BOOK CLUB: The Café de Move-On Blues

BILL NASSON is impressed by The Café de Move-On Blues, a new book by Christopher Hope that offers an even-handed, clear-sighted and vividly-drawn portrait of the pain and paradoxes of post-apartheid South Africa.

The front matter of Christopher Hope’s latest book displays the distinctly un-neighbourly sentiment of a Pastor Ngobeza who, in the 1920s, pronounced, ‘White people have no right to be here and the White man who says he has got a farm here must roll it up, put it on a train and spread it in the land that he comes from’. It makes an uncomfortably blunt start to The Café de Move-on Blues: In Search of the New South Africa and, in a way reminds this reviewer of a very much earlier book in this exploring tradition. In 1877 the English Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, produced South Africa after sniffing his way around its colonial parts. ‘South Africa’, he concluded, ‘is a country of black men and not of white men – it has been so, it is so, and it will be so’. 

Trollope’s laconic vision was a deliberate rap over the knuckles of those deluded white settlers who imagined themselves to be living in an African version of Australia or a sunlit New Zealand. Nowadays, one might perhaps be tempted to envision the conservative-liberal Anthony Trollope and the EFF’s fascist Julius Malema as an unlikely pair of historical time-travellers, orbiting a country which, like Ireland, is notoriously inclined to remember the future and imagine the past.   

Although The Café-de-Move-on Blues  may, at first glance, appear to be a volume in the fairly well-worn tradition of touring the land to report on its grim realities and to tell The Story of South Africa, this is a new classic which has to be distinguished from earlier vintages such as Allen Drury’s A Very Strange Society: A Journey to the Heart of South Africa (1967) and Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow: South Africa Black and White (1986). Firstly, and obviously, Hope’s subject is not the South Africa of high water apartheid but of its post-apartheid present. Secondly, and most importantly, his book is not the work of an outsider reporting on the South Africa drama, as the author is not some touring American journalist. The book is, instead, an insider’s immersion in South Africa, trying to get to grips with, as he puts it so masterfully in its preface, a country ‘where the more you know, the less you understand, but that in no way lessens the need to go on looking’. This lets you know, if you’d not already got it, that The Café de Move-on Blues is not just about South Africa as a place but also – far more – about the loaded character of today’s South African nation. 

Lastly, who better than an acclaimed South African novelist, non-fiction writer and poet to capture the contemporary texture and sinew of this ‘mad and absurd’ land. In this, not the least significant thing about Christopher Hope’s shrewd gaze is his personal history. With writings banned, he was harried into exile overseas in the 1970s from where he continued to show South Africa’s apartheid rulers the finger, with award-winning fiction such as the deliciously-titled A Separate Development and Kruger’s Alp. Freed from its suffocation, from distant places (like France, where he now lives) Hope has been able to benefit from the coolness of distance while all the while maintaining an exasperated yet very soft spot for the land of his birth. 

Equally, as anyone will immediately appreciate, The Café de Move-On Blues echoes with the author’s intimate, sure-footed steps across known local soil, for he certainly knows his onions, both old and new. So, when Hope leads you through Pretoria, you encounter not only that city’s hardy perennials, the blossoming jacarandas. You also come across the predictable political seasonality of its street names. For instance, what is now Jan Shoba Street was previously Duncan Street. ‘Jan Shoba’ was a member of the Pan-African Congress’s woeful Azanian People’s Liberation Army and owes his municipal elevation to the ruling nationalist party’s fondness for patronising humbug. As Christopher Hope notes, ‘those who get to change the names of suburban streets felt obliged to throw a bone’ to their old PAC rivals, propelled by the ritual reflexes of ‘transformation’ and ‘inclusiveness’. Thus, down came a British Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, Sir Patrick Duncan, and up went the PAC freedom fighter, Jan Shoba (who was, incidentally, murdered in murky circumstances in 1990).            

As The Café de Move-on Blues observes of such memorialisation, you might well say, fair enough. But you’d only say that if you had a cavalier approach to the country’s history. Hope, on the other hand, is an author who passes the test of history as assuredly as he does the test of travelogue. He points out that Duncan’s son, also Patrick, ‘was a rare and remarkable man in whose name you might name boulevards and airports’. A passionate believer in equality, a member in the 1950s of the Liberal Party and banned in the early 1960s, Duncan was the first white person to join the PAC of Comrade Jan Shoba, representing it abroad for a time and spending the remainder of his spirited life in exile. Had the name-changing commissars of Tshwane taken any account of this striking ‘Duncan’ significance when fiddling with street signs? The sound of such ironic acts of ‘decolonisation’ is surely deafening. For the thing about city streets is that they are mostly not one-way, especially in this country, where the route to so many destinations is a maze. In a myriad of ways, including its reflections on the stage-management of public symbolism, The Café de Move-on Blues is a model of truth and reason at a time when the contagious power of a spurious racial nationalism trumps a civilising enlightenment. 

Of course, this is a blight of the current world, not simply that of South Africa. It is a world in which, Christopher Hope writes, ‘borders and boundaries and patrols’ are carrying the day, from America’s Mexican border to Britain and the EU. Still, when it comes to this country, has it not been ever thus? As the author emphasises in his preface, given its ‘long hard night’ of ‘antediluvian racial dementia’, South Africa has the history to be awarded a gold medal for its assiduous hedging of ‘ethnic difference and distance, ethnic exclusivity, tribalism, partition, separation and apartness… keeping others out or ourselves in’. 

In this respect, The Café de Move-on Blues can be read as a kind of coda to Hope’s 1988 White Boy Running, an intensely personal portrayal of his first return visit to South Africa in over a decade, another forensic read in which he wields a scalpel while looking his then late-apartheid country straight in the eye. There, he peeled open a place of ‘horrifying comedy’, concluding that it’s a country over which ‘the sun is shining but it does not fool anyone. This is funeral weather’. Funereal strains are also to be found in Hope’s earlier poetry. In the aptly-titled ‘Notes for Atonal Blues’ which wraps up his 1981 collection, In The Country of the Black Pig, he ponders a land ‘already three-quarters desert’, with its dominant white society blanketing itself against apprehensions and insecurities, doggedly ‘dug in for the duration… while stocks last and wherever grass is mown’.           

In its sketching of the subsequent New South Africa, The Café de Move-on Blues finds it still dug in for the duration, steeled by its time-worn ‘amnesia and careless forgetfulness’, while finding time to assault the marble and granite of colonial heritage. Even though you can’t hurt the dead, you may as well have a go at offending some of the living. In taking as his central thread the recent bout in toppling, defacing and frothing over South Africa’s statues and monuments, Christopher Hope’s book is, in part, a distinctive – and distinguished – critical chapter in the ongoing story of today’s culture wars. His inspiration started, as he tells us, ‘by chance, one autumn morning in 2015’ when he happened to be in Cape Town, passing the university, and his eye was caught by a seething crowd ‘mobbing the large statue of a seated man’. He found himself witnessing a rare moment, a frenzied and ‘angry crowd lynching a statue’, with the university’s student protestors ‘playing their part as priests of the tribe, solemnly punishing’ the transgressor’ in an impromptu ‘public act of exorcism’. All the while their ‘opened iPads, like prayer books’, dangled ‘in front of their faces’, recording the ‘excommunication’ and ‘execution’ of Cecil Rhodes, and then, with ritual predictability, ‘each other and then themselves’. It signalled the rise of the Fall.

This is all laid on with an even-handed brush. In the author’s view, Rhodes is anything but rosy, and he ranks him down in the gutter on the historical scale of white colonial arrogance, brutality and greed. But at the same time, equally vigorously, he insists that he is also ineluctably ‘part and parcel of who we are and cannot be got rid of’. In a terse judgement, Hope wonders that if ‘reliable old heroes were now the new villains, could one redress past injustice by airbrushing such figures from the record ?’ Ultimately, you might wish to ‘forget Rhodes, but his ghost will not forget you’. 

One can only but imagine the republican Boers of Paul Kruger and the Afrikaner nationalists of D.F. Malan and H.F. Verwoerd smirking in their graves at this mighty blow against so detested a symbol of British imperialism. They, too, had every cause ‘to detest the man’ and what he embodied. For all that, though,   South Africa’s previous Twentieth Century regimes had left statues standing, ‘no matter who it was’ that they ‘remembered or offended’. But virtually everything of what was standing (even a Port Elizabeth war memorial to horses) was now fair game, as it had become open season in ‘a war of words and images’. Or, in effect, the demolishing of Rhodes was the opening shot in a shrill campaign waged against the dead, a war to cleanse places of the faded commemorative traces of ‘identifiable enemies’, never mind that they had long ago shed any magnetism as pillars of pilgrimage for white South Africa to glorify its colonizing past.   

Certainly, in that sense, the University of Cape Town assault had been a stalking horse, for as ‘everyone knew’, the frenzy ‘wasn’t really about Rhodes’. It was about purging the country of its imperial and colonial pedigree, and rebelling against a past that was continuing in the present, that of a haughty ‘”White” oppression. Twenty-odd years after the rainbow nation’s rain of freedom, South Africa was now heading into the acid rain of a pugnacious black nationalism,  

With the ‘deplinthing’ of Rhodes the first victory for the text-obsessed student avant-garde of the discontented, The Café de Move-on Blues takes us on a looping journey right around the country – the book includes a nice map depicting just how ambitious was the author’s pilgrimage to the spots of ‘mute assaulted statues’. He takes in far northern Limpopo, heads through Mpumalanga down into Kwazulu-Natal, saunters onwards both along the coast and inland through the Eastern Cape before ending up where he began, in Cape Town. There he finds, on the slopes of Devil Peak’s, the next chapter in the ruin of Rhodes. At the Memorial which bears his name, the bust had been targeted by vandals who ‘had attacked the head and knocked off its nose’. Almost relishing this a little, Hope wishes that ‘the noseless Rhodes survives’, as it is ‘so eloquent and unforgettable and portrays something of who we are and how we got this way’.

In the several parts of its travels along the roads between Rhodes, Café de Move-on Blues provides a taut string of vignettes which turn up evidence of the meanings of South Africa just about everywhere its author looks. Where what’s depicted isn’t desecration, it’s often clouded in controversy. The West Coast Fossil Park contains the prehistoric skull of a Stone Age Saldanha Man who used to be called Hopefield Man. ‘What makes him very alarmingly up-to-date’ is that he appears to have been murdered, making him ‘one of us’. In the vicinity of Kimberley, there is the Anglo-Boer War concentration camp cemetery at Orange River Station, with the names of its white dead ‘recorded and remembered’, while for black people who perished in the same war there are ‘fewer graves and scant memorials’. Turning sombre, Hope recognises this as ‘a very South African situation; as familiar as it is forlorn’. 

