Books


Sex and the single sailor 

Virginia Philip reviews Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa by Henry Trotter

Had I not been interviewed by Henry Trotter while gathering material for his next book – about parliament and politicians, which is my beat – I have to confess that I would probably not have read his book that’s been in the bookshops for some months. As a child – OK; grandchild – of the Victorian era, just being seen with a book titled Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution is a bit embarrassing. As for actually reading it – why, people of my upbringing would rather not know too much about some of the undercurrents of society.

When we met at my favourite coffee shop, Bread, Milk & Honey – just near parliament – it transpired that Trotter was looking to glean insights from me into the parliamentary process – and the role that sex and gender might play in it. Apparently he’s doing a follow-on to his book about dockside hookers – “sugar girls” as he calls them – which will look at the conduct of sex in various sectors. 
 
Trotter thought I could somehow be of assistance, given my many years in the parliamentary press gallery. I pointed out that, in view of my background – an overbearing Victorian grandmother played a particularly prominent role in my upbringing – I was hardly someone to be tapped for knowledge of the bonking activities of politicians and state officials. (A colleague is known to regale the pub with an account of how I once defiantly declared: “Anglicans don’t bonk!”, reinforcing  my terribly righteous Anglo-Catholic cum – lower-case – protestant roots.) 
 
Actually, as I pointed out to Trotter, in South Africa, we of the press are rather cautious about writing about involvements – even non-Anglican ones – that politicians might have between the silken sheets. As far as I was concerned, all that cabinet ministers during National Party rule got away with was murder. True, sleazy stories of infidelity abounded about presidents and ministers – all male in those days – who had strings of girlfriends (and a boyfriend or two). But I don’t believe these were ever given serious attention in the press. I did know that an NP leader had his party secretary-general shifted off the political stage for having an extra-marital affair – while he was himself engaged in the same activity. 
 
May noseweek readers be the first to know: it shouldn’t be long before Trotter’s next book appears – containing all you don’t necessarily need to know about the illicit sex lives of various senior parliamentary officials and politicians, across the gender divide. The relationship between a top government official and a (female) minister, now demoted, could get a mention. One waits with bated breath.
 
When Trotter left, our interview concluded, I sneaked off to a discreet corner of the bookshop to read my complimentary copy of Sugar Girls & Seamen. I found it entertainingly written and well researched. Trotter had explained that his dad had been an officer in the US Navy, which took him to various military stations around the world. It gave Henry a taste for the Atlantic and the “activities” at ports. Trotter took the trouble of learning Afrikaans, the main language of the sugar girls. I believe this has given him a special insight into the story of dockside prostitution in Cape Town and Durban.
 
Like politics, sex and prostitution are about power and money. So, unsurprisingly, a chapter is devoted to extortionists (a category of people now increasingly prominent in politics). Trotter tells the story of Brandy, a Cape Town sugar girl who ends up married to a Japanese sailor and living in Japan. She comes home after being abused by her husband and, with the help of a local lawyer, seeks a divorce. But, soon enough, the lawyer demands to be included in a sex ring. Shortly afterwards two policemen knock at her door and threaten to arrest her for selling sexual favours. They make her an offer: she could avoid arrest by paying them R500 a week and occasionally arranging orgies for them and the lawyer. 
 
For now, until Trotter’s new work is in the bookshops, I will return to my world of Anglican purity and virtue. 
 
Thereby hang many tales
 
Gerald Shaw reviews Shepherd and Butchers by Chris Marnewick and In a Different Time: The inside story of Delmas Four by Peter Harris
 
There are now 18,000 murders a year in South Africa and Judge Dennis Davis believes that 85% of South Africans favour the return of the death penalty, because of the rise in the murder rate since hanging was abolished in 1995.
 
Yet Judge Davis holds that the clamour for a revival of hanging is misplaced. What is needed, rather, is a call for greater efficiency by police and prosecutors, he says, so that their evidence in murder cases can stand up in court.
 
