By Jonathan Kapstein
A charming, evocative, and exuberant memoir, Biltong builds on a fascinating, generally rural childhood of growing up as a free-thinking South African to adult life in Africa and Europe.
Written with great wit throughout, it’s also replete with delicate and introspective insights into family relations, notably those between the author’s ill-matched parents. The personal history of moving as a child of a military officer from base to base, from boarding school to university, from remote areas to major urban centres, provides a smooth background to a fascinating and chaotic period of political change in Africa.
Indeed, Willers’s book is set to take its place in modern South African history. As an adult based in London, he was an accidental back-channel interlocutor between the ANC, then South Africa’s black government in exile, and the South African business community, which decided that it was, after all, obligated to distance itself from the whites-only apartheid government.
I was present at a secret meeting between South Africa’s business leaders and the ANC’s underground leadership in a Zambian bush camp resort, close to the Zimbabwe border. It was an epochal event. In part thanks to Willers, the two sides discovered that they could converse and had more common goals than either had expected. It signalled an understanding that international business could no longer pretend that it had no interest in domestic politics.
Biltong provides fascinating insights into the background of the South African saga through Willers’s eyes as a paratrooper, diplomat, journalist, editor, and occasional blue-water yachtsman.
- Jonathan Kapstein is an American journalist who was Africa bureau chief for Business Week, NY, from 1983 to 1986. In nearly half a century of international reporting, he was based in Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, Milan, Johannesburg and Brussels. His last position prior to retirement was president of the Press Club Brussels Europe.