Fall and rise of an icon
As the car approached the Free State border, his driver was pulled over for speeding. "Officer, we've got to get to Bloemfontein urgently, man," Cronje pleaded with the policeman. "Sorry, Mr Cronje. Yes, of course. My apologies." The author takes up the story: "Hansie offered his thanks, waving goodbye as the car drove off. In the rear-view mirror the cop stood, his hand up in the air, in salute to his captain."
Non-South Africans have always struggled with the discrepancy between Cronje's folk-hero status back home and the fact that he accepted as much as $140,000 (around £80,000) from bookmakers. The full extent of his dealings was not known when the traffic cop sent him on his way but the less-than-strong arm of the law was symptomatic. Yes, many South Africans felt betrayed by Cronje. But the overall impression left by this biography - a best-seller at home - is that more of them have felt inclined to forgive and forget.
To British humanists and atheists exposed every day to a deeply cynical media - the columnists of Fleet Street would have eaten him alive - this might seem strange. But Cronje was cut from a different cloth. The first half of the book refers only fleetingly to the cash-for-information scandal which brought him down, and this allows room for an exploration of the man himself: a magnetic personality from a privileged, sports-mad Afrikaner family steeped in the unquestioning certainties of the Dutch Reformed Church. He was a star. And it made his fall to earth all the more painful.
Garth King was chosen as the author because, in the words of Hansie's brother Frans, he is "an independent writer without any strong preconceived views about Hansie". He does his best not to stray into the realms of hagiography but the tear-jerking interviews with members of Cronje's family, especially his wife, make objectivity even trickier than usual.
In one sense this is no bad thing. It is easy to dismiss Cronje as a cheat and a liar who deserved everything he got. But King's closeness to Bertha, Frans and Cronje's parents helps redress the balance. Cronje, we learn, spent several months being economical with the truth because he did not want to get any of his team-mates into trouble. He sank into a dark depression during the King Commission, where the remorse he showed later was not always evident. And, until his death in a plane crash in the Outeniqua Mountains in June 2002, he maintained that he had never thrown a match for money. Evidence was never unearthed to the contrary.
This is a painstakingly researched book but there is no doubt whose side it comes down on. King says there were three reasons for writing it: for the lessons to be learned; for the sake of balance (the Cronje family came to despise the mainstream media); and for closure, a rare concession to psychology in a society where the answer to most problems is to get on your knees and pray. The religion might jar but the message is clear: Cronje was no angel but nor was he the monster of popular imagination.