There are many things that could make one feel despondent in South Africa: politics, corruption, crumbling infrastructure, potholes, the lack of water – and increasing bouts of load-shedding that leave us sans electricity for hours at a time. Rural towns are falling into disrepair and even our town – a centre of education in the country – is overrun with cattle, donkeys, and an increasing number of goats. South Africans learned a long time ago to ‘make do’ and generally rely on their sense of humour to get through some of the darkest times.

This is a situation that is not always easy for outsiders to understand and so I was delighted to be lent a copy of The Miracle of Crocodile Flats: an affectionate satire by Jenny Hobbs.

You cannot imagine many places more rundown and desolate than Crocodile Flats: a decaying country town adjacent to a sprawling community of poverty-stricken shack-dwellers. Life here is a daily grind. Then, a young schoolgirl believes she has encountered the Virgin Mary, who is as brown-skinned as the people around her. As news of this miracle spreads like wildfire, we meet some of the leading characters in this cosmopolitan community which is a microcosm of South African society.

While the Catholic Church seeks verification, other religions want their share of the glory too. Jealousy and rivalry abound as the town is flooded with journalists, politicians, police, pilgrims and the curious. There is money to be made: people need to be fed and watered, have a place to stay – and who can miss out on an opportunity to get into the limelight?

A run-down hotel bursts into life; the Chinese shop quickly diversifies by providing food; a gang of thugs are frightened off by an old nun sleeping where she shouldn’t be; an Afrikaans farmer’s wife breaks out of the enclave created by her menfolk by driving a tractor and joins forces with the first (of several) wife of a black charismatic religious leader – there is definitely money to be made.

As Crocodile Flats begins to burst at the seams one cannot help laughing at the old spinster who wishes to murder her sister; feeling angry at the exploitation of the little girl who had the vision; being sympathetic to the plight of many of the characters who inhabit this world; admiring of the way communities pull together during adversity; and sighing at the satisfactory ending. This is South Africa!

Okay, Okay, Okay by Finuala Dowling is a very different look at what is currently happening in this country.

Her focus is on university life and the changes that are being wrought as a result of student protests, political correctness, poverty, bureaucracy and the combined effect these have on the people who both work and study at the university. Although the setting is Cape Town, similar situations have become common on other South African university campuses.

A student dies; cars are set alight; people are accused of being insensitive; some academics try to hold things together, while others give up completely. A man loses his job and almost loses his family as a result of the turmoil. Throughout the proceedings lessons are being learned in the most surprising ways.

The unfolding events are sad, tragic, very annoying, unbelievable – and laughable. One cannot help feeling helpless in the face of such changes and wondering about who the real winners are. The story is uncomfortable at times, enlightening and is beautifully written. It is indeed a witty snapshot of South African academia.

Both of these novels make excellent holiday reading.



We met yesterday for the first time in nearly three years. Our Book Club last met in my home in February 2020. It had been a jolly affair with a lot of laughter and we were looking forward to the next meeting in a different home in March … only there wasn’t. By the end of that month the country was plunged into a hard lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID. We couldn’t even see family members, let alone friends and acquaintances.

The WhatsApp group buzzed with jokes, links to literary matters, messages reaching out to each other, puzzles … then inertia crept in. Messages dwindled, became more focused on memes about the virus (which not everyone appreciated), about Trump (which fewer people appreciated) and fewer people responded – the only polite way to indicate a preference to leave politics and the virus out of communications.

We didn’t see each other for months on end. Some people, like me, still buy groceries at half past six on a Monday morning – as soon as the supermarket opens. Others took advantage of having their groceries delivered, while yet others chose to shop later in the day. The supermarket or the pharmacy were the only places where one might meet people in those early days of lockdown – all wearing masks of course.

Months later, I greeted one of our members who passed me while I was out walking. I was wearing a hat and dark glasses – as well as the mask still – for the day was hot. I greeted her and we both continued walking for a step or two. She turned round then and called my name. Her voice carried a startled note and she stared at me for a moment, pulled her mask down and called out “I didn’t recognise you!” I didn’t blame her. Having been short-sighted forever, I tend to recognise people by their gait.

Yesterday a member phoned “I can’t find your house!” She had driven past it several times without recognising the gate. The trees have grown in three years and so has the bougainvillea tumbling over the fence. My house is no longer clearly visible, although the gate remains the same. “I can’t believe it,” she said on arrival. “I have been coming here for nearly thirty years!” But not for three years in a row.

Early on there was a suggestion that members continue to meet on Zoom … it fell flat. One member said “I don’t have YouTube”, which gives you an idea of the technological capabilities of the group. People were still reluctant to have too many people in their homes at once … then, we could dispense with masks; we could visit each other; life was gradually returning to normal …

Still we did not meet.

Then, yesterday – at last – we did! Some members have left town, but the rest gathered in my home and it felt good. I had to serve tea on arrival because the power went off promptly at three o’clock and wasn’t to come back until half past five (that makes it sound as if the power went for a walk!). We all brought a book or two and it was fun to hear again about authors we had not read, or had forgotten about; to experience again the different points of view about books we were familiar with; to catch up briefly on what has happened in the interim; and just ‘to be’ in the company of people we have shared so much with over the years.

So, our Book Club has not died after all. One could say it has been comatose all this time – thanks to the pandemic – but there is life in us yet and we plan to meet again in January, filled with the expectation of many more meetings to come.


At home I mostly alternate between tea and coffee during the day. Holidays are excuses for branching out a little and so I enjoyed this refreshing frozen mango and lemonade drink:

This is one of several tasty cappuccino drinks I enjoyed during our recent journey to the Western Cape and back:

However, there is little to beat a home-made mug of tea enjoyed in a sunny spot along with a good book to read:

Some readers may recognise the arum lilies that featured in the recent family celebration. They lasted for a long time.


The town I live in has spawned several Book Clubs, largely because of the rather meagre holdings of the municipal library. These clubs also serve an important role in the lives of women of all ages: a legitimate excuse to abandon their families once a month to enjoy the company of friends who share a love of reading.

I was fortunate to be a member of a wonderful group of women who shared a genuine love of reading as well as a healthy disregard for pretentiousness. We shared the books we liked and felt comfortable enough with each other not to mind the cut-and-thrust of healthy criticism of our choices whilst feeling pleased when our choices were hailed as being good ones. Our conversations were generally sparked off by the books we read and ran in so many different directions that by the end of an evening we felt mentally stimulated and our souls were enriched. I use the past tense for my Book Club, already ailing from a haemorrhage of members moving out of town after their retirement, is unlikely to survive the long pandemic-induced lockdown social restrictions.

The name inside the cover of a second-hand book reminded me of a particular Book Club that we tended to regard as being ‘rather snooty’. Potential members were vetted for their suitability in terms of their social status and the intellectual level of their reading matter. We all knew some of them – really pleasant individuals: university lecturers, librarians, wives of the legal or medical fraternity, and even a few heads of departments from local private schools. It appeared to us that one had to have some ‘standing’ within the community to be accepted there – no wonder we laughed.

Private conversations revealed that several members of this Book Club were in awe of the woman whose name is in this second-hand book. As a university professor, she was their ‘highest ranked’ member. She held fixed views and hated to be criticised. It appeared that her opinion about books and authors were paramount.

She was an interesting person in her own right. While outwardly successful, with a fine house and an upmarket car to show for it, she nonetheless remained needy. She was needy in terms of demanding her share of the limelight. Professionally, she was driven and competitive. She volunteered to serve on any committee that would bring her into, or keep her within, the sphere of ‘power’. She needed to be close to what she regarded as the most powerful people within her academic field; she needed to rub social shoulders with the financially ‘better off’ and what she regarded as ‘influential’ members of our small society.

This woman was sure to be seen at every book launch, opening of an art exhibition, charity events and social functions that she perceived would benefit her profile. There were many who sniggered at her fixed smile, sparkling gold jewellery and carefully styled hairdo. She always dressed impeccably. Some of her professional colleagues wilted under her sharp tongue – they didn’t often experience the charm she turned on in public. We knew that several members of her Book Club sighed with relief whenever she wasn’t able to attend a meeting.

