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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Stuart Doran talks to us about his book Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy, 1960-1987

Published in the Sunday Times

Stuart Doran is and independent historian. He completed his secondary education in Zimbabwe and later graduated from the Australian National University with a PhD in history. He has spent the last 15 years researching and writing about Zimbabwe’s early post-independence period, including the Gukurahundi massacres of 1983 and 1984.

You have a PhD in history – what was your area of study for that?

I studied 20th-century political history during my undergraduate days and then wrote a PhD thesis on the Cold War.

What sparked your interest in history?

There were two reasons why I grew to love history. The first was its applied nature. It’s about real people and real events. I found that fascinating. The second reason was that I was blessed to have a number of teachers through high school and university who were passionate about history. Those teachers genuinely loved the subject – and because of that they were better at what they did than most of my other teachers. And their enthusiasm rubbed off on others. I consider myself fortunate. Many students have poor history teachers who quickly kill off the interest of their pupils by giving the impression that history consists of nothing more than memorising a string of boring and irrelevant events. It’s a false view of a historian’s work. Historians are sleuths, investigators, pioneers – people who unearth and explain mysteries. I did much of my schooling in Matabeleland and lived in Bulawayo during the Gukurahundi. I wanted to understand the turmoil of the 1980s.

Can you describe your process of research?

Like any half-decent historian, I try to unearth new source material, while re-examining the primary source material that’s already known. And, of course, I look at what other historians have written. Then there’s the process of analysis – and, finally, the challenge of presenting the results in a way that makes sense to others. One of my mentors, the great historian Hank Nelson, drilled into me the idea that you’re not a historian if you’re writing stuff that can’t be understood by a normal educated person.

Western governments were accused of “not doing enough” to prevent the mass killing of civilians – would you agree?

I don’t subscribe to the view that historians are public intellectuals. What I mean is that we shouldn’t be in the business of making moral or political judgements when we’re writing history. Our job is to find out what happened and why it happened. It’s up to our readers to decide what the moral or political implications are. That’s not to say that historians don’t have personal views on these things. But when we have our hats on as historians, we must try to separate ourselves from such matters. So, to answer your question, I’d point to the reality as it occurred rather than making a theoretical statement about what should have been done. The reality is that western governments made private representations to the Mugabe regime about the massacres, but were not prepared to push their relationship with Zanu-PF to the wire over the issue. Those representations played a part in prompting Mugabe to scale down the intensity of the killings. But he also became convinced that there would be few consequences once he had adopted a lower-intensity approach.

Was there ever a legitimate reason for the existence of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland?

Mugabe and his ministers claimed that 5 Brigade was a crack unit that was established to deal with banditry in Matabeleland. But that was propaganda. The brigade was created to smash the support base of Zanu-PF’s main political opposition – and that’s exactly what it did when it was deployed in January 1983.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa was Robert Mugabe’s minister of state security during the Gukurahundi – do you believe, as some do, that he was instrumental in the massacres?

Yes. The evidence is clear. He was by no means the only player, but he was one of the most important. His outright denials are, frankly, pretty silly. He needs a new PR team.

Gukurahundi happened more than 30 years ago – do you think Zimbabweans are willing to leave it behind now?

Ordinary Zimbabweans aren’t close to having a choice in the matter. The perpetrators are still in control and any dialogue is severely constrained by that fact.

What was the most disturbing or surprising thing you uncovered in your research?

There were many. The depth of the violence was not surprising – human history everywhere is immersed in blood – but it was disturbing. When former colleagues are prepared to rip each other apart, when men take pleasure in dismembering women and children alive, it’s arresting. These things are not done by monsters, but by people like you and me. It gives you a jolt. What is this beast in the human basement?

What were your biggest challenges in writing the book?

Climbing a mountain that seemed to have no end. I bit off a lot to chew. I tried to tell myself that this was finite; that it would come to an end. Yet I wasn’t sure when that would happen and there were many times when it didn’t seem worth it. You’ve got to keep on plodding, even when the oxygen runs out. Another challenge was the lack of financial support. Many donors, institutions and individuals wring their hands over issues like the Gukurahundi, but few put money and mouth together. It means that a lot of vital research never happens. And if you’re foolhardy enough to forge ahead, most of the time you’re on your own.

It is a monumental book – do you feel there is any more to be revealed in Zimbabwean history?

I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are relatively few historians looking at modern Zimbabwean or Southern African history. The more the better. There can never be too many.

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“The aim of VW is to ensure that every 10-year-old child in Uitenhage will be able to read with comprehension and write.” A Q&A with Vernon Naidoo, manager of the Volkswagen Community Trust

Published in the Sunday World, Daily Dispatch, Herald

By Carla Lever

Vernon Naidoo, manager: The Volkswagen Community Trust.

What role do you think corporates can play in making meaningful change in South Africa?

Most corporates are trusted because of the brands they represent. They have power in the form of leverage and resources. Government will never be able to fully turn the SA ship around – there’s a shortage of resources and skills, not the mention a lot of red tape! Meaningful change can be achieved, though – we just need Government, media, NGOs and Corporates to work together.

VW has chosen education as one of its target areas for giving back. Why is it something you feel so strongly about at VW?

The aim of VW is to ensure that every 10-year-old child in Uitenhage will be able to read with comprehension and write. In fact, we’ve been in the education space for more than 30 years – we believe it’s one of the key ingredients to true freedom.

In comparison with Africa and the world, South Africa ranks low on the literacy (reading with comprehension) scale. Volkswagen, together with the Department of Education and other stakeholders, want to part of the solution to change this statistic.

You partner with literacy NGO Nal’ibali on an exciting project in Uitenhage. What does it involve?

Volkswagen funds story supplements in newspapers across the country. In the Nelson Mandela Bay area, Nal’ibali has been tasked to set up Reading Clubs in schools and communities. Since books are so expensive, the reading supplement is utilised in the schools. Grade 2 and 3 learners are paired together – we call this the Book Buddy system. Each child is given a container (ice cream 2 litre works well) with 30 stories in it. These stories are cut out from the supplement. We call this the “mobile library” because the children take it home and can read a story wherever they are.

These two images were taken at the opening of the second literacy centre, opened by VWSA, Mngcunube Literacy Centre, on 26 February in KwaNobuhle.


That’s great, because if there is one ‘magic bullet’ solution to the education challenges South Africa is facing, studies seem to suggest it is books. Yet very few books are available in the mother tongue languages spoken by most people in this country. Why do you feel reading is an important part of education?

I feel that reading with comprehension is the key to education. This enables the young person to grasp concepts and skills. It will also assist them to think critically and to develop their reasoning skills. If you can’t read, this automatically excludes you from many things but especially from participating in the economy.

VW also seeks to encourage a volunteer culture in its staff as a way of giving back at a personal level. Have there been any particularly interesting staff campaigns with education?

Absolutely! As part of our Employee Volunteerism, we recruited staff to read to learners from five schools. We bused in the learners to the VW People’s Pavilion Hall. The other campaign that we ran was for every staff member to donate a book. These were donated to schools. Through this, VW has placed reading corners in all the schools that we work in. Our follow-up studies showed that those learners with reading corners in the class fared significantly better than those without, so we feel this is making a real difference.

What’s your challenge to other South African businesses, large or small?

As VWSA, we cannot do this alone. We have an annual literacy conference in Uitenhage – it would be a great idea if someone from another organisation can attend and share insights. We can all work on this together. We can change that low SA statistic! Let’s partner, because in this space there is no competition!

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.

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Q&A with the South African school representatives for the Global Kids’ Literature Quiz

Nal’ibali Column 12, Term 2: Published in the Sunday World, Daily Dispatch, Herald

By Carla Lever

From left to right – Jaskaran Rajaruthnam, Sam Walker, Jemma Kasavan, and Michaela Crankshaw.

Michaela Crankshaw, Jemma Kasavan, Jaskaran Rajaruthnam and Sam Walker are all grade seven students at Manor Gardens Primary – a small public in Durban. In July, they will represent South Africa in the World Finals of the Kids Literature Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. We interview them and their inspirational teacher, Isobel Sobey.

Congratulations to all of you on making the world finals of the Kids’ Lit Quiz – this must be hugely exciting! How stiff was the competition in the South African national finals?

Team: We were up against the best teams in the country, so it was difficult. It’s always stressful because we never know what to expect in terms of questions.

How long have you been practicing literature quizzes with Mrs Sobey?

Team: We have weekly morning book club before school and we sometimes do quizzes after to discuss our books. It’s mostly just about reading a lot of books and remembering what you read, who wrote it and when it was written – the quizmaster can ask absolutely anything!

Your school has an incredible track record when it comes to making the national and international finals of this competition. It seems that Mrs Sobey is your secret weapon! What’s your winning approach, Isobel?

Isobel: We are lucky to be in a school where reading is a priority from Grade 1 and students have been exposed to as many as 400 books in their first year of school. I’m just lucky to work with them once the Foundation Phase teachers have worked their magic. I guess I am saying that I’m not the magic; it’s Manor Gardens Primary School that is a magical place!

Isobel, you’ve said that children at Manor Gardens working toward getting a place on the team as early as grade one. How have you managed to develop such an incredibly powerful culture of reading at your school?

Isobel: Reading forms the basis of much of our teaching, is brought into lessons all the time and we give children and teachers half an hour a day to read solo for fun. With all that reading going on, most children make an effort to find books they enjoy.

It sounds like it’s a big deal to get on the Book Quiz team! What do the rest of the school think about the quiz and how do they support you?

Team: They are very proud and extremely supportive of our fundraising initiatives. They’re behind us all the way!

The international quizmaster says he can draw on any book published – two thousand years’ worth of literature is a lot to cover! How do you prepare?

Team: Read, read, read … we’re lucky that we don’t all like the same types of books, so we can divide what we need to cover. We’re allowed to read anything we want but Mrs Sobey looks for new books that might be part of the quiz.

What kinds of added benefits do you find reading gives you all?

Team: We can actually go to different exotic places in books themselves! We also learn a lot of general knowledge and vocabulary and it’s a relaxing way to escape the world.

Only four students get to take part in the competition, but how do you keep encouraging everybody in the school to get excited about reading?

Isobel: I do lots of book talks, I introduce new books, we watch movies based on children’s books. We have our own school inter-house Children’s Book Quiz – this way more children have a chance to answer questions about books and we all get to watch the quiz.

Who do you think your biggest competition is this year?

Team: New Zealand and the UK.
Isobel: I say Singapore.

I know you mentioned some programmes that Manor Gardens is running to partner with other schools to spread the reading bug. Can you tell us a little about that?

Isobel: The Phendulani Quiz was started by Marj Brown, the National co-ordinator of Kids’ Lit Quiz in South Africa. Schools sponsor other under-resourced schools who receive a set of books which they have a set amount of time to read before we all get together to hold our own quiz. Every year the Phendulani Quiz grows a little bit and a few more children get to enjoy bonding over shared books.

Not everybody gets the chance to fly to New Zealand, but why is it important that every child in South Africa has the opportunity to read books in their language?

Team: Reading develops your mind and your world. We wish everyone could find a lifetime friendship with books, like we have!

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.

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And our sunshine noir author for May is … Paul Mendelson!

A new month calls for a new sunshine noir author sending shivers down the spines of local thriller fans…

This month, the co-author of the popular Detective Kubu series, Michael Sears, had the opportunity to interview Paul Mendelson for The Big Thrill – the magazine for international thriller writers.

Paul Mendelson, author of Apostle Lodge. ©The Big Thrill.

Here’s what the two thriller aficionados chatted about:

Paul Mendelson is a man of many talents: writer, interviewer, actor, script-writer for theatre and television. He is also an expert on bridge and poker, and has written more than a dozen books as well as regular newspaper columns about them.

Mendelson is passionate about South Africa and he’s been visiting Cape Town for 25 years, so when he decided to write a crime fiction novel, he chose Cape Town as the setting.

“The cultural and political background of the country is fascinating for an author and, despite my characters seemingly facing increasing problems, I remain optimistic for South Africa…” he says.

His debut Vaughn de Vries thriller – The First Rule of Survival – was described by Lee Child as: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.” The First Rule of Survival was an immediate success and was shortlisted for the most prestigious U.K. crime fiction award. It was followed in 2015 by The Serpentine Road and The History of Blood in 2016.

Last year the fourth in the series, Apostle Lodge, came out. A group of boys discover the body of a woman who seems to have been abused and then starved to death in an empty house, Apostle Lodge. Because of the circumstances, Vaughn immediately suspects that it’s not a single crime but part of a series. He finds it hard to attract the focus the crime deserves because a terrorist bomb blast has recently shaken Cape Town and the police are hunting for the perpetrators. As the cases progress, Vaughn finds himself sucked personally into both of them.

If you think serial killer thrillers are formulaic, Apostle Lodge will change your mind. It’s a very different and intriguing take on the subgenre.

Vaughn de Vries’ motivation is justice for the victim. That doesn’t make him an unusual detective, but the fact that it’s his only focus does – he’s not even concerned with the pain of the victim’s family, only in what they can tell him to help him solve the case. Was this where you started with him as a character? Does the rest of his personality develop pretty well inevitably from there?

When I read crime literature, I really enjoy series of books. I find the re-appearance of characters I know reassuring, and the development of the major characters over a long period of time to be fulfilling, in the same way that friendship builds, and you learn more about the person you are fond of.

This is really how it has been with Vaughn de Vries. He is a man engulfed in turmoil yet, strangely, he is at peace with it. In The Serpentine Road, he tells his boss: “You know me, sir: death gets me up in the morning.” He’s only partly joking. He has had twenty years of fulfilling marriage, brought up two daughters, been a policeman in the traumatic death-throws of apartheid heralding the brighter but still troubled times of the new South African democracy and, now he has found what he lives for. Not stability, not sex or alcohol – for which he has barely controlled, unhealthy appetites – but justice for victims. In one way, he is entirely happy in his work; in another, the new world disorients and frustrates him. I think, as the second decade of the new millennium rolls on with the political interference and the all-consuming corruption of the Zuma regime, he has become ever more blinkered, still more focused on that which absorbs him – the pursuit of justice. He just wants to work and be left alone. Perhaps President Ramaphosa will support the SAPS better?

Apostle Lodge is a serial killer story, but it’s quite unlike others I’ve read in the genre. The focus is the damage not only to the murdered victims and the ones who escape, but also to the profilers and others tasked with dealing with such psychopaths on a regular basis. What interested you in this aspect?

I think it is easy to forget that for every attack, every murder we write about, there are victims beyond the character portrayed: their family and friends, the police officers who deal with the crime. I have spoken with homicide detectives both in South Africa and in the UK and it is clear to me that these people’s lives have been changed irrevocably, that their work affects every aspect of their lives: their relationships, their ability to sleep, to relax, to fantasize, to engage with others. I have scarcely met a police officer who does not rely on some form of drug, be it alcohol, nicotine, recreational drugs, or sex addiction to get through their relentless shifts.

So I wanted to be mindful of this aspect of such an investigation. I think if you focus too much upon grief it can become relentless and wearing for the reader, but to ignore it would be doing the often invisible characters who inevitably inhabit such situations an injustice.

Grace Bellingham, a psychological profiler, is worn out by her exposure to stalkers, rapists and killers. At the beginning of Apostle Lodge she opines that perhaps evil is nothing more than a minute distortion of the human brain. However, the actions of the perpetrators is undoubtedly evil and their remorselessness and pride in their actions must be incredibly shocking. To live and work in their world takes a toll none of us can truly appreciate.

Continue reading their conversation here.

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“Having access to books in one’s mother-tongue and English can enable children to be powerful learners” – a Q&A with performer and education activist Cindy Mkaza

Published in the Sunday World, Daily Dispatch, and Herald

By Carla Lever

Cindy Mkaza

You turned a career in the performing arts – particularly in theatrical storytelling for children – into one as an education activist. What sparked this change?

In 2013 my mother sent me my sister’s not so good school report card. I was so worried about her future that I had to do something. As you know, in South Africa it is hard to make a decent living if you do not have a matric, especially for young people coming from low-income homes. My husband and I started the programme informally in 2014 after I struggled to find a tutoring organisation closer to Site B that could accommodate my sister.

Do you see similarities between the two careers in terms of crafting content that’s engaging and stimulating for young people?

Yes, I do! In fact, we make sure to take the learners to the theatre once a term to stimulate critical thinking through discussions and reflection essays. We also make the lessons into games. We once invited poets to come and teach English grammar – the students never forgot their parts of speech after that! So you can see I never did completely change careers. As part of academic support, we invite young black professionals to come and share their stories of success. It’s powerful when students see and hear someone with a similar background to them end their story with: “in the end, despite my circumstances I made it.” These stories make them see success is possible for them too.

Tell us a little about your operations.

We hold classes in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. We have two branches: one is in Site B at the local library. The second one is in Site C at Intlanganiso Secondary School. We’re currently supporting 100 learners between grades 8 – 12. The students self-select to be in the programme. We always put a call for applications towards the end of the year.

Do you find learners struggle to have appropriate resources in the form of textbooks and other kinds of books at libraries?

Having access to books in one’s mother-tongue and English can enable children to be powerful learners, but at too many schools learners have the wrong textbooks, or are not allowed to take their textbook home and have to share with their classmates. To assist the learners with extra resources we give the learners hand-outs and we photocopy past question papers for the grade 12 learners to practice at home.

We’re pretty interested in programme that get children reading – it seems to be the key to every kind of subject success. How are you able to encourage reading and writing support with the learners?

In the English sessions that we run with the learners we are always making them write reflection essays – these are often linked to theatre outings. We refer to these outings as the Culture Club. We’re planning to launch a Book Club soon where they will share books and write their own stories.

Education changes lives. What kind of growth and results have you seen?

Witnessing learners work hard towards their school work so that they can be bread-winners at home is an emotional journey. When we started the programme we met a learner who had failed grade 8 three times – his mother said we were his last resort. His English level was at a grade 4 level. To help him to improve we put him in touch with some of our friends that run a Teaching English for Foreign Learners school. He went there most days after school. That experience gave him so much confidence and helped him improve his results. He managed to pass grade 8 and 9 with improvements of up to 30% in Mathematics and English.

How have you managed to get this incredibly important project the ground? What would help you to do more?

The project is personal to me. I grew up in Khayelitsha and understand the dynamics of the environment – how it can be toxic and suffocating to people who want to succeed. We currently have a deficit in our outings budget and would really like donations towards it. We see these excursions as just as important as the academic support because some of the learners have never been outside of Khayelitsha. They live in a beautiful city which they don’t get to experience. How can you imagine more than your sum total of life experience? In the near future we would love to branch out to the Eastern Cape. To do this we will need partnerships. We would welcome anyone that is keen to see young people succeed in South Africa to get in touch.

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.

» read article

Bridget Jones Dries Out: Clare Pooley was amazed women were blogging about alcoholism, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The wine witch is not someone that people want in their lives, writes Clare Pooley in her memoir, The Sober Diaries. Illustration: Keith Tamkei.

The Sober Diaries
Clare Pooley
Hodder & Stoughton, R315

The wine witch is not someone that people want in their lives. As Clare Pooley writes in her memoir: “The single most telling sign that you are no longer in control of alcohol, but it is in control of you, is when you instinctively understand the concept of the ‘wine witch’. Some people refer to her as the ‘inner addict’ or the ‘monkey on my back’ … But, for many of us women in the sober online world, ‘wine witch’ describes her perfectly.”
The Sober Diaries is the account of the year Pooley decided to quit the booze: her drink of note – more than a bottle of wine a day. The bottles of vino piled into her life: first partying like only a student can (obscene binge drinking) at Cambridge and then as managing partner of the world’s biggest advertising agencies in London where “drinking was part of the work culture as well as the play culture. In fact … we had a bar in the office.”

Then she quit the rat race when she had her third child to be the Perfect Mom. Wine became her “oasis of sanity, a release from the stress of toddler tantrums and the boredom of nappy changing”. Fast forward six years and Pooley realises: “The wine witch is not Mary Poppins”. Deciding that she couldn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous for a variety of reasons, Pooley googled how to stop drinking and became aware that women were blogging about alcohol addiction. She decided to write as well, and called her blog Mommy was a Secret Drinker. Pooley had no idea that her honesty would strike such a chord.

The Sober Diaries is not just a sober read. Pooley is hilarious and shows that being sober is not depressing. Fact is, alcohol is a depressant and when the brain is exposed to the drink, Pooley writes, “its natural systems of craving and reward are screwed up”. When we drink, our brain’s reward system is artificially activated and it produces dopamine – a feel-good chemical. The brain thinks it is producing far too much, so it compensates by decreasing the chemical. “Gradually drinkers feel more and more depressed, and start to believe that only alcohol will make us feel better.” This vicious cycle is then created.

Beating the addiction is not the only problem that Pooley has to grapple with. Several months into her year of sobriety she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Fact is, alcohol is linked to cancer. Alcohol is a carcinogen and causes at least seven types of cancer.

Pooley decides not to drink when she gets the news. She writes a list of reasons to be positive. No 3 is: “One of the best ways to ensure that you don’t get breast cancer (or in my case) don’t get it again, is to not drink alcohol. And I’ve ticked that one off already.”

At the end of the year she is cancer-free and booze-free. This has driven Pooley to help people: writing this book, and giving the inspiring TEDx talk: Making Sober Less Shameful. Now she has partnered with Janet Gourand – who founded the World Without Wine workshops in Cape Town and Joburg – to run a workshop in London. World Without Wine ( offers workshops, coaching and support to help those trying to cut down on or quit alcohol. It’s also an online support.

Pooley’s story is one of many about dealing with alcohol addiction but it is relatable, funny and honest. As the blurb says: “This is Bridget Jones Dries Out”. @Jenniferdplatt

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“It really should be a no brainer that people should have access to books in their languages.” A Q&A with African language translator and literary activist, Lorato Trok

Published in the Sunday World, Daily Dispatch and Herald

By Carla Lever

Lorato Trok

You have worked for nearly every literacy promotion organisation in South Africa! How did you become a translator?

When I was a student at North West University I majored in Setswana and our class was the only one that barely had access to good reading material. I was determined to do something to change that. When I saw the kind of translated material that children were reading, I was deeply disappointed. The quality was so bad, but no one seemed to care as long as it was in an African language. That’s where my activism started.

Nal’ibali are expanding the number of languages their newspaper supplements are now available in. Can you tell us a little about that?

Nal’ibali has now added Setswana and Xitsonga to their supplements. This is so, so exciting: it means that more children will be accessing good reading material in their home languages.

Did you have access to books and stories in your mother tongue when you were young?

If in 2018 we still talk about there not being enough books in African languages, can you imagine the 80s and 90s? There was absolutely no reading material, except for schoolbooks of course. Luckily, my mom and my aunt were master storytellers and we sat around the fire in our household to hear great African folktales, all in Setswana. My aunt was also an actress in local small town showbiz, so we used to enjoy those shows! The story-telling and township dramatic arts saved the day for us. So even though I had no access to reading material, my experiences in literature were rich and rewarding.

Why is it important for people to have access to books and reading material in all of our South African languages?

It really should be a no brainer that people should have access to books in their languages. It affirms the importance of their identity: for most people here, language is their identity.

Have you ever had anyone tell you what it meant to them to be able to read a story you have translated into their mother tongue?

I get that all the time and it gives me so much pleasure. Whenever I travel back to the Northern Cape I meet teachers I translated and wrote stories for many years ago and they are still grateful. I meet young people who thank me for writing in Setswana and translating stories in their home language. It’s my greatest joy.

Officially, South Africa has eleven national languages, but in reality people’s everyday experience of any form of written language is often only in English and Afrikaans. Why does that need to change?

Official forms are still only available in English and Afrikaans and it gets worse as you travel further from cities to small towns. I was in a shop in a small town called Kuruman and all the shop signs about the listeriosis crisis were in Afrikaans. It’s like the Setswana speaking people – who are the majority in that town – did not exist. We are still bringing up generations of divided children in this country. We can’t just talk about it: the government needs to open their eyes and realise that this is negatively affecting the country’s future development.

Many people say that publishing books and resources in all South African languages is simply too expensive. What would you say to those who argue it is not a practical solution?

How is it not practical? In a country where more than 80% of the population identify African languages as their home languages? Why is it possible for publishers to publish school readers in African languages and not for pleasure reading? For those of us who work in this space, we know what people really want. It’s assumed that only English and Afrikaans speaking people want to buy and read books, but platforms like Abantu Book Festival and book fairs popping up in townships across the country are proving that that was never the case. There’s a level of consciousness in young black people across the country reclaiming and appreciating their identities. Discussions around decolonisation are getting louder – publishers can no longer stick to the same tired narrative. The country has changed, now minds need to change to embrace that.

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.

» read article

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a tale of violence, guns and greed – and the process of storytelling – told from a prison cell, writes Anna Stroud

Published in the Sunday Times

Rhidian Brook’s protagonist sells butterflies in glass cases – a job he once had. Pic: Nikki Gibbs. © Unknown
The Killing of Butterfly Joe
Rhidian Brook, Picador, R285

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a fast-paced, neo-gothic thriller that starts in the Catskills Mountains of New York and takes the protagonists on a whirlwind adventure across America. The provocative set-up of the title adds to the sense of dread as the story unfolds, while cutaway scenes reveal the narrator is telling the tale from his prison cell. From the start we know that the narrator, Welsh wannabe-writer Llew Jones, is in for a wild ride when he becomes entangled in the Bosco clan and their butterfly business.

Rhidian Brook is like his main character – a Welsh novelist, except he is successful and living in London with his wife and two children. This year readers can look forward to a film based on his 2013 novel The Aftermath, starring Keira Knightley.

Brook explains where this latest novel comes from: “When I was 23 I had a job selling butterflies in glass cases in America. I worked for a guy who, as well as being a butterfly salesman, had ambitions to be America’s first Pope (an ambition he ditched on account of wanting to marry). I drove all over the US and sold in 32 states. It was 1987 and was pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, which increased the sensation of having an adventure in a land far, far away. I was not a novelist at the time but I told myself that I had to write about these butterflying days if I could. And so I did – 30 years later.”

The characters are well-rounded and entertaining. There’s Joe Bosco, the charismatic, dynamic oldest son; Edith, the powerful, terrifying matriarch; Isabelle, the sensible sister; Mary, the sensual sister; and Clay, Elijah and Celeste who, like the narrator, come to the business in unorthodox ways.

Brook says the characters’ interaction is vital to the story: “Llew is coming into an established, albeit eccentric, family in which there are different temperaments and different histories all clashing. Part of Llew’s journey is working out who is true and trustworthy. The characters also bring out the best and the worst in our narrator.”

Llew and Joe’s relationship reminds the reader of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby; Llew is enthralled by the sheer magnitude of Joe’s personality and despite his affection for both sisters, it is Joe he loves.

Joe was inspired by two “untameable, creative/destructive mavericks” in literature, The Cat in the Hat and Zorba the Greek. There are echoes of Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald in the story, and Brook unpacks the notion of the American Dream in a new and refreshing way.

“The American Dream is a chimera. And yet, the sense of possibility – the idea – of America is so powerful it gives you the feeling that you can do and be anything. And sometimes that happens. Joe actually despises the idea of it – for him it stems from the constitution’s attempt to encode happiness in law. He also thinks it’s a kind of idolatry. In his view America is a religious country but its real religion is money, backed by violence and guns. True religion has been lost.”

Writing is a central theme as elements of storytelling appear throughout the book. Joe tells Llew, “If it’s your story, you can do what you like with it”, Joe makes up his own words and Llew admits he’s an unreliable narrator. Brook says: “I was interested in the tension between experiencing versus imagining, but also how we can sometimes stumble into being writers via the most unexpected roads. Llew gets to write his ‘Great Welsh-American Novel;’ just not in the way he expected.” @annawriter_

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Almost unknown at home, Musa Ngqungwana has sung in the world’s opera capitals, writes Claire Keeton

Published in the Sunday Times

Musa Ngqungwana’s memoir talks about the man behind the voice. Pic: Simphiwe Nkwali. © Sunday Times

Odyssey of an African Opera Singer
Musa Ngqungwana, Penguin Books, R250

Performing the title role of Porgy in New York last year, PE-born opera star Musa Ngqungwana looked out into the dark behind the conductor and saw rows of people crying. “Then the curtain came down. We got a standing ovation. We came out for four bows,” he says, his eyes misty. “It was a surreal moment.”

From his early days in a church choir bass-baritone Ngqungwana has performed in the US, Canada, UK, Norway and Italy and won critical acclaim internationally.

When he turned 16 he applied for a passport. As a teenager scraping by in Zwide, he told no one about standing in line for a passport. “A classmate once told me I was a dreamer when I said that one day I would travel the world,” he wrote in his new memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer.

This expands on his first self-published memoir with revealing insights about his life, including how hard he found the absence of his father while growing up.

The first black man he saw singing opera in a video, bass-baritone Willard White, inspired him as a schoolboy to follow his voice. Now at age 35, he has never looked back.

In Joburg for an interview, Ngqungwana says: “I know 10 guys who can outsing me or act better but only 5% of opera is about singing. Your brain is 95%.”

Ngqungwana lives in Philadelphia, US, where he moved to study at the acclaimed Academy of Vocal Arts after graduating from UCT magna cum laude. His immersion into the academy was a shock.

French pianist Laurent Philippe was brutal in his first coaching session. “He arrived late on purpose and said hello to me in French. As I started singing he said: ‘I hear this remarkable voice but it does not match what I’m seeing.’ He was very rude about my weight and called me a black rhino.”

But they formed a good relationship and Philippe even accompanied Ngqungwana to South Africa as his pianist when he entered the Standard Bank Young Artists competition at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 2015.

The night that Ngqungwana triumphed in Grahamstown was one of the highlights of his career. Growing up he couldn’t afford to go to the SA Music Awards (Samas) when they were held in PE.

Ngqungwana said: “This is why performing there was a big deal for me, it was our (classical) version of the Samas.”

He wondered whether people would come from his childhood home 120km away because it was raining that night and opera was seen as Eurocentric. He said: “Philippe said to me: ‘I thought we were coming to Africa but we have done two concerts and hardly seen any black people.’”

Ngqungwana’s first choirmaster, Makhaya Msizi, was in the audience though his mother was not. He has struggled with his absent father and estrangement from most of his family most of his life, yet seems to have made peace with this, and helps his mother. “I do not cling to the past,” he said.

Ngqungwana’s vulnerability and vision shine through in this account of his inspiring life. He is meticulous, even pedantic, about paying tribute to the many people who helped him at every stage of his life. His honesty gives a glimpse of his life offstage, of the man behind the costumes and the face paint.

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Knucklebone – the debut novel of veteran writer NR Brodie – was started six years ago. Read William Saunderson-Meyer’s interview with the author

Published in the Sunday Times

NR Brodie, author of Knucklebone. ©Sarah de Pina (Sunday Times).

NR Brodie is Nechama Brodie – veteran journalist and bestselling author of five non-fiction books. Knucklebone is her first novel – an unusual thriller about poaching and magic, driven by an engaging ex-cop, Ian Jack, and former colleague Reshma Patel.

Your previous writing was non-fiction. Now you produce this crime/occult thriller out of the blue. Explain.

It’s the illusory magic of publishing, that anything happens ‘out of the blue’. I started writing Knucklebone nearly six years ago, finished a first draft five years ago. Fiction publishing is a constant exercise in patience and humility.

If you had asked me, as a child, which I was more likely to write, it would have been magic, made-up stories. The non-fiction happened by accident. A very happy, wonderful accident, but not intentional.

Now I sit in the fortunate position of really loving both. I have an unpublished young adult fantasy, and another two works in progress. They all have an edge or core of the supernatural or fantasy. I write the stories I love to read.

You wrote a highly rated contemporary history of Johannesburg and one of the pleasures of Knucklebone is that you know the city so well. Tell me about you and Joburg.

When the first edition of The Joburg Book came out in 2008, it was harder for people to declare their love for the city. The book was part love song, part dirge, part call to action. The city felt rough, but redeemable. And it has done more than that in the last decade.

Nobody owns Joburg, which is the way it should be. But Joburg is a character. I have a very specific relationship with its parts. What does fear feel like in a suburb? What does belonging feel like in another place?

When you write histories of cities – I have written a history of Cape Town, too – you train yourself to observe people and spaces in specific ways. I try and imagine or understand how the parts fit into the whole. Joburg is unique, in the ways that it threatens you and the ways it rewards you.

Sangomas and witchcraft are a reality for many. Suburban covens of white witches, perhaps less so. How does it all fit into your world view?

I encounter many people who put faerie signs in their gardens, or dreamcatchers in their cars, but would treat African traditional beliefs as primitive or suspect. But, yes, sangomas are a reality in many lives. I would be wary of using the term witchcraft. It implies a great deal and not mostly positive. When used in print, it is often to do with the murder of a woman, typically an elderly woman, accused of ‘witchcraft’. Usually that has very little to do with actual traditional beliefs, and more to do with systems of fear, suspicion. Old women are easy targets. This book attempts to acknowledge that, and unpack some of our societal prejudices.

I am writing my PhD thesis on murder. I spend my days trying to explore rational explanations for things that, honestly, are so damn hard to explain. I reject the Hobbesian notion of life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But it also is like that. The entire world exists on a spectrum.

There are charlatans that try exploit the gaps between faith and facts. Prayer doesn’t cure HIV. Neither does olive oil and garlic and African potato and vitamins. But that doesn’t mean faith, belief, has no place. Perhaps the shorter answer is: just because I don’t believe in something or I can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or that it doesn’t exist.

During the writing of the book, I did meet and talk with women who identified as what perhaps we would call witches, and who also referred me to other reading and resources on magic and pagan beliefs in South Africa. I also met and consulted with different izangoma, at different stages of my work.

As regards the poaching, I think I started off with what I had read in the news – at the time I started writing Knucklebone, rhinos were big in the news, and the carnage seemed to defy any rational explanation. I don’t believe stereotypes of supposedly hypersexed Asian men count as valid explanations; even a slightly more nuanced reading of stories on animal poaching shows how poor these stereotypes are in informing us of reality, and how wide the web is outside of Asia.

There’s a lovely touch of Hogwarts on the Highveld about the way that Ian Jack changes from prosaic cop to warrior against the forces of darkness. What are your fictional inspirations? What are you reading?

Jack is looking for a way to do the right thing, without becoming part of the wrong things. I think this is a personal conflict for me, for many people. How do you make your community safer without having armed patrols infringing on others? Am I going to donate towards anti-poaching mechanisms that target poorly educated poachers and local communities, rather than the fat cats?

Reshma is the bureaucrat – she wants to do the right thing, but also wants to follow the instructions. Ian doesn’t think the instructions work anymore, but he doesn’t want to turn into a law of his own, which is kind of like his dad and many apartheid-era cops were. Magic is just a narrative device for hard human choices.

I like characters that are a little cynical, but who don’t give up too easily. Hard-boiled detectives, the guys Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett wrote about. But a little less boiled, less resilient. I like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch a great deal. I was a big fan of the late Sue Grafton and her PI, Kinsey Millhone. Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is still a favourite. I like Deon Meyer’s Bennie Griesel but I I want to shout at him sometimes – the character, not Deon – which is a sign of engagement.

I have a growing pile of books to be read. I have to read by mood. I can’t do certain books when I’m not in the right frame of mind. I really want to get to Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch, about the African origins of humankind and racism in paleo sciences. And I need to get properly stuck in to Hennie van Vuuren’s Apartheid Guns and Money. I have Nick Harkaway’s novel Gnomon lying on my dining dining room table (which is where I also work), but I’m not allowed to read it until I’ve met certain writing targets on my own books. @TheJaundicedEye

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