Book Review: Saracen at the Gates

Book Review: Saracen at the Gates by Zinaid Meeran

Saracen at the Gates is available at Lobby Books for R150

What happens when the self-declared princess of Johannesburg’s curry mafia falls head-over-heels, if rather unexpectedly, in love with a radical activist “coconut” girl? When Zakira, the heiress-to-be of a wealthy Indian bakery and shady business empire, meets Sofie, the political firebrand and libertarian daughter of a gentle academic, both of their lives take some entirely unanticipated turns. Zinaid Meeran’s gallivanting and OTT novel, which won the 2008/09 European Union Literary Award, is a hilarious satire that illuminates the frictions of religion and tradition within one of Jozi’s most colourful, but also incestuous and myopic cultural enclaves.

Meet Zakira and her shopaholic, alcohol-swilling, drug popping, Islamic entourage as they hold court at the local Milky Lane, her neurotic Mommy, her unhinged twin brother Zakir and her pillar-of-the-community diabetic Daddy: one fractious and lovingly dysfunctional family. Meeran’s prose is funny, witty and eminently readable. The swashbuckling plot of Saracen at the Gates will keep you guessing at the outcome of Zakira and Sofie’s entanglement until the very last page.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Saracen at the Gates is available at Lobby Books for R150.

Book Review: Nickel & Dimed

Book Review: Nickel & Dimed – Undercover in Low-wage USA by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel & Dimed is a book about economics for those of us who hate reading books about economics. This is not a dry tomb about market trends, global finance and hedge funds, but a thoroughly readable investigation into the lives and struggles of the working poor in the USA – and yes, they do exist, in their millions.


Nickel & Dimed is available at Lobby Books for R130


Nickel & Dimed is, at times, darkly funny, deeply disturbing throughout and still very poignant even though it was written almost ten years ago.

Ehrenreich, one of America’s most accomplished reporters, subverts the US military’s conception of “embedded journalism” by not simply observing and writing about her “subjects” from a detached and objective outsider’s perspective, but by becoming one of them. For a month at a time she tries to make a living from low-paid, blue collar jobs, sometimes holding down two of these at the same time. She waitresses in Florida, cleans houses in Maine and sells ladies’ wear in Minneapolis in a quest to understand how the low-income citizens of the planet’s most advanced capitalist nation manage to survive on a minimum wage.

Nickel & Dimed presents an insightful and eye-opening account of a USA you would not have come across in most American sit-coms, soapies or Hollywood movies.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Nickel & Dimed is available at Lobby Books for R130.

Book Review: Footnotes in Gaza

Book Review: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

If you’ve never read any of Joe Sacco’s beautifully crafted graphic novels, his latest work of comic-journalism, Footnotes in Gaza, is a great place to start. Sacco is a pioneer of combining investigative journalism and war zone reporting with the creative form of the graphic novel and has achieved widespread international acclaim for his award-winning previous works, including Palestine and Safe Area Goražde.

Footnotes in Gaza is available at Lobby Books for R330

If Palestine presented the reader mostly with snapshots of the lives of ordinary Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Footnotes in Gaza, which remains gripping throughout its 400-odd pages, has a more continuous storyline. Seamlessly weaving together his personal investigations and interviews in the Gaza Strip with compelling historic reconstructions, Sacco uncovers the shocking details of two bloody events that devastated the Palestinian settlements of Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956, but which have until now been all but forgotten by mainstream history.

While always maintaining his journalistic integrity, Sacco gives a voice to victims of atrocities that have been forgotten by the “official record” and in so doing turns their collective memories into an absorbing and disturbing true tale. As always, his artwork is brilliant.

This is book is a must for graphic novel lovers and novices alike, as well as for anyone interested in the past, present and future of Israel and Palestine.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Footnotes in Gaza is available at Lobby Books for R330.

Book Review: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Book Review: Should I Stay or Should I Go? To Live In or Leave South Africa edited by Tim Richman

Although this book consists of stand-alone essays, I couldn’t put it down until I’d read them all. What they have in common is a freshness and honesty and excellent writing, much of it by previously-published authors and journalists.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? is available at Lobby Books for R145

There’s a wide range of viewpoints, experiences and countries and none of the defensiveness about choices made that so often marks conversations on this topic. I read Andre Brink’s contribution, And Yet I Wish To Stay, first and would have bought it on the strength of that.

Bronwen Muller, Idasa

Should I Stay or Should I Go? is available at Lobby Books for R145.

