Ratshikuni, the SS Mendi and “Psyche of Whites”

Every year on 21 February, the day before my birthday, I post on Facebook about the tragic story of the SS Mendi that sank on this day in 1917 in the channel between Britain and France killing 647 men, mostly members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC).

The Mendi carried five officers, 17 non-commissioned officers and 806 members of the fifth battalion of the newly formed SANLC together with a crew of 33 members (total of 861 persons). The South African Native Labour Corps was one of a number of foreign Labour Corps enlisted to provide manual labour at the front during World War 1. Even though the men had been non-combatants, their duty had been critical for the success of the fighting soldiers, something borne out by the acknowledgement of the importance of logistics not just in war but also by the corporate world today.

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The story of the SS Mendi has personal import for me as one of my ancestors, Lieutenant Hendrik Lawrence Jansen van Vuren, was one of the officers that served on the Mendi. He survived the accident and went on to serve with the Corps in France. At the official hearing into the incident held in July 1917 he provided a sworn statement and therein stated how after the Darro struck the Mendi, the surviving men (estimated to be 750 persons out of the 861 onboard the ship) gathered orderly and patiently on the deck standing at attention.

In an article in Politicsweb on 3 February 2020, Mugabe Ratshikuni, an activist working for the Gauteng Provincial Government wrote an article titled The psyche of whites wherein he also recounts the story of the SS Mendi but this time as a prime example of how, in his opinion, white South Africans has since the dawn of the previous century until today not appreciated the suffering of Black people.

In the article, he makes the following statements to underscore his point that until “we deal with this white psyche; the Rainbow Nation will remain a pipe dream”:

“The book, titled Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the S.S Mendi 1917, is an insightful and thought-provoking reflection on the unacknowledged, uncompensated, overlooked sacrifices of non-combatant black labouring assistants (my emphasis) who tragically died on their way to propping up the British War effort in Europe during World War 1 when the ship they were travelling on, the S.S Mendi sank in the English Channel on February 21, 1917.”

“They were made to just disappear into nothingness, as if their lives, their sacrifices meant nothing.”

“The unacknowledged, unrecognised sacrifices of those black people that lost their lives on the S.S Mendi, whilst seeking to defend an empire that did not value them, are a microcosmic reflection of the unacknowledged, unrecognised, overlooked blood, sweat, toil and tears of the black South African majority.”

“….when reading the story of the S.S Mendi and the black lives lost without any recognition or reward, one is actually reading a story that is the quintessential South African story, a story of unappreciated black sacrifice towards the advancement of white interests.”

“White South Africans expect blacks to just move on and forget the past with its present day implications, because for them unacknowledged black sacrifice is the norm….”

Ratshikuni sees in the story of the SS Mendi what he alleges a microcosmic and prototypical attitude of all white people, but what he, however, fails to mention is the following important considerations and facts surrounding the SS Mendi:

In March 1917 the South African Parliament unanimously accepted a motion of sympathy and condolences to the families of the men that lost their lives in this tragic incident. Speaking at the time Prime Minister Botha, an Afrikaner, had the following to say:

“I do not think it is necessary to say anything further, excepting this: If we have ever lived in times when the native people of South Africa have shown great and true loyalty it is in times like the present. (Hear, hear.) Ever since the war broke out the natives have done everything possible to help, where such was possible, in the struggle without ever doing that which was in conflict with their loyalty to the flag and the King. Nearly all my life long I have had to do with the native question, but I have never experienced a time when the native has displayed greater tact and greater loyalty than they have done in the difficult and dark days through which we are now going.

It has never happened in the history of South Africa, Mr Speaker, that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished, and, Mr Speaker, I think that where people have died in the way they have done, it is our duty to remember that they have come forward of their own accord, of their own free will, and that they have said: “If we can help we will do so, even if we have to show our loyalty by working with our hands.” (Hear, hear.) They insisted on going, and I think, Mr Speaker, they deserve every credit for the good work they have done. These people said: “This war is raging, and we want to help”, and, in doing so, they have shown their loyalty to their flag, their King and their country, and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.”

The government of the day also allocated a gratuity of 50 Pounds to the next of kin of each man lost, which is a considerable amount as it was close to a year’s income for the average black South African at the time.

Newspapers at the time described the tragedy with phrases such as “they died to set us free” and “those who died by drowning had given their lives for the liberty of all people of the Empire”.

What he also fails to mention is that the SANCL sacrifice was later acknowledged by a monument in France at Arques-la-Bataille and that the names of the deceased were recorded at the Holybrook Memorial in Southampton. Smaller memorials were also erected in Mthatha, Langa, Soweto and the University of the Cape Town. In 1986 even the National Party government recognised their contribution by fixing a bronze plaque depicting the sinking of the Mendi to the South African Delville Wood Memorial.

A Mendi Memorial Club was founded in 1919 with the support of some White South Africans and foreigners with the aim of keeping alive the memory of the ship and the troops. The tragic event was commemorated annually until the early 1980s when progressive black leaders started to feel uncomfortable with the memory of black soldiers participating in a white man’s war. Black soldiers who had fought in both world wars were seen as sellouts and the commemorations were dropped.

In the 1990s the ANC rediscovered the Mendi with a vengeance and it became a symbol of heroism for the ANC. Professor Albert Grundlingh of the University of Stellenbosch argues that “the ANC appropriated the SS Mendi post-apartheid, perhaps because the organisation has a weak military history. Its military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was known for armed propaganda rather than armed engagement”.

It is therefore clear that the fallen soldiers of the SS Mendi are anything but the unacknowledged or unrecognised as alleged by Ratshikuni and that their sacrifice meant nothing. Is this oversight on his part perhaps because of the current black psyche at play which argues that nothing good at all happened in the South Africa of old prior to the current democratic political dispensation?

To illustrate why I argue so another example close to me personally. I’m busy writing a book about the township Muniseville near Krugersdorp where I worked at in the late 1980s. The township is named after the then white Chief Medical Officer of the Krugersdorp Municipal Council, Mr James Munsie who played a key role in the early 1940s to convince the Council to establish the new township.

In appreciation for this, a Special Committee of the relocated residents sent a handwritten petition in 1941 to the Krugersdorp Town Clerk recommending that Mr Munsie is honoured for choosing “……such a healthy and beautiful site for the situation of the new location”.

The petition read as follows:

“As a sign of the profound love and respect with which the community regard Mr Munsie, it was unanimously decided by the committee to make the following petition to the Council – (1) That the Council should be requested to alter the name of the New Location to Munsieville as a lasting memory of Mr Munsie as is done in other municipalities and (2) That the Council should be requested to extend Mr Munsie’s period of service for a few more years pending these difficult times if possible”.

The Council agreed to this request. In her 2006 doctoral thesis on Munsieville, Stevenson mentions that when in 2001 she asked the current residents of Munsieville about this honour bestowed on James Munsie people laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads saying, “there was no choice.” I personally however firmly believe that at the time and given the hardships that they had to endure, the then residents of the new township were heartfelt in their appreciation.

The request was made by a Special Committee who was unanimous in their decision pointing to an honest and sincere wish to honour James Munsie without any undue pressure. For me, it’s more a point of the current residents of Munsieville not being able to, given the discrimination that they experienced under white National Party rule after 1948, appreciate that back in the early 1940’s it was possible for black people to appreciate anything done for them by a white person. It’s like there is a belief in the black psyche today that all race relations at that time were centered upon animosity and conflict.

To conclude, therefore, it is important that our history be reflected upon accurately especially when it used to cast aspersions on the character of any of the groups making up our wonderful nation. I sincerely hope that Mr Ratshikuni will in future contributions be mindful of this important consideration.

Destroying the new and the old: The removal of a mural at the Durban Botanic Gardens depicting South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to Democracy

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The Durban Botanical Gardens was established in 1849 and is the oldest botanical garden in Africa. The Botanic Gardens curates major collections such as cycads, palms and orchids and, in the true tradition of botanic gardens, is several gardens within one.

The Durban Botanic Gardens Trust runs the Botanical Gardens.  The Trust is an independent and discretionary Trust, established in 1993 to support the Botanic Gardens with various maintenance and development projects including projects with a focus on education, biodiversity, heritage, horticulture, research and people, plants and culture.

This week a mural reflecting South Africa’s old and new flags was removed from the Durban Botanical Gardens after the Ethekwini Municipality received complaints that it was offensive and provocative. I have written before about the desirability of banning the old South African flag or not. In my view, a ban will be counterproductive. However, I understand the association of the old flag with Apartheid and I, therefore, personally discourages people from displaying it in public, other than for historical or artistic purposes.

The following newspaper article covered the removal of the mural:

Old SA flag removed from Durban Botanic Gardens

I live in Durban and visits the Botanical Gardens often. It’s a place of tranquillity and reflection, and it often hosts music concerts and other events. Many many people have therefore since it had been put up twenty years ago, walked past the mural at the entrance to the Gardens witnessing its magical transition from the old flag to the beautiful new South African flag. A powerful symbol of transition from the old to the new and symbolising change and renewal. Walking from the other side past the mural and towards the exit of the Botanic Gardens, only the new South African flag is visible unless one looked consciously back over your shoulder to then view the old South African flag. The artist producing the mural created this effect to symbolise the need to look forward rather than backward to a South Africa that belongs to all, Black and White.

Sadly because of a few complaints and the random act by an administrative functionary, Mr. Thembokosi Ngcobo who is the Head: Parks, Recreation and Culture at the Ethewkini Municipality, this beautiful mural is now lost forever depriving patrons and visitors to the Botanic Gardens of its powerful message and symbolism. He instructed that the mural be removed, and this was done in a matter of a day. On Twitter, he describes himself as a seasoned public administrator and political activist who tweeted the following after the mural was removed.

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At the time of the complaints from a few people on Twitter about the mural, the Durban Botanical Gardens tweeted as follows about the history and background to the mural on display, which reveals that the mural was commissioned by the Ethekwini Municipality itself and one of its Public Museums, the KwaMuhle Museum. Mr. Ngcobo therefore not only destroyed something commissioned by his employer namely the Ethekwini Municipality but he did so without obtaining permission from the Municipal Council to do so!

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The random act of Mr. Ngobo raises many serious questions that require answers from him and the Ethekwini Municipality. These are the following:

  • How can an appointed municipal official usurp the power to take what I suspect is in effect an illegal decision, without due process and consultation and that without anybody even batting an eyelid?
  • What evidence does Mr. Ncogo, have to say that municipal protocol was not followed when the mural was put up 20 years ago, especially seeing that the Tweet from the Botanical Gardens indicate that the Ethewkini Municipality itself commissioned it?
  • Were the Trust of the Botanical Gardens consulted on the matter? Looks like not because the IOL article linked above quotes an anonymous employee who says they received an instruction from the Municipality to remove it.
  • What about the patrons of the Botanical Gardens? Were they consulted or don’t they have a say in the matter?
  • What about the person who created the mural? Was he/she consulted and what about the irreparable damage done to his/her intellectual and artistic property?
  • Was the matter submitted to the Ethekwini Metro Council for a decision? Clearly not given the timeline involved.

This act is a clear example of abuse of power by an official who I suspect did not have the necessary authority or delegation to do so. It speaks to how most senior officials at municipalities these days are beholden to the political ideology of the ruling political party, rather than serving impartially all the citizens at large and without fear or favour.

My municipal career started back in the Apartheid days and functionaries of those times are often unfairly accused of having been dictatorial or not following due process. I worked for some 18 years at municipalities in a senior management capacity, and remember, for example, the hoops the Margate Borough and I as its Corporate Service Manager had to jump through to obtain the necessary permission to demolish the old Margate town hall to make space for much needed public parking. It took months of applications to bodies like the Heritage Council and consultation with the public. No usurping of power to do what we thought was in the public interest. We followed the due process in the interest of transparency and proper governance.

Given the wide definition of property in our Constitution, this act is but one example of how as citizens we can be robbed of it without compensation if the Constitution is amended as the African National Congress is planning to do. Let this serve as a warning to us all.

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My exposé of the false Verwoerd advert (Part 4 in the series – Verwoerd, Malan & a Case of Aggravated Assault)

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This contribution is the last of four posts detailing incidents within two weeks, which impacted on my life. In it, I will deal with an advert for the Apartheid Museum produced by the agency TBWA Hunt Lascaris, which was subsequently found to contain fake clips attributed to Donald Trump and Hendrik Verwoerd.

The advert won a Loerie award for the agency over the weekend of  18 and 19 August 2018, which was greatly celebrated by all with photos of the event on the Facebook page of TBWA.

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In the ad, “Past and Present,” purported statements by Verwoerd and Trump are placed in such a way as to show similar attitudes by the men.

  • Clip 1: Verwoerd starts: “By now, every one of us has seen practically that blacks cannot rule themselves.”
  • Clip 2: Trump: “They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime, they are rapists…”
  • Clip 3: Verwoerd: “Give them guns, and they will kill each other. Let us all accept that the black man is a symbol of mental inferiority, laziness…”
  • Clip 4: Trump: “Laziness is a trait in blacks, it really is, I believe that.”
  • Clip 5: Verwoerd: “Blacks and whites need to adopt and develop divorced from each other.”
  • Clip 6: Trump: “We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly…”
  • Clip 7: Verwoerd: “That is all that the word apartheid means.”

The advert was acclaimed by all and people were urged to listen to it. Bruce Whitfield, a financial journalist, and presenter of the “The Money Show” on 702 and CapeTalk, and columnist and writer for the Sunday Times and Business Times, on 22 August 2018 urged people to listen to it. He called it an extraordinary piece of advertising, one of the greatest adverts ever and remarked that it would make your blood boil (listen to the clip below of this discussion on his show).

On the same day Graeme Codrington, a public figure, Minister and futurist, in his enthusiasm to alert people about the advert, posted the following on his Facebook page:

“The Apartheid Museum has a chilling radio advert that puts the words of South African Prime Minister from the 1960s, HF Verwoerd alongside those of American President, Donald Trump. I added some images to it.

I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and that’s why Donald Trump scares me so much. I know what evil of this kind looks like, and I can see it in America now. But don’t take my words for it. Just listen…”

As per his post, he went as far as creating a YouTube video featuring the advert (see below).

I viewed the YouTube video and commented on his timeline that I’m not sure that quoting bits without context is a good thing. He agreed that quoting things out of context is not a good thing but argued that quoting things that summarise a viewpoint is precisely what a quote is for. He asked whether I do think any particular bits of the quotes in this advert were out of context – and if so, which ones? I replied that as a Minister Codrinton must know how important it is not to quote or reference a random text from the Bible without looking at the context within which it was said as well as considering the sentence that goes before the quoted part as well as the sentence that follows. The same goes for the paragraph before and the paragraph after that. I remarked that I think that this is a good rule to also follow in life in general namely that any quote must be seen in the context and time it was said or written.

I noted at the time that some people started to question some of the clips attributed to Donald Trump including a Facebook friend Mpiyakhe Dhlamini. It turned out that clip 4 above comes from the 1991 book “Trumped,” written by a former Trump Plaza executive, who claimed that Trump once said that “laziness is a trait in blacks, but that this was never proven.

Did Trump Say ‘Laziness Is a Trait in Blacks; No Black President Again Any Time Soon’?

Graeme Codrington updated his original Facebook post with the following note:

“It appears that one of the audio clips attributed to Trump in the Museum’s advert is actually not original audio. The quote about blacks being lazy comes from a book written in 1990, and no known audio is available.”

I decided to listen to the clips attributed to Verwoerd again as some of them sounded not like something he would have said although many people might believe otherwise. I did a simple Google search and could only link two of the four clips attributed to Verwoerd to him (clips 5 and 7 above which I will explain later in fact was part of a single sentence). The other two clips (clips 1 and 4 above) which contain offensive phrases, I could only link to a hoax speech falsely attributed to PW Botha as part of his failed 1985 Rubicon speech.

PW Botha – Hoax 1985 speech

I alerted Graeme Codrington to this, and he undertook to immediately take this up with Bruce Whitfield who on his 702 show of 23 August 2018 interviewed him as well as Andrew Human, the CEO of the Loerie Awards and Andy Rice, a branding and advertising expert (listen to the clip below for the discussion).

The same evening “The Business Insider” featured an article Shock over fake Trump and Verwoerd quotes in award-winning Apartheid Museum ad on the matter. The article stated that the fake quotes were unearthed by a listener to The Money Show with Bruce Whitfield on 702, the futurist Graeme Codrington. This is of course not true as it was me we unearthed the fake Verwoerd quotes and who alerted Codrington to it, and he to his credit, immediately took it up with Bruce Whitfield. The matter was also reported on the 702 website that same evening in an article Loerie winning Apartheid Museum ad comparing Trump and Verwoerd is ‘fake news’.

