Read of the Week

Permanent Removal

Alan S Cowell

Jacana

Review: Brian Joss

I have a memory for trivia: sometimes it’s useful, sometimes it’s not.

But I recall seeing a newspaper poster many years ago referring to a New York Times reporter who was booted out of South Africa by the apartheid government.

That reporter was Alan S Cowell who has written an intriguing thriller loosely based on the Cradock Four: Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata (both had been tagged for assassination), and Sparow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlaudi, who were never seen alive again after they were intercepted at a road block near Port Elizabeth about 31 years ago.

In Permanent Removal, they are known as the Cooktown Four.

America Thomas J Kinzer, a former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary based in South Africa until he was “demoted” by a political sabre in the back, is now a lecture-circuit guru, a delegate and speaker at conferences. Kinzer is drawn back to the country when he receives a letter from Lily Nyati, whose husband, Solomon, along with Zinto, Ngalo and Mboniswa were killed in the struggle, asking Kinzer, who was to speak at a conference in Cape Town, to keep a promise he made to find out who murdered the Cooktown Four.

The widows want the perpetrators brought to justice before Parliament passes the Statute of Limitations, otherwise the unsolved cases from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “will just disappear and the oppressors will be free,” Lily tells Kinzer.

The letter was signed by the four widows and when he opens it he also opens a Pandora’s Box, which has unintended consequences.

Kinzer renews old acquaintances on his journey to discover the truth: an ex-girlfriend and firebrand reporter, Jess Chase, now married to Chris de Vere, and he meets Zoë Joubert, who was part of the Old Deep Action Committee, (ODAC), a group of naïve whites who wanted to be part of The Struggle.

Joubert knew Nyati as an activist and writer and Kinzer is smitten. But she also has secrets of her own as do the other members of the Deep Set. As Kinzer keeps his promise to Lily and the other three widows, his journey is one of self-discovery and one of his passengers on the way is Celiwe, the Nyatis’ firebrand activist daughter, who wants to meet anyone who knew her father.

Kinzer knows many unsavoury characters from his stay in South Africa, including an ace reporter, Ray Gilliomee, who is now just a drunk has-been and whose book puts the former diplomat on to the trail of Kobus Theron, an agent of the former apartheid regime. Things spiral out of control when Theron and Kinzer come face to face with an outraged mob in Cooktown and their own mortality.

The action stretches from Johannesburg to the Garden Route and further afield into the depths of the Eastern Cape and set against the backdrop of the Nelson Mandela presidency.

Cowell’s writing is elegant and this well-written political thriller will draw you in until the last page when you find out if the characters are freed from the burden of the past. It is a compelling read.