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Jonathan Ball

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“Crime as Politics and Politics as Crime”: Charles van Onselen’s Showdown at the Red Lion Launches with Bill Nasson at The Book Lounge

Charles van Onselen

On an early autumn evening, The Book Lounge was quickly filled with readers eager to hear the inimitable and eminent South African historian, Charles van Onselen. The occasion was the launch of his most recent publication, Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859–1910.

Bill Nasson and Charles van OnselenShowdown at the Red LionThe Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman introduced and welcomed the two “grumpy historians”, Van Onselen and Bill Nasson. He praised Van Onselen as a “consummate storyteller, whose many award-winning books draw the reader into the narrative from the first page.”

Van Onselen’s previous books include Masked Raiders, The Fox and the Flies, New Babylon, New Nineveh, The Seed is Mine and The Small Matter of a Horse.

Nasson’s initial suggestion to relocate the celebration across the road to the historic Kimberley Hotel – a more fitting venue where they might re-enact some scenes from the book – was met with good humour. He described Van Onselen as “the best historian in South Africa by a long chalk” and said it was humbling to be alongside the author on such a platform. He asked Van Onselen to frame the book.

“Like the Greek minister of finance,” quipped the author, “I have many debts. Like him, I can’t settle them fully, but let me settle a few, as it is the thought that counts …” He thanked The Book Lounge, his publisher and the audience who had joined him in celebration. “And Bill, who I can now disclose is a second cousin … please frame his remarks in that context!”

As a preamble to discussing Showdown at the Red Lion Van Onselen spoke about Johannesburg as the traditional centre of crime and Pretoria as the centre of power. “For 120 years, Johannesburg was the capital of the mining industry and organised crime in South Africa, all the way from Abe Bailey to Brett Kebble. The city has, however, also been politically turbulent. So much so that it has never formed a fortress or a sufficiently secure platform for any of the political parties that dominated our history.

“No nationalist party of substance has ever been formally launched in Johannesburg, and the city has been the site of many repeated failed revolutions, from above or below in 1895, in 1907, 1913, 1919 and, most notably, in 1922. Nationalists of various stripes have always found Johannesburg difficult to manage. Long may it so remain! Because South Africans, not being a particularly gifted people, have never realised that nationalism, the quintessentially 19th century principle and ideology which frames the shaping of political dialogue, always creates more problems than it creates solutions. Because we’re not a gifted people, not satisfied with nationalism as an ideology, we like to have racial nationalism; and because we’re very thick sometimes, we like ethnicised racial nationalism.

“Pretoria, by contrast, has always been high on political power and fairly low on crime, though latterly that is being actively worked on. To those of little faith, I say, ‘Despair not, Rome was not broken in a day!’ There’s big work here to be done. The Transvaal as a self-standing state with varying degrees of autonomy in the 19th and early 20th centuries was thus marked by a stark disjuncture. Johannesburg had economic muscle while political power lay in Pretoria. Just as the positive and negative terminals of a battery have to be properly connected to ensure smooth functioning of the device, so in an effective state that’s governed by the rule of law, economic and political power need to be properly wired. In a state where the disparities between these powers is excessive, and the system is either inadequately or incorrectly wired to the law enforcement agencies and the judicial system, the system’s always at risk of short-circuiting.

“The classic form of short-circuiting that takes place between poles that are incorrectly wired, is corruption. Systemic corruption occurs either when those with a great deal of political power but limited economic muscle chase after unearned wealth. For those with money, but limited access to direct state power, sell or purchase political favours to ensure their economic wellbeing. Now if you accept this rather crude analysis. you’ll understand why as a historian, I’ve always been fascinated by ‘crime as politics’ and, conversely, ‘politics as crime’.

Charles van Onselen and Belinda Bozzoli“There’s nothing peculiarly South African about this interface, indeed elements of it have been found throughout time and societies. I would, however, suggest that ever since the mineral discoveries of the 19th century, this phenomenon has manifested itself more clearly in this country than in some other societies. In modern South Africa, appreciating the difference and connection between crime and politics, we have three full-time television channels devoted to the difference:

“The first one is called the news. That’s where you’ll catch up with the crime of the day. The other is called the parliamentary channel, where you can see ‘forthcoming at a cinema near you’, and the third is comedy central. Forgive the digression, but I’ve pointed out that our post-mineral discovery history is full of ‘politics as crime’. Think of the Jameson Raid, as money chasing power. Or the political power of the apartheid state being directed against the economic and social wellbeing of the majority of the country’s inhabitants to the point where it was deemed a crime against humanity.

“What we are less familiar with, however, are examples of ‘crime as politics’. Whereas the history of ‘politics as crime’ is overwhelmingly male, white, black, the former allows social historians to explore variables other than those of political and economic power. Thia allows the historian more room to draw out the roles of class, gender, ethnicity, race, ideology, sexuality and religion to see how they played out in the processes that helped to shape the social profile of the state.

“Seen from this angle, you can see that The Small Matter of a Horse, New Babylon, New Nineveh, The Fox and the Flies, Masked Raiders and now Showdown at the Red Lion are all driven by a single underlying question: To what extent and in what ways might acts committed by ordinary men and women, black and white, which the state defines as criminal, be informed by considerations, which viewed in a different light, might be seen to have been construed in party by political elements?

“Again, this is a widespread and familiar phenomenon in many societies through time. It only depends where you stood in English society whether you saw Robin Hood as the King’s enemy or the champion of the people. The answer cannot be only about crime or politics. It’s almost inevitably about both.

“Despite the focus on how crime, politics and justice intersect, Showdown at the Red Lion is not a work of theory, though I hope to think it’s theoretically informed. Rather, it’s a true to life of an Irishman, who is simultaneously very ordinary and truly extraordinary, and who lived between 1859 and 1910, when he was about the third white man to be executed and hanged at Pretoria Central Prison.

“Within this book, there are several grand themes that I tried to pull together, more or less successfully, but that’s for you to judge,” he said.

Nasson and Van Onselen chatted for almost an hour, with sparkling wit and profound insights they covered South Africa then and now, as narrative through the story of Jack McLoughlin. The many readers who came to support the author in this launch were given much to ponder for all the entertaining seemingly off-the-cuff narrative delivered by the author.

Nobody left empty handed or empty hearted. Merely listening to this remarkable raconteur offered food for the soul. Those who bought the book and got it signed left with a real treasure that will keep them riveted for many days to come.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event:


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