Along the way there are the other usual suspects, like Jan van Riebeeck, Hendrik Verwoerd, Mahatma Gandhi, Paul Kruger, and Nelson Mandela, all deftly handled and explored with polished insights and engaging wit. There is even space for spots such as the Rand Club, Fraserburg’s ‘secret monument’ (which I shan’t reveal!), and Dainfern estate, that much-mocked settlement sustained by its belief that ‘this isn’t a penitentiary; it is paradise’. His journey is told with such ease and assurance that it feels almost companionable, as if one were meandering about with him. As we roll on through the gallery there is plenty over which to pause, including surprises. In Durban, the statue of King George V, a stupid monarch associated only with collecting stamps and shooting deer, had been splashed with paint and adorned with an ‘End White Privilege’ placard. A faded and all but forgotten British royal had become Johann Rupert. 

The Café de Move-on Blues also reminds us that when South Africa’s memorials are more poignant than political, they remain forgotten. Who today remembers ‘Happy’ Sindane? He was ‘the lost boy’ from 2003 who popped up claiming that he’d been kidnapped from his white family and raised in an African township by a family which had put him to work as a slave. Briefly a celebrity, he rose like a comet only to fall not only to earth but into it, murdered a few years later by a companion on his drinking sprees. Earlier, Happy had been done in by DNA tests which revealed that he wasn’t the son of a wealthy white family who had been ‘stolen by the maid’. He was, instead, ‘the son of the maid’. Today, the ‘ugly duckling’ who ‘never made it into a swan’ is flattened by the weight of ‘an over-large monument in a far-away country graveyard’ which no-one visits. In one of this book’s most sombre and searing sketches, Hope finds Happy to be ‘the heart of the matter’, a tragic and tortured Cinderella ‘who is who we are; or he is what we have done to ourselves’.

Wherever it moves, The Café de Move-on Blues trails historical musings to tease the imagination of the general reader. A number of these fix on the fortunes of the Khoi and the San, and one can’t but wonder whether these marginal men and women may become the stuff of the author’s next piece of non-fiction. If so, I hope that it comes with something which this present book sorely lacks, an index. 

The history here jostles alongside occasional accounts, sometimes tart, sometimes touching, of the author’s interactions with an assortment of South African characters, such as Theo, the Johannesburg vet, and a radical student, ‘Thandi’, at ‘the university currently known as Rhodes’. These exchanges come across as nothing so much as a dialogue of the deaf, as Christopher Hope’s sceptical probing hits a wall of convictions and certainties. And, as is surely to be expected of a book, its writer does not skim the fiery fate of books (and paintings) at the hands of rampaging student arsonists on some university campuses, as they fanned out to split the rocks of ‘Whiteness’ and ‘Coloniality’. As always, Hope’s judgement is crisp and salutary, concluding that there could be ‘no winners’ in ‘such bonfires of the inanities’. 

Ultimately, this is a cautionary and distinctly apprehensive love letter to the mad and absurd country the author knows so well. Its tensions and ambiguities are reflected in the title of this book. Its cover is a 1964 David Goldblatt photograph of a decrepit mobile food and drink stall, a ‘café de move-on’, as the apartheid regime’s police were constantly shoving it on from place to place. It is a haunting metaphor for Christopher Hope’s journey. Several decades ago, he had a conversation with Oliver Tambo in London and when the subject turned to the sadness of the constant push of the café de move-on, the ANC leader declared his wish for a land where no one was turfed out, where no-one would ever feel the menacing strains of ‘the move-on-blues’. Yet, as he tells us in his final sentence, ‘whichever way you play it, I hear the music’. Then, as now, a sense of common fellowship and decency is rarely, if ever, enough.

The Café de Move-On Blues is published by Atlantic Books. Bill Nasson is Emeritus Professor in History at Stellenbosch University.


MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

EXTRACT: What Will People Say

An excerpt from the debut novel by REHANA ROSSOUW.

Rehana Rossouw

Kevin was waiting at the school gate when Nicky and Shirley strolled out arm in arm at the end of the school day. He stepped forward as they came near. “Greetings ladies, can I escort you today?”

Shirley giggled. “Of course you can, right Nicky?”

Nicky didn’t want Kevin walking with them. He was only after one thing. She hadn’t gone to the SRC meeting at second break; she was too busy sukkeling with Shirley’s problem. She still hadn’t found a solution. As she expected, it didn’t take long – two steps out of the gate and Kevin started on her.

“So Nicky, I was expecting to see you in the meeting this afternoon. There’s work to be done. We planning to bring the country to a stand still for the tenth anniversary of the ’76 uprising.”

Thick, dark irritation filled her face. What must she do to get Kevin to leave her alone? Nicky didn’t want him to escort her anywhere. She wanted to be alone with Shirley; she was planning on going home with her. Shirley shouldn’t be alone on a kak day like this. “I had other things on my mind, okay?”

“What can be more important than the struggle?”

Nicky stopped and planted her fists in her hips, staring daggers at Kevin. “A lot, you idiot. Shirley, for an example. She’s much more important than your blerrie struggle. She got a big problem. Her mother wants her to leave school and go work in the factory with her.”

Kevin turned to Shirley, his face squeezed up like a lemon. “You’ll be a semi-skilled worker fed to the machine to become another alienated unit of capitalist labour.”

Nicky felt like her head was about to burst open like a dropped watermelon, the irritation was so thick. No one could get to her like Kevin. “Speak English Kevin! This isn’t time for a political speech. Shirley needs help. She’s not an issue. She’s only sixteen and she must go work to feed her brothers. You such a blerrie fool!”

Kevin looked like a foster child on his way back to the orphanage.

“Of course I think that’s really kak, Nicky! There must be a way out. We must strategise, see what we can come up with.”

Shirley smiled at him. “You think you can see a way out of it?”

Kevin gave a couple of firm nods. “Let me think on it for a while. As Lenin would say: What is to be done? That’s what we must figure out.”

Nicky stared at their backs as Shirley and Kevin walked away without her. That boy had a nerve! Didn’t he see he wasn’t wanted?

She was going to come up with a solution for Shirley’s problem. They didn’t need him. Why was Shirley hanging onto his words like he was her saviour? She rushed to catch up with them.

The girls’ route home took them past the taxi rank at the Hanover Park Town Centre. The rank fed routes into town, Claremont, Wynberg and Mitchells Plain. Gaartjies shouted out destinations and ushered people into revving sixteen-seaters; pushing flesh and parcels inside as they slid the doors shut.

Nicky, Shirley and Kevin wove their way along the pavement between people streaming to the rank and the hawkers lining the sides. Most were selling vegetables, but there were also stalls with tinned goods, bags of bright orange chips and loose cigarettes. A bakkie blocked the pavement, its back piled high with snoek. A plump man covered with a red-stained, yellow plastic apron gutted and beheaded his silver, toothy catch while customers waited. The fish was wrapped in newspaper and exchanged for a five-rand note. Nicky could smell the sea on the bakkie as she walked past.

A toothless, skinny man jumped onto the pavement and blocked their way. He waved a packet of ripe, red tomatoes in their faces. He flashed his gums and offered an invitation. “Squeeze my tomatoes. Feel how firm they are. They lekker like your tette.”

Nicky jumped back as the hawker’s free hand reached out towards her breast.

Kevin stepped forward and shoved his chest into the hawker’s.

“Watch it, show some respect.”

Nicky pulled him back. “Leave him Kevin, is okay. He does the same thing every day. He don’t mean nothing by it.”

Another hawker pushed Kevin aside to wave a bag of onions in Nicky’s face. He promoted his goods in a singsong voice. “Uiwe, uiwe; juicy uiwe virrie meire.”

The girls giggled. Kevin relaxed.

Shirley bought tomatoes and onions. Kevin dug into his grey school pants and found enough coins for a bag of onions.

Nicky walked behind Shirley and Kevin as they left the town centre, listening to their conversation. Shirley was planning a beef stew for supper. Kevin was giving advice.

“The secret to a good stew is making a thick gravy. You must use at least two onions Shirley, maybe even three, ’cause your family’s bigger than mine. Braise it well at the start. The onions soak up the flavour from the meat. It melts as you cook and makes a lekker thick gravy.”

Shirley shook her head. “I dunno if that will work. It’s near the end of the week. My mummy don’t have much left, so I got only bones for the stew.”

“It will still work, I’m telling you. If you got little meat then it’s more important to have a lekker thick gravy. The onions will catch the flavour from the bones.”

There was nothing Nicky could add to the conversation. Mummy did most of the cooking. She and Suzette were only roped in on weekends; on weekdays they were expected to do their schoolwork. Mummy gave them the kak jobs like slicing onions and peeling potatoes. Most nights

Mummy stood up from the supper table and started preparing the next night’s meal. She finished the food off when she got home from work. Kevin walked with them all the way to Shirley’s house. Nicky didn’t know where he lived; she hoped it wasn’t nearby. He bowed over Shirley’s hand like the Count of Monte Cristo and kissed it as he was leaving.

Nicky finally had enough. Shirley had been talking nonstop with Kevin all the way home. She was all worked up about Shirley’s problem, but the blerrie fool was giggling with Kevin like she didn’t give a damn.

Her irritation burst out and poured through her mouth. “Must you be so tarty, Kevin? You must see how you look. Like a blerrie fool.”

Kevin wiped his smile off his face and took a step back. “Ladies, I’ll see you around.”

Shirley turned on Nicky as he walked away stiffly. “Sjoe, how can you be so rude? Can’t you see he’s just trying to be nice?”

Nicky stood her ground. “Why can’t he just leave us alone? Why must he interfere in everything? Every time I look up his face is in mine.

Can’t he see I’m not interested in joining his struggle?”

Shirley laughed. “He’s not in your face because of the struggle. He smaaks you. Everybody can see that. He smaaks you stukkend.”

Nicky’s chest went cold. “Who’s everybody?”

Shirley giggled. “Only everybody who looks in Kevin’s face when he talks to you. You so blind Nicky.”

Nicky shoved her hand into Shirley’s chest, sending her off the pavement. “Don’t talk rubbish! Kevin’s got a one-track mind. He wants me to join Cosas. He wants me to get involved in the struggle.”

Shirley sniffed. “There’s none so blind. The whole school knows he smaaks you.”

What Will People Say is published by Jacana and is the second title to be featured by our monthly Book Club: read our review.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! To enter, email competition(at), with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: What Will People Say

TARAH CHILDES is enthralled by Rehana Rossouw’s quietly funny and heartbreakingly sad debut novel.

What Will People Say

Like the ceaseless Southeaster that whips through the desolate, concrete landscape that is Hanover Park, Rehana Rossouw’s words evoke emotions that carry the reader hurriedly through her debut novel, borne along by a sense of urgency and technical sophistication that make for a visceral, unforgettable read.

