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Christopher Hope gives readers an absorbing, trenchant portrait of the nation and its people, writes Michele Magwood of The Café de Move-on Blues

Published in the Sunday Times

The Café de Move-on Blues
The Café de Move-on Blues by Christopher Hope (author pic supplied) is an elegy to a living nation.
 
The Café de Move-on Blues: In Search of the New South Africa
*****
Christopher Hope, Atlantic Books, R290

On the cover of Christopher Hope’s surpassing new book is a David Goldblatt photograph dating from 1964. The battered caravan selling food and drink is familiar to any South African, a ubiquitous feature of our urban landscape known as a “café de move-on” because the police were always moving them on. Hope takes this as both title and metaphor for a journey into the soul of South Africa now, a bookend to his acclaimed memoir from 30 years ago, White Boy Running.

It is both a physical and a philosophical journey, as he writes in the preface: “This is an account of a journey around South Africa. It is a search for understanding of who ‘we’ are and what we thought we were doing there.”

Hope takes as his atlas a trail of defaced and contested monuments, starting off with the statue of Rhodes on the UCT campus and looping up as far as Vuwani in Limpopo and back down through Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to Cape Town and the head of Rhodes on Devil’s Peak, where he finds the nose lopped clean off.

At each stop Hope captures a leaf of history: pointing out, for instance, that the vandalised statue of Jan van Riebeeck on the Cape Town foreshore is a fake, that this man and the portrait on the banknotes was another, better-looking person than the dumpy original. “The story spun around him as the founding father of the nation … was the founding fraud at the heart of our history.” Hendrik Verwoerd, he informs us, was not an Afrikaner but Dutch, with German as his home language, and that he was schooled in Rhodesia at a very English college under the name Harold Ferwood.

He contemplates the paint-daubed statue of Gandhi, and remembers that the Indian activist may have been pro-Indian, but he was certainly not pro-black, once stating that “native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal”. There are other less political monuments, too, such as the grave of Happy Sindane in Tweefontein, the young man who claimed he had been kidnapped from his white family and raised in a township. “What Happy did was to remind the country of how deeply, perhaps permanently, the abiding obsession with race and skin colour has damaged so many lives.”

As Hope gathers up the leaves and examines them in the light of South Africa today, an absorbing, trenchant portrait of the nation and its people emerges.

Hope’s hallmark in all his writing is his shrewd eye for the telling detail. In Fraserburg in the Karoo he points the reader to an odd kink in a street which had in the ’30s been a thriving Jewish trading area. The Afrikaner shopkeepers were jealous of their success and simply redirected traffic to their own street in what Hope calls a “municipal pogrom”. The Jews moved on.

This being Christopher Hope, the text is darted with a piquant wit. Writing about the waitress in Cape Town who was reduced to what became known as “white tears”, he dubs the restaurant “The Café Lachrymosa”.

Duane, an earnest white Wits Fallist, “had been checking his privilege so often, in his moral rear-view mirror, that he could no longer see anything ahead of him”.

Hope is uniquely placed to write about the evolution of South Africa in the last half century. With his writing repeatedly banned, he was hounded into exile in the ’70s but continued to bait the authorities from afar. He now visits the country regularly, clocking the subtle changes that we, who live here, do not see. He writes prolifically for publications such as The Guardian as well as books of fiction and non-fiction.

The Café de Move-on Blues is his apogee, an immensely wise distillation of his thinking and observations over decades and, as has been described, “an elegy to a living nation, which is still mad and absurd”.

Once, in London in the ’80s, Hope visited Oliver Tambo. They talked about the café de move-on and how sad it was, always being forced to pick up and go. Tambo told him, he said: “He wanted a country where no one was pushed out. Where no one ever felt ‘the move-on blues’.”

“Never? I asked.

“Never,” said Tambo.

Decades on, Hope finds a country as riven by race as it ever was. “Whichever way you play it, I hear the music Tambo once told me that no one in his country wanted, or needed, to hear – the café de move-on blues”. @michelemagwood

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