Graeme Codrington also posted on Facebook that same evening again about the matter, but provided no acknowledgment to Mpiyakhe Dhlamini or me for bringing the matter to his attention. Some people called him out for this, and he promised to do so fully once he has heard from everybody.

He went on to say that that the advert had three sections to it and that its only middle section where Verwoerd and Trump call black people lazy that is under review and that the other two sections are not. I reminded him that it does not help to be limited with the truth. I reminded him that there are four clips attributed to Verwoerd and three for Trump and further commented on his timeline as follows:

“Clip one of Verwoerd I could also only link to the hoax speech attributed to PW Botha and the same goes for clip three. Clips five and six [clip 7 quoted above] are in reality one sentence and the one that I managed to link directly to Verwoerd and that if combined reads as follows: “Blacks and whites need to adopt and develop divorced from each other, that is all that the word apartheid means.” [NOTE – More about this paragraph later]

Interesting TBWA even got this one wrong because what Verwoerd in fact said is “…. that both adopt a development divorced from each other. That is all that the word apartheid means.” Why they had to change what he said, raises serious questions as to the credibility of TBWA and the Apartheid Museum.

Here is FYI the full text of what Verwoerd said in this regard at the time namely in 1950 thus a full eight years before he became Prime Minister :

“My point is this that, if mixed development is to be the policy of the future of South Africa, it will lead to the most terrific clash of interests imaginable. The endeavours and desires of the Bantu and the endeavours and objectives of all Europeans will be antagonistic. Such a clash can only bring unhappiness and misery to both. Both Bantu and European must, therefore, consider in good time how this misery can be averted from themselves and from their descendants.

They must find a plan to provide the two population groups with opportunities for the full development of their respective powers and ambitions without coming into conflict. The only possible way out is the second alternative, namely, that both adopt a development divorced from each other. That is all that the word apartheid means.”

Whereas clips one and three which is in question would be racist if Verwoerd ever said it, the combined clips 5 and 7 and putting them in the full context of what he said as quoted above, illustrate an honest, albeit misguided concern that we know now with the benefit of hindsight, for the future of both Black and White and their common wellbeing. I see nothing racist in this statement given the context and timeframe when it was said.

Why TBWA had to split what Verwoerd said above into two is questionable, but I guess it suited the narrative they tried to portray in linking two historical figures fifty years apart.

Graeme to say therefore that it’s only the middle section that is in doubt is not factually correct, and I trust you will also correct this.”

Codrington thanked me for the further clarity and promised to pass this on to the people who are investigating the matter.

On 24 August 2018 the matter was reported in the mainstream media in a number of articles:

Award-winning Trump-vs-Verwoerd Apartheid Museum advert is ‘possibly misleading’, SA’s advertising authority says

7 quotes in the Trump-Verwoerd Apartheid Museum radio spot appear to be fake, ad agency admits

#Loeries2018 controversy over TBWA’s Apartheid Museum ad

TBWA subsequently issued the following statement putting their side of the story:

“TBWA Hunt Lascaris confirms that it inadvertently took some of the sources believed to be trustworthy and used them in its recent award-winning “Past and Present” campaign at face value and should have dug deeper.

The company’s internal investigations in which all sources were submitted for further verification revealed that 7 of the 27 quotes it used in the campaign appear to be in question as to their true authenticity.

The campaign, which is no longer on the airwaves, was a three-part series for the Apartheid Museum which compared the quotes of famous people in history. The campaign juxtaposing Verwoerd and Trump won an award at The Loeries Awards a week ago.

The campaign drew attention to a message which remains highly relevant – the uncannily similar quotes made by apartheid architect Dr. HF Verwoerd and US President Donald Trump.

“We always apply in-depth research and fact-checking in all our work, and it was certainly never our intention to attribute the wrong quotes to anyone. For that, we unreservedly apologise. But the lesson is certainly that even trusted sources need to be questioned,” says TBWA CEO Sean Donovan.