What Will People Say is set in the heart of the Cape Flats of 1986. And while its characters are undeniably affected by the evils of the gangs, the drugs, and poverty that surround them, as well as the struggle against apartheid, this is not primarily a story about the history of the Flats, or of the ineptitude of law, and cruelty of the oppressive regime of the past. Rather it is a close look at the dissolution of an ordinary family, struggling to maintain the tenuous bonds that bind them together.

The Fourie family — law messenger Neville, his factory seamstress wife, Magda and their three children — are the lenses through which we see the world of 1986 Hanover Park. The Fourie teenagers, Suzette, Nicky and Anthony, initially trapped in the banality of home, school and church, led by parents who are trying to “raise them decent”, are quickly plunged into the external world of politics, gangs and the lure of a better, moneyed life, forcing them to navigate their way through situations and choices they are frightfully ill-equipped to deal with.

Rossouw sets the scene with a sentence that any literary fan would relish. “The South-Easter lifted the smell of pig manure spread across farms in Philippi, crossed Lansdowne Road and dumped it like a wet poep over Hanover Park.”

The wind carries with it a set of problems that plague the Fouries, Rossouw deftly using her figurative language gift to foreshadow the coming trials.

The story unfolds in a first person narrative framework that allows us to experience each chapter from a different family member’s perspective.

We are introduced to Nicky, the middle child with academic ambitions who sees a future in law as her only escape route; Suzette — a beautiful and determined girl of 17 who drops out of matric to pursue her dream of becoming a supermodel; Magda – the churchgoing, conservative mother, more concerned with her family’s outward appearance than her children’s struggles, and Neville, a well-meaning but fallible and out-of-touch father, who spends more time with the Neighbourhood Watch than with his family. But it is Anthony, their naïve boy of 13 around whom the plot spirals. His fast and unwitting decent into the world of the JKFs — a local gang with whom he initially feels a sense of belonging — propels the story with a sense of urgency, as we witness the futile efforts of his parents to protect him from a world that ultimately leads to his inescapable destruction.

Rossouw, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years, has often been asked if her characters are real. And while they are all fictitious (aside from notorious gang man Jackie Lonte), the timeline is real. In a recent conversation with Professor Tawane Kupe, Dean of Humanities at Wits University, Rossouw explained the importance of 1986 – the year in which the South African government declared a national state of emergency.

“I still meet people in Joburg who firmly believe that there was no struggle against apartheid in Cape Town,” Rossouw said. “What about the launch of the UDF? I feel that the contribution of our comrades from Cape Town especially is being rewritten out of a lot of history today.”

While the political turmoil shapes and informs the plot on a macro and micro level, it is ultimately Rossouw’s skill with language and metaphor (a technique honed during her MA in Creative Writing at Wits University) that imbues her characters with so much life. Characters speak in unabashed Cape Flats vernacular, viscerally describing their feelings, reactions with onomatopoetic delight. Nicky huks when she cries, while Suzette ruks her arm away from a would-be skelm suitor.

And while I foresee a time where Rossouw will need to include a glossary of terms for foreign readers, and perhaps local ones too (should it ever become a set-work book for school), she describes her lack of appendix, and her refusal to italicise Cape Flats slang as an act of rebellion. In order to make her characters real, she had to “let them speak, the way that we speak.” “This is our language, and if I’m writing a book about us, the book should be the way we are.”

The result is a novel spectacular at engendering empathy for its central characters: quietly funny, heartbreakingly sad, and not easily forgotten.

While I found the dénouement to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfactory, Rossouw has explained that she is open the idea of the sequel after multiple requests from likeminded readers. I certainly wasn’t done with the Fouries – and I earnestly hope Rossouw isn’t either.

What Will People Say was one of just three novels shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature – an accolade well deserved.

What Will People Say is published by Jacana. Read an extract here

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! To enter, email competition(at), with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

Quiet chronicler of an anguished time


A year after Peter Clarke’s passing at the age of 84, the second edition of Listening to Distant Thunder serves as poignant and robust review of one South Africa’s foremost artists, celebrating his life and work.

South African Art historians Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs wrote the original edition over a period of seven years in close collaboration with the artist. The book was first published in 2011 (and with a print run of only 500) to coincide with the critically celebrated exhibition of the same title at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg that had been curated by Rankin and Hobbs.

With over 200 reproductions and photographs, a preface by Clarke (dated 2011), and the introduction (now rewritten poignantly in the past tense by Rankin and Hobbs in 2014), the re-released monograph, with its expanded distribution, serves to widen Clarke’s legacy and expand upon his life’s works. It will cement Clarke’s seminal position in the minds and hearts of those who followed his contributions while he was alive, and equally introduce him to younger generations who are now beginning to realise his contributions as the “quiet chronicler” in the history of South African art.

The book’s text flows effortlessly through historical facts and familiar memories imbued by Clarke himself, telling the story of an artist whose life, work and contribution to art spans over 60 years: a journey that is alive, personal and celebrated step-by-step.

We start with the origins of his family tree’s history – stretching back to the slavery of St Helena – and witness his early childhood in the Simon’s Town area. Illustrated examples of his first determined drawing and sketches, as well as family photographs, all serve to instil a lifelong investigation of the home, seascapes and people in their landscapes.