Book Review: The Lacuna

Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So convincing is the lead character of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel that I found myself driven to Google to find out more – only to learn that Harrison Shepherd is, according to an interview with Kingsolver, the only truly fictional part of this book. She uses the lonely, eccentric and increasingly anthropophobic and agoraphobic Shepherd as a literary tool to tell the story of the socialist revolution, as it made its way via Mexico during the 1930s through the Second World War’s complicated two-step between the US and Russia and America’s rapid descent into the chauvinism of the McCathy era.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220

Shepherd observes it all, trying to stay on the margins, but occasionally finding himself in the thick of it, first as cook and then secretary to artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the household that became the virtual headquarters of the left-wing movement in Mexico. When Kahlo sends him to the US on the pretext of overseeing her New York exhibition – thereby possibly saving him from the attention of both Stalin and US forces undercover in Mexico at the time ‑ he sets himself up as a writer in suburban Carolina, recording history from the point of the view of the antiheroes and ordinary folk.

His efforts to keep a low profile ‑ “writing books is a way to earn a living in my pyjamas” – backfire as his pot-boilers turn him into something of a literary celebrity and inevitably bring him to the attention of the Dies Committee, also known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The advice offered by his chain-smoking “S-shaped” Jewish lawyer reminds us of why Barbara Kingsolver is one of the greatest writers today. I know it’s cheating to quote extensively in a book review but her words are irresistible:

“Okay, do you know anything at all about this Dies Committee?”

“Years ago they contacted my boss to come and testify. This was in Mexico…”

“Your Mexican boss had something to say about un-American activities?”

“He wasn’t Mexican. He was in exile there, under threat of death from Stalin. So he had a lot to say about the man. This was before the war, when the US was getting very friendly with Stalin. Trotsky felt the US was being hoodwinked…”


“Lev Trotsky. He was my boss.”

The cigarette ash fell to the floor. For a moment the lawyer himself seemed poised to follow it. He straightened, shook his head slowly, and reached for the letter on the desk. “I am going to give you a piece of advice. Don’t mention that you were once employed by the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

When Shepherd argues that Trotsky “hated Stalin even more than J Edgar Hover does”, his lawyer reminds him that “these subtleties are lost on the Dies Committee”.

It gets funnier, in places, and sadder, much sadder, in many too. It’s the story of a loner, who lives on the margins of society and of history, from where he observes it with sharp sadness and cynicism and records it with gentle irony. If you are interested in the development of communism at the time, this is a novel worth reading; if you are concerned about how ordinary people made their way through the political twists and turns of those years treat yourself to a memorable read.

Moira Levy, Idasa.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220.

Book Review: Able-Bodied

Book Review: Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie Swartz

In Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life, Leslie’s Swartz writes an entertaining and very warm story of his childhood as the son of a man who didn’t let his strangely-shaped feet get in the way of his joy in spending Saturday afternoons on the golf course. I finished the book feeling that I would have liked to have known his father, portrayed by Leslie in beautifully written anecdotes as a thoughtful man who loved his family.

Able-Bodied - Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie's Swartz is available at Lobby Books for R190

Leslie works in the field of disability – he is a psychology professor at Stellenbosch University and an internationally recognised researcher and author. This book, which he says he took great pleasure in writing, tells his own life story with insight and humour and also examines issues of disability as he has experienced them.

Bronwen Muller, Idasa.

Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie’s Swartz is available at Lobby Books for R190.

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

It’s very hard to write a review on Philip Pullman’s new addition to Canongate’s Myth series, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is available at Lobby Books for R140

When publishers choose the best known fantasy writer/atheist in the world to rejig the Jesus myth, they have made a very commercial decision to make a barrelful of religious zealots foam up money for them.

And impressed though I may be, it’s hard to step willingly into that barrel.

Luckily, Pullman writes so well that once you have got over yourself and actually picked up the book… the controversy settles into a very interesting, and personal, read. As an agnostic brought up Christian, I can relate to Pullman’s self description as a “Church of England atheist”.  I am also very familiar with the Gospels he has both unwoven and condensed.

The skill of Pullman lies in his ability to retain the beauty of Jesus’ philosophy of universal love and humility, while teasing out the biblical strands which underpin the prideful structures of the Christian church. It is up to each reader to weigh up the two mythical men Pullman fashions out of his own magical dust – the good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ – and decide for themselves how much resonates with their own experience of Christianity.

Personally? Pullman inspires me to take pride in what I revere from my upbringing and yet have the courage to actively, and angrily, decry that which I believe to be evil, masquerading as The Word. As for whether or not a book this controversial should be written at all… no one addresses this question better than Pullman himself:

Many of us won over by His Dark Materials consider Pullman to be a leading moral intellectual in the world today. And at this time, described by Pullman himself as the “twilight of enlightenment”, we need to hear him more than ever.

