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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Sisonke Msimang’s memoir out in October!

In her much anticipated memoir, Sisonke Msimang writes about her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, young adulthood and college years in North America, and returning to South Africa in the euphoric 1990s.

She reflects candidly on her discontent and disappointment with present-day South Africa but also on her experiences of family, romance, and motherhood, with the novelist’s talent for character and pathos.

Militant young comrades dance off the pages of the 1970s Lusaka she invokes, and the heady and naive days of just-democratic South Africa in the 1990s are as vividly painted. Her memoir is at heart a chronicle of a coming-ofage, and while well-known South African political figures appear in these pages, it is an intimate story, a testament to family bonds and sisterhood.

Sisonke Msimang is one of the most assured and celebrated voices commenting on the South African present – often humorously; sometimes deeply movingly – and this book launches her to an even broader audience.

Sisonke Msimang currently lives in Perth, Australia, where she is Programme Director for the Centre for Stories. She is regularly in South Africa where she continues to speak and comment on current affairs. Sisonke has degrees from Macalester College, Minnesota and the University of Cape Town, is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow, and was a Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She regularly contributes to The Guardian, The Daily Maverick and The New York Times and has given a very popular TED Talk which touches on events which appear in Always Another Country.

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Book Bites: 27 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The Age of GeniusThe Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind
AC Grayling, Bloomsbury
Book buff
****
The book of the year for history buffs and closet philosophers. The question at the centre is: how did the events of the 17th century radically alter the way people thought about the world and their place in it? Grayling offers a detailed yet riveting account of the history of ideas; how ideologies transformed despite – or because of – the tumultuous events of the 1600s. The 17th century is known for its battles between Catholics and Protestants, and Catholicism and science. But it was also a triumphant time that gave rise to, among many other things, the postal service. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

A Fast Ride out of HereA Fast Ride out of Here: Confessions Of Rock’s Most Dangerous Man
Pete Way
, Constable
Book real
***

Pete Way is a colourful character who played bass for ’70s rockers UFO and a number of other bands. In his day he was capable of – as detailed throughout this book’s 250 or so pages – ingesting enough drugs and alcohol to make even Keith Richards arch a concerned eyebrow. It’s a direct, old-fashioned sex and drugs and rock ’n roll tell-all. It entertains and frustrates in equal measure – Way’s lackadaisical “that’s just how I was” attitude to his excesses and the pain he caused often comes across as selfishness rather than as a request for the leeway sometimes required by an artistic nature. – Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

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Watch Trevor Noah’s acceptance speech for the Booksellers’ Choice Award

The Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award this year went to Trevor Noah for his memoir Born a Crime and other stories, published by Pan Macmillan. Noah was not present to receive the prize at the convivial awards evening on the 22 August, however his publishers were there, bursting with pride. Andrea Nattrass, Noah’s publisher at Pan Macmillan had arranged for him to record a short acceptance speech, which was shared with the audience at the awards. Noah thanked booksellers, publishers and the sponsors Nielsen Book for the award, along with his English teacher who inspired him to read.

Watch Trevor’s speech here.

PS – Trevor has also been shortlisted for the Thurber Prize for American Humor!

Born A Crime

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Trevor Noah wins the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award

Trevor Noah was announced as the winner of the 2017 Nielsens Booksellers’ Choice Award for his autobiography Born a Crime and Other Stories on the 22nd of August.

The award is bestowed upon a local author for a South African published book that booksellers most enjoyed selling or that sold so well that it made a difference to the bottom line of booksellers across the country.

The books are voted for by members of the South African Booksellers Association all of whom are booksellers; the booksellers vote for the book they most enjoyed selling during the year. The winner receives R20 000.

The following books were shortlisted for this prestigious award:

· Emily Hobhouse: Geliefde verraaier by Elsabe Brits (Published by Tafelberg)
· JAN: A breath of French Air by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Published by Struik)
· Kook saam Kaaps by Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker (Published by Lapa Uitgewers)
· Koors by Deon Meyer (Published by Human & Rousseau)
· My own liberator by Dikgang Moseneke (Published by Picador Africa)

 

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“Hamba kahle, Emma!” Doyenne of South Africa’s trade union movement passes away

Prominent trade union veteran, women’s and human rights activist, and former Restitution of Land Rights Commissioner Emma Mashinini has passed away in her home in Pretoria at midnight last night at the age 87.

Mrs Mashinini is regarded as the doyenne of the trade union movement in South Africa, serving as a shop steward on the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW) and a founder of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) in 1975. She was integrally involved in the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

Mrs Mashinini played several prominent roles in the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Funeral arrangements are being finalised and details will be communicated in due course.

Terry Morris, MD of Picador and Pan Macmillan, paid homage to this remarkable woman:

The feisty and inspirational Emma Mashinini has passed away at age 87. Emma’s memoir, Strikes Have Followed me All my Life was originally published by The Women’s Press UK in 1989 and republished by Picador Africa in South Africa in 2012 with a new foreword by Jay Naidoo.

It was a privilege to publish her book and to have her as an author on our list.

Hamba kahle Emma!

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Acts of useless beauty: Bron Sibree talks to Tim Winton about his new memoir The Boy Behind The Curtain

Published in the Sunday Times

The Boy Behind the CurtainThe Boy Behind the Curtain
Tim Winton (Picador)
*****

Tim Winton refers to his new memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, his 28th book to date, as a midlife “looking over the shoulder”. Yet it’s difficult to conceive of more a revealing work from a novelist so revered by his fellow countrymen, but so renowned for shunning the limelight. It is a companion volume to his 2015 non-fiction meditation on the role of Australian landscape on his own fiction and that of the Australian psyche, Island Home.

Yet, this collection peels back the curtain on his life as a man and a writer in far more revealing ways. It also surprised Winton with what the book unveiled. “What sticks out for me,” he says, referring to a body of work that has earned him two Booker Prize shortlistings, “is just how unlikely it all is, having come from this modest, working-class background where no one had ever finished school”.

He writes of his sadness that members of his family remain illiterate in a chapter in The Boy Behind the Curtain, that also probes his concerns about the growing divide between rich and poor. For this is no conventional memoir, but a series of profoundly personal essays in which the 56-year-old author of such novels as Eyrie, Breath, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and The Riders, attempts to make sense of the world, his childhood and the unconscious patterns of his fiction. “You are drawing on real stuff as a fiction writer whether you know it or not, so it’s me trying to acknowledge and also make plain some of those strands that make up the rope.”

Some of that rope’s most significant strands are those of his childhood. The book takes its cues from its titular chapter in which Winton recalls himself before he found words: a troubled, inarticulate 13-year-old who took to aiming his father’s .22 Lithgow rifle at “innocent passers-by” from behind the curtains of his parent’s bedroom. “When I think of that kid at the window, the boy I once was,” he writes, “I get a lingering chill.”

In another he recalls his fears as a nine-year-old, clinging to the steering wheel in the aftermath of a road accident in which his traffic cop father gave his son a job to do while attending an injured motorcyclist. Winton was an adult before he realised his fears related to an earlier traffic accident: one in which his father had been so badly injured that then six-year-old Winton felt he’d been robbed of the father he knew. “That scene,” he reveals, “has puzzled me all my life. Haunted me, in a way.”

That those childhood events remain so resonant in his life and work also surprised Winton . “To recognise myself as the little boy still clinging to the steering wheel, and also to recognise in this long-ago boy holding the gun behind the curtain, that he’s been and gone in one sense, but he’s still present. The people that you’ve been in your life are still with you. They still inform you and you have to be mindful of them, learn from them and not pretend that they’re not there.”

Then there is his obsession with “useless beauty” as he describes his passion for the natural world. “I realised late in life, just from surfing, that in indulging in all those thousands of mornings and afternoons surfing, I was essentially indulging in acts of useless beauty.”

He writes of his abiding need to tap into the power of the ocean in a dance he calls “the wait and the flow” in this memoir. And to read it is to swim marginally, fleetingly, closer to comprehending the miracle of Winton ’s preternatural ability to harness the power of the natural world to the page. For he writes just like he surfs. “And the feeling is divine.”