In 1956, Clarke – then a driven 27-year-old – decided he wanted to stop being a dockworker and become a fulltime artist. A move to Tesselaarsdal in the Overberg region near Caledon in the Cape fills prolific sketchbooks as he tirelessly observes his surrounds and the various peoples. As we chart the poetic foundations for his artistic language, we follow him into 1961 as the young man joins the printmaking department at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Clarke then travelled abroad to study at the Rijksakademie in the Netherlands where he was exposed to the various techniques of printmaking. This period – the “Amsterdam experiments” – crucially includes the use of colour in printmaking that, until this point, had eluded him. Other ideas explored at this time included the use of colour reduction printing merged with an engraving technique – illustrating the beginning stages of what would go on to become his signature style.

We can see the undercurrent of upheaval in Anxiety, Clarke’s 1969 painting, which is imbued with the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and his relocation to Ocean View, a bleak and barren township. The work illustrates how his art delves into the sociopolitical experiences of ordinary South Africans, avoiding outright protest: his approach, by his own admission, is a strategic one. Poetic social reflections form a more subtle narrative – an indirect but powerful critique, nonetheless, of apartheid and its grievous consequences. The results reveal the true essence of Peter Clarke and his work – both a celebration of life and perseverance, and a deep sadness and struggle through the darkness in between. As the turbulent political climate escalated towards and into the 1980s, the metaphorical image of the bird – which recurs frequently in his artwork from this period – becomes a symbolic a source of freedom. Not bound to locations, flying above and beyond confinement and oppression, it is poignantly captured in the raw, seminal and widely reviewed Haunted Landscape.

As the chronology of the monograph progresses, there is the introduction of collage and handwritten text onto Clarke’s surfaces (which becomes another signature style of the artist) and the more apparent effects of apartheid are addressed and analysed. Illustrations of his Concertina and Fan series interplay with photographs of the artist himself as he reflects. A final photograph of Clarke sitting at the Ocean View Library, (which he financially supported and where he taught children art classes) reminds the viewer of his convictions and dedication to education and the future of South Africa’s youth. This book remains sensitive and aware of Clarke’s legacy into the very last sentence, where a final reference to his passing supersedes his final quotation:

Everything I produce is created firstly for myself and out of that urge generated by the agony and joy of my existence. But one is a part of people, an individual amoung a mass of individuals. So one’s artistic creation is meant not entirely for oneself and ones own indulgence. I am another person. I am also another person.

Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke is published by Fernwood Press.

Measuring the beloved country


South Africa’s troubled history – one which is well documented and reverberates through our lives daily – draws the attention of many of our contemporary novelists. Imraan Coovaadia, a treasured local author with first-hand experience of South Africa’s tumultuous recent history, carefully unpacks the past in his newest book, Tales of the Metric System.

Tracing the lives of a large cast of characters from a variety of backgrounds, races and homes, the novel moves chronologically forwards in snapshots of our nation’s history, like a photo album documenting a life – beginning with the first day of school, and ending with university graduation. Designated a particular year and a subject each chapter takes the form of a short story able to stand on its own: the tragic end of a young black man on the run from the government, and at odds with his alcoholic Afrikaaner friend and playwright; the young white couple coming to terms with the oppressive state of public schools and their son’s place in it; a family of Indians and their relationship to their mysterious activist uncle. Each of these has great merit individually, but the true art of the novel is the way these disparate narratives are woven together to form a whole.

As the title suggests, the book contemplates the metric system. In 1971, South Africa switched from the Imperial system of measurement – with its confusing gallons and pounds and ounces – to the more precise (some say) metric system, which is neatly divided into tens and hundreds. In the same way that the metric system measured roads and bags of mielies and volumes of fuel, so too the government began to more strictly measure the value of humans by the colour of their skin. Tales of the Metric System, then, is a collection of tales of a measured, controlled and bureaucratic South Africa.

In the same way that measurement takes a starting point for the sake of accuracy, so too the novel begins at a point which is recalled throughout. It is subtle, but we are often reminded of the tragedy of the first chapter, and the play (and indeed the playwright) involved. Without giving too much away, the tone is set in chapter one, and by it we are able to measure the rest of the novel’s events.

Coovaadia’s novel is a triumph. Each tale is refreshing, true, and moving. It provides a relevant and thorough understanding of the emotional experience of South Africa – one which is finds particular relevance for the contemporary reader with chapters set as recently as the 2010 World Cup. As a work of literature the text flows exquisitely and is at once ordered and spontaneous. With a reserved sense of humour and close observation, Tales of the Metric System immerses the reader in South African history, and indeed its present – with a contemplative eye to the future.

Tales of the Metric System is published by Umuzi and is available from

FICTION: Trailblazing


You guys are going somewhere or just going?

– On The Road, Jack Kerouac

The electricity poles pulse towards us like desire at 103 miles per hour and we fling ourselves forward, one by one, longingly towards a dust bowl mirage in the Karoo, the land of endless déjà vu: shrubs, sheep, rocks, green sheep, rocky rocks, pale fluffy shrubs, away from the land of hilts and money. The rushing wind inhales more nicotine than me when you tilt the wheel right; I immediately hold the slushing whiskey bottle tight, and the car mounts white line by line, and I glance towards Kyle, he smiles that sly smile and chuckles, “We’re doing it, alright, we’ve endlessly blathered about achieving this, y’know, sort of liberty of thought, action, not constrained by anybody, like this is what the Beats called for, absolute freedom,” –as the camera pans out and the little car is seen silently speeding on a too straight line across the golden Route 66-like landscape. We had set out early the day before, after a high night of little sleep and lots of shenanigans with the girls we were seeing at that time. We shot straight up the coast, escaping the hustle of highways, out up by the wind turbines and the ridiculously adored flowers. Zooming east, I finger the electric window and the expanse descends into a blue hue. On the Road rests spread-legged on the dashboard. The cover is projected onto the windscreen like a hologram, like Google Glass, like a ghost – and the world hurtles and blurs past, through it.

