Takka Takka Bom Bom: A South African War Correspondent’s Story

Al J. Venter, Takka Takka Bom Bom: A South African War Correspondent’s Story (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2022)

THE TITLE is Swahili for the water-cooled machine guns of World War One used in East Africa where Al Venter’s father served. Later he worked for South Africa Railways, during the next war in a significant logistical post. His mother was a nurse of German extraction. But it seems to have been a dysfunctional family, maybe a trigger for Venter’s penchant for adventure and risk-taking. While still at school he hitchhiked alone back home from the border of Northern Rhodesia and the Congo.

Leaving school prematurely he enlisted in the South African Navy, then still heavily influenced by British tradition. This was clearly a formative and valued part of his life. Unusually, many years later he dived down to his old ship, the frigate SAS Transvaal, scuttled in False Bay. Naval service over, he set off to travel overland to London. This journey set the tone for the rest of his life as an adventurer and journalist. Today at the age of 84 he is described as a legendary war reporter; and author, reportedly, of over sixty books.

On the border of Guinea-Bissau and (former French) Guinea he came across activity that was of interest to Portuguese intelligence and gave him later entrée to colonial Angola and Mozambique. He also reported on conflict in Biafra and Zimbabwe and became a colleague of famous correspondents such as Peter Younghusband and Frederick Forsyth. His earlier career in London and Lagos working for shipping companies had transformed into something far more exotic. Reporting also included conflict in the Middle East.

The photographs in this book leave no doubt about Venter’s affinity with guns and uniforms raising questions about the role of embedded journalists. Some of his involvements have been with mercenary companies such as Executive Outcomes. His travels and reporting led him into many hazardous places as did his recreational diving. Numerous narrow escapes are recorded in this book, more than any one person might be expected to survive.

Venter’s title could also be used to describe his writing, which veers off in all directions in true raconteur fashion. He is also fond of the unfinished pregnant thought, presumably left for the reader to fill. There are a few unfortunate usages such as ‘raw’ and ‘our women’. Rather than refer to reporters and journalists, he often favours scribblers or scribes. And he also suggests a closeness to people he appears to have met only briefly.

The writer emphasises that this is not an autobiography, but it is undoubtedly autobiographical. The notable gaps are presumably filled by some of his many other titles. Perhaps the greatest value of this book lies in the detail it provides about the atmosphere of Africa in the 1960s just after the independence of most of its nations. Venter is surely correct to highlight the continent’s decline and the fact that many of the places he frequented are today inaccessibly dangerous. He does not go into any detail about the multiple factors that have caused this, although he does have critical words for left-wing advisors to post-colonial governments.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld