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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Tim Couzens’ South African Battles Launched at Kalk Bay Books

Tim Couzens

Tim Butcher and Tim CouzensSouth African BattlesFew people know where Nakop lies within in our borders. Even fewer know about the skirmish that happened there – where not one shot was fired – which precipitated South Africa’s entering the First World War. And does the battle of Muizenburg between the British and Dutch ring a bell? Barring the False Bay locals and history buffs, presumably not many would be able to tell the story of this battle that took place mere kilometres from where the launch of Tim Couzens’s South African Battles took place at Kalk Bay Books last month.

In his latest book, Couzens tackles battles that have eluded popular history, with an acute eye for the humaneness entrenched in the history. He has authored numerous biographies, two on the late Nelson Mandela, which reflect in his aptitude for storytelling. The stories in South African Battles are told with a traveller’s fervour for details – not only about those involved, but also on the landscapes where these battles occurred.

The first chapter is an ode to the research methods historians use for gathering information and relating the events as factually accurate as possible. Couzens is adamant that when using these research methods in combination one can gather a relatively accurate account of what happened. He stuck to his guns when challenged by one or two of the audience members about research methodology and the inherent inaccuracies of historic storytelling.

Speaking to Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, Couzens said he set out with this book to inspire readers to explore the places in the stories not only through reading but also first-hand and hopefully stimulate much needed tourism in areas rich with history. “I’m the kind of person that needs to see places visually to write about it,” he says. “I want to give people a reason to visit these places.” Places like Nakop, Middelpos and Lesotho where you’re more likely to see tumbleweeds or livestock than humans obviously intrigue the author. “These places are worth going to if desolation is what you’re after,” he says.

In each of these stories you not only learn about the battles but you can “see and smell the places” as Butcher rightfully said. Couzens has written numerous shorter travel pieces for the Sunday Times and it reverberates through this most recent edition of the book – the first and only other edition was published nine years ago.

South African Battles comprises 36 battles spanning five centuries and the stories can be read in any order and “mulled over the next day” as it says on the book jacket. It’s meant for bedside reading, says the author.

There’s so much packed in here, says Butcher of South African Battles. “There’s so much friction in our history, but that’s what makes South Africa interesting. Switzerland is one of the world’s most peaceful democracies and what do they have to show for it? A cuckoo clock.”

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