Retirement hit this woman hard for with it she lost a public platform on which to parade. Our town is filled with retired academics, so they are not regarded with any  of the ‘awe’ she thought she ought to enjoy. Adding to her woes was the pandemic which kept us all at home for nearly two years. She wrote papers for any online journal that would accept one, but this didn’t give her the public exposure she craved. She turned her hand to creative writing, which helped to raise her profile within a very small writing circle. It pained her when so few people recognised her or greeted her when she walked around the suburbs once the pandemic restrictions were eased to allow exercise. The pandemically-induced social restrictions cheated her out of hosting a glittering farewell when she and her husband decided to leave town. Her final ‘hurrah’ was not to be.

Hers is one of the Book Clubs that has survived the pandemic. After years of kow-towing to her ‘superior views’, the members now laugh a lot more; they tease each other; they feel free to choose a wide variety of books simply for the pleasure of reading instead of as an intellectual exercise; they argue about books and authors – and they are all very happy.


Given my interest in the plight of the horses used during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), it is not surprising that I was drawn to the title of Joyce Kotzè’s debut novel, The Runaway Horses. It is billed as ‘a saga of love and betrayal during the time of the Anglo-Boer War’, but do not expect a soppy romance or even a tale of swashbuckling soldiers. This is the story of ordinary people caught up in an event much larger than they could imagine.

There is no doubt that the Anglo-Boer War has had a long-lasting impact on South Africa. The country abounds with battle sites, war graves, blockhouses – and stories. We know about Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Elandslaagte, the Treaty of Vereeniging … we are painfully aware of the concentration camps, the burning of farms and the pitting of the Boers against the Brits which tested human relationships to the full; splitting families and friendships; causing hunger and distress; and in the end even causing rifts among those Boers who had fought so hard and long for the freedom of their country. The country is also swathed in cosmos flowers, blackjacks and Khakibos as reminders of this period of bloody conflict!

As the war dragged on and took its toll among the Boers, there were the hensoppers – people who had lost so much that they couldn’t see much point in fighting anymore and who wanted to go back to their burnt-out farms and start again. There were the verraaiers – people who, for a variety of reasons, gave up the fight and joined their former enemies. Who knows, perhaps they too simply wanted the fighting to stop so that they could rebuild their lives. There were also the bittereindes – people who had fought so long and so hard, who had lost their farms, their families, and their compatriots yet felt the very act of simply giving up would have made all those sacrifices for nothing. Then there were the British soldiers: how did they feel about sowing such widespread destruction and opposing an untrained and under-armed foe? Did they even understand what they were fighting for?

In the saga of The Runaway Horses Joyce Kotzè provides a broad sweep of soldiers on both sides of the divide from before the war began right through until its end. To create a reality her readers can identify with, she focuses on a fictitious family which is a truly South African mix of Boer and Brit. An English woman marries a Boer and becomes a valued member of the Wintersrust community, while her sister marries into minor British gentry – their children get to know each other well, little guessing that the time would come when they would find themselves on opposite sides of a war that would tear through large parts of South Africa. Kotzè’s characters become so believable and easy to identify with that the tragedy of this conflict boldly comes to the fore as the saga unfolds to portray this difficult period with insight and empathy – readers are caught up in the way in which the strong bonds between the cousins are tested to the limit during the war.

Mixing the action with historic figures such as Jan Smuts, Paul Kruger, Christiaan de Wet, General Kitchener, Lord Roberts and others help to create an authentic background to the development of the war. The author provides vivid impressions of the countryside where battles were fought as well as well-chosen details of clothing, mannerisms, and cameos that breathe life into the soldiers on both sides as well as the women left on the sidelines. By doing so, she brings into sharp focus the conflicting emotions felt by individuals on each side. James Henderson, for example, finds himself at the mercy of both his loyalty to Britain and his compassion for his Boer family.

So real are her descriptions and the careful development of her characters that the author successfully reflects the reality of the history of many South African families that are intertwined with the Anglo-Boer War both at the time and in the aftermath.  She does this by successfully portraying what life was like for the Boers on commando as well as the harsh conditions experienced in the concentration camps. It is story that remains with the reader long after the book has been closed for the last time as we reflect on the complex history of South Africa.