An insider look at ‘The Outsider’, ‘Truth to Power’ and time spent with Ella Blumenthal
Booksellers snap up 50,000 copies of De Ruyter’s book in days, looking inside Prince Mashele’s authorised biography of Herman Mashaba, and other news from the Franschhoek Literary Festival – which was beautiful.
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival last weekend, I was on two panels with Prince Mashele to discuss his book The Outsider – The unauthorized biography of Herman Mashaba.
That was fortuitous as I read the book before it was withdrawn by Jonathan Ball Publishers after the Sunday Times revealed that it was both authorised and that moxie Mashele earned R12.5-million for writing it.
An industry insider who has published the best-selling local non-fiction says the top authors have made between R1-million and R2-million from their books. Most authors earn R100,000 from royalties; the average income on a book that sells well is around R400,000 to R500,000. So R12.5-million is a princely sum.
But how is the book, outside of its controversy?
I enjoyed it. Mashele, a friend in our political writer circles, has a sophisticated style. And so, his location of Mashaba in the rise of political outsiders across the globe is on the mark analysis.
Mashaba, he writes, is like the ascendance of outsiders to the epicentres of political power like Giuseppe Conte of the Five Star Movement in Italy or that of Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema. In 2021, Mashaba and the Patriotic Alliance of Gayton McKenzie were the outlier stories of the local government election.
The shape-shifting election of 2024 will see a further rise of outsider politicians as coalitions become the dominant political form.
Mashele is a good analyst, and his global sense of politics is refreshing in a country where politics is often covered as factional intrigue rather than as a trend or sociology or political meaning in deeper insights of the word.
It’s a pity you are now unlikely to read it because the book’s been pulled. It would have been a valuable part of the 2024 reading compendium. Still, ethics in publishing are vital to maintaining the sector’s integrity.
The book is an authorised biography: Mashele likes Mashaba (and Mashaba clearly likes him back given the advance he paid). The most enjoyable part of the book is his account of how Mashaba rose to become the entrepreneur who started Black Like Me. This eponymous hair-care brand still defines him. His love affair and life with Connie Mashaba shape the life of Herman and of the book. If you know her, you will understand why Mashaba is worth watching ahead of 2024.
The book does not explain or analyse the politician’s drift into the muddied waters of xenophobia. Taking a political whip to foreigners living in South Africa is the cheap shot of choice for parties ranging all the way from the ANC across the spectrum, and Mashaba has picked it up with zealousness. It’s a pity, and it would have been good to see Mashele interrogate this drift closely.
De Ruyter’s book is a smash hit
The other book that was the talk of the town (or village) was Andre de Ruyter’s Truth to Power. The first person we bumped into at the opening was Marida Fitzpatrick, the fizz-ball of publishing energy at Penguin, who approached De Ruyter years ago about writing a book.
De Ruyter hoped it would be a happier story, the knight who saved an entity. He said as much in a Carte Blanche interview with a sceptical Bongani Bingwa a few weeks ago. Penguin has sold 50,000 books to booksellers in days, and it is about to set a record in its genre.
When I went to buy my copy on Mother’s Day (May 14) as it was released, the books were walking out of the store. And after reading it, I’m not surprised why.
It is an accessible story of our electricity crisis and the human greed undergirding it. Eskom shouldn’t be unbundled; it should be mothballed. No CEO can retrieve a working utility from the corruption of the oil supply, coal supply and procurement theft that now defines it.
Winnie & Nelson
Joanne Joseph, who wrote the beautiful Children of Sugarcane, hosted an hour-long conversation with Jonny Steinberg, author of Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage.
Luckily for Jonathan Ball, they have another bestseller in Steinberg’s painstaking anatomy of one of South Africa’s most famous marriages. I can’t wait to read the book. The conversation between the two authors at Franschhoek clearly bears the hallmarks of Steinberg’s oeuvre: minute and detailed research, meticulous observation and a journalist’s eye for a good story.
I am Ella
My very favourite session was when 103-year-old Ella Blumenthal took to the stage as part of a discussion of her book I am Ella by Joanne Jowell. Blumenthal is South Africa’s treasure, the 103-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. She remains feisty and can-do. Her refrain to those who asked how she maintains her spirit, she repeatedly replied that life is beautiful and is to be lived. A Viktor Frankl in our midst, it was a rare and precious honour to hear her speak.
Run by an all-woman team led by director Elitha van der Sandt, curator Ingeborg Pelser and the author’s manager Megon Fitzgibbon, the literary fair is a peach on our reading tree and surely right up there with the best book fairs in the world like those in Jaipur, Guadalajara, Frankfurt/Abu Dhabi and the London book fair. DM
I am Ella by Joanne Jowell (Kwela, 2023); Winnie&Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball, 2023); Truth to Power – my three years inside Eskom by Andre de Ruyter (Penguin, 2023) ; Children of Sugarcane by Joanne Joseph (Jonathan Ball, 2021)