02 July 2012


Donald McRae's autobiography "UNDER OUR SKIN" is subtitled "A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years."

As a South African who left in 1978 during some of the darker years which became progressively darker in the decade and a half which followed my departure, I read McRae's story with increasing absorption and horror as his story unfolded.

Of course one of the more horrific parts of his story was the saga of the two white doctors, Neil Aggett and Liz Floyd. Apparently Neil Aggett was the only white person to die in police custody during the whole criminal activity of the apartheid years.

Much of McRae's story paralleled my life in South Africa, and I was acquainted with the work of Ian McRae, Donald's father, as I had two periods of working with the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) of South Africa, from 1952 to 1954 and again from 1974 to 1978, during which time Ian McRae went from strength to strength at ESCOM.

It is a flaw in Donald's story that he persists in referring to the organisation where his father worked as ESKOM, because after the organisation was changed from the Victoria Falls Power Company to the Electricity Supply Commission some time between the 1930s and 1950s, the Afrikaans version of the Commission's name was EVKOM, a translation of the English version, and it was only in the late 1980s that ESCOM became ESKOM.

Proof-reading and editing are also a problem in the book because a very serious mistake was letting Sidney Kentridge's name be printed once as Stanley Kentridge, and another was calling the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand the Grand Hall.

Maybe these are small quibbles in a book which tells such a graphic story of life in apartheid South Africa with its abominable army and police and criminal history such as the murders of Steve Biko and so many countless thousands of others before Nelson Mandela's release from his 27 years of incarceration, and even for the 4 following years before the election of 1994 when he became South Africa's first black president with a new constitution introduced for the governments of South Africa to be governing for all its people.

To me the book would have been greatly enhanced if it had had an index, because there are so many issues which it would have been useful to have looked at more often without having to search through the book to find where the particular reference was, but again, maybe these are small issues in relation to the story of apartheid South Africa through the eyes of one family member and relating to the rest of his family, his friends and those around him, both black and white in the context of apartheid South Africa.

Strangely enough, the more I read of the brutality of the police and the army, the more I thought of apartheid South Africa and its offspring apartheid Israel.

However, Donald McRae has produced a biography which is absorbing as well as horrifying as events unfold, and he holds the reader's interest until the very last pages.

We all have stories to tell about our lives in apartheid South Africa, but not many of us would be able to tell them as well as McRae has in his book. Hopefully he has more tales of his life in South Africa to relate to a wider audience.

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90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm