Facts are sometimes better than fiction


Facts are sometimes better than fiction

DEBORAH STEINMAIR read three books about real life that take us to dark places, then into the light.


What's cooking on the local non-fiction scene? The past week I dipped my toes in the water and ended up swimming far out. 

PALM RIDGE, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 17: Former police officer, Nomia Rosemary Ndlovu appears in the Palm Ridge Magistrates Court on September 17, 2021 in Palm Ridge, South Africa. It is reported that Ndlovu is accused of allegedly orchestrating the murders of several family members with the aim of claiming an insurance pay-out. (Photo by Gallo Images/OJ Koloti)
PALM RIDGE, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 17: Former police officer, Nomia Rosemary Ndlovu appears in the Palm Ridge Magistrates Court on September 17, 2021 in Palm Ridge, South Africa. It is reported that Ndlovu is accused of allegedly orchestrating the murders of several family members with the aim of claiming an insurance pay-out. (Photo by Gallo Images/OJ Koloti)

Darker than Daisy?

THE shout on the front cover refers to her as South Africa's most notorious female serial killer since Daisy de Melker. And in Rosemary Ndlovu, the milk of human kindness referenced by Lady Macbeth was indeed absent.

South Africa became aware of Ndlovu in 2021. She was a police sergeant in Tembisa. She saw her friends and family as resources. She took out life insurance policies on them, then had them murdered or allowed them to be murdered.

The tragic story is recounted matter-of-factly by Naledi Shange, an investigative journalist and currently a news editor at TimesLIVE. Why did you publish this, Melinda Ferguson? I want to ask. Well, there was also a TV series, Rosemary’s Hitlist. Viewers and readers are fascinated by the morbid, macabre and gruesome. And if we still read about De Melker, surely we can also read about Rosemary Ndlovu.

What fascinates me is the question of how Rosemary became the way she is — that she can feel human and worthy only when she spends money and gambles. At her first court appearance she was showing off, posing and joking, saying she never thought Rosemary Ndlovu would become a celebrity. Later, she was stern, angry and offensive.

Shange provides the background: Rosemary's uncle was sick. A traditional healer cured him, and because he had no money, Rosemary's mother was offered as payment. She became the female sangoma's wife. They found a man to impregnate Rosemary's mother. Initially they were happy, but later the sangoma began neglecting Rosemary's mother and the children. When Rosemary's mother left, the healer cursed her, and people in the area believe that's the cause of the hole in her soul.

After that, she was raised by her mother's sister, who said: “I went to visit my sister there, and found little Rosemary sitting on some thorns outside the house, crying. It was bad. My sister was sick and had no food." That's where the hole comes from, if you ask me.

Her sister was her first victim. And so it goes on. At her sentencing, Rosemary had the final word: “I will spend this Christmas in jail, but next year I will be out. I will be back and you will see," she said menacingly, pointing her finger.

I feel sorry for Rosemary, the cold-blooded killer. I am saddened by a society where someone can become so damaged and possess so little. Where people disappear and no one pays any attention.

It's a terrible, inhuman tragedy, and I think someone like Marlene van Niekerk should write an opera about Rosemary.

Lessons from the dead

I didn't spend much time looking at the photos in this book. In detective series, I always close my eyes during a post-mortem examination when skin is zipped open like a handbag. Not everyone has the stomach for it, but apparently the living have much to learn from the dead. What, I wonder? The writer explains: “This book will teach you how to notice the smallest of details — how to really notice."

He explains that the strength of someone's handshake reveals something about their health. He tells of how he was called on an aeroplane when a woman lost consciousness. He asked for sugar water and Coca-Cola. And her handbag. He suspected there might be medication in it that could inform him about her condition. In her bag was no medicine, but a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, the top-selling bodice-ripper, with the bookmark on page 4. He recommended that she read only one page a day.

He explains the first principle of modern forensic science: Locard's principle. All fictional detectives apply it. It can be reduced to “every contact leaves a trace". Then he provides case studies, with gruesome photos. The construction worker who was struck by lightning, causing his metal zip to explode and its teeth to be embedded in his groin, and many other mysterious deaths that left little evidence.

The reader learns about murder weapons such as poison: Temik poisoning is apparently common in South Africa. It's also known as “two-step": Step one, you ingest it. Step two, you die. It's a kind of insecticide. He explains its effects and what to look for. In the end, there's hardly anything that doesn't leave a trace.

There are cases of deadly bites from ticks and, of course, snakes. Mysterious suicides, like the considerate motorcyclist who left his helmet on when he shot himself in the mouth. There's an X-ray of a man with three “bullets" in his body. It later turned out that two of them were the metal ends of his hoodie's drawstring.

He gives advice on what to watch out for in your own body as early warning signs of a serious illness, and on how to solve murders. Yes, there's an armchair detective in each of us.

This book is fascinating reading material, expertly and entertainingly told.

Caroline Smart with some of the blankets she has made.
Caroline Smart with some of the blankets she has made.


A large, square, colourful coffee table book lands on my desk. Thank goodness, I think, finally some good news! And it is truly uplifting to read about people who roll up their sleeves and do something tangible to make others' lives better.

On December 19, 2013, Zelda la Grange challenged Carolyn Steyn to knit 67 blankets, symbolising the 67 years Nelson Mandela fought for social justice. The book is filled with poignant quotes by Mandela and cheerful photos of woollen blankets and helpers. Yes, it's also an ode to the Steyns — on page 8, there's a photo of a smiling Madiba with Carolyn and Douw Steyn in 2003 on the Douw Steyn boat on the Douw Steyn dam. But who better than the (hardworking) privileged to lend a helping hand?

Maybe it's unfortunate that the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang - who wrote the foreword - has since been fired by the ANC for unacceptable conduct, but who could know?

The blanket project grew exponentially. Guinness World Records began to fall. In 2015, the blanket at the Union Buildings (individual blankets were hand-stitched together on the scene) was the world's largest blanket. In 2016, another world record was shattered by an even larger blanket at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. There were many more.

Episodes from Mandela's life are woven in between the text and photos of the project. Businesses got involved. More and more ordinary people, elderly folks, and even prisoners started knitting and crocheting. The blankets found homes overseas as well, including in London and Washington, DC. We had the Nelson Mandela masterpiece blanket, the Springbok blanket and the rainbow nation blanket.

Carolyn Steyn was knighted by the French president.

I salute those who care and give. Mandela said: “Our society needs to re-establish a culture of giving." He was later criticised by ANC members who felt he had compromised and let white people off too lightly, allowing them to keep their wealth intact. But for many of us, he remains the charming man who forgave us and gave us hope.

Nathan Trantraal, whom I admire as a writer, artist, poet and philosopher, said in a poem that when he heard Mickey Mouse initially had teeth but was later depicted as more user-friendly and non-threatening, it made him think of Nelson Mandela.

I will forever cherish a sentimental love for Jesus and Madiba, the peacemakers who preached love. And I'll learn to crochet again.

Who, what and where:

Killer Cop. The Rosemary Ndlovu Story by Naledi Shange was published by Melinda Ferguson Books and costs R300 at Exclusive Books.

Risking Life For Death: Lessons for the Living from the Autopsy Table by Ryan Blumenthal was published by Jonathan Ball and costs R290 at Exclusive Books.

67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day by The Knitting and Crocheting Revolution: Enquiries can be directed to the distributor, Helen Holyoake, at helen@helco.co.za.

What are we listening to?

Urban Species sings Blanket.


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