A journalist’s view

2007-12-12 00:00

A few minutes after Dimitri Tsafendas had delivered Gerald Shaw’s lunch to the parliamentary press gallery, Shaw watched him stab Prime Minister Hendrik

Verwoerd to death. With material like this, writing an autobiography must be a pleasure. There were other dramatic personal experiences such as the Pretoria bus boycott of 1957 and the Langa strike and march on Cape Town led by Philip Kgosana in 1960.

Shaw is a veteran and much-respected journalist, best known as deputy editor of the Cape Times and author of its weekly political survey column that ran for 30 years (and was printed in The Natal Witness for some while). His book is a fascinating mixture of personal reminiscence from the world of South African newspapers and politics; and a more detached analysis of recent events in the country’s history. He writes with great insight, for example, on the transition between apartheid and democracy and on the Mbeki era. Further back, the sections on the information scandal of 1979 and the decision of Shaw’s editor, Tony Heard, to publish his famous London interview with the exiled and banned Oliver Tambo make an absorbing read.

This is a highly individual, liberal view of South Africa’s past, all the more valuable given the current tendency to discredit such interpretations. The problem with a book like this for the informed reader is that it necessarily rehashes so much routine history. Shaw’s insistence on describing as a miracle the hard-headed, common sense political outcome that established democratic institutions in South Africa buys into national mythology. However, he is absolutely correct to suggest that politics in this country remains absorbing because it involves such fundamental issues.

There is no one better placed to tackle these issues over the past half century than Gerald Shaw. The minor irritations are easily forgotten in the reading of his short, but rewarding book.

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