The Lost Boys of Bird Island a chilling reminder of apartheid days

Circumstances around the death of co-author Mark Minnie are as murky as the characters in his book

The Herald books editor Gillian McAinsh reviews The Lost Boys of Bird Island and finds it a chilling reminder of the apartheid days
The shocking revelations in The Lost Boys of Bird Island by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn bring back chilling memories of the apartheid era for those who knew Port Elizabeth in the 1980s.
Then came the disturbing news this week that Minnie was found dead – shot in the head – in remarkably similar circumstances to two major suspects in the book.
As they say, the plot thickens, making the authors as much of a story as the book itself.
But, although the sensational revelations in The Lost Boys of Bird Island are now being unravelled by national and international media, there is also the question: how does it read as a book?
The answer is as gripping as the headlines suggest.
So much so, in fact, it is hard to believe this is a work of non-fiction.
By now, it’s common knowledge that the book is an exposé of how three prominent National Party ministers are alleged to have regularly sexually abused young boys on Bird Island in Algoa Bay in the late 1980s.
Port Elizabeth diver Dave Allen was allegedly the “fixer” for a paedophile ring, arranging hook-ups for high-profile politicians, and the book portrays him as a gay man soliciting sexual gratification with children who often came from the Bay’s coloured community or vulnerable backgrounds.
The day after he, as Minnie puts it, “sings like a canary” and reveals the names of prominent men involved, he is discovered dead – shot in the head. But, was he killed or was it suicide?
Despite the time elapsed since these events in 1987, the story strikes a chord with readers today as it shines a light on cover-ups which include corruption, child rape and even murder.
Former policeman Minnie and veteran newspaper journalist Steyn make a sordid piece of South African history read like a thriller.
Minnie, in particular, comes across like a fictional detective – a hard-drinking rough diamond like Deon Meyer’s Bennie Griessel whose own damaged history gives him a strong sense of anger at injustice.
The graphic details Minnie gives of parts of his own dysfunctional childhood put in context why he was so driven to hunt down these predators.
After all, although they bore the brunt of apartheid’s evils, black and coloured children were not the only ones to be brutalised and wounded by the system. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that violence breeds violence from generation to generation.
Steyn, on the other hand is more of an enigma but as a journalist it is her job to let the story be the star of the show and she does this so well.
It’s a cracking story, as Minnie and Steyn tease out the crimes they believe were committed on Bird Island, fingering three politicians as possible paedophiles — defence minister Magnus Malan, minister of environmental affairs John Wiley and a third minister whose identity has not been revealed, on legal advice, as he is still alive.
Many in The Herald newsroom believe we know the third name and reading the book leads me to wonder if this former minister, in his old age, has had a hand in the death of Minnie.
Several Port Elizabeth figures are named in the book, the late Geoff Allen – brother of Dave whose revelations trigger off Minnie’s suspicions – former senior public prosecutor John Scott, journalists Gavin Evans and Robert Ball for example but many more remain anonymous or are given pseudonyms.
Certainly those who know places like City Snacks and Five Ways will wonder who “George” is who had the pub near the police station, and where “William”, the police informer, is today.
Similarly, there are question marks over the retired doctor who became a wine farmer and the fellow diver who idolised Allen.
The nasty details ring true and I have no doubt there are many more worms in that Bird Island can.
Tafelberg Publishers said Minnie had "successfully followed up on several leads in Port Elizabeth” in the days before his death and was “determined to reveal further information”. However, dead men tell no tales.

The Lost Boys of Bird Island by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyen, foreword by Marianne Thamm, is published by Tafelberg and retails for R280...

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