Sam Wilson, Editor in Chief: Women24, Food24 and Parent24.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is available at Lobby Books for R140.

Book Review: Testing Democracy

Solid research, clumsy structure

Testing Democracy: Which way is South Africa going? by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February (editors)

Review: Tyrone August

This review first appeared in the Cape Times.

Memories of long snake like queues twisting their way  to voting stations in April 1994 are often fondly recalled as the most vivid and poignant illustration of democracy in action in South Africa.

Testing Democracy is available at Lobby Boks for R200

But of course making a mark on the ballot paper at regular five year intervals is just one small part of being a democracy. It’s real meaning and substance lies much deeper.

Testing Democracy, edited by Neeta Misra-Dexter and Judith February of Idasa’s Political Information and monitoring Services, is alive to this fundamental disfunction.

In their introduction to the book, they refer to “the difference between the procedural forms of democracy and what really occurs in terms   of citizens realizing their socio-economic and political rights”

The book examines the extent to which the form and substance of democracy come together in South Africa. It does these two ways: firstly, by providing an overview of the key challenges facing our democracy, and, sadly, through a detailed assessment based on Idasa’s democracy Index.

Those who sketch the overview includes some of the country’s most authoritative  policy analysts and academics, including Aubrey Mashiqi, Steven Friedman, Pierre de Vos, Haroon Bhorat and Raenette Taljaard.

Mashiqi starts off by providing a broader context, with the aim of drawing lessons from elsewhere in Africa.

While he rightly dismisses the glib and unfounded equation between South African and Africa’s post –independence one-party states, his prognosis is nevertheless quite grim.

“Single-party dominance or a dominant party system may have the same corrosive effect on democracy as one-party rule,” he states. For instance, he asks whether the ANC would have resolved its leadership battles in quite the same way-re-calling the then president Thabo Mbeki, and fielding a presidential candidate facing criminal charges- if it faced a real threat of defeat at the polls. “There is no doubt that single-party dominance in South Africa informs the political choices of the ruling party and the quality of citizen’s democratic experience,” he says.

Bhorat and Carlene van der Westhuizen point to a more insidious, but no less serious, threat to South Africa’s democracy:  the high levels of poverty growing economics inequality.

They point to the obvious social conflict this can provoke. In the long term, they suggest, this can even threaten the survival of democracy (they point to a study which found that citizens are unwilling to support democracy when there is economic inequality.) The notion of the development state is often put forward as the most effective way of addressing poverty and inequality in South Africa. However, Sam Ashman, Ben Fine and Susan Newman provide a sobering reminder of the history and evolution of this debate. They argue convincingly: “South Africa is so far from being a developmental state that it is  farcical  for it to claim such status” Instead, they believe, the status quo- a neoliberal capitalists economy-will essentially be retained under President Jacob Zuma, the only difference being new beneficiaries.

What is needed instead, they assert, is a far more radical shift in economic policy, in which state intervention and ownership feature prominently. They do not regard the ANC as capable of making this shift, and dismiss those in its ranks who wave the “developmental state” banner as opportunistic. Instead, they look to what they describe as popular oppositional movements to take on this battle. And this battle, it seems, is already well under way: Kate Lefko-Everette refers to statistics that South Africa “probably has more than anywhere in the world.”

In his introduction, De Vos discusses the role of four institutions specifically set up by the constitution to advance democracy: Parliament, the judiciary, The National Prosecuting Authority and the Chapter 9 institutions. He acknowledges their many strengths, but arrives at a conclusion similar to Mashiqi: “Given the governing party’s overwhelming electoral support, it is perhaps inevitable that the checks and balances operate in a less robust fashion that intended by the drafters of the constitution.” But, despite a weak and fragmented opposition, all is not lost. Friedman believes civil society can play an important role in holding government to account and influencing decision-making.

“The more citizens are able, through organizations that are independent of government, to voice their needs and beliefs to other citizens and public decision-makers,” he says, “the more public decisions are likely to become a consequence of a process in which the various voices of the people compete for influence and the outcome reflects the voice of the majority that flows from that contest.”  The second section of Testing Democracy is the meat of the book: it outlines Idasa’s Democracy Index in detail. This index was initially developed by Robert Mattes and Richard Calland, and is essentially an assessment of South Africa’s democracy based on 100 questions. These cover five areas: participation, elections, accountability, political rights and human dignity.

