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on 27 September 2012
Sometimes it is hard to reconcile that something bad was happening in your lifetime that you had little awareness of. I am 26, and I still find it hard to imagine that when I was growing up as a young child, there was a country that openly discriminated so flagrantly against its own citizens under our very eyes.

Literature on the apartheid era in South Africa is relatively wide spread. We have the Bang Bang Club or my Traitor's Heart, but here we have a beautifully written personal response to growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Donald McRae is primarily respected and known as a sports writer for the Guardian and also for several award winning books. Here he lays bare the tensions that existed in his own life as a white middle class South African who grew to hate the apartheid era risking his own life by teaching in the townships of Soweto at the heart of the crisis.

Today McRae lives in London, but he looks back on those turbulent years clearly and reopens wounds that perhaps would have closed. He had bitter rows with his family as he faced the dilemma of staying in the country that he couldn't understand or move to an alien cold country in England potentially never seeing the people he loved the most ever again.

Tension exists in this book, does he let his politics rule his heart of his head? What is more important his principles or his family?

While clashing with his family, in the end McRae finds out his father fought for the equality harder than almost anyone in South Africa.

An emotional journey from a writer who brings to light a time in a country that wasn't so long ago, but is ultimately incomprehensible now.
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on 28 January 2014
The death of Mandela in December 2013 increases the glowing myth that he was a saint and he alone led South Africa out of the international wilderness and only his successors, Mbeki and Zuma, tarnished the image of the country and of the ANC. But did the revolution arise as simply as this because of one man?

This book, looks at the South Africa under White apartheid rule from John Vorster to Piet Botha and F.W. De Klerk, and shows the individual work of a single white family, the McRaes of Johannesburg in bringing about important permanent change to the life of all South Africans.

Donald McRae had a very privileged life first in Witbank, in south-west Transvaal, and later in Germiston, 10 miles from Jo'burg, living in a good home with African domestics and gardeners, and attending a good university. His father, Ian, had an important position in the state electricity company, Eskom. The family could claim to want nothing the regime offered.

Donald and Ian each travelled long dangerous parallel roads in their separate lives for long not realising their destinations were similar. Don's immediate adolescent rebellion was centred on his refusal to dutifully serve his term in the forces, and his Scottish parents unwillingness to listen. Over time this dissent hardened and intertwined itself with his growing hostility against the oppressive minority, the Arifkaans speaking Boers, in favour of the Black majority inside the country, around the squalid townships, and indirectly the exiled "communist" and Black "terrorist" led ANC abroad. His life was spurred on by the deaths of local martyred heroes, the Black Steve Biko and the White, Dr Neil Aggett. Before his own self imposed exile he made a brave leap by teaching in a Black school in Soweto. He understood he was producing something worthwhile for the nation's future.

Instead, for long Ian realised that the growth and success of Eskom was linked to its engaging a larger professionally qualified and experienced labour force, by training the unskilled demotivated Black workers, something which the ideology of the state was ultimately detrimental and oppressively stultifying. Slowly he and his wife, Jess, convinced the immovable diehards that risking change would bring expansion, modernisation, productivity, and satisfied operatives - the possible safety valve holding back the feared roaring insurrection, and transforming Ian into a South African Oskar Schindler.

When Don was gone, the McRaes took his crusade further as "Mr Electricity" and "the Little General". They persuaded the local underground leaders of the ANC that they wanted to bring electricity, and the future, to the townships, as a step to self improvement in South Africa, before linking the national grid to the power network of the entire continent. As Don, they sustained that whether White or Black, both were South African and no different "under the skin". Those words were the most convincing and powerful. Most surprisingly, however, the dreaded security services, known for violence and arrests, did not prevent their initiatives.

Interesting how the macho Donald came to experience the physical sensation of equality of Blacks and Whites - in particular the distinction between English and Afrikaans speaking girls. Interesting the role of the school as in Nazi Germany in preparing boys to march and fight, and for the girls to submit passively to traditional subordinate roles of wives and bearers of future cannon fodder. Interesting to read the experiences of school friends and cousins in the Army at the front in South-West Africa / Namibia, who chose not to stand by Don and oppose the call-up, preferring instead silent not felt duty and possible martyrdom for a lost cause. Frightening and nauseating were the descriptions of the cruel interrogation and torture practices carried against detainees by the police. Amazingly, the link between Don, Ian, Mandela, and the future of the country was new experiences through education.

All good things come to an end. Democracy arrived in South Africa, and Don decided that he had stayed too long away to go back.The book says nothing about his family in the post apartheis days. The book may appeal to liberal Blacks or "askaris", and to the more liberal Whites or "hensopper", obviously not for the natural politically incorrect. Those who lived the times may learn what they didn't see or know about those in the other communities. But is the "Rainbow nation"still the uniting force?

Today the question is who should be remembered? those who fled the country, or those who stayed behind? Like the liberation of Europe in 1944, the rebirth of South Africa was carried out by many small incidents, and many people, all together helped Mandela and De Klerk bring a fairly violent-free power change in 1994. The tales of the little people of the McRaes are just as important in post-apartheid South Africa as of the leaders of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and of Tambo. They are more than those of the returned exiles who are culturally lost, which explains the problem of Mbeki, too. This is something particularly recognised by those back home, and has become the seed of discontent and anger among those Blacks who feel that their leaders have not gone far enough, have betrayed the main revolutionary ideas of the ANC, including criticizing too many conciliatory measures proposed by the "Old Man" Mandela himself.

