Book review: The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw


It’s not often that an author can say the very agency they decry in their book helped rocket it past its initial print run of 20 000 copies. But that’s exactly what South Africa’s State Security Agency did when they served Jacques Pauw and his publishers with a cease and desist notice for sharing “sensitive information” about the state. Pauw’s book, launched at the start of November, was suddenly all anyone could talk about. The print copies quickly sold out at some of South Africa’s biggest booksellers, and the ebook version climbed to number 15 on Amazon’s international charts. A pirated pdf version of the book spread like wildfire across WhatsApp and other social media sites, ensuring that many South Africans previously uninterested in the book read it.

To his credit, Pauw’s book is absolutely worth all the fuss. Pauw is a retired journalist for whom the temptation of a story about the people keeping the hopelessly corrupt South African president Jacob Zuma in power proved too tempting. He chronicles the way Zuma and his henchmen gutted and crippled South African state organs, like the State Security Agency (SSA) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The extent of the rot is staggering, and the lengths to which Zuma and his cronies went to keep themselves paid and in power is astounding.

Despite its contents, the book was a pleasure to read. Pauw writes knowledgeably and knows how to keep his reader interested. The sheer amount of information the book conveys would have been off-putting in someone else’s hands, but Pauw handles it well. It’s a page-turner.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The President’s Keepers
Author: Jacques Pauw
Publisher: Tafelberg (2017).
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.67/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s a compelling, well-researched read.
The worst feature of the book: Some of Pauw’s “old guard” shines through at times.
Trigger warnings: Nothing that I’m aware of.
You’ll like this if… You like nonfiction or political exposes.


There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun



I love November. It’s the summer month par excellence for me. Early mornings, days stretching to their apogee, their afternoons often swallowed up by thunderstorms and rain that beats the smell of ozone from the earth. November is full of the dance of some old thing we’ve mostly lost to the advent of 24-hour living. Novembers are simply magical.

November isn’t hugely productive as a rule. Combined with the mischievous wink of summer and sun and the approach of Christmas (tacky, seasonally inappropriate decorations seemed to go up at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of October) and the beckon of the schools closing for the year, November is about as circumspect as a toddler presented with a bowl of candy. It’s an odd time to be thinking about the Advent season and the new year, when so many things seem to be telling you to stop thinking, to turn your face to the sun and the season and to just breathe it all in.

I wonder whether God isn’t asking the same thing with prayer. Glancing through my prayer list, much of it is busywork: me trying to press my case or impose my will (masquerading as God’s will of course) or otherwise labouring at my idea of what a faithful life looks like. Sometimes that labour is necessary – if I didn’t go against my natural urges, how often would I get up early on a Sunday morning to go to church, for instance – but maybe like the month of November, sometimes prayer isn’t a job to do or an item to tick off or a solemn request to make, but a turning to the “sun” of God in our lives.

For the last few weeks, whenever I go outside it’s to a scatter of small lizards streaking in all directions, startled by my appearance. If basking in the sun were a religious practice, lizards out-holy us all. They go to the sun with nothing but the need to be warmed, and nothing but the expectation that they will be warmed. There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun, other than not seeking the sun, of course. There’s no wrong way to seek God, other than not seeking him.

Work and necessity will play tug-o’-war with November for our heart. Even Advent will push its own agenda. But I think the month of November is itself a kind of prayer. All the while, whatever the season, God is there, trying to lure us from the shadows of tradition and busywork and our own limitations into the warm sun of his light, love, grace and mercy; back into relationship with him, friendship with him, communion with him.

Sometimes that communion is bread and wine in a church building. Sometimes it’s the rustle of Bible pages at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s a hurried, muttered prayer in the mornings. But sometimes, other times, it’s a shady, grassy spot under a big tree with the wind whispering through the leaves.


Book review: Poison City by Paul Crilley (Delphic Division #1)



To my shame, I’m not very clued up on the local [South African] speculative fiction scene, so when Paul Crilley’s Poison City first floated across my newsfeed as part of a giveaway I had no idea the story was set in South Africa. That and Goodreads’ advice that Crilley’s novel would appeal to Ben Aaronovitch fans was enough recommendation for me.

Poison City tells the story of Brit immigrant Gideon Tau and his adventures in the insidious and supernatural underbelly of Durban as a special investigator for the Delphic Division, the secret South African branch of the police who deal with things that go bump in the night (or orishas; beings of varying power, from low grunts to deities). Like every noir detective, Tau’s battling demons on more than the professional front, also having to deal with the death of his daughter and the subsequent unravelling of his marriage. When a case turns up involving a dead vampire, Tau and his boss Armitage are pulled into an Apocalyptic showdown.

Tau’s Durban is compelling and rich in atmosphere, and he paints it with a disenchanted lover’s hand: lovingly but unflinchingly. I’d have been content to read about Tau and the Delphic Division’s adventures till Kingdom come. But as the story progresses, Poison City veers into Philip Pullman/Neil Gaiman territory, into divine plots and Armageddon. Crilley’s take on (for lack of a better word) Christian mythology is interesting but tainted with an atheist’s biblical literalism. Still, I did finish the book in a day’s time, so I can’t fault it on intrigue.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Poison City
Author: Paul Crilley
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2016)
Rating: 2.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.03/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s atmospheric, blackly amusing and scathing towards the follies of authority and humanity. The bits with the dog are funny.
The worst feature of the book: The cynicism is wearing. Tau is a hotbed of white disenfranchisement wrapped in a slick black exterior.
Trigger warnings: Blasphemy of various intensity. Gore. Situations that allude to child abuse. General wickedness. Lots of South African slang. Unwise clothing choices on the part of the narrator.
You’ll like this if… You like this genre of fiction; you like Ben Aaronovitch, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman or Jim Butcher; you want to read something South African for a change.

Looking Lectionary

Looking Lectionary: Proper 16A/Ordinary 21A/Pentecost +12



Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

It’s certainly an interesting time to ask what the church has bound and loosed. Over eighty percent of American Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, an unstable sexist and bigot, and a disproportionate amount of them continue to support him through his totalitarian tendencies for a taste of partisan power and influence. Debates about the personhood of people who aren’t white, straight or male and their place in church and society are still going on, and a depressingly large chunk of people seem to think that not being white, straight or male is an offence for which the only cure is submitting to people who are straight, white and male. Local churches, once so involved in the work against apartheid, stagnate under their spires, opting to “play it safe” rather than ask reasonable questions and demand reasonable responses from their communities and their government. Over and over again we see corrupt leadership, many if not most of them self-proclaimed Christians, choose self-enrichment over accountability, honesty and compassion. Yes indeed, it’s an interesting time to ask this question: what is the church of Christ binding and loosing?

There are two distinct parts to Proper 16A’s Gospel reading: Simon Peter responding to Jesus’ invitation to acknowledge him as the Christ, and Jesus’ subsequent blessing of Peter as the rock on which he would build his church when Peter accepted his invitation. It’s a simple enough equation: confessing Jesus as Lord and Saviour and living as people who do equal a church that is rooted, stable, unchanging in its values of love, compassion and justice even as the society around it changes. Against a church that truly builds its identity upon the identity of Christ Hades cannot stand because it is inured to the values most detrimental to its survival.

But as soon as we start to pry these two things apart, as soon as we break up this closed loop of confessing Jesus as Saviour = the “rock” of Christ’s church, either our confession of Jesus as the Christ falters or the church’s steadiness and effectiveness does. If we confess Jesus as our Lord without living church, the confession loses much of its meaning. If the church forgets its confession of Jesus Christ as the only confession worth structuring itself around and instead begins to confess itself as the Messiah, it loses its way. Both extremes lead to an emptier faith that is less concerned with the Kingdom and more concerned with itself, and either its own safety or its own propagation.

If we really, sincerely want to take the difference Jesus has made in our lives and share it with the world around us, we must return to Peter’s confession in order to receive his blessing. It’s only from that position that we can hope to bind things like greed, envy, exploitation, oppression and cruelty, and loose the love, grace, mercy, compassion and healing of Jesus in the world.

This is going to look different depending on who and where we are. For some of us, it’ll mean a search for Jesus’ eyes, to see other people and ourselves differently. For some of us, it will mean a search for different hands, hands that aren’t clamped shut but held open. For others yet it will mean the search for renewed hearts – willing to love neighbours regardless of differences or similarities. For others, a search for new feet, to tramp places we’ve avoided and to tread on toes we’ve been afraid of treading on – grace, after all, has big feet.

Like Peter, our job is to keep responding to Jesus’ invitation to acknowledge him as our Lord and in doing so, to be continually strengthened as his Body.

Books, Faith

Book review: A 21-Day Prayer Journey by Itumeleng Matlaila


To my pleasant surprise, I won Itumeleng Matlaila’s A 21-Day Prayer Journey on Facebook from the publishers, Struik Christian Media. Not long after it was delivered I had the opportunity to use it in a seven-day fast. Though geared to congregations and study groups, I nevertheless found Matlaila’s book useful for my personal fast. The daily prayer topics were a great way to pray for those things I usually neglect (my country, the church and so on), and it kept my fast from being a purely self-involved enterprise. The prayers are well-written and Scriptural and helped to focus my fast, and I appreciated the space to make prayer notes. Altogether a well-put-together little book that’d work well in both individual and corporate fasting.

Title: A 21-Day Prayer Journey
Author: Itumeleng Matlaila
Publisher: Struik Christian Media
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: [No data])
Best feature of the book: It’s pick-up-and-use. The prayers are prophetic.
Worst feature of the book: It’s not ideal for absolute beginners where fasting is concerned.
Trigger warnings: N/A
You’ll like this if… You’re looking for a tool to facilitate a fast, or if you’re keen on investing prayer in South Africa and Africa.