It is the third time Idasa has embarked on this exercise. The result is a rich source of empirical data: these provide a number of measurable indications of the state of our democracy. In the process, in quite a systematic and rigorous way, it identifies the many challenges South Africa still faces. This is where its real value lies: in enabling so-called ordinary people to speak up for themselves.

More’s the pity, then, that Testing Democracy will be inaccessible to many of them. Some of the language is rather dense, and at times even some of the most up-to-date policy junkies will be left floundering in its wake.

The structure of the book is also a little awkward. Placing the Democracy Index in the first section followed by the views of the analysts, would perhaps have provided a more logical flow, (the biographical information in between the introduction and the main body seems particularly odd)

But no matter, Testing Democracy Index is a solid work of research, contextualized and interpreted by some of the country’s most knowledgeable analysts. It certainly achieves its goal of providing a clear snapshot of the state of our democracy. Its conclusion makes for uncomfortable reading. “South African democracy is developing slowly, stagnating in many areas and actually regressing in others,’ the editors state. “The overall picture is one of clogged wheels and significant barriers.” The challenge therefore remains urgent to provide substance to our formal democracy. Testing Democracy provides important markers on the road ahead. Government will miss these at their, and our, peril.

August is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Cape Times.

Book Review: Zoo City

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes’s new novel Zoo City is a pacey, hard-edged affair that is hard to put down once it’s sunk its claws into you.

When Zinzi December, the story’s tough-cookie heroine with a tragic past, a special gift for retrieving lost things and a sloth on her back, reluctantly agrees to search for the latest human asset of music-mogul-on-the-come-back-trail Odi Huron, she has no idea what she is getting herself into.

Zoo City is available at Lobby Books for R125

Beukes shows us a schizophrenic Johannesburg/Joburg/Jozi at its most familiar and like we’ve never seen it before as Zinzi tears through the city’s grimey underbelly from decrepit Hillbrow apartment slums to “gated communities fortified like private citadels” and the “rotten heart of leafy suburbia”.

Beukes/Zinzi constantly negotiates and transcends the blurred boundary between gritty reality and the fantastic all the way to the story’s cataclysmic and rather freaky climax.

Zoo City is a dark novel with many a silver lining. It’s inhabited by imaginary alligators as well as more lethal reptiles, ruthless opportunists, gullible Americans, refugee lovers and many other vivid characters, both wicked and likeable.

This is intelligent and witty urban writing for the 21st century: unashamedly South African yet thoroughly metropolitan; wildly entertaining, yet richly nuanced.

Anyone who was worried about Beukes’s ability to live up to the wide acclaim and excitement raised by her debut novel Moxyland can rest assured. This is even better. Zoo City reaffirms Beukes as one of South Africa’s most imaginative new literary voices.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

This review first appeared on here.

Zoo City is available at Lobby Books for R125.


Zoo City

Lauren Beukes’s new novel Zoo City is a pacey, hard-edged affair that is hard to put down once it’s sunk its claws into you.

Book Review: Social Accountability in Africa

Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners’ Experiences and Lessons, edited by Mario Claasen & Carmen Alpín-Lardiés

Social accountability is increasingly being recognised in Africa as an intrinsic and necessary political tool to preserve democracy in those countries on the continent that are opting for multi-party democracy. With the growing recognition that elections alone are a necessary but by no means sufficient condition to guarantee a transition to a democratic regime, different countries in Africa are designing diverse and innovative tools and strategies for ensuring that their governments are indeed responsive to the electorate.

Among the citizens of these countries – and sometimes also among their leaders ‑ there is a growing recognition that elections only hold elected officials to account and not appointed office-bearers. A vote alone amounts to no more than selecting the best candidate during elections; citizens of newly democratic African states are asking who holds governments accountable between polls?

Social Accountability in Africa is available from Lobby Books at R200

With this question in mind, the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in Africa (ANSA-Africa) conducted a series of case studies in different countries across Africa to explore different models of social accountability. It looked beyond the government-initiated commissions and institutions created in some countries to the role played by citizens and civil society in building more effective states through social accountability approaches.

It debunks the old convention that accountability exists only between those who hold formal state power and those who do not and in its research records instances in which institutions have been designed to encourage holding one’s peers and non-elected officials accountable as well. ANSA-Africa holds that the active participation and engagement of citizens and civil society groups in policy-making and implementation can greatly improve governance.

“Citizen monitoring can complement elections and by so doing reinforce and improve accountability mechanisms. It can include social audits of public services and expenditure-tracking surveys and citizen monitoring can also raise awareness of the performance of public services and put pressure on institutions to act,” argue the study editors, Mario Claasen and Carmen Alpin-Lardiés, who are researchers in the Economic Governance Programme of Africa-wide democracy institute, Idasa.