“Stop, stop, stop. Go back, did you see that? Reverse.”

The brakes screeched and struggled to halt the momentum of going 165.762 km an hour. While going in one direction and braking, you are already accelerating in the opposite direction with force. We wear seatbelts to try to absorb the shock. A projectile suspended. While we reversed, I dropped the window; there was no more wind. A hot stagnant air oozed in and percolated through my skin and condensed to sweat. There, moving into frame, were knuckles of protruding boulders gripping the road. The car gulped to a stop. Like an amateur’s graffiti –who wants only for their name to be seen –“AWB” was tagged in white paint on a rock face. Other facets presented old, recurring, cover-up blotches that merely made you infer the underlying inscription, like bandages on an angsty, identity-confused teenager’s wrists.

Kyle parked the car over the line of yellow gravel, and we stepped out; the melting tar burnt my feet. We stood dumbfounded in a scene recently devoid of meaning, of literary reference. Feeling tetchy, I started photographing the surroundings. I had to adjust my square Instagram settings to capture the world, suddenly made up of extending landscapes. It was winter and the rivers were dry and barren; well, it’s always dry and barren there, I guess. Do not forget the windmills. I climbed up one and surveyed at the helm.

I became acutely aware of the slow history of erosion that dismantled the South African plateau into lonely buttes separated by the azure sky. It is harsh fully engaging with the reality of South Africa. Those AWB-knuckle-busters really gut-punch you, making it hard to breath, talk. From up there, the road seemed an asphalt spear thrown east across the veld, pierced deep into the gold heart of Johannesburg. It is a bloody city. The people fought back with their own spear, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Our literary-liberation pursuit started on the road and it has led me to talking politics. Art and politics are in no way mutually exclusive, as the artistic culture in South Africa is largely defined by the overlapping Venn diagram. Brett Murray’s “The Spear” is a case in point. A horrific image can be extrapolated here: Zuma’s “spear” penetrating the country’s production hub.

Back in the air-conditioned car, we drove slowly in eerie silence. It was cold and blue like a morgue. A couple of kilometres down the road there was one last “AWB” splotched on a rock. The uneasiness intensified; I was merely a hedonistic, monolingual coward who had not even read Nadine Gordimer. Fuck, we weren’t even hitchhiking. Yet, then Kyle did it, one final spear, a shameless middle finger to that unmoving rock. We laughed, and the tension broke, and the volume-knob of the radio spun, and music blared, and we were on the road again.

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” – Ai Wei Wei

After our detour, we rejoined the N1 a long way away from the Cape Town. The N1 is the high-speed connection between the Mother City and Johannesburg that is supposed to make you forget the tiny intricate towns wherein a lot of truth lies.

Something changes when you integrate rather than imitate a text in a different temporal space. A story is never stable. To want to escape, is to not be free. But to try to be too serious is to doom yourself to unhappiness. So we held everything, and drove on, going off the beaten track again at De Aar, because we were young and we were just going. We laughed at our inability to communicate with Afrikaans locals. And we were honestly sombre and angry at the glimpses of the strategically hidden Apartheid-dormitory towns, always just over the rise, always. And then we drank too much by a campfire, away from everyone and everything and all that remains of that evening are snippets of beastly red eyes, topping half-naked torsos, lost in the wild, in dusty swirls, next to proteas, howling to the moon. There are no boundaries and everything is possible. In that moment, I believed I could change the world with art and politics, and maybe you can. And maybe there can be a new but different beat generation that will achieve real South African liberty.

Sober, I’m not sure what I believe. I hand money to the woman at a tollgate and I tell her that she looks beautiful today. She smiles. She is a money machine, and she will go home and struggle to feed her family – realities become numb clichés. She is confused by Mandela’s synthetic smirk on the banknotes. Her promised freedom never realised.

A road-trip can never finish strong; it always peters out into memories that forget the long stretches of nothingness. The sun is setting and Kyle is sleeping and I am concertedly sipping on awful petrol-stop coffee. I can offer this conclusion, driving into Johannesburg: The sun sets red, after a long battle; the veld would be burning, but all that is left is mine dumps, and the blood-splatters of Soweto. But, the streetlamps pulse like my heart, the city is alive, dark spaces in-between, the Rea Vaya buses tentatively promise, “We are going”, a melting calabash, and we must trail blaze, because:

“We gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.”

“Where we going, man?”

“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

– On The Road, Jack Kerouac


Words of struggle


Interviews with Neville Alexander is a coruscating introduction to the life and work of a struggle hero. Alexander’s desire to be a citizen of a free and democratic South Africa for all its people was the raison d’etre of his exemplary life. In this language biography – “a personal account based on the singularity of individual experience… [which] reflects how personal experience is linked to the social and the political, how language ideologies impact on the ways in which experience is lived, how language attitudes are forged” – the editors, Brigitta Busch, Lucijan Busch and Karen Press display laudable selective nous. Their choice of materials successfully conveys the way events in Alexander’s personal life drove the decisions and interests in his professional and political vocations.