Follow Bron Sibree @Bron Sibree

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Book Bites: 25 June 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The Fall of the House of WildeThe Fall of the House of Wilde
Emer O’Sullivan (Bloomsbury)
Book real
****
This biography on one of the 19th century’s most prolific playwright’s family history is an engaging account of a generation’s demise. O’Sullivan covers the Wilde genealogy from 1758 – the year in which Oscar Wilde’s physician father, William, was commemorated with a plaque for his contribution to medicine, archaeology and folkore. We’re also introduced to his brother Willie, and his mother, Jane. O’Sullivan’s account of William’s sexual assault charges, Jane’s anguish following the charges, and the family’s fall into ill-repute is an engrossing, empathetic and eloquent read. The book brims with dates, names, letters and photos, and a comprehensive introduction to Irish history, yet O’Sullivan’s prose never reads as a dull textbook. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind


Marlena

Julie Buntin (Picador)
Book buff
****
“Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are” – so begins a tale of teenage friendship and addiction. Cat looks back on her year in Michigan, where as a girl of 15 she meets glamorous and wild Marlena. The story contains echoes of Carolyn Forche’s poem As Children Together and Beatrice Sparks’ Go Ask Alice. But Buntin brings a fresh take on rural America, land of isolation and Trump supporters. This is where prescription drugs and meth have infiltrated the crumbling remains of the white working class. Lonely and floundering, the teens hold each other up and drag each other down. Some, like Cat, do grow up and escape, but the scars and memories will follow them wherever they go. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Roanoke Girl
The Roanoke Girls
Amy Engel, Hodder & Stoughton
Book fling
***
After her mother committed suicide when she was 15 years old, Lane Roanoke went to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra. More than a decade later, and somewhat lost in Los Angeles, Lane gets a call from her grandfather to say Allegra has gone missing. Lane returns to her grandparents but now must face the dark secret that made her leave so many years ago. This novel will have you read until the very end in just one sitting. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt
 
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Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre to again host the Lowveld Book Festival

Due to the success of the inaugural Lowveld Book Festival last year, the festival will once more take place at Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre in White River, Mpumalanga, from 18 to 20 August 2017.

The Lowveld is not only home to many of South Africa’s literary talents, but is also the setting for a vast array of books and poems.

The response from publishers, authors and visitors was overwhelmingly positive last year, and this year visitors can look forward to a host of interesting authors, including Karina Szcuzurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink), Tony Park, Adam Cruise, Athol Williams, Bridget Hilton-Barber, Elaine Pillay, Tracy Todd, Mercy Dube, Mario Cesare, Jayne Bauling, Derick van der Walt, DJ Sbu and Isabella Morris to name a few, as well as a socio-political discussion, various workshops and poetry readings.

Tony Park
Tony is the author of 13 novels, set in Africa, and six biographies. His 14th novel, The Cull, about an elite anti-poaching squad, is due for release in October 2017.

Adam Cruise
Adam is a conservation and travel writer, who works for a variety of magazines and newspapers. His books include the well-received Louis Botha’s War in 2015 and In the Pursuit of Solitude (2012). Adam has just moved back to South Africa, to Sabie, after spending a few years writing and indulging in the Mediterranean culture on the French Riviera.

Athol Williams
Athol is an award-winning poet and social philosopher. He is the author of Pushing Boulders: Oppressed to Inspired, which tells of his journey from poverty to earning master’s degrees from five of the world’s top universities including Harvard, Oxford and LSE. He is the only person to be awarded the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award twice, was a winner of a poetry prize at Oxford, and was a runner-up for the 2016 SA Literary Award for Poetry. He has published three books of poetry and is the author of the Oaky series of children’s books. He is currently a doctoral candidate Oxford University.

Bridget Hilton-Barber
Bridget’s colourful career in the media spans more than two decades. Former travel correspondent for Radio 702 and former editor of South African Airways’ (SAA) magazine Sawubona, she is best known for her wild and wacky travel writing and books. Her first memoir, Garden of My Ancestors was a bestseller. Now in her ninth book, a political memoir, Bridget takes you on a poignant journey back to her life as a student activist in the final days of apartheid in the mid 80s where she was betrayed by a police spy and ended up in jail.

Elaine Pillay
Elaine has written academic books and short stories. Zwai and the Little Creature is her first children’s book. In March 2017, she represented South Africa in Fiji Islands at the Centennial Celebration of the Abolition of Indentured Labour in Fiji.

Mario Cesare
Mario’s career has taken him from Timbavati and Mala Mala to Olifants River. His memoir – Man-eaters, Mambas and Marula Madness – provides a wealth of lessons on conservation and stories of life in the bush, as it is enjoyed only by those fortunate enough to live on a Big Five reserve.