Two books by South African lawyers, one a novel, one a true story, have the death penalty as an underlying theme. The movie rights to both have recently been bought by major production houses. Shepherds and Butchers is a recently-published novel by a Durban senior counsel, Chris Marnewick. Although a work of fiction, the story is told against the background of hangings at the Maximum Security section of the Pretoria Central Prison, which is equipped to hang seven condemned men at once and on occasion in the 1980s actually did so.
 
Between 1983 and 1987, 627 people were hanged; brutal murderers of all races as well as ANC resistance fighters, making South Africa’s execution rates one of the highest in the world.
 
The central character in this novel is a young Afrikaner warder who looks after men on death row before, during and after their execution. His name is Labuschagne and he is 19 years old, of above average intelligence and raised in an observant Christian home. He quickly engages the reader’s sympathy.
 
Marnewick gives a chilling blow-by-blow account of the whole process of hanging, in calm and clinical style, making it all the more horrific and shocking.
 
Labuschagne’s working routine, for months on end, and often on successive days when record numbers of people are to be hanged, eventually takes its toll on his psyche. His life falls apart and he ends up in the dock himself, facing the death penalty. The courtroom narrative which follows reaches a powerful and convincing climax.
 
Marnewick gives the other side of the hanging controversy in even-handed fashion, telling of the many appallingly cruel and brutal murders which caused so many death sentences to be imposed in the 1980s.
 
Peter Harris’s book is a true story which reads like the best kind of popular fiction. Its characters are not criminals but MK soldiers. This is an account of the trial of the Delmas Four, the last major political trial of the apartheid era. It is the best account I have read of those dark days, telling the story of attorney Harris’s battle to save Jabu Masina, Ting Ting Masango, Neo Potsana and Joseph Makhura from the gallows. The narrative unfolds at a cracking pace. The tension never lets up until a gut-wrenching, explosive finale.
 
The four were members of a highly-trained assassination squad with a brief to kill policemen notorious in the townships for their atrocities against their own people. Three such missions are successfully carried out. But there are also operations that go awry, in which civilians, innocent bystanders, are injured and on one occasion killed. After 10 months the four are caught, held in solitary confinement and interrogated, beaten and tortured.
 
They are charged with several counts of treason, murder and other offences. Harris gives us an account of their backgrounds and their experiences as young black men growing up in a white-dominated South Africa, which helps explain their motives for joining the armed struggle as MK operatives.
 
Joseph Makhura, for example, was sent by his mother to live with his grandparents on a farm near Hartebeest Dam as she did not want him growing up amid the drinking, crime and violence of Mamelodi, a township outside Pretoria. The boy was very close to his grandfather, who looked after the cattle on the farm.
 
The farmer would not listen to Makhura’s grandfather’s explanations of what was happening with the cattle, shouting and swearing and telling him he was a stupid Kaffir and needed to be taught a lesson. and thrashing him mercilessly with a sjambok until he sank cowering in the dust. This happened regularly.
 
Joseph Makhura never forgot the farmer and he promised himself that one day he would get trained in MK and come back and kill him.
 
The four accused opt not to participate in the court proceedings. They are not criminals, they say, but soldiers in a war of national liberation and should therefore be treated as prisoners of war. Their principled stance makes it all the more likely that they will be sentenced to death.
 
The prospect of the death penalty did not deter freedom fighters, we conclude. But what about the criminals who are responsible for murderous violence, as in the actual cases cited by Marnewick?
 
As Judge Davis points out, the problem is that the work of police and prosecutors is often so sloppy that those accused of income tax fraud stand a greater chance of being found guilty and sentenced than murder suspects. As a result, those who commit murder do not expect to be convicted, even if they are caught – which tends not to happen all too often anyway.
 
Readers are left with the thought that there is simply no end to the cycle of killing. 
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Submitted by : on 2009-08-06 11:08:17
In a Different Time by Peter Harris has just won the 2009 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award

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