tropes and genres – the ethnography of a community of stowaways or the biography of one stowaway in particular – [this book] is part history, part ethnography, and part biography, with a measure of memoir mixed in. It is also as much a book about 21st-century Dar es Salam and Tanzania as it is about contemporary Cape Town and South Africa”.

I’m sorry I didn’t read this book of excellent, unusual journalism, about lives happening right under our noses, right there in Cape Town, when it first came out. What can I say – except don’t make the same mistake as I did.


[i] A day or so ago, Eskom again dumped loadshedding six onto us, which is cramping my style.

[ii] Or faux-irascibly; it’s sort of his style, he’s not necessarily really angry.

[iii] David Bullard remarked in his column this week that he thought The President’s Keepers was actually titled The President’s Kippers.

[iv] So much so that that the Author’s note that ends the book is an apology to those “devastated” by Pauw’s behaviour – which refers to an incident at Cape Town’s Waterfront at which Pauw got drunk, arrested, and wrote an article inter alia accusing the cops of theft (of which they were not guilty). While I understand that Pauw wishes to express his deep remorse, I’m not certain such a mea maxima culpa should appear in a book of investigative journalism about Zuma’s keepers and national corruption. For me, this comes too close to Kardashian or Kanye West territory.

[v] And the reason why Our Poisoned Land has been “played” as a direct sequel to The President’s Keepers (but isn’t) is not, I think, hugely complex. If you have a startlingly successful “formula” then obviously you do your best to retain/repeat it. And if readers don’t know what a success The President's Keepers was, how it became a cult book in SA, and so forth and so on, there is plenty in Our Poisoned Land that will tell them. E.g., p. 460: “The President's Keepers became the fastest-selling book since Nielsen BookData started auditing SA book sales in 2004 and has sold more than 205 000 copes”.

[vi] A personal anecdote, if I may. When my biography of Zuma was published in 2008, former Media24 journalist Jan-Jan Joubert wrote a review in which he (along with a multitude of others) penned a number of criticisms of the book. Unfortunately I can’t remember what they were (perhaps I’ve

repressed them), but doubtless they were apt. What I do recall, however, is that Joubert was above all deeply indignant about my use of the word “pull-together”. He said that he, qua journalist, had never heard of such a thing before. Well, there you go, Jan-Jan (your friend, Jeremy-Jeremy).    

[vii] I’m not certain if DB was referring to the content of the book or to its style. If the latter, well, Pauw is no George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens or P.J. O'Rourke. But then I guess he doesn’t have to be.

[viii] Which, strangely, Pauw does not ever quote. Oh well, chacun à son goût.

[ix] Exacerbated locally by the cost of physical books and the difficulties involved in finding either the latest or the less “populist” ones.

[xi] But I understand one can still find the book, in local book shops or by contacting JBP – and it’s worth doing so.