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‘Biltong is the lively, well-written and engrossing life-story of a remarkably adventurous South African ‘soutpiel’, which deserves a much wider audience.’ — Richard Steyn, former editor of the Natal Witness, Editor in Chief of The Star, and author of Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness (Jonathan Ball, 2016).
‘There are many untold stories of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. Woven among the strands of this highly readable memoir is another compelling tale of a hitherto unseen hand. Biltong is a gem of a book.‘ – John Battersby, journalist, author, former editor of the Sunday Independent, and former UK manager of Brand South Africa.
For a longer review by the American journalist Jonathan Kapstein, click here.
About the author
David Willers was born in 1947, and educated at Stellenbosch and Pretoria universities, where he read philosophy and political science. He also holds an MA in Dramatic Arts from Regents College, London.
His working life began with diplomatic postings to the South African Consulate in Milan, and the South African Consulate in war-torn Luanda. Following a spell as a reporter for the Cape Times, he became assistant director at the South African Institute of International Relations (SAIIA) in Johannesburg, and then director of research and eventually London director of the South Africa Foundation, a private sector organisation which sought to build bridges between local and foreign business communities.
He returned to South Africa as editor of the Natal Witness in the eventful period leading up to the democratic transition. He, Joy, and their two young sons then went back to the UK where he took up a job as London representative of the South African Sugar Association, and later as chair of the International Sugar Organisation, a United Nations initiative. He went on to launch the Better Sugar Cane Initiative (BSI), a global initiative aimed at fostering best sugar cane farming practice.
Career highlights include playing a pioneering role in the dialogue between the South African business community and the ANC in exile, and serving as the first South African chairperson of a UN organisation. His awards include the first ever sugar-cane environmental Bonsucro Sustainability Award.
He is the author of In Search of the Waratah: The Titanic of the South (The Highveld Press, 2005). He has also written for various newspapers and magazines on a freelance basis, and served as a radio and television commentator.
He is married to Joy, and they have two sons, Jonathan and Andrew, and two grandchildren. They now live in Wales, but visit South Africa regularly.
More about Biltong
Written at behest of the author’s two sons, Biltong is prefaced with a quote from Cicero: ‘To remain ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child.’
In line with this injunction, Willers rolls out his story against the backdrop of the lives of his parents and grandparents, as well as those of his wife, Joy. It’s a rich and colourful tale.
His father, Jan Willers, was a pilot from a conservative Afrikaner family; his mother, Marian Williams, a beautiful Welsh WAAF. They married impulsively in wartime England after a whirlwind romance, and returned to South Africa.
After flying Mustangs in the Korean War, his father went on to lead efforts to modernise the South African Air Force, and was a founder of the Atlas Aircraft Corporation. Sadly, his parents’ disparate backgrounds gradually reasserted themselves, and Marian eventually returned to Wales where she lived until age 96, pursuing a life of writing and painting.
The narrative is imbued with an ongoing sense of family. Willers came to know his father’s large family of brothers and sisters, themselves politically divided, but remaining close all the same. While his father fought in the war, some of his siblings belonged to the Ossewa Brandwag, the extremist Afrikaner movement with national socialist leanings.
Willers writes about his maternal Welsh grandfather, Edward Williams, a gentle man and munitions expert who worked for the Nobel company and helped to invent nitro-glycerine. During World War 1, Edward spent several years in Japan on a technological exchange programme sponsored by the British government, helping the Japanese navy to modernise.
Biltong also records the life and times of Joy’s family. Her mother was of German descent, and grew up on a farm in Namibia. Her father was a South African geologist and metallurgist, Frank Vermaak, who spent his life in the mining industry, and discovered the platinum-rich seams in the then Western Transvaal.
Shortly before World War Two, Joy’s parents sent her mother, Lilo, and her elder sister, Annemarie, back to Germany to study at German schools. They were eventually trapped in German-speaking Poland, and held captive by advancing Russian soldiers. The story of their escape is an epic in itself.
Biltong is a memoir of romance and adventure, including youthful escapades on various South African military bases; a spell as a barefoot farm school boy in the eastern Transvaal; life in various boarding schools, where Willers forges his credo never to give in to a bully; army service as a paratrooper; halcyon days at Stellenbosch University; adventures in Europe as a young diplomat; plying Jonas Savimbi’s bodyguards with beer while they temporarily turn his flat in Luanda into a machine gun post; and escaping, with his new bride, from the stricken city by sailing down the hostile Angolan coast in a 27-foot yacht, dodging MPLA gunboats, and shadowed by a giant ragged tooth shark.
Then comes a brush with the bizarre and ruthless business model practised by Stuttafords, the ostensibly genteel Cape Town department store; and a life-changing interview, as a rising young reporter for the Cape Times, with the late Judge Tienie Steyn while the latter lies sun-tanning on a Namibian beach. Reporting on the Rhodesian bush war, Willers narrowly avoids being blown up by a landmine. At SAIIA, he experiences the dynamics surrounding the foreign policy of ‘constructive engagement’ and its contribution to reform in South Africa.
In London, he watches giant salmon being carried into the Buckingham Palace kitchens from the SA Foundation offices just across the road, and chews on yams with Solly Smith, redoubtable head of the ANC office in London, in the basement of the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, while the latter scribbles down the first notes about a possible rapprochement between the ANC and the South African business community.
In Pietermaritzburg, the Willers household is rescued from endemic pilfering by a mysterious sangoma, while the intrepid editor blends incognito with a crowd of demonstrators outside the Natal Witness offices, baying for his head. Joy helps to monitor the first democratic elections, and David attends the presidential inauguration, where he is almost bowled over by a fuming Winnie Mandela storming towards the presidential podium.
The tale is underpinned by an ongoing meditation on the struggle to distil a sense of identity and domicile out of this bifurcated background. Eventually, at his youngest son’s very English wedding, the insight dawns on Willers that he is a genuine soutpiel – the affectionate Afrikaans term for a settler straddled between South Africa and Britain. A great read.