Old School

A few months back I received a Facebook invitation to the Highlands North Boys’ High School Class of ’88 reunion. I marked that I was “interested”, but the truth is that I was ambivalent about going. It’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with big-bellied, bald men approaching 50 who would certainly drink too much and sing school war cries. It’s just that when I think of high school, I cringe.

It was the something of November 1988 when I finished my final matric exam and walked out of the gates of Highlands — pronounced Haai-lands — in northeastern
Johannesburg for the very last time. I was leaving behind boyhood and taking my first
tentative steps into the world of adulthood — long hair, beer and, hopefully, sex.
While I was waiting at the gate for my mother to fetch me, a speeding yellow Datsun stormed into the school. The tyres screeched as the car performed doughnuts and figure-eights, black smoke belching from its exhaust. The driver had his hand pressed down on the hooter — beep-barp-beep-barp. It was a drive-by hooting.

Pupils poured out of classrooms to watch the car race up and down. Then the Datsun
came to a stop and in what seemed like one well-rehearsed choreographed movement,
four doors swung open and six boys spilt out. They were my classmates who had also
just finished their school career at Highlands. They started pelting passing pupils with eggs. It was pandemonium. A teacher marched up to the egg pelters, who scattered. All the boys save one managed to jump back into the Datsun, which sped away. The teacher grabbed the hapless boy by his ear. The teacher’s car had been splattered with egg yolk. The boy he’d grabbed was a muscleman you would not want to meet in a dark alley — or in any alley, or anywhere.

“Please,” I willed the boy, “smack that smug look off his face.” I wanted justice for being the teacher’s punching bag — or at least one of his punching bags — when I was unlucky enough to be in his geography class three years earlier. He was due some
comeuppance and it would be symbolic if it happened on my very last day of school, my
final moments on Highlands soil, because there was no way I was ever coming back. The boy didn’t do it. Instead, the teacher made him take off his shirt, and the poor bare-chested guy cleaned the teacher’s car with it.

My high school years — 1984 to 1988 — weren’t all terrible. I had friends, I learnt stuff, there were some very good teachers (OK, there was one — thank you, Mr Ledwidge), I played sport and Highlands wasn’t Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, where there are no holidays for the abused pupils who are whipped and starved by Mr Wackford Squeers. But there were many periods of terribleness. I endured Christian National Education, swart gevaar propaganda, veld school, cadets, corporal punishment and bullies — both in the form of sadistic teachers and brutish pupils. When I walked out of the gates in 1988 I had no desire ever to return. I had done my time. I didn’t want anything to do with the school.

While I was at school I’d fantasise about the day when one of the bullies would come
to see me in my huge office. I’d be all successful and have this huge grin on my face as he told me a hard-luck story. He’d call me Sir, issue a heartfelt mea culpa, beg for forgiveness and plead for a job. I’d shake my head sadly and say, “I’d love to give you a
job, Biff Tannen, but … nah!”

I also dreamt of bumping into my geography teacher and the headmaster, and belittling them. But mostly I just wanted to move on. And I did. That is, until Facebook happened and I found myself being added to a Highlands North Boys’ High School page, stirring up unwelcome emotions.

Thanks for nothing, Zuckerberg.

Highlands opened its doors in 1939 and when I arrived 45 years later it was a rough-
and-tumble school made up of boys from mostly working-class and lower middle-
class immigrant families: Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Brits, Greeks and Jews. That was our diversity.

It was said there were two kinds of boys who went to Highlands: lawyers and their
clients. Not too many Old Boys in my year became ground-breaking researchers or
captains of industry, and the Highlands old school tie is about as useful as an Iraqi
passport. As far as I know, our most famous Old Boy is cricketer Mandy Yachad, who represented SA in a single ODI (scoring 31 runs) because most of his career took place
during the international sporting boycott in the 1980s.

Our school was just another brick in the apartheid wall. Each year on Republic Day
(May 31) we were forced to take part in a military parade. We’d march around a field
being commanded to “eyes right”, salute dignitaries, and then stand at attention
behind a cheer-leading squad from Waverley Girls, our sister school. The cheerleaders bent over to pick up their batons, giving the boys behind them a split-second flash of their knickers. It was the highlight of the year. On “normal” days, 16-year-old cadet corporals would haul other boys out of the marching line and command them to do
ridiculous things, such as tell a joke that would make the troop of mini-soldiers laugh, or else he’d “liberty” them. Being “libertied” was Highlands talk for being punched in the face. The jokes that emerged from terrified boys whose minds had gone blank were inevitably of the racist variety, which tells you a bit about what commonly passed for humour in those ranks.

I remember one Monday morning hearing boys talk about how they had gone “K-bashing” over the weekend. I’m pretty sure it was nothing but talk, but the school,
like South African society, was sick, violent, perverse and toxic.

In 1991, three years after I left school, black pupils were admitted to previously all-white classes in a few government schools where “enlightened ” parents had approved plans for limited integration. I doubt if Highlands was one of them. I’m not sure when the school admitted its first black pupil, but I do remember doing a double take when I saw a black pupil in the blue-and-white-striped blazer.

My association with that blazer, like the old South African flag, was one of profound
racism. Although I kept my vow and never returned to the school, I’d occasionally visit
it virtually and hang out on the Facebook page, which for many Old Boys was a nostalgic romp through their glory days. My meander down memory lane was not
as pleasant.

When I received the invitation, I wondered why high school reunions seem to mean so much to so many people. It’s even a whole Hollywood movie genre. Maybe it’s because we all started at the same place and we want to compare how we stack up against our peers. Yes, I was curious to see how my former classmates had turned out: who had been successful, who was on their third marriage, and who had been lucky enough to have kept their thick hair (not me, unfortunately).

I decided not to go. When I thought about why, I realised it was because I was ashamed of myself. I hadn’t stood up to the corporals. I hadn’t confronted the people who told racist jokes or who boasted about going “K-bashing”. I was complicit. I didn’t go because there was nothing glorious about going to an apartheid school. As it is for most people, my high school years evoke contradictory feelings — of longing and belonging, loathing and alienation; of moments of joy and an eternity of dread, humiliation and regret; of strong bonds of friendship and deep animosity. Of pride and of shame. I try not to think of school but when I do, Bright Blue’s haunting song Weeping plays in my head.

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Celebrating The Joy of Matt


Grand MASTers: Matt Buckland and I at The Mast – about four hours into our 7-hour ride.

For a few months at the beginning of 2018 at about 3pm every Friday my phone would ring … I’d be hoping that I wouldn’t get The Call, because that call meant pain! It was Matthew Buckland with his plans for the following day’s ride.
“I think we need to do The Mast three times,” he’d say. The Mast is a steep climb at Tokai: doing it once is brutal, doing it three times is, well, truly meshuggah.
Or he would say, “I’m thinking Die Wa Pad, then Noordhoek Peak, then the Mast and then the Peak again.” I was usually thinking, but where will we stay overnight?
Matt was training for the Transalp – one of the world’s toughest multi-stage mountain bike races that takes riders along a 600km journey with 18,000 metres of climbing through Austria, Switzerland and across the Alps to Italy.
I wasn’t doing it but had volunteered to join him on long, tough training rides. When we told friends we encountered where we’d been and where we were going, they would shake their heads and tell us we’re mad. “If you think I’m mad,” Matt would respond, pointing at me, “he’s not even doing the Transalp.”
I joined Matt for two reasons: I love riding and I enjoyed spending time with him. Matt was interesting and fun and always buzzing with creativity. (Probably a third reason too is that I am actually mad.)
One ride was particularly memorable. Matt wanted to ride up all Cape Town’s main climbs. We set out at the crack of dawn and we rode and rode and rode. It took us seven hours and some change. (Here’s a link to the ride on Matt’s profile on the cycling app Strava.)
Conquering the Transalp was important for Matt, and he succeeded. When he returned he told me that one of the days was particularly brutal and he didn’t think he would make it but then he remembered our 7-hour ride and he knew he could do it.
Soon after he returned from the Transalp he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. On the day of his first chemo session in October 2018 he started to write So You Want to Build a Startup, a book about his entrepreneurial journey. Two months later he sent the manuscript to his publisher.
Matt died on 23 April last year shortly before his book was published. He was just 44.
There was a massive outpouring of heartfelt tributes – Matt was loved.
Whenever I see someone wearing a similar cycling jersey to the one he wore my heart skips a beat. And then I remember.
For our last daily episode of Amabookabooka we chat to Matt’s dad Andrew and Matt’s friend, Vince, and pay tribute to Matt – a tech guru, a digital fundi, an entrepreneur, an innovator, a journalist, a publisher, an author, a passionate mountain biker and a compulsive dreamer who had big dreams. You can listen to the episode here.

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Amabookabooka: The Quarantine Chronicles

We have been running a daily interview with authors in lockdown for our special series Amabookabooka: The Quarantine Chronicles. The authors we’ve interviewed have written all sorts of books: crime (Deon Meyer), organised crime (Caryn Dolley), historical fiction (Fred Khumalo), speculative fiction (Imraan Coovadia), biographical fiction (Hedi Lampert), family fiction (Raashida Khan), self-help (Judy Klipin), tween fantasy adventures (Bontle Senne), amusing musings and whimsical witticisms on social media (Gus Silber), environmental romance (Melissa Volker) and a range of enthralling memoirs (Brent Meersman, Sara-Jayne Makwala and Moe Shaik) and an extraordinary author/publisher who produced an entire book in just seven days (Melinda Ferguson).

In Friday’s episode we interview Lindiwe Hani – an author, a mother, a recovering addict and the remarkable daughter of Chris Hani

Friday was the 27th anniversary of the SA Communist Party leader’s assassination. It was a watershed moment in South Africa and anyone who is old enough remembers where they were when they heard the devastating news. For many he was the president we never had. But 12-year-old Lindiwe hadn’t lost the head of the SACP – it was her daddy who had been cruelly taken away from her. Tragedy after tragedy followed – a teenage pregnancy and an abortion, the death of her boyfriend, the death of her sister – and Lindiwe disappeared into a fog of cocaine and booze until she smashed into rock bottom. In 2014, she became sober. In 2017 she penned her memoir Being Chris Hani’s Daughter, detailing her descent into addiction and the hard road to recovery and redemption. People often wonder what South Africa would be like if Chris Hani hadn’t been killed – it’s an impossible question and while we can speculate, we don’t know. What I do know, though, is that Chris Hani would have been extremely proud of his courageous daughter.

In this episode Lindiwe’s talks about her father, her addiction, and coming face to face with her father’s killers. The 10th April is usually a busy and demanding day for Lindiwe. She spends it at her father’s graveyard with different politicians but today she won’t be distracted by all of that and will spend the day “reflecting, remembering and appreciating my father … and I’ll have a good cry.”

You can listen to that episode (and all the others and more from our previous seasons) and subscribe to our Amabookabooka podcast – and the episodes will magically find you.

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Betrayal book launch

betrayal - love books launch

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How a Wombat and a Jackal kept the wheels of justice turning

When I was summonsed to be a judge’s mountain-biking sidekick, it was really a butt-bruising, hair-raising sentence


The wheels of justice turn slowly … but 59km into the second day of the sani2c the wheels of justice stopped turning altogether. That was when Western Cape High Court judge Lee Bozalek fell off his bike.

From gavel to gravel, trials to trails, cross-examinations to cross-country, Judge Bozalek took a break from putting criminals behind bars to spend some time behind bars; a bicycle’s handlebars, that is.

A few months earlier we had met for coffee where he asked me to be his riding partner for the KAP sani2c – a three-day mountain bike ride in KwaZulu-Natal. Judge Bozalek was wearing a hard collar. He had been riding in Tokai Forest, Cape Town’s mountain-biking mecca, when he took a wrong turn and found himself on a downhillers’ track. Downhill is extreme mountain biking, where riders leap over obstacles and jump over gaps.

The judge misjudged a drop and landed at the bottom, hitting his head. He didn’t know it at the time – and, unbelievably, rode the rest of the way down the track – but he had broken his neck.

He was sentenced to three months in a hard collar. It could have been much worse. He didn’t want the crash to end his mountain-biking career. He needed a challenge to keep him motivated, which was when an e-mail from sani2c plopped into his inbox. It was a sign. There was just one snag: this was a team race and he needed a sidekick.

And that’s where I came in.

I was reluctant so I played the race card. I have taken part in a few mountain bike stage races and don’t particularly like the Mamil culture that goes with it. Mamils (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) ride expensive bikes, are obsessed with their cycling data, and wear clothes that are too tight, parading package-protruding bulges in coffee shops. They also take themselves far too seriously. I started out as a Mamil but after my second midlife crisis graduated to a Camil (Curmudgeonly Ageing Man in Lycra) and have now become a card-carrying Wombat (Wild Old Man in Baggies And Trendy Socks).

“Think about it,” said Lee, who is a Jackal – Judge, Addicted Cyclist, Keenly Avoiding Lycra.

A few things made me reconsider. Firstly, the sani2c Adventure – the event he’d entered – is not competitive. It would also be a break from a constantly pinging phone.

Besides, Lee had an unspoken ace up his sleeve – the old school tie. We are both alumni of the rough-and-tumble Johannesburg school Highlands North Boys High, aka Haaailands. When a Highlands boy (or, in our cases, a Highlands Very Old Boy – Lee is a class of ’68 graduate, I’m from the class of ’88), is in a pinch you came to his assistance; no questions asked. Back in the day, the pinch was “backstop” at a Doll’s House punch-up with our KES arch rivals. Loyalty is the Haaailands way come schoolboy scuffle or sani2c high water (more about that high water later).

I had to make a decision quickly because justice delayed is justice denied. I agreed. If I turned him down he might hold me in contempt.

We met for a few pre-trail motions to discuss logistics, training, and a race strategy, which was: We survive from water point to water point.

The judge explained: “We go at Bozalek pace: not bad on the flats, reasonable going downhill, and slowly-slowly uphill.” Cyclists talk about a magic power-to-weight ratio, which is the indicator of your performance in the saddle, but Lee was warning me that on the climbs I’d better exercise my power to wait. I didn’t mind. We weren’t doing sani2c to get a good time, we were doing it to have a good time.

Our training didn’t get off to a good start. On our first ride Lee crashed. Blood poured out of a deep gash on his arm. A good Samaritan drove him to the hospital, where he was stitched and patched. The next ride we managed to lose each other. Things improved after that and on our final ride we tackled Cape Town’s twin peaks – a first-degree murderous climb up to Tokai’s Mast and then a killer climb up Noordhoek Peak. Lee dubbed The Mast and The Peak, The Meak.

“Mission accomplished,” he said. “The Meak – shall not inherit the girth.”

On May 14 we were as ready as we’d ever be and, with the most important gear for a multi-day stage race in our pockets (earplugs), we made our way to the Underberg – the start of the sani2c Adventure.

The following morning, a hiss of racing snakes, a spandex of Mamils, a caravan of Camils, one Wombat and one Jackal set off on our three-day adventure from the foothills of the southern Drakensberg to the South Coast.

We cycled along farm roads and in cool pine forests; we floated down smooth, flowing singletrack, and huffed and puffed up steep climbs.

Eighty-five kilometres later we arrived at Mackenzie. It had been a tough day. Proceedings were adjourned and we retired to our tent for a night of rest and recuperation. If only. Supplements riders take cause explosive flatulence and the tent village was popping and fizzing with phaaarrrrtts so I wasn’t sure if I should put my earplugs in my ears or nose. The tent village erupted in a cacophony of snoring and a kak’ophony of farts.

I turned to my learned friend to ask what he recommended but on this occasion justice wasn’t blind, it was deaf – Lee had already inserted his earplugs into his ears. After hearing our neighbour’s death-rattle snoring, I plugged my ears.

The next morning, snoring was replaced by the sounds of smacking as 1,450 riders slapped chamois cream on their saddle-weary butts. Soon we were back on our bikes to confront the monster 97km Queen Stage from Mackenzie to Jolivet.

An hour later Judge Bozalek stopped to answer the call of nature: The Leak of Justice.

South African cycling could have its own league of justices; pedalling is popular among these legal titans (see sidebar).

I understand why judges swop the bench for the saddle: cycling clears your mind of clutter and helps you focus. I imagine judges who cycle have weighed evidence, considered arguments and wrestled with an accused’s fate while riding.

For Lee, cycling is a de-stressor and he says that in the long, blank periods of cycling, a small but important part of his brain unconsciously works on legal problems he is grappling with.

That morning though our focus was on the descent down the Umkomaas – a 40km drop, considered the jewel of sani2c – and then the agony of climbing out of the valley.

Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a couple who were crawling down slower than a stalled criminal trial bumbling its way through the legal system. The riders objected to my polite request to make way, but Lee overruled their objection and they moved aside so I had the freedom to enjoy the mountain-biking bliss of whooping and swooping down the fast switchback descent.

We eventually landed on the banks of the mighty Umkomaas, which means “the place of cow whales” in isiZulu (whales once used the estuary as a nursery, giving birth in the shallows), and after some river crossings it was time to tackle the event’s toughest climb, a 3km grind up a steep, loose-gravel and rocky hill known as The Iconic. So many riders were pushing; you could say it was a push of a climb. As we reached the 59km mark Lee tried to squeeze past a rider who had stopped on the trail and was giving us the thousand-yard stare of a battle-weary soldier, and that’s when Lee crashed. He may have hit the dirt, but his Honour remained intact.

He got up. He wasn’t going to bail. After all, The Law must take its course.

The final day saw the intrepid Haaaailands Old Boys ride through sugar cane farms, singletracks and climbs as we travelled to the sea. We had ridden about 85.5km of the 86km ride without any drama when we arrived at the floating bridge that snakes across the lagoon at Scottburgh Beach to the finish.

As we started to make our way across the bridge I thought about the judge ensuring I had an unobstructed ride down the Umkomaas descent and it occurred to me that our judge-journalist cycling adventure was a metaphor for the relationship between the media and the judiciary: the judiciary protects the interests of the media and ensures the freedom of the press; the media’s job is to keep justice and the spirit of the law alive.

But our adventure wasn’t over. We still had 500m to negotiate.

The judge was ahead of me as waves started to whip the floating bridge which, like a sexually adventurous couple, was swinging wildly. I tried to stay in the middle but the middle kept shifting as the bridge pitched aggressively to the left and then rocked savagely to the right. I looked up: the judge was wobbling precariously.

With only a few metres before the end of the bridge it looked like justice was about to plunge into the depths of the ocean, but, Lee, like a good judge, retained his balance and managed to cross without falling into the lagoon. Miraculously, so did I.

We conquered the 265km journey from the mountains to the coast in about 20 hours. It took us double the time it took the racing snakes, but the snakes weren’t distracted by the tasty snacks at the water points. Besides, we won the Haaailands Old Boys Overachievers (HOBO) category.

The verdict: it was a heart-thumping, lung-bursting, eyeball-popping, jaw-dropping, teeth-shattering, butt-bruising, hair-raising, bone-rattling, body-shaking three days on a bicycle – and we loved (almost) every minute. We were treated to nature reserves, rural villages, farms, flowing rivers, cows, bouncy trails, mountains and breathtaking views. There’s no better way to appreciate SA than on the back of a mountain bike. My only complaint is lugging a weighty bag with all the cycling gear. When I arrived home I put my bag down. Finally, after an epic adventure with the judge, I could rest my case.


SIDEBAR: The League of Justices

Western Cape High Court Judge Lee Bozalek is two Cape Town Cycle Tours away from being admitted to the elite club of cyclists who have completed 21 editions of the world-famous ride. His colleague on the Western Cape High Court bench, Judge Elize Steyn, is a formidable cyclist, completing more than 200 races, a number of them on the podium in her category. Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron has a dozen Cape Town Cycle Tours under his belt and a clutch of 94.7 Cycle Challenge medals in his drawer. When judges Azhar Cachalia and Ashton Schippers are not sitting in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, they are sitting on their bikes. Judge Schippers is probably SA’s fastest judge on two wheels. His best Cape Town Cycle Tour time is three hours, five minutes, agonisingly short of the magical “sub-three”, considered the holy grail of road cycling.

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Prof Jansen’s ‘As By Fire’ generates Heat

JansentWhat are the real roots of the student protests of 2015 and 2016? Is it actually about fees?

Why did so many protests turn violent?

Where is the government while the buildings burn, and do the students know how to end the protests?

In his book As By Fire, former Free State University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jonathan  Jansen delves into the unprecedented disruption of universities that caught South Africa by surprise. In frank interviews with eleven of the VCs most affected, he examines the forces at work, why the protests escalate into chaos, and what is driving – and exasperating – South Africa’s students.

This urgent and necessary book gives us an insider view of the crisis, tells us why the conflict will not go away and what it means for the future of our universities.

Jansen recently discussed the book on AmaBookaBooka. Listen to the episode  here:

Amabookabooks is a novel podcast about books and the people who write them. It is produced by Jonathan Ancer and Dan Dewes. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes – or wherever you get your podcasts. 

“The problem is it only got attention – scholarly attention and political attention – when it came to the former ‘white’ universities”

Prof Jonathan Jansen is a leading South African educationist, commentator and the author of several books including the best-selling Letters to My Children. He is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, where he earned a reputation for transformation and a deep commitment to reconciliation.


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The super spy you love to hate

What a thoughtful review of Spy by Robyn Sassen!

My View by Robyn Sassen and other writers


YOU WILL BE hard-pressed to pause in Jonathan Ancer’s critical biography of one of apartheid’s most notorious spies, Craig Williamson, once you start reading. From the start, this book presents a fully-fleshed terrifying character who is at once a blend of John le Carré-like intrigues mixed with ethical and deeply South African ponderables. It’s a meaty read, but one that will sweep you off your feet as you hear your pulse roar in your ears and feel your heart bleeding for the family of Williamson’s victims.

Notorious high apartheid spy, Williamson (b. 1949) was always big. He was also always something of a bully, but furthermore something of a wily strategist. Not a stupid man, but one with a fraught understanding of moral and human values, he was perfect grist for the apartheid goverment’s mill. Blend all this with time in the South African Police service, an offer under the…

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A book about the unspeakable, the unthinkable, and the unimaginable

Our latest podcast features The Twinkling of an Eye – a memoir by Sue Brown about her son, a small boy with a giant heart. You can listen to the podcast by searching for Amabookabooak on iTunes (and if you like it subscribe – or, even better, rate us) or on the Daily Maverick’s website (just click here).

I didn’t want to read Sue Brown’s memoir, The Twinkling of an Eye. I avoided it. I picked it up. I read a few pages. I put it down. I picked it up and read two chapters…. I put it down again. I picked it up a few days later. I thought I’d just skim it but it’s impossible to skim. It’s a book that demands to be read. And I’m so glad I did because I got to meet Craig Brown – a remarkable young man, who changed my life.

The Twinkling of an Eye is an act of profound courage. Sue’s life was on course – she had two happy and healthy children, friends, holidays … and then suddenly on the last day of 2010 everything came crashing down. Her family’s life was turned upside down and inside out – the safety of her bubble was replaced with doctors, operations, tumours, brain scans, radiation, fear, trauma, cancer, tears, concerned looks, well-meaning gestures, retching, rushing to hospital, bewildering medical jargon, rising panic…

The Twinkling of an Eye is a book about the unspeakable, the unthinkable, and the unimaginable – the last few months of Craig’s life. Craig died shortly after his 13th birthday. You read The Twinkling of an Eye with a Craig-sized lump in your throat and a knot in the pit of your stomach. The book is about hope and hope dashed, it’s about anguish, despair and fury, but ultimately it’s a tribute to Craig – a.k.a. the Turbinator – a witty, good natured, soccer-crazy, tennis-playing, chatty boy who had remarkable courage, bucket-loads of humour and gigantic dreams. A boy who lived passionately.