The four questionable sources were from a purported speech, a book which is currently in circulation and a major international newspaper specifically the New York Times.

“We certainly apologise for taking those sources at face value and had no malicious intent to misrepresent the facts. We trusted them and had no reason to doubt that the sentiments being expressed were not those of either Verwoerd or Trump,” he says.

TBWA is in communication with The Loeries and has provided full details of their investigation. As a proactive measure and to ensure the integrity of the Apartheid Museum, the agency has pulled the campaign and will be handing the award back.”

TBWA was also given an opportunity to, on a subsequent show of Money Matters, explain what happened to Bruce Whitfield (the following is a clip of that discussion).

What I find amazing is that TBWA can state that what happened was an honest mistake on their part and then place the blame on their sources. What happened to quality control of adverts produced by the agency? If I could with a simple Google search, establish within one minute that some of the clips attributed to Verwoerd were false, why could they not do the same? It raises serious questions about the standards of advertising in South Africa and the Group CEO of TBWA, Sean Donovan, certainly still has a case to answer for despite his explanation. As I pointed out above, they did not just use false clips but also only parts of a full sentence of Verwoerd and then split it into two to suit their narrative.

TBWA subsequently returned the Loerie Award (yet the photos of their team receiving the award are still appearing on their Facebook page!) and also absolved the Apartheid Museum from any blame although the Museum signed-off on the advert and are therefore not totally blameless. On their side, the Apartheid Museum said that they forgave the agency and expressed their willingness to continue their relationship with the agency who offered to correct the mistakes.

TBWA Hunt Lascaris gives back Loeries Award for deceitful Apartheid Museum ad

Apartheid museum ‘forgives’ ad agency for ‘fake news advert’

Bruce Whitfield wrote another article Sex, lies, audiotape, and that fake Apartheid Museum radio ad on the matter that appeared in The Business Insider on 26 August 2018. In the article he among other things wrote as follows:

Futurist Graeme Codrington is working to improve the quality of information on the internet and was among the scores of listeners to my weekday Money Show to draw attention to the fact that there were issues with the integrity of the content.

 “Clip one of Verwoerd I could only link to the hoax speech attributed to PW Botha and the same goes for clip three. Clips five and six are in reality one sentence and the one that I managed to link directly to Verwoerd and that if combined reads as follows: “Blacks and whites need to adopt and develop divorced from each other, that is all that the word apartheid means.”

The second paragraph quoted above is placed in italics and is thus attributed to Graeme Codrington when in fact it is exactly what I wrote word for word on his Facebook timeline on 23 August 2018 (see above). Codrington explained that Bruce Whitfield has picked up my explanation of the problems with the advert and used them without attribution and that he will contact him and ask him to do so.

I have alerted Bruce Whitfield about this mistake on Twitter a number of times, but he is yet to correct it in any form or matter unless he has done so on any of his subsequent Money Matters show on 702 which I would not have picked up. His unwillingness to do so is baffling to me as is this whole sordid incident with the fake Apartheid Museum advert, and it makes me wonder about the honesty and integrity of journalists and the standard of journalism in South Africa but also that of advertising agencies such as TBWA. It seems like our past before 1994, bad as it was, is fair game for misrepresentation just like what has happened during the current ‘expropriation without compensation’ debate. Perhaps the following tweet of the former leader of the opposition, Tony Leon, sums the matter up the best.

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Ps: On 24 August 2018 Graeme Codrington on a Facebook post acknowledged Mpiyakhe Dhlamini and me for our role played in the incident which I thanked him for.

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Parts 1 and 3 was about the book “The Lost Boys of Bird Island,” the credibility of one of the book’s authors, Mark Minnie and an interview Alec Hogg conducted with the other author, Chris Steyn.

Verwoerd, Malan & a case of Aggravated Assault – Part 1 (Malan & the Boys of Bird Island)

Chris Steyn & the podcast interview by Alec Hogg (Part 3 in the series – Verwoerd, Malan & a Case of Aggravated Assault)

In Part 2, I wrote about a case of aggravated assault on people dear to me and what it says about South Africa as a nation still having to make peace with itself.

A case of Aggravated Assault & the State of our Nation (Part 2 in the series – Verwoerd, Malan & a Case of Aggravated Assault)