The book consists of two distinct parts. The first is dialogic: the product of a series of interviews with Alexander prior to his untimely death in 2012. The second is an anthology of his critical writings. Together, the two sections bring into sharp view the life of a scholar and activist who dedicated all his time and effort, whether in the form of political activity or knowledge production, to the abolition of social inequality and injustice. Interviews is both a tribute to his life and an urgent reminder of how the uneven distribution of power and privilege across society retains and refurbishes itself through the hegemony of English. The editors’ informative selection from Alexander’s formidable academic oeuvre distils both the arguments he makes, and the progression of his thinking on the intersections and linkages of language, education, democracy and the nation.

Born to a father of Scottish origin and a mother of Ethiopian descent, Alexander’s first memory is linguistic in content. He remembers his maternal grandmother, in the throes of dementia, reverting to the language of her childhood – Omoriffa. He describes his early life as one “encircled by language”.

By the time he finished his schooling, at a mission convent in Cradock, he was multilingual. He spoke Afrikaans, English, German, as well as a smattering of Xhosa. He grew up in a bilingual home, where Afrikaans was the dominant medium of communication. In the small, rural setting of his early years Afrikaans was the language of friendship and English the formal, professional language of business. The proximity of English fluency and economic privilege was a phenomenon close to his life experience from a very young age.

As a young student at the Cradock convent, the great teutonic literary voices he was introduced to there opened up a new world of possibilities for him. In conversation, he relates how this encounter illuminated for him the force of language: how it could bring into being certain things and alter states of affairs. Behind Alexander’s work on language, his belief in the need for a language policy that promotes and engenders multilingualism, lies his early, semi-religious, experience of the power of the ‘word’.

On several occasions, both in his personal reflections and in the extracts from his academic works, Alexander boldly expresses his disappointment in what he perceives as the ANC’s myopia with regard to the language question. In his view, its manifest failure in understanding the crucial ways in which race, class and language entwine was of a piece with its willingness to fit into the neoliberal world after the collapse of apartheid. In some of the most memorable words from the Interviews he says, “Soweto was seen as an anti-apartheid protest and now of course apartheid was gone, as far as the government was concerned there was no problem. But language is a little bit like air. You only become aware of the importance of air when there is no air. Or when the air is dirty.”

Interviews should be read widely and enthusiastically. It is for anyone with a deep commitment to the annulment of inequality in South Africa. It is for all those who are sensitive to the flexuous ways in which language works within society. But most of all it is for those who do not yet see that language has the extraordinarily capacity to not only unite and empower but to ostracise and dispossess. It is a crucial contribution to thinking about the deep systemic connections between language, education, democracy and national unity and how a scholarly life can translate into effective political action.

Interviews with Neville Alexander is published by UKZN Press.



Rainbow nation rogues and heroes


Ragged Glory is lucid, thoughtful and eloquent: a calm and smoothly digestible account of democratic South Africa’s political stage. Peppered with quotes from interviews Hartley did as a political reporter, the book explores the both the style and substance of post-apartheid South Africa’s leaders. There is Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory approach and his bid to steady a listing economic ship, which had been battered by years of sanctions and disinvestment, and had a jittery business community eyeing the life-rafts. Hartley looks at Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance, the insanity of his Aids denialism, and his eventual downfall. Then there is Jacob Zuma’s astonishing — rise to power, and the legal tussles (involving accusations of rape and corruption) that has so far been unable to ensnare him.

But Ragged Glory is not just about politicos. Government’s policy formulation (and its spotty implementation) is accessibly decoded too. Hartley introduces us to the alphabet soup of abbreviations that would mark the constantly shifting approach to tackling apartheid’s legacy and growing the economy. First was the ill-fated RDP (the Reconstruction and Development Programme) whose only significant legacy, it seems, is to be the colloquial (and incorrect) adjective applied to low-cost government housing. Mbeki’s Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) came next. It was pro-market and recognised the need for a labour market in which it was easier to hire and fire people— much to the horror of the ANC’s trade union allies who felt increasingly isolated by the imperious Mbeki’s imperious disdain for consensus-building. Gear was also abandoned, in favour of Asgisa (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative), which emphasised spending on big infrastructure projects to try to curb the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rates. Hartley captures the ever-more vigorous muddying of policy waters as Zuma sought to appease the left wing which had helped propel him into office: in 2009 he created both an economic development ministry (run by a COSATU man, Ebrahim Patel) as well as a national planning commission which would ultimately produce the much-praised but largely unfulfilled NDP (National Development Plan).

While there isn’t much in Ragged Glory that you wouldn’t have known about had you been paying attention (or a frequent reader of one the newspapers Hartley has written for, or helmed) over the last 20 years, Hartley ably puts it all in context, providing sharp analysis and a narrative flow that sweeps you beyond the headlines to a better understanding of the political landscape. There’s not a lumpen cliche in sight; Hartley has a refreshingly crisp, vivid turn-of-phrase — for example: After a cycle in the political washing machine, Gear would have lost its bold colours and emerged as a faded quilt of stitched-together policies.

Hartley isn’t polemical — he marshals the facts to make a quietly scathing indictment of the erosion of the rule of law and “the rising tide of corruption and self-enrichment”. “There is hope for South Africa,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter. But while there is hope, Hartley shows the alarm bells are ringing, too.

Ragged Glory is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from