Listen to this episode of the AmaBookaBooka authors’ podcast and hear about Sue and her family’s brave journey, then go and read the book, because by reading The Twinkling of an Eye you will get to meet the famous Craig John Brown; a small boy with a giant heart. A boy who is much more important than Italy.

During this week’s Self-Publishing Corner, Dave Henderson discusses some of the biggest mistakes self-publishing authors make. Interested in self-publishing? Visit the MYeBook.co.za website for regular news.  


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The gift of hope …


Rachel celebrates her six-month bone marrow transplant anniversary.


Six months ago today we were in the isolation ward at Groote Schuur Hospital where we watched as stem cells from an anonymous donor were infused into our eight-year-old daughter, Rachel. We wore scrubs and masks as the doctor and nurse watched the stem cells drip into Rachel’s body.

About half an hour after the procedure started, the doctor took off his mask and gave us a thumbs-up.  “That’s it,” he said.  “It’s over.”

It was remarkably undramatic; even ordinary. Rachel, who had been playing on her iPad, hadn’t even noticed that a life-changing event had taken place.

The 30-minute bone marrow transplant was an injection of hope after two years of hell.

Two years earlier we had discovered that Rachel has a bone marrow failure condition called Pure Red Cell Aplasia – basically her bone marrow wasn’t making red blood cells, which meant oxygen wasn’t being transported around her body. We had become experts on the signs to look out for when her blood levels dropped. She would go so pale she looked translucent, she would lose her appetite, wouldn’t be able to sleep, become listless and lethargic, and her heart would pump so fast. If she didn’t get a transfusion she would be in danger of going into heart failure.

This is a rare disease and we were referred to a team of experts at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, which became our second home. A course of cortisone had proved unsuccessful and the only treatment available was red blood cell transfusions, which she was getting every two weeks. After a year Rachel had become transfusion dependent and her doctors told us she needed to have a bone marrow transplant – and so began a search for a donor. The experts began to crunch the data on the local bone marrow registry. We held our breath – the chances of finding a 10/10 match are one in 100 000 and there are just 70 000 people registered on the South African Bone Marrow Registry. There was one potential donor on this list but after a high-resolution test she mismatched. The search was extended to international bone marrow registries and doctors told us that the list of potential donors looked promising. However, one by one these people fell away. And then after a year’s search when we were just about to give up hope of finding a donor for Rachel – someone registered on the Germany registry. This person turned out to be a 10/10 match.

Rachel was admitted to the transplant unit in March and after a week of chemo therapy to knock out her bone marrow she received the donor’s stem cells. After being in isolation for six weeks Rachel was eventually discharged from Groote Schuur but because she had no immunity she had to be in quarantine at home. We had to worry about infections and Graft Vs Host Disease and rashes and fevers as we waited for her new bone marrow to kick-in. She took a fistful of meds each day, had weekly transfusions and almost daily painful sub-cutaneous injections and her little body was so bruised. She was also re-admitted to the Red Cross Hospital three times (for two weeks at a stretch) to fight infections. Her new bone marrow was just not getting with the programme (or as her doctor put it, it had yet to declare itself). Not only was her bone marrow not making red blood cells it wasn’t making white blood cells or platelets. Our doctors told us to prepare for a second transplant and two weeks ago we had an appointment with the professor at the transplant unit – that’s when it seems that Rachel’s new bone marrow decided to declare itself.

It’s still early days but without putting a commentator’s curse and jinxing her recovery (I’m not superstitious but still…) we think Rachel has taken a small step on the road to recovery. We know we have many more steps to travel but this first small step is a giant leap.

We have met so many amazing people on this journey and so many people – family, friends and people we’ve never met – have been so kind, thoughtful and concerned, bringing us food, helping to look after our other kids when things have got bad, sending love, writing letters to Rachel and giving her presents, and one anonymous donor gave us the gift of hope.

Tomorrow (Friday, 15 September) is Sunflower Day. It would be great if you would consider joining the registry, which you can do by visiting sunflowerfund.org.za

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Review of Spy by Breakaway Reviewers

Spy – Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer

5 stars

South Africa’s infamous “Super Spy”

When Jonathan Ancer was a studying journalism at Rhodes University, he was asked to write an article (to be published) about what he saw as the most momentous day in South African History. He chose 17 August 1982. The day that Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, mother of Gillian, Robyn and Shawn, was assassinated by a letter bomb.

He chose to write about Ruth First not because of who she married or her children, but her contribution to the struggle against apartheid. She was known as a brilliant, brave journalist and a political activist who refused to shut up about the National Party government who ruled South Africa at the time. She had fled South Africa and at the time of her assassination was working as the of director of research at the Centre of African Studies (Centro de Estudos Africanos) in Maputo, Mozambique. Craig Williamson’s form of execution was a letter bomb.

Jonathan Ancer was with a fellow journalist driving along the Ruth First Freeway in Durban when he asked his companion what he thought Craig Williamson thought when he drove along this highway, or came across streets and buildings named after her. His companion gave him a blank look and asked, “Who is Craig Williamson?” This reaction convinced him to start investigating Craig Williamson to ensure that this man’s deeds were never forgotten by South Africans. How could this man, educated at a prestigious private boys’ school in Johannesburg, have turned into a psychopathic killer working for the Security Service’s Special Branch? It appears that Williamson was known as an arrogant bully at school and when Ancer interviewed boys who had attended school with him, none showed surprise what career path he’d taken after leaving school. In South Africa during the late 60s, 70s and 80s and early 90s all boys finishing school were forced to enlist in the army. It meant nine months training and a month’s service for the next ten years – or alternatively, you could join the police force and work for four years. This is the what Craig Williamson chose. He was spotted as a potential member of the Special Branch quite soon after joining the police and, once offered the role to be a member of this secret police force, he had absolutely no hesitation in agreeing to work for them. Once his training was over, he was asked to enrol in a degree course at the University of the Witwatersrand to infiltrate the left-wing student movement at Wits.

He very quickly managed to get elected to Wits University’s NUSAS (National Students Union) committee and later the national committee of the organisation. In 1975 while in London on NUSAS business, he met Lars-Gunnar Eriksson, the head of IUEF (International University Exchange Fund). Williamson managed to persuade Eriksson to employ him and it was through this organisation that Williamson met members of the ANC, Pan African Congress’s military members (APLA) and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the military wing of the ANC) He used funds from this organisation to help people flee South Africa (obviously making him look like their friend!) However, it was all a ruse. Many of the people he helped flee the country found themselves facing treason charges with Craig Williamson as the main witness for the prosecution. I could write more about this treacherous, psychopathic man who even persuaded his wife Ingrid to spy for him when she worked at the World Health Organisation. However, I’d rather you read the book. Jonathan Ancer has done an excellent job of researching Williamson’s “career”.

Was there ever justice for his victims’ families? NO! He was granted amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He claimed that he was ordered to carry out the killings, torture and spying by his bosses; the Special Branch. Like many liberal South Africans, I was shocked when he was exposed as a spy by the Sunday Times in 1980. Members of my family fought hard to have the yoke of apartheid lifted. Reading this book and discovering that he’d declared himself bankrupt so that he didn’t have to pay damages to Jenny Schoor’s son, Fritz, was to me the lowest of the low. He lives in one of the most prestigious estates in Kyalami, South Africa; is a regular at all the top show-jumping events (his daughter being a show jumper).

His wife Ingrid, who seemed to get off without ever having to appear for being complicit in his spying developed “friendships” with many of his victims. She is still a practicing psychiatrist in Johannesburg. I want to ask one last question: This is for you Craig Williamson: How do you sleep at night? Treebeard Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.

Review by Rony Campbell Breakaway Reviewers http://www.breakawayreviewers.co.uk/

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