The research, managed by Idasa, was backed and supported by Victoria Ayer and Steven Grudzof the South African Institute for International Affairs. Initiated by the Human Sciences Research Council, it is a continent-wide project conducted by the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in Africa (ANSA-Africa) and the findings were released in May as Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners Experiences and Lessons.

“Social accountability can significantly promote sustained good governance in Africa. This may help to address the many challenges the continent faces in moving towards sustainable development, in particular achieving the challenges of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals,” writes Dr Olive Shisana, Chief Executive Officer of the Human Sciences Research Council, in the foreword to the book.

Social Accountability in Africa: Practitioners’ Experiences and Lessons is a collection of diverse case studies from across Africa, which present unique approaches to how social accountability strategies and interventions are implemented within different countries. The book is written by practitioners, for practitioners, providing first-hand experience of designing and implementing social accountability initiatives and the challenges, methods and successes each one presents.

It considers independent institutions established to promote accountability and good governance in state institutions, including commissions on human rights or gender, ombudsmen and anti-corruption commissions. Most of these institutions play a monitoring role and are meant to be independent from state institutions. However, it documents the challenges these forms of institutions sometimes face when the states that set them up deliberately undermine their independence. They also face challenges of under-resourcing (both human and financial), ambiguously defined roles, and the most common one of not having the necessary ‘teeth’ to reprimand officials for misconduct.

South Africa is an example of this with Chapter Nine of the Constitution establishing a number of bodies such as the Public Protector, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Auditor-General. However, in the current socio-political context, Chapter Nine institutions, given their capacity constraints, reliance on government funding, and need for government support, require the support of civil society organisations. In short, they lack power, and therefore the role of CSOs in entrenching social accountability in South Africa is especially important.

Uganda has an elaborate legal and institutional framework to promote government accountability and improve governance. The government has also established several institutions to promote transparency and accountability. Yet despite all these provisions, public perception of government is low and, frustrated with the lack of progress in fighting corruption and poor service delivery, civil society organisations are beginning to develop social accountability programmes to mobilise citizens to push for change.

In Kenya, following the post-election crisis, and once the National Accord was signed, a civil society coalition was created, comprising four broad groups – the National Civil Society Congress, Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, Vital Voices and the Humanitarian Coalition. The Kenyan example, where non-state actors played a major role in enforcing the international agreement, demonstrates that accountability requires a strong public voice and strong accountable institutions and rules. It also shows that the international community is important in promoting accountability.

The African Peer Review Mechanism can also serve as a catalyst for accountability, offering civil society various entry points to influence governance, raise issues of concern and demand accountability like mass public meetings, workshops, nationwide opinion surveys and written public submissions. But this opportunity for participation should not be automatically assumed and civil society may have to fight for it. The process can seem complex, intimidating, lengthy and elitist.

The book cites a wide variety of approaches that have emerged under the rubric of social accountability:

  • In Mozambique a joint Frelimo and Renamo initiative led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Office for Prevention and Fight against HIV and AIDS (Gabinete Parlamentar de Prevenção e Combate ao HIV e SIDA GPPC-HIV e SIDA).
  • The Results for Kenyans Programme facilitated cultural and attitudinal change in the public sector and citizens. It enhanced service accessibility and client service orientation. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission Survey 2006 showed that 95% of Kenyans interviewed had heard of “Huduma Bora ni Haki Yako” the campaign slogan of the programme.
  • In Johannesburg, a process was set up to ‘democratise’ and ‘de-technify’ municipal planning, to re-orient politicians and officials to think in micro-developmental and community-based terms, as well as positively engage community activists in a meaningful and structured way.
  • The use of Citizen Report Cards, a relatively ‘friendly’ instrument by which citizens ‘grade’ public servants on their performance in an attempt to encourage them to improve, is on the rise throughout the world.
  • Tougher strategies, such as independent anti-corruption ombudsmen, are also on the increase. The number of independent agencies has increased dramatically in recent years, such as the Public Protector in South Africa, the Inspector-General of Government in Uganda and Malawi’s Ombudsman.

The study proposes that the traditional approach to resource monitoring which focuses almost entirely on the accounting side of the issue must be modified to emphasise accountability so that all of the major stakeholders in the decentralisation process are empowered to play their role in furthering accountability in general, and social accountability in particular.

Moira Levy, Idasa

Social Accountability in Africa is available from Lobby Books at R200.