Hoax review of Boer book raises hackles

August 11, 1995

An apparently hoax review of a satirical South African work, published in the highly respected and very serious York University-based Journal of Southern African Studies, is causing great hilarity in this part of the world.

News of the hoax broke in South Africa's top-selling Sunday Times newspaper. But editors of the journal - whose editorial board comprises 24 leading academics from a host of top British universities including Oxford, London and Bristol - are not amused.

Robert Kirby's outrageous book, The Secret Letters of Jan van Riebeeck, pretends to be a collection of private letters from the Cape colony's first commander to a cousin in Holland. It is clearly bogus.

The book begins with a letter in which van Riebeeck writes about the killing and "stuffing" of a Bushman for display in a museum. It talks about an activist group called the Kho-Khoi Civil Rights Association, and a black resistance leader called Leadman, an anagram of Mandela. Van Riebeeck's right hand man is Cheese Blaauwtjopp, and his slave-master is George Hitler.

The letters describe "squatter problems", a massage parlour called The Rub and Goffel, a "snot-gobbling English captain" and a contest to create a national anthem in which one of the compositions, presented by four Madagascan slaves shackled together, was a "devastatingly light samba" and another was an ode to a baboon climbing a mountain.

The author of the 2,000-word review, Ansu Datta, a professor at the University of Botswana, ostensibly takes all this seriously.

The letters, he writes, "reveal new insights into the momentous events that were then shaping South African history.

"They also speak volumes of the personality of the writer and show, into the bargain, that the seeds of what happened later in this part of the world can be traced back to the mid-17th century."

Mr Kirby does not believe Professor Datta was fooled by the book. "I think he is having the laugh here, making total asses out of that highly pompous journal's editors. You only have to glance through the review to see that it's written by a very incisive and informed mind."

Attempts by Mr Kirby to contact Professor Datta were unsuccessful, although the University of Botswana confirmed that he works there as director of the international institute for documentation and research.

Attempts to elicit response from the journal's editors - William Beinart, Colin Stoneman, Liz Gunner and Saul Dubow - proved equally fruitless. "My letter, faxed twice to the editors of the journal, remains unanswered," Mr Kirby said.

But, in a reply to a complaint by a South African academic, Dr Beinart has explained that the review had been unsolicited, that the author was "particularly insistent" that it be published, and that it has "slipped through" at a time when the journal was in the process of a difficult transition, changing publishers and some editors.

Mr Kirby said: "It's quite clear that the journal is running on post-colonial autopilot. Once you do that, things like academic discretion become secondary. You just go ahead and publish anything which anoints your prejudice."

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