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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Jonathan Jansen and his sister Naomi Jansen pay tribute to their mother in Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother. Read the extract.

Published in the Sunday Times

In this extract, Jonathan Jansen pays tribute to the mother whose sacrifices helped him and their siblings achieve success despite the odds

Song for SarahSong for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm). Also available in Afrikaans as Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma

“When you thought about it, everything seemed to work against the Cape Flats mother, from family dislocation to financial hardship, to absentee fathers, to the relentless pressure of gangs and drugs. As an energetic teenager involved in church youth leadership in the southern areas, this single question would haunt me during the obligatory huisbesoek (house visits): how on earth do these mothers do it?

Consider Mrs Volmink from Belgravia Estate in Athlone who put four boys and two girls through tertiary qualifications. One son leads a university, another is a medical school dean, and the other a prominent public sector lawyer; in their number you would also find a distinguished teacher and one who made his career in the training and development of civil servants. The eldest daughter died after a car crash because the whites-only ambulance would take only her pale friend. For long periods of time Johanna Volmink raised the children alone. Hardship was ever present in her home and yet not a single child fits the stereotype represented in comedy routines or violent novels or the evening news. When it came to human decency, academic achievement and community service, Mrs Volmink achieved much more in her home than any of the white families I knew in the well-to-do suburbs of Upper Claremont and Wynberg Proper.

As I pondered that haunting “how” question about these mothers over the years I realised that the answer was in front of me, all around me, even gave birth to me. That Cape Flats mother was Sarah Susan Johnson, married Jansen. Suddenly it all made sense. How they dealt with their pasts. How they organised their homes. How they raised their children. How they made sense of politics. How they managed affection. How they drew on their faith. How they communicated core values. How they thought about education. How they led with their lives.

The products of their labour were no accident, as the poet Shirmoney Rhode would tell Litnet of the grandmother who raised her at Nomme 20 Delphi Straat (the 2016 book title) in Elsies River:

Ek is ’n produk van haar 3am prayers

En harde werk of course

(I am a product of her 3am prayers

And hard work of course)

The Cape Flats mother was not faultless. Who is? To the children growing up, the mother was seen as being too harsh at times but was always deeply respected. This praise song is not, however, about the failings of our mothers but about the fact that they succeeded at all. None of the children was perfect. Whose are? To the mother the child was never one to be abandoned in the wrong but to be picked up again and again, and nudged towards what was right. And they did this work of correction day after day, for weeks followed by months, and year after year, sometimes even into adulthood and marriage.

The matriarchal figure hovered over that child for life. Many stories have been told on the Flats of a small-bodied mother reaching out to deliver retribution to the tall, well-built son who stands there quietly as he takes the timid smack to the face or the ineffectual punch to the body. She had earned the right to reprimand her grown child. This story of the Cape Flats mother, and of many mothers across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be told in this book.

Being the eldest in the family, my siblings suspected that I was favoured by my parents. Of course I felt differently because of the constant pressure from my mother to “set the example” as the eldest. “Firstborn”, my sister would nevertheless tease me, and that will be my third-person voice in the main text. For a reality check, I asked this sister of mine to add in her own reflections on our mother as the only girl smack bang in the middle of two older and two younger boys.

Naomi Jansen has the knack of saying and seeing things as they really are. One day that sting in her commentary really got to me as a boy so I chased her along the very short route from the kitchen to her bedroom. By dint of practice she managed to dash into the room, close the door and secure the latch bolt lock in one and the same swift action but it was too late. I ran right through the flimsy green planks of that wooden door. The personal shock probably saved my sister from further repercussions although I never could raise a hand against any of the siblings.

Her sharper eye and tongue therefore qualify Naomi to give another view of our mother. My sister’s voice appears in italics as “Naomi remembers”. In appropriate places she shares her own experiences and insights into our remarkable mother. Sometimes Naomi’s recollection or interpretation of events is different from mine, and that is fine. It is what gives this work of memory an added and special value.

“While you are under this roof,” my mother would often chide, “you will do as I say.” Under this roof is both a telling metaphor about us and the interwoven tiles above us. Sarah knew that she had little direct control over what happened in the harsh outside world. We would all grow up one day and make our own decisions as working adults and parents of children. There was little our mother could change about that. But while under her roof, the rules applied. That was where she had authority over the five children and, as will be explained, also over her husband. There was not much overhead roof to speak of in the small council house, but anyone who stayed in that confined space, including a string of relatives, would abide by Sarah’s rules.

It was under Sarah’s roof that I learnt how to live and where she would teach us how to die. Under that roof I learnt the value of selfless giving and the importance of personal discipline. Sarah did not only tell, she showed. And nothing impressed more heavily on the children’s consciousness than what my mother taught us about the ethics of work. She laboured day and night, literally, as a shift nurse. “Nobody ever died of hard work,” she would say all the time and you knew that offering a medical science rebuttal might lead to a premature meeting with your Maker.

Mrs Sedras, Mrs Volmink and Mrs Jansen are not alone. There are thousands of mothers spread across the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa who deserve recognition for their heroic efforts in raising families under difficult conditions. On one hand, this book could be read as an attempt at recovery of “the other mothers” whose stories have been buried by unrelenting stereotypes of women from the flatland areas of the Cape. On the other hand, such heroic mothers are found in every community where ordinary people struggle to make impossible ends meet. This work of recovery is offered, therefore, as a song of gratitude for all mothers.

Or to borrow from Diana Ferrus in A poem for Sarah Baartman:

I have come to take you home

Where I will sing for you

For you have brought me peace

The floppy brown purse
Nothing would test Sarah’s resilience more sorely than when the children went to university. Apartheid created universities for people they labelled by both race and ethnicity. Since Firstborn was deemed coloured, his destination was the University of the Western Cape in Bellville; the University of Cape Town was so much closer but they could not have him. The young student was also proud enough not to plead for a government concession (the permit, they called it) to attend a white university and specify a course not offered at UWC to justify studies in nearby Rondebosch.

The long journey from Retreat in the southern suburbs to Bellville in the northern areas took forever. And it was costly. One Monday morning Firstborn desperately needed money to take the taxi, train and bus to get to university. Hiking, as he normally did when there was no money, might get him to campus too late for a scheduled chemistry test. So he slunk into the bedroom where Sarah was in a deep sleep after working the hospital night shift. “Does Mummy have any money?” he whispered and instantly woke her up.

Sarah knew that she did not have a cent but nevertheless reached for her flat brown purse, opened it up and pretended to search for coins among the scribbled papers inside. There was nothing and the tears started welling up in her eyes. That day Firstborn decided to drop out of university and look for a job; the pain on Sarah’s face was simply unbearable.

Of course that was the last thing Sarah wanted and so one day she arranged with an uncle to collect Firstborn and drive him to Bellville while persuading him all along the way not to give up. If Sarah had not made that arrangement Firstborn would still be drifting between Anchor Yeast where he started in a laboratory with far too few skills and helping a brother from the church sell his fish on Prince George Drive, the M5 which linked the white suburbs to the north with the whites-only Muizenberg beach on the False Bay coastline. Where Sarah found the money none of the children ever knew, but from that day there were always a few coins in her purse “just in case” Firstborn needed them. But he never asked again.

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10 books to read this Freedom Day

23 years ago, on the 27th of April 1994, South Africa celebrated its first non-racial democratic election, with Nelson Mandela inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa on Tuesday 10 May at the Union Building in Pretoria.

We recommend the following books, both works of fiction and non-fiction, as an introduction to South Africa’s apartheid history and the country’s transition to democracy:

Freedom in Our LifetimeFreedom in our Lifetime
Anton Lembede, edited by Robert R Edgar and Luyanda ka Msumza

When a group of young political activists met in 1944 to launch the African National Congress Youth League, it included the nucleus of a remarkable generation of leaders who forged the struggle for freedom and equality in South Africa for the next half century: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ellen Kuzwayo and AP Mda. It was Anton Lembede, however, whom they chose as their first president.

Lembede, who had just begun practicing law in Johannesburg, was known for his sharp intellect, fiery personality, and unwavering commitment to the struggle at hand.

His untimely death in 1947 at the age of 33 sent a wave of grief through the Congress Youth, who had looked to him for moral as well as political leadership. With the publication of Freedom in our Lifetime, we acknowledge Lembede’s early contribution to the freedom movement, in particular his passionate and eloquent articulation of the African-centered philosophy he called “Africanism”.

Long Walk to FreedomLong Walk to Freedom
Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. Since his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela has been at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.

Long Walk to Freedom is his moving and exhilarating autobiography. Here for the first time, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela tells the extraordinary story of his life–an epic of struggle, setback, renewed hope, and ultimate triumph.
Country of My Skull
Antjie Krog

Ever since Nelson Mandela dramatically walked out of prison in 1990 after twenty-seven years behind bars, South Africa has been undergoing a radical transformation. In one of the most miraculous events of the century, the oppressive system of apartheid was dismantled. Repressive laws mandating separation of the races were thrown out. The country, which had been carved into a crazy quilt that reserved the most prosperous areas for whites and the most desolate and backward for blacks, was reunited. The dreaded and dangerous security force, which for years had systematically tortured, spied upon, and harassed people of color and their white supporters, was dismantled. But how could this country–one of spectacular beauty and promise–come to terms with its ugly past? How could its people, whom the oppressive white government had pitted against one another, live side by side as friends and neighbors?

To begin the healing process, Nelson Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by the renowned cleric Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Established in 1995, the commission faced the awesome task of hearing the testimony of the victims of apartheid as well as the oppressors. Amnesty was granted to those who offered a full confession of any crimes associated with apartheid. Since the commission began its work, it has been the central player in a drama that has riveted the country. In this book, Antjie Krog, a South African journalist and poet who has covered the work of the commission, recounts the drama, the horrors, the wrenching personal stories of the victims and their families. Through the testimonies of victims of abuse and violence, from the appearance of Winnie Mandela to former South African president P. W. Botha’s extraordinary courthouse press conference, this award-winning poet leads us on an amazing journey. Country of My Skull captures the complexity of the Truth Commission’s work. The narrative is often traumatic, vivid, and provocative. Krog’s powerful prose lures the reader actively and inventively through a mosaic of insights, impressions, and secret themes. This compelling tale is Antjie Krog’s profound literary account of the mending of a country that was in colossal need of change.
I Write What I Like
Steve Biko

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Like all of Steve Biko’s writings, those words testify to the passion, courage, and keen insight that made him one of the most powerful figures in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. They also reflect his conviction that black people in South Africa could not be liberated until they united to break their chains of servitude, a key tenet of the Black Consciousness movement that he helped found.

I Write What I Like contains a selection of Biko’s writings from 1969, when he became the president of the South African Students’ Organization, to 1972, when he was prohibited from publishing. The collection also includes a preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; an introduction by Malusi and Thoko Mpumlwana, who were both involved with Biko in the Black Consciousness movement; a memoir of Biko by Father Aelred Stubbs, his longtime pastor and friend; and a new foreword by Professor Lewis Gordon.

Biko’s writings will inspire and educate anyone concerned with issues of racism, postcolonialism, and black nationalism.
A Passion for Freedom
Mamphela Ramphele

The richly anecdotal story of an extraordinary life – when baby Mamphela was born to teacher parents in the rural village of Kranspoort few would have predicted that she would become not only a medical doctor, but an international leader and the founder of not one but two new political movements. As a young woman, Mamphela was instrumental in creating the ideology of Black Consciousness with her partner, Steve Biko. As an accomplished and well-off businesswoman who had reached the pinnacle of success, this year she felt compelled to start Agang SA, to provide South African voters with an alternative to the inept and increasingly corrupt ANC.

In this very readable autobiography, Mamphela Ramphele vividly describes her rural childhood, her extended family, her first loves and losses – after the death of her firstborn, she nearly lost her and Steve’s baby after his death by torture – and her subsequent successes in both politics and business.

Cry, the Beloved CountryCry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton

Cry, the Beloved Country is one of the most famous and important novels in South Africa’s history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”

The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”

Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
July's PeopleJuly’s People
Nadine Gordimer

For years, it has been what is called a ‘deteriorating situation’. Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family – liberal whites – are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village.

What happens to the Smaleses and to July – the shifts in character and relationships – gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

Tomorrow is Another Country
Tomorrow is Another Country
Allister Sparks

The companion to Allister Sparks’s award-winning The Mind of South Africa, this book is an extraordinary account from South Africa’s premier journalist of the negotiating process that led to majority rule.

Tomorrow is Another Country retells the story of the behind-the-scenes collaborations that started with a meeting between Kobie Coetsee, then minister of justice, and Nelson Mandela in 1985. By 1986, negotiations involved senior government officials, intelligence agents, and the African National Congress. For the next four years, they assembled in places such as a gamepark lodge, the Palace Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland, a fishing hideaway, and even in a hospital room.

All the while, De Klerk’s campaign assured white constituents nothing would change. Sparks shows how the key players, who began with little reason to trust one another, developed friendships which would later play a crucial role in South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid.

The Smell of Apples
The Smell of Apples
Mark Behr

Set in the bitter twilight of apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s, The Smell of Apples is a haunting story narrated by eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus, who records the social turmoil and racial oppression that are destroying his own land.

Using his family as a microcosm of the corroding society at large, Marnus tells a troubling tale of a childhood corrupted, of unexpected sexual defilements, and of an innocence gone astray.

Kaffir Boy
Kaffir Boy
Mark Mathabane

Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa’s most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years. Yet Mark Mathabane, armed only with the courage of his family and a hard-won education, raised himself up from the squalor and humiliation to win a scholarship to an American university.

This extraordinary memoir of life under apartheid is a triumph of the human spirit over hatred and unspeakable degradation. For Mark Mathabane did what no physically and psychologically battered “Kaffir” from the rat-infested alleys of Alexandra was supposed to do — he escaped to tell about it.

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Amabookabooka releases unaired episode to coincide with 109th anniversary of the birth of Bram Fischer

Amabookabooka, the quirky podcast devoted to interviewing local authors about their work, recently released a special edition episode.

This episode is from a previous podcast series produced by the Amabookabooka-duo, Jonathan Ancer and Dan Dewes, called Extraordinary Lives and has been released to coincide with the 109th anniversary of the birth of Bram Fischer – described by Ancer and Dewes as the South African prime minister we should have had.

Lord Joel Joffe, a human rights lawyer, who was on the legal team that defended the Rivonia Trialists in 1964 talks about Bram, whom he describes as his hero.

Fischer’s daughter, Ilse Wilson, also joins in the conversation revealing a different side to the Scarlet Pimpernel – that of Bram the father.

Listen to the podcast here.

Bram Fischer

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The Bram Fischer Waltz


Fischer's Choice

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Shortlist for Short Sharp Stories Awards announced

The shortlist for the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards has been announced.

The Short.Sharp.Stories Awards is an annual short story competition made possible by the National Arts Festival.

This year’s theme is “Trade Secrets.”

The judges have focused in the main on how successfully the story speaks to the brief, and have chosen stories which showcase a range of South African ‘voices’.

Congratulations to the following writers whose stories will be included in Trade Secrets and who are on the short list for this year’s awards.

2017 Short Sharp Stories Awards shortlist:

Olufemi Agunbiade
Darrel Bristow-Bovey
Jumani Clarke
Linda Daniels
Frieda-Marie De Jager
Ntsika Gogwana
Amy Heydenrych
Mishka Hoosen
Bobby Jordan
Sean Mayne
Mapule Mohulatsi
Kamil Naicker
Sally Partridge
Pravasan Pillay
Megan Ross
Andrew Salomon
Stephen Symons
Philisiwe Twijnstra
Philip Vermaas
Michael Yee

Trade Secrets will be published in June/July.

One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo

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Call it a Difficult Night


Sharp Edges


Tokoloshe Song


Questions for the Sea


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2017 Alan Paton non-fiction longlist

Published in the Sunday Times


Announcing the longlists for the most prestigious annual literary awards, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The shortlists will be announced in May.

This is the 28th year the Alan Paton Award will be bestowed on a book that presents “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

This year’s Alan Paton Award judging panel is Pippa Green (chair), Tinyiko Maluleke and Johann Kriegler.

2017 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award Judges

Pippa Green (chair) Green is communications and media manager of the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth. Head of the journalism programme at the University of Pretoria from 2009 to 2014, she was educated at the University of Cape Town and Columbia University in New York City, where she earned an MSc in journalism. She is the author of Choice, not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel (2008). Green is a recipient of many awards such as the Nieman Fellowship.
Tinyiko Maluleke Maluleke serves as adviser to the principal and vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria, and is an extraordinary professor at the University of South Africa. He has been a visiting professor at various universities, including Hamburg University in Germany and Duke University in the US. He is an elected member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a columnist for the Mail & Guardian and Sunday Independent newspapers, and reviews books for the Sunday Times.
Johann Kriegler After 25 years at the bar and 20 on the bench, when Kriegler’s term as a Constitutional Court judge ended he looked forward to sitting on the stoep and catching up on all the books he’d missed out on. It didn’t work out like that. Having chaired the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 elections, he has been engaged by the African Union, the UN and a variety of NGOs in a range of electoral and judicial activities across the world. At home, arbitrations, advocacy training and his activities in human-rights and rule-of-law organisations occupy much of his time.

Chairperson Pippa Green’s remarks on the Alan Paton Award longlist:

There are 27 books on the longlist. This is more than usual but reflects the excellence and originality of many of the non-fiction books published in 2016. They include a number of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, which tell the stories of intimate family relationships against a backdrop of the huge historical forces that have swept the last century. There are books about and by key public figures; there are those that focus on fascinating people who are not well known, such as stowaways, gangsters, police officers, miners, transgender people, and foot soldiers. There are important topics covered too: the history of the independent trade union movement, of science, of African languages, as well as key moments of disjuncture in our current society. The books raise critical questions about our past, present and future. Together they tell a story of our fractured and bound humanity, not only in South Africa but around the world and through time. — Pippa Green

Last year’s Alan Paton Award winner was Pumla Dineo Gqola for her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, published by MF Books Joburg. The winners of the 2017 Alan Paton Award and Barry Ronge Fiction Prize will each receive R100 000.


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Shelves of discovery: To celebrate National Library Week, book lovers share their treasured memories

By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Song for SarahJonathan Jansen: author, columnist, fellow at Stanford University, his new book, Song For Sarah: Lessons from My Mother is out next month
The sand dunes separated our council house from the new library next to the swimming pool in Retreat. I could walk there and back blindfolded for that well-trodden path to the library meant one thing only – escape. Escape from the harsh living of the Cape Flats into the beautiful world of bright ideas, interesting characters, complex plots and faraway places. While others stayed cool in the pool next door, I thought it was cool to be in that other institution on Concert Boulevard, the library. I never could understand why the librarians looked so serious and why there were signs everywhere committing you to silence. Years later I went back to that Retreat library that instilled in me a lasting love of reading. The packed audience thought I was there to launch my book. Actually I was there to say ‘thank you.’

What About MeeraZP Dala: author, latest book is What About Meera?
The Tongaat Central Public Library in my home town was my babysitter and my aftercare facility and my homework club and my social club. Both my parents were teachers in the nearby school and when I would finish my day (from pre-school right up to my high school) my brother and I would walk to the public library to wait for our folks to fetch us. Here I would become immersed in the world of books and board games, occasionally sneaking in a little hand-holding with a boy I liked underneath the wooden tables. I meandered through every section, the librarians never confined us to the kids’ books only, although the Mills & Boon Section was out of bounds. At the age of 11, I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, a book that changed my life. And I often wound up engrossed in the non-fiction collections and atlases. There was no need to take books home, I read most of them sitting on the library floor. And even now, when I want to read, I head to a library and curl up somewhere. Every milestone of my growing up has the backdrop of the library in it – an old railway station converted into one of the most special buildings of my memory.

The God Who Made MistakesEkow Duker: author, latest book is The God Who Made Mistakes
Growing up in Ghana, it was somehow my misfortune to borrow books from the public library that had the words, “If you want to know my name, turn to…”. The words were scrawled in shaky letters across the page in pencil, or sometimes in blue ink. The instruction was repeated several times throughout the book and it was impossible not to do as it asked. I followed the trail like they were breadcrumbs on a forest path, anxiously turning the pages while knowing full well what awaited me. It was always the same, a torrent of foul mouthed abuse that spilled untidily over the margins of the last page and settled deep in my mind.

Pieter-Dirk Uys: from March 22, PDU will be at Pieter Torien’s Studio Theatre in Montecasino performing his memoir The Echo of a Noise
I was maybe 13. I would find my mother’s Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, steal one and smoke half of it behind the hibiscus-bush on the way to the Pinelands Library. There I would take out the Angelique books. They were in the grown-up section, but I managed to creep in and take it out of the shelf, hide it under my cardigan and then sign out my weekly Enid Blyton. I read them all eventually: Angelique; Angelique and the King; Angelique and the Sultan; Angelique in Love; and Angelique in Revolt. And I would puff at the other half of the ciggie behind the same bush on the way back. I think at home they more concerned about my reading Enid Blyton than smuggling in Angelique while smelling of Stuyvesant!

The Dream HouseCraig Higginson: author, latest book is The Dream House
At the age of 10, I went to boarding school. I remember the afternoon I discovered the library. The school was still frightening – with corridors and sharp corners and doors that would fly open. The library was detached from the school, with low chairs and afternoon sunlight. I sat down and opened a book and then another. Each time, it was like opening another window. I went there often in the afternoons. I was able to escape for a bit – and I always emerged feeling stronger, lighter, like I had a secret – access to magic windows to other worlds. I love the silence of libraries – the silence that lets the books begin to speak.

Kate Rogan: owner of Love Books, independent bookstore in Melville, Joburg
As children my mom would take all four of us (including my extremely unruly twin brothers) to the Rosebank library once a week. Mom would immediately escape to the adult section of the library. Somehow, they didn’t mind us there in the children’s corner – tearing through the shelves of Enid Blyton and whatever else they stocked in those days. I don’t remember the old lady librarians ever shouting at us (or the twins), though I think they were quite stern about putting books back. I remember the pine shelves, the sun streaming in through the windows and catching dust-mites in winter, the joy of unpacking book after book after book, before deciding what to take home. And oh the joy of the library card, and the stamp in the front of the book, with those old roller stamps, dipped in purple ink, carefully rolled to two weeks from today. And that tempting glue roller – golly I wanted one of those. I don’t really remember quiet, strangely – I remember talking to my sister, laughing about titles we misread or didn’t understand, jumping on dusty beanbags…

Bitter FruitAchmat Dangor: playwright, poet, novelist and political activist, his latest novel is Bitter Fruit, and his new novel Dikeledi will be released later this year
During Apartheid “non-White” schools endured severe restrictions, especially around what we could read. The system also drove us out of Fordsburg and I had to attend school in far away Roodepoort where a young man called Ahmed Timol taught. One of his responsibilities was “library watch” to ensure we conformed to the prescribed rules. His rebellious nature prevailed and he secretly introduced us to frowned upon works by “Third World” writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Sonyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, RK Narayan, VS Naipul, Alex La Guma, etc. That’s how my love for non-conformist literature was inspired.

Invisible OthersKarina Szczurek: author, latest novel is Invisible Others (her new book The Fifth Mrs Brink will be released in June)
I was already 13 and at school in Warwick, NY, when a caring librarian helped me discover the joy of reading. The activity had no appeal to me up to that point. I knew how to read, but took no pleasure from it. Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian of Irish origins, found me drawing pictures on the library’s computer and recommended I read a book instead. I obliged; she’d been kind to me and I felt it would have been rude to refuse. The book she suggested hooked me for life. I owe my passion for literature – my life – to Mrs Fahy.

Griffin Shea: owner of Bridge Books, an independent bookstore in Johannesburg CBD
As a teenager I found my library card hidden in a drawer, untouched for years. I didn’t take it, because I wasn’t nearly bold enough to actually check out the book I wanted, if it even existed. But I went and flipped through the H’s where a single card was labelled “homosexuality”. Buried on a bottom shelf, the book was full of letters and stories from gay teenagers who were like me but braver and, it seemed, happier. For the first time I really understood that I wasn’t alone in the world. Whenever I needed reassurance, I would hide among the stacks, and think about leaving my town to find these other people like me.

History MattersBill Nasson: leading South African historian, author – latest book is History Matters
As a Cape Town schoolboy in the 1960s, I lapped up books by the American satirical writer, Richard Armour, the author who reminded us that libraries are places where you lower your voice and raise your mind. The local branch of the city’s public libraries had a fat selection of his wonderful parodies, including Twisted Tales from Shakespeare. Posing such zany questions as ‘who was the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespearean tragedy’ – answer: Macbeth, guilty of ‘murder most foul’, Twisted Tales became an absolute favourite, borrowed repeatedly to be re-read and memorised. While in Oxford in the early 1990s I became bored while working in the famous Bodleian Library and in a moment of curiosity wandered off to see if it contained the works of Richard Armour – it did, including a copy of Twisted Tales. This was honey to an ageing bee. I wandered off in my damp socks as my shoes had got soaked while walking to the Bodleian through heavy rain, and I had removed them and left them under my reading desk. When I returned, my sodden shoes had disappeared. Presumably some mischievous student had decided to teach me to be more careful with my personal belongings. My reporting of the loss to library staff was met with polite incredulity. Their indifference was understandable. After all, what libraries worry about losing are books, not shoes. An English library had brought back the enjoyment of Armour’s Lady Macbeth, ‘who rubbed her hands with glee (a Scottish soap)’, but at a humiliating price.

This One TimeAlex van Tonder: author, latest novel is This One Time (new novel expected later this year)
As a child who grew up before the Internet in a small town outside Durban with a yearning for knowledge and experiences yet very little money, I remember my school library as not only a sanctuary for me, but a gateway to the world. I was there almost every break time, and would hide there during phys-ed or sewing class – which I hated! My librarians were kind enough to write notes saying I had “duties to perform”. I have one fond memory of my high school librarian telling a sports teacher she “had no idea where I was”, while I listened from one of the reading rooms upstairs. Thank you Mrs Rosario! My relationship with these sacred spaces has continued well into adult life. I am always hiding in libraries, though I won’t say where.

To find out about special events in libraries around South Africa this week, go to
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The ‘imperfect musician with a perfect imagination’: this is Syd Kitchen

“On my better days friends find me flirting with the nurses, cigarette in one hand and scotch in the other, but if I listen carefully I can hear the tribute concerts starting up. There they are, celebrating my life like never before, and here I am, knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door. That rhymes, doesn’t it? I think I might even feel a song coming on but I’m so tired and the words are slipping away and the music is fading into a soft chant round my bed and Madala was spot on, he said when God says He want you, we can’t run away. I’m not running anymore.”

Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which – Fool in a Bubble – premiered in New York in 2010.

“He was like a little leprechaun. Everyone danced around him because he brought the magic in.”

“Syd was the one who said I will do it, I will make a living as an artist. He was one of those people who carried the dream.”

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From Protest to Challenge: Vol VI commemorates 108 years of African activism

From Protest to Challenge profiles over 600 individual activists who played important political roles during the century before the abolition of apartheid in 1990. Among those included are John Dube, Clements Kadalie, Albert Luthuli, Steve Biko, Beyers Naudé and Joe Slovo, as well as Ellen Kuzwayo, Jay Naidoo, Robert McBride, P.K. Leballo and Patricia de Lille. This is the fourth volume in the From Protest to Challenge series.

From Protest to Challenge

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  • From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990 by Thomas G Karis, Gwendolen Carter
    EAN: 9781770098831
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Literary Crossroads: Fred Khumalo on the importance of “telling stories which have never been told”

Fred Khumalo in discussion with Panashe Chigumadzi. Photo cred: The Goethe Institute
Johannesburg’s Goethe Institute recently hosted a Literary Crossroads talk on the course of history and its inflicted casualties, emphasising the struggle of the individual for autonomy and survival and its depiction in contemporary African literature.

Fred Khumalo and Nigerian author Folu Agoi were the intended guest speakers but owing to a delay in receiving his visa on time Agoi was unable to attend the event.

Novelist and founder of Vanguard magazine, Panashe Chigumadzi, led the discussion.

Khumalo opened the discussion by reading from his debut novel, Touch my Blood (2006). The extract was a written account of “my first encounter with colonialism”, set during his studies in Canada, wherein Khumalo described the inferiority he experienced seated among ‘European’ academics.

He added that “the more I write, the the more I realise I can’t escape my history.” This comment complements his strong belief that contemporary African writers should write their own history.


Khumalo is of opinion that anger help fuels creativity and that he wrote his recent Dancing the Death Drill out of anger; anger for the denial of black voices to be heard during apartheid; anger for the denial of black history.

Upon being asked by an audience member whether Dancing the Death Drill will lead to a surge in South African historical novels, Khumalo replied that “we owe it to ourselves to tell stories which have never been told.”

If not, Khumalo argues, these stories might be appropriated by those who’ll do it injustice. According to Khumalo historical novels are the most logical way to go ahead, offering African writers the opportunity to “expand on the footnotes in history books.”

Khumalo concluded by saying that historical novels are the most supreme form of history, as it offers the African author the opportunity to write an accurate, autonomous account of their history.


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Albie Sachs in conversation with Shamim Meer at the Cape Town launch of Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle

Fatima Meer: Memories of Love and Struggle will be launched in Cape Town on 12 April 2017. Shamim Meer will be in conversation with Albie Sachs.

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