More recently, Mario wrote The Man with the Black Dog, a touching story of a man and his faithful canine companion. With a naturalist’s eye for detail and the bigger picture of managing a fragile ecosystem through years of drought and plenty, Mario brings a storyteller’s delight – and a dash of Italian passion – to sharing his world.

Jayne Bauling
Jayne’s 25th book will be published during 2017 – Game Plan, the third novel in her Soccer Season trilogy for Cover2Cover Books. Her first 17 novels were romances, published by Mills & Boon in the UK, and translated into over 20 languages. In recent years, her focus has been on writing for youth. Her YA novels have been awarded the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa, the Sanlam Gold Prize for Youth Literature and the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award. One of them, Dreaming of Light (NB Publishers), was chosen to represent South Africa on the 2014 IBBY Honour List, and was also shortlisted for the Media24 M.E.R Prize for best youth novel. Two of her novels have been DBE-approved as high school set-works. Her short stories for adults and youth have been published in a number of anthologies and literary journals, and two have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, while she has twice had stories for younger children shortlisted for the Golden Baobab prize. She has won poetry prizes from SAfm Radio and People Opposing Women Abuse. She also writes stories for FunDza Literacy Trust. A former Johannesburger, Bauling now lives in White River, Mpumalanga.

A bumper programme

The organisers’ goal is to reach out to the surrounding rural schools and expose children to the joy of stories and reading; to encourage teenagers to read more, whether electronic or printed books; and to support local writers and illustrators through workshops hosted by published authors.

“We hope to draw visitors and well-known authors from across the country to White River and introduce them to the creative talent resident here, as well as to motivate local authors and artists by uncovering their work and exposing them to a wider world of literature,” explains Louis van der Merwe, Chairman of the Lowveld Book Festival.

A balanced programme is promised, with the inclusion of poetry, folklore, workshops, storytelling and story-time for youngsters, panel discussions, historical Lowveld literature, interviews with authors, YA literature, performing art and a book fair.

South African authors will be selling and autographing their latest publications and authors will be slotted into events to ensure interesting discussions that grapple with the issues confronting South African literature and reading.

The Lowveld Book Festival is a multi-cultural event that will encourage a love of reading and acknowledge the role played by writers and poets in society, and we seek financial partners who embrace this important objective.

The full programme and information about ticket sales will be available from mid-June at www.lowveldbookfestival.co.za. For more information, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or email lowveldbookfestival@gmail.com.

The Fifth Mrs Brink

Book details

 
 
 

Louis Botha's War

 
 
 

In the Pursuit of Solitude

 
 
 

Pushing Boulders

 
 
 

Garden of My Ancestors

 
 
 

Man-eaters, Mambas and Marula Madness

 
 
 

Dreaming of Light


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Exclusive Books Homebru 2017 selection announced

Exclusive Books has announced their selection of fiction, non-fiction, cookery and children’s books for their annual Homebru campaign.

This year’s slogan was ‘books by us, written for you’. According to Ben Williams, general manager of Exclusive Books, the nearly fifty titles on the list “represent a highly engaging slice of current South African writing and life.”

With titles as diverse as Fred Strydom’s work of speculative fiction, The Inside-Out Man, Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s political analysis, The Republic of Gupta, and the colourful array of cookery and children’s books, including Khanyisa Malabi’s Legacy of Living and Sparkles of Taste and Carol-Ann Davids’ The Hair Fair, this year’s list certainly is representative of contemporary South African writing.

The titles which appear on the list are:

NON-FICTION

Confluence


Confluence: Beyond the River with Siseko Ntondini

by Piers Cruickshanks
 
 
 
 
 
Bending the RulesBending the Rules: Memoir of a Pioneering Diplomat
by Rafique Gangat
 
 
 
 
 
 
Making Africa WorkMaking Africa Work: A handbook for economic success
by Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst, Olusegun Obasanjo & Dickie Davis
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Republic of GuptaThe Republic of Gupta: A Story of State Capture
by Pieter-Louis Myburgh
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dreams, Betrayal and Hope Dreams, Betrayal and Hope
by Mamphela Ramphele
 
 
 
 
 
 
Apartheid Guns and MoneyApartheid, Guns and Money: A tale of profit
by Hennie Van Vuuren
 
 
 
 
 
 
Traces and Tracks: A Thirty-Year Journey with the SanTraces and Tracks: A thirty year journey with the San
by Paul Weinberg
 
 
 
 
 
 
FICTION

Selling Lip ServiceSelling Lip Service
by Tammy Baikie
 
 
 
 
 
 
Hlomu The Wife
Zandile The Resolute
Naledi His Love

by Dudu Busani-Dube
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dancing the Death DrillDancing the Death Drill
by Fred Khumalo
 
 
 
 
 
 
Emperor Shaka the GreatEmperor Shaka The Great (English Edition)
Unodumehlezi Kamenzi (isiZulu Edition)
by Masizi Kunene
 
 
 
 
 
 
Being KariBeing Kari
by Qarnita Loxton
 
 
 
 
 
 
Recognition
Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories

edited by David Medalie
 
 
 
 
 
 
Web
Web

by Naomi Meyer
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Last StopThe Last Stop
by Thabiso Mofokeng
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Third Reel
The Third Reel

Die Derde Spoel
by S J Naudé
 
 
 
 
 
 
If I Stay Right Here
If I Stay Right Here
by Chwayita Ngamlana
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ayixoxeki NakuxoxekaAyixoxeki Nakuxoxeka
by Mbongeni Cyprian Nzimande
 
 
 
 
 
 
Akulahlwa Mbeleko NgakufelwaAkulahlwa Mbeleko Ngakufelwa
by Zukiswa Pakama
 
 
 
 
 
 
Delilah Now TrendingDelilah Now Trending
by Pamela Power
 
 
 
 
 
 
Die BergengelDie Bergengel
by Carina Stander
 
 
 
 
 
 
As in die Mond
As in die mond

by Nicole Jaekel Strauss
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Inside-Out Man
The Inside-Out Man

by Fred Strydom
 
 
 
 
 
 
Alles het niet kom wod

Alles het niet kom wôd

by Nathan Trantraal
 
 
 
 
 
 
BIOGRAPHIES

Last Night at the BasslineLast Night at the Bassline
by David Coplan and Oscar Gutierrez
 
 
 
 
 
 
Equal, but Different
Equal But Different
by Judy Dlamini
 
 
 
 
 
 
No Longer Whispering to Power
No Longer Whispering to Power: The Story of Thuli Madonsela
by Thandeka Gqubule
 
 
 
 
 
 
Being Chris Hani's Daughter Being Chris Hani’s Daughter
by Lindiwe Hani
 
 
 
 
 
 
God praat Afrikaans
God praat Afrikaans

by HemelBesem
 
 
 
 
 
 
Lied vir SarahSong for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother
Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van My Moeder

by Jonathan Jansen
 
 
 
 
 
 
Fatima MeerFatima Meer: Memories of Love & Struggle
by Fatima Meer
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Man Who Founded the ANCThe Man Who Founded The ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme
by Bongani Ngqulunga
 
 
 
 
 
 
Billionaires Under Construction

Billionaires Under Construction

by DJ Sbu
 
 
 
 
 
 
CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
 

The Elders at the DoorThe Elders at the Door (Afrikaans, English, isiZhosa, isiZulu)
by Maryanne Bester, illustrated by Shayla Bester
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Hair FairThe Hair Fair
by Carol-Ann Davids
 
 
 
 
 
 
#LoveReading
#LoveReading: short stories, poems, blogs and more
compiled by Rosamund Haden & Dorothy Dyer
 
 
 
 
 
 
Beyond the River
Beyond the River

by Mohale Mashigo
 
 
 
 
 
 
How Many Ways Can You Say Hello? How Many Ways Can You Say Hello
by Refiloe Moahloli, illustrated by Anja Stoeckigt
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dromers
Dromers

by Fanie Viljoen
 
 
 
 
 
 

COOKERY

 

HomegrownHomegrown
by Bertus Basson
 
 
 
 
 
 
Legacy of Living and Sparkles of TasteLegacy of Living & Sparkles of Taste
by Khanyisa Malabi
 
 
 
 
 
 
Johanne 14
Johanne 14: Real South African Food

by Hope Malau
 
 
 
 
 

Book details

  • Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success by Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst, Olusegun Obasanjo, Dickie Davis
    EAN: 9780624080275
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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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