Books by Charles van Onselen

Released: Sept. 1, 2007

"A vast canvas painted in florid detail, but the climactic indictment certainly is not documented enough to persuade a jury or even an especially skeptical reader."
Longwinded, heavily researched biography of a really bad man who may or may not have been a mass murderer. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1996

A sprawling biography of one of the people whom history usually forgets: an illiterate black South African sharecropper who lived out his days under apartheid. South African official history all but forgot Kas Maine, who appears in state records only once, when he was arrested in 1931 because he could not produce a license for his dog. The descendant of Afrikaner pioneers, Johannesburg-based van Onselen (Director, Institute for Advanced Social Research/Univ. of Witwatersrand) forges an entire world from that sole archival appearance, drawing on interviews with Maine's family and a deep knowledge of South African culture and custom to shape a powerful life story of a man who simply lived his life as best he could. We learn of Maine's years as a poor hired farmer who, even in times of plenty, could scarcely feed his family; a proud man who endured every indignity of the apartheid system while cultivating tribal traditions that had been driven underground. Van Onselen is especially interested in Maine's work as an herbalist and healer who became locally famous for curing an ailment called umshosha phantsi (that which crawls underneath), as well as in his small role in the quiet yet cumulative backcountry resistance to the racist tyranny that fell soon after Maine's long life ended. Van Onselen girds Maine's story with encyclopedic detail on matters of South African ethnic relations, and the reader will emerge from this long but fluent book with a clear understanding of that nation's troubled history. So much detail sometimes threatens to overwhelm the life story of its modest subject, but it adds considerable power to van Onselen's indictment of a way of life now thankfully gone. This testimonial to the capacity of the human spirit to resist, to endure, and eventually to overcome oppression may well prove to be a key document of South African history. (32 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >