Monday, January 22, 2018

Overkill by James Clarke

How many South Africans of my generation remember visiting a lion park or reserve where one had the opportunity of bottle feeding lion cubs? I do. Like many visitors, we were fed the lie that South Africa was breeding lions for "conservation purposes". Sadly, this was far from the truth. Oh, South Africa had thousands of lions, but what these lion parks or farms were not telling us, was that these hand-reared lions were not being sent to go live out their lives in some glorious bushveld. No, they were being shot by wealthy foreigners supporting our country's barbaric canned lion hunting industry.

This is just one of the topics James Clarke touches on in his book Overkill, which makes for some pretty gripping (and horrifying) reading for anyone who's interested in finding out more about how the African continent's megafauna is faring. If you're wondering who Clarke is, he's one of the founders of the wildlife NGO the Endangered Wildlife Trust, whom I'm sure you'd have heard about if you're conservation minded.

Clarke takes you on a journey of understanding the complexities of mankind's relationship with wildlife, and how its colonial past has also contributed greatly to the way the continent's natural resources are exploited today. Whether it's the lion, elephant, rhino or whale, or just generally humankind's attitude to the wild, it's something that needs to be discussed.

He lays a large portion of the blame for the current extermination of species at the feet of the Chinese government, and the continued trade in goods such as ivory as well as the misconceptions that rhino horn and yes, even crushed lion bones, serve some sort of medicinal purpose. Clarke doesn't shy away from pointing out that broad-sweeping corruption all the way up to government is responsible for the continued pillaging of natural resources.

Perhaps what he doesn't state overtly (and I don't know if this is intentional) is that mankind's increasing population – with its resultant pressure placed on the environment – is perhaps also a factor that needs to be taken into account. We simply cannot continue reproducing at the rate we are. (All right, but that's basically my take on it.)

While Clarke doesn't come out against responsible hunting – he acknowledges that proper management of natural resources does have benefits in the long run – I do echo his sentiment that it would be better if mankind could eventually curb this lust to hunt game. The overall picture he paints about the state of conservation in Africa in general, is quite grim, but it's not without its glimmers of hope. For Africa's wildlife to survive, we need to bring together international communities to recognise the importance of the continent's wildlife for all.

Clarke writes clearly, and with great passion, and I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the environment and its conservation. He touches on a broad range of issues in a manner that is handled sensitively, and it is my belief that this is an important work that attempts to examine the complexities of issues in a nuanced fashion.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise

The moment I saw Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise, I knew it was a book I needed to read. I'm fascinated by South Africa's complex history, and I was looking for a book that would not only be accessible for someone like me who's not au fait with politics, while also filling in the blanks in terms of history.

Louis Botha is not a figure who's lauded much, yet I know of him because of the statue that is situated outside of the parliament buildings in Cape Town. In terms of South African history, it's still curious (to me) why we'd have a statue of an old Boer general up. Well, now I know.

When Louis Botha was prime minister of the South African union, the Anglo Boer War was still front of mind for many South Africans. Botha had the unenviable task of putting a unified army in the field when the UK requested that South Africa invade what was then German South West Africa. How I read the book, it's my opinion that the South West African campaign (1914-1915) was primarily a European war fought on African soil, the bastard offspring of colonial powers' weakening grip on the continent.

Cruise focuses on the military tactics Botha and his opponents employed. He discusses the incredible difficulties the armies faced; knowing Namibia, it's not exactly a landscape you go waltzing into. The extremes in temperature and lack of water make it daunting to travel by land across the country now even. Back then, when warfare in Africa was still largely fought by infantry, cavalry and artillery, with minimal support courtesy of motorised vehicles ... I garner fresh respect for what Botha achieved. Aircraft were only starting to be used in warfare, though the railway proved to be absolutely vital too.

Yet this is not just a dry book about military tactics. Cruise also looks into the socio-political reverberations caused by this war, such as the rebellion that occurred in the union, as well as the later effects that bloomed into full-scale Afrikaner nationalism. Our history is incredibly complex.

Namibia itself is a land that holds special fascination for me, and I admit this is partially due to the fact that I'm married to a Namibian, and we've visited the country a few times. I've fallen irrevocably in love with the wide-open spaces and the incredible diversity of the landscape that can be at times barren and desolate (and eerily beautiful) or the alien qualities of locations like the oasis Goanikontes. What Cruise does exceptionally well is combine a narrative of the conflict with little tastes of the history of the land, so that places I've visited (like the grassy plains just beyond Aus) come to life for me in terms of the past.

Louis Botha is revealed as a remarkable individual – not just a statesman (and the devil knows we have few enough of those these days) but also a shrewd warrior. It's doubtful that we have people like this as decision makers in these days of celebrity presidents and career politicians. Granted, Cruise doesn't shy away from the fact that Botha himself was less than perfect (his attitude towards non-Europeans are typical of his time) but he does come across as a reasonable man who was considerably less extreme in his views than Herzog, Verwoerd and his ilk.

Cruise gives Botha his due in this slim volume that is easy to read, both informative and fascinating, with well balanced content. I certainly feel as if I have a firmer grip on southern African history of a time period that I was fuzzy about, and in such a way that I engaged with the book from cover to cover.