There are still many unexplained questions left unanswered none directly due to the author and concern the international, the national, the local and personal levels. Why were so many White and Black South Africans allowed to flee, and why were Ian and Jess not stopped so soon? Could they have continued so much without the arrival of democracy? Though Ian knew about the power of persuasion as a manager and CEO in business, did he realise his plan to provide light and energy to Black communities would be so revolutionary and so empowering? Questions, questions.

Robert Mugabe clad out in finery in neighbouring Zimbabwe continues to rouse feelings for the wars of liberation because that is what made him a leader and that still keeps the old flame alive for those who never heard it the first time round. Mbeki claimed the fighting, even the romantic tales of poverty and the reputation of the shanty townships as living battlegrounds, was little more than a sideshow. The real liberation and settlement was reached at the negotiating table. The answers will require decades before they are truly unearthed. Donald McRae here has taken future researchers to the right fields. He too has switched on that light to South Africa's past, but by stopping the story he refuses to say anything or comment about the present. Why? With or without the "Old Man", how long will it burn bright? That will depend on the present, won't it Don? I have a feeling that if he uttered anything he realised he would be branded a "white colonist" and a nostalgic of the old days. Better drop it, and let them now get on with running the country themselves.
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on 18 April 2016
Brilliant account of how an ordinary White family lived in apartheid South Africa, with all the usual prejudices of the time but who gradually came to understand that it was wrong and couldn't go on that way. I lived near Johannesburg for 5 years in the 1970s before returning to the UK where I was born. Therefore I could relate to the places and to how easy the lives of White people were at that time. I could not put this book down even though I knew exactly what the outcome would be. I was deeply moved by the real life characters in the book and felt quite empty when I finished reading it. There are some very dark passages in the book which illustrate how desperate the White South African authorities were to maintain apartheid. I would recommend the book to anyone with even a vague interest in what it meant to be Black in South Africa in the apartheid years as seen through the eyes of a White family. You will be educated by this book.
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on 30 April 2012
When apartheid was at its height I struggled to understand how white South Africans could tolerate the evils of their government. Those few that I had contact with seemed to disclaim any responsibility, blaming everything on Afrikanerdom. This fascinating story shows how discrimination and race consciousness was built into every part of society and day-to-day living, and impossible to escape from without major sacrifice. Donald McRae knew from an early age that he would have to emigrate to avoid national service, leaving his family behind.

There are three main strands to the book - (1) McRae's own story, (2) the torture of Dr Neil Aggett and his friends, leading to his suicide, and (3) the achievements of McRae's father in bringing electricity to black areas (even though, in the eyes of many whites, they didn't really want it!!) All three strands are fascinating and could merit telling in their own right. Editing the book must have been a major challenge and could have been done differently, but the nature of the South African experience shines out throughout.

I would have liked to read more of McRae's life after he left his homeland, and something about how the torturers fared in the new South Africa - but a line on what is included and excluded has to be drawn somewhere. Sometimes the fictional prose style grates a little, describing events and attitudes that McRae himseelf did not directly witness - but that is a minor concern in a work which is well worth reading for anybody wanting to understand better a culture which has thankfully gone.

I couldn't help making comparisons between McRea's South Africa and present day Israel. I have no way of knowing how similar the mindset and activities of the South African and Isreali states actually are, but perhaps another book like this one will be written in 40 years time which will tell us.
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on 12 February 2014
Became a bit bored with this.

I expected more insight into life under apartheid. I lived in SA during this time and I could have added far more daily insight. eg having entrances to stores marked 'blankes' and 'nie blankes' (forgive spelling if not correct). Then, queuing up and being addressed as 'Madam' and the person behind me asked 'What do you want?' Just one of many examples of the harshness of apartheid.

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on 4 May 2013
This book written by accomplished author, sports journalist and fellow student at high school in South Africa, took me through a personal journey, one that transported me back to the apartheid years spent growing up in Germiston, it's prejudices, it's complications, our school life and the undercurrents that ran through society. One man's story that wraps up many names and memories of the past for many of us that spent our formative years in this place. A story that reveals the bravery of of a young man and his family that stood up and spoke out during this time. Thank you Donald!
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on 12 April 2013
I bought this to read while visiting family in South Africa and am glad I did, as this told me a lot about the run up to the fall of apartheid, as seen by a liberal who was young at the time. It was well written and insightful, and was a good counterweight to the far more conservative views of my family and their friends.
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on 6 October 2013
As a fellow born and braised South African, that currently lives in Scotland this book evoked so many emotions and shared perceptions of that time in SA that i found this very intimate and could closely relate to much of it. Donald Mcrae, thank you for sharing it!
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on 2 April 2014
An amazingly honest book. Totally gripping and could hardly bare to put it down. I remember watching the events in this book on tv as a child and it gave me a whole new perspective on the history on South Africa.
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on 2 December 2012
Captured the times - too much emphasis on political prisoners ( Agett etc.) there are other books about them - poor ending - just fizzled out. A pity because the start was excellent.
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