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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from John Hunt's The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

John Hunt, author of The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head. © Joanne Olivier.

While other boys daydream about racing cars and football, eleven-year-old stutterer Phen sits reading to his father. In number four Duchess Court, Phen’s dad looks like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask.

But real life is different from the daring adventures in the books Phen reads and he is forced to grow up faster than other boys his age.

This is until Heb Thirteen Two shows up: in his pinstriped suit pants and tie-dyed psychedelic top, the stranger could be any old bum, or a boy’s special angel come to live among men.

Poignant, witty and wise, John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is a meditation on being alive and shows us the power of books when we need them the most.
John Hunt is the author of the novel The Space Between the Space Between. His book The Art of the Idea, which celebrates the power of ideas to move the world forward, has been translated into several languages. He is currently Worldwide Creative Chair of advertising agency network TBWA, having previously co-founded TBWA\Hunt Lascaris. He grew up in Hillbrow and still lives and works in Johannesburg.

Read an excerpt from Hunt’s remarkable novel here:

Hillbrow, 1967. The New York of Africa. Apartheid kept the roads clean and the rubbish collected. There were buildings going up everywhere – “lickety-split”, according to Mr Trentbridge. Large chunks of tin-roof houses were found in skips almost every day as the boy walked home from school. These homes were recently surrounded by honest gardens and the occasional peach tree. Someone wrote in The Star newspaper that soon Hillbrow would have more people per square kilometre than Tokyo. Everyone quoted that article to everyone. Some even cut it out and kept it folded in their wallets.

The boy, who went by the name of Phen, lived in Duchess Court. You’ll find it at 20 O’Reilly Road, Berea. Technically it’s in Berea, but for all intents and purposes it’s Hillbrow. The heartland of Hillbrow, the parallel streets of Kotze and Pretorius, is barely a three-minute amble away. Duchess Court was built in the twenties, solid and grey with flirty bits of art deco. When first constructed it must have dominated the skyline. By the time Phen moved in, though, it had the look of an old, stout woman in a sombre overcoat that had been mended too often.

Not that the building was without its charm. At its core was the wood-panelled lift with its bevelled mirror, known to all simply as Mr Otis. He waited at the end of the foyer with three cast-iron ladies above his lintel. Joined together, they danced in a chorus line with their right legs held scandalously high. If you opened the heavy wooden door, then slid back the metal gate, the lift would take you a clanking six storeys high. The grill, when concertinaed closed, left big gaps you could peer through. As you faced forward the lift shaft was presented in vertical grey strips that drifted upwards in a slow-motion blur. This was punctuated by six square bursts of yellow if you went all the way to the top. The lift door at each floor had a small glass window allowing you to wave to people as you went past them.

Stopping was always a violent and inexact affair. Tenants would suggest to newcomers that they lean against the walls or, at the very least, hold on to the polished brass handle of the metal gate as the lift slammed to a halt anywhere between a foot and an inch away from the floor of your choice. The uninitiated would battle to see this as an arrival and presume something had gone wrong. It was only after the metal door had been brazenly slid open that they would sheepishly step up or down and then out.

Phen lived on the ground floor in number four. His trips with Mr Otis were therefore infrequent or for fun. And a fertile imagination grew more fecund when transport was on hand. There was a time when, based at military headquarters behind the washing line on the roof, he needed to find the V2 rocket base the Germans were using. London was taking a terrible pounding and it was all up to his commando unit. After days of relentless reconnaissance they found the cunning concrete shaft dug six storeys deep into the mountainside. Although they were vastly outnumbered, thanks to the element of surprise the mission was a total success.

If you sat on the bonnet of Mr Trentbridge’s Ford Cortina and looked at Duchess Court, number four was situated on the extreme right-hand corner. A palm tree, planted years ago, blocked out ninety per cent of the view from the balcony and stretched up to the fourth floor. Doves cooed high up in the fronds as if the tiny strip of green between the building and the pavement was an oasis. Phen often Lawrence-of-Arabiaed around that tree, offering dates and nuts in the form of Wilson’s toffees to the gathered Bedouin tribes. He would need their help if the Turks were to be driven out of the Middle East once and for all.

With a dishcloth on his head he blew up countless enemy trains as they moved through the desert and up O’Reilly Road. His plunger was a pencil he’d wedged into a hole he’d made in the top of an empty condensed-milk tin. As he rammed it down hard, the dynamite hurled the huge locomotives into the air. Volkswagens, Morris Minors, Fiats and the occasional Peugeot would launch helplessly off the ground and land on their sides and roofs.

“Tell your men not to waste ammunition, Sharif Nassir. There are still many battles to come for the Harith tribe.”

It was an easy yet pitiless business finishing them off. Hidden behind the garden wall, his sawn-off broomstick picked them off one by one. It wasn’t pretty but then war never was. He had to remind himself, “Mankind has had ten thousand years of experience at fighting and if we must fight, we have no excuse for not fighting well.”

The flat itself was bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside. He lived in a flat while all the new buildings around him contained apartments. That was typical of words; they changed without rhyme or reason. And when you asked why, no one could give you an answer. His flat wasn’t flatter. In fact, the older buildings had much higher ceilings. And those new apartments were built so tightly together they should be called closements. His father said flats came from Britain and apartments from America. He said those damn Yanks were getting in everywhere.

If you opened the front door to number four you could turn sharp left into the kitchen or proceed straight into the dining room. The kitchen floor was covered in one flat sheet of green linoleum that bubbled depending on where you stood. You could get the bubble to move but you could never get it to disappear. Much like trying to get the dent out of a ping-pong ball. Trapped air is happy to be transported, but, it will take its ballooned vacuum with it. Concerned visitors even suggested there may be a mouse problem in the kitchen. This, in turn, created such embarrassment for Phen’s mother that his routine job became to force the bubble behind the fridge before anyone came to visit.

Not that walking in the dining room was without its challenges. Like the rest of the flat, it was all parquet flooring in what used to be a very close-fit herringbone design. Over the years, the perpetual pounding of feet in the high-traffic zones had begun to take their toll. Like a piano with a number of loose keys, the initial appearance of a smooth surface was deceptive. If you stood on the tail of the wrong wooden slat, its head would pop up like a snake ready to strike.

The most dangerous square lay, innocuously, directly on the path to the lounge. All three hardwood planks were loose and sat next to each other at slightly different heights. If you were carrying a tray you never stood a chance. And if you were a brisk or heavy walker one of the three would often flip out completely and smack you on the shin.

When Phen had caught his mother crying, even though she’d said everything was alright, he decided to fix the floor in an attempt to cheer her up. He was a bit of a hoarder and went straight to the top shelf of his cupboard. Under his two neatly folded school shirts he fished out the OK Bazaars plastic bag. Beside the egg from two Easters ago and the strips of liquorice, now a deep emerald green, he found his stash of chewing gum. He wasn’t sure exactly how long to chew for. After the taste had left, was the stickiness gone too? He decided merely to make the gum moist then pull it out. Each piece was given a minute in his mouth. No more, no less.

He’d seen pictures of master craftsmen at work and tried to adopt their demeanour. He held the edge of the slats up to the light and frowned at their unseemly roughness. He traced his finger across the ancient lumps of bitumen, then took his mother’s metal nail file and made them smooth. He’d put a newspaper on the dining-room table to catch their falling flakes, but most fell gently into the fruit bowl. Once finished, each six-inch plank was lined up vertically on the sideboard like a row of dominoes. He was uncertain about how to apply the chewing gum. One long stretch? Or a series of blobs?

After experimenting with both, he decided on the blobs. The measured distance between each mound of gum seemed aesthetically more pleasing and carried a greater sense of purpose. It reminded him of his Meccano set where a series of aligned holes solved everything. This choice demanded more material and depleted his entire reserve. By the time he was finished, a three-year collection of gum lay beneath the dining-room floor. Most were Chappies so he kept the wrappers to read the jokes and Did You Knows printed inside. However, there was also the faint whiff of peppermint and spearmint from other gums. Phen felt proud and exhilarated when he was finished. There is a kind of satisfaction that seeps in when a job requiring physical labour is well done. It’s the sort of feeling that sustains you for quite a while even when no one else notices your handiwork.

On the south side of the dining-room wall was a door which opened into a cupboard that was so deep it was referred to as the storeroom. The three shelves at the back were packed with the finality of knowing no one was ever going to reach them. On the middle of the top shelf, bristling like a series of broken vertebrae, lay the deformed wire hoops of the record rack. Somehow on its journey in the delivery van from Shotley Residential Hotel, not even half a mile away, the leg of the sofa had been placed on its delicate spine. The wire channels were now splayed embarrassingly wide in the middle and impossibly tight on the opposite edges. South Pacific, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi and all their contemporaries were therefore forced to lie on top of one other, flat and square. They, in turn, rested upon a hatbox from another age. Now empty, its circular velvet-covered lid captured the memory, if not the contents, of its beauty.

One shelf below, and slightly to the left, lay the likewise empty hamster cage that had once housed Philby. Phen had been allowed to buy the white hamster provided his father could name him. “That rodent should’ve been behind bars years ago.” Only much later he learned that Philby was a British double agent who’d defected to the USSR. Teeth marks could still be seen where the hamster had gnawed through the pale blue powder coating of his steel feeding tray. Phen had placed the cage there himself, in a solemn ceremony shortly after Philby’s demise. He hadn’t been sure where you put the homes of the dead, let alone the dead themselves. He had wanted to ask, but couldn’t find the courage. He sensed a plastic bag and the dustbin might have been the answer. When he’d returned from school, his mother had given him a hug, said she was sorry and now the subject was closed.

Which is why, two weeks later, when the hamster wheel began to run wildly deep in the darkness of the cupboard, Phen was at first confused and then elated. He’d read the stories and seen the pictures of the resurrection. He’d pored over those yellow rays that burst from behind dark clouds as white doves, caught in a whirlwind, spun up to heaven. He ran to the door and smote the darkness asunder. The huge black rat was clearly startled by the light suddenly flicking on. However, with size comes a certain confidence. He allowed himself a few extra whirls before darting out the cage door and through a pile of London Illustrated News.

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Book details

"He doesn't do PDA" - read an excerpt from Jonathan Jansen's Making Love in a War: Interracial loving and learning after apartheid

Can racism and intimacy co-exist? Can love and friendship form and flourish across South Africa’s imposed colour lines?

Who better to engage on the subject of hazardous liaisons than the students Jonathan Jansen served over seven years as Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

The context is the University campus in Bloemfontein, the City of Roses, the Mississippi of South Africa. Rural, agricultural, insular, religious and conservative, this is not a place for breaking out.

But over the years, Jansen observed shifts in campus life and noticed more and more openly interracial friendships and couples, and he began having conversations with these students with burning questions in mind.

Ten interracial couples tell their stories of love and friendship in their own words, with no social theories imposed on their meanings, but instead a focus on how these students experience the world of interracial relationships, and how flawed, outdated laws and customs set limits on human relationships, and the long shadow they cast on learning, living and loving on university campuses to this day.

Jonathan Jansen is Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Stellenbosch, after serving for many years as the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State. Jansen has a formidable reputation for transformation and a deep commitment to reconciliation in communities living with the heritage of apartheid. He holds an impressive collection of degrees and awards including the Education Africa Lifetime Achievement Award.


The case of Ingrid and Paul

Ingrid does not come into your office. She storms in, often with a loud greeting, as if the Vice-Chancellor were an old friend – ‘So, howzit?’ I could see my secretary freeze in the background and shake her head. This kind of breezy openness was unusual in the conservative Free State, even for staff. An English girl from Howick with a free spirit, Ingrid adjusted quickly to the mix of predominantly Afrikaans and black women in the residence, and would gain the respect of her fellow students. She rose to leadership in her residence and in the SRC during the difficult period of the 2015/16 student protests. Ingrid would introduce me to Paul, her boyfriend, a quiet and reserved young man who by his own admission took some persuading to show up for the interview.

Ingrid Wentzel
(BA Human Movement Studies 2013–2016)

I was born in Addington Hospital. I stayed and grew up in Durban, and went to Danville Park Girls’ High School in Durban North. I feel like my parents are very liberal. My dad is a bit of a hard-ass but I feel like they are chilled. They never pushed one belief down my throat or say, ‘Do not do this or do not do that.’ There is nothing that has really stopped me from doing what I feel, if I can explain it in that sense.

My school was very mixed. There were a lot more Indians, because it is Durban, as well as at my primary school, Atholton. I personally never noticed any form of racism at either school. Never. I go to Kovsie Kerk [the Dutch Reformed campus church] now and again. Mom is mainly from a Norwegian background, as if we are actually Lutheran, but mainly so. She will go to a Norwegian church, but I just go to Kovsie Kerk.

Paul and I met in my second year. I heard about him through Tyson Free – he was here via Kovsie FM radio station. Paul is a DJ, and he often played. Tyson asked me, ‘Do you know Paul Makuta? He has played at Origin, that club in Durban.’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t heard of him,’ but we had a lot of mutual friends. He knows one of my friends, Siya, who I literally knew since birth. And then we met at Intervarsity [sporting competition with other universities] because he was playing there. He was with someone else then.

We were friends; we always got on. Our sense of humour is kind of the same, and we always spoke on and off. We were always friends, like always. I would see him and just be like, ‘Oh, hey.’ It became serious last year. As a friend, he is so chilled and laid back. He is my type of person. He is definitely my type of friend. I just felt like he got along with everybody and was really funny, even if we just talk over WhatsApp. We would talk about stupid stuff, random things, and he would send me funny pictures and I would do the same thing for him. I think he is just so laid back and easy, completely easy to get along with. It just kind of happened. I think it was just continuous talking and then it just sort of developed from there.

Well, I was more forward than anything else. He was just chilling and I made the first move. He does not do PDA [public displays of affection] but we are working on that. I am working on it. I feel our relationship is very chilled. This is relaxed and I am so happy with it. I mean, this is the most laid-back relationship I have ever been in, and there is no pressure. I don’t feel like I need to get all dressed up to impress him. And we just do our thing, and it is a take-it-day-by-day, basically. It is slightly difficult being Prime, because there are so many commitments, and it does get a bit irritating because I just want to go and chill with him, just like bond, because I really do enjoy his company.

I would consider him as a best friend because we joke or whatever, that sort of thing. Being Prime does, however, put a bit of a spanner in the works, but we work around it. I try my best to make time for him and he does the same thing for me. Last week there was so much kak [nonsense] going on in residence and whatever. It is not nice when I always have to be at res the whole time. Don’t get me wrong, I love Prime and it is a great position, but sometimes I just want time for me and time to spend with him. I want to know that I can put in that effort and feel like I can give all that much, as much as he deserves for me to give.

It’s just little things that keep me busy. It’s worrying about academics and graduating, then it’s Prime, and then it’s GLS [Global Leadership Summit], and then I want to stand for SRC. So even though I want to achieve all that, like, I also feel as if sometimes I need to put my relationship first, because that is also important. Varsity and the goals that I have set up are important, but I don’t want to get blindsided and have my mind be clouded by just focusing on varsity. This relationship is also important to me.

I think one [notable] moment for me was telling my friend Sannie.* Sannie was in my first-year leadership team. She was responsible for social events and was very much a boeremeisie [farm girl], but she is from Betty’s Bay,* so it is kind of weird. I feel like she had strong views and I got the impression that she was a bit of a racist, I really did. Her husband, Jannie,* as well, but that was me making an assumption. She was Instagram-stalking me or something, and I put pictures up and posted comments, and she said, ‘I just want to tell you that I am happy for you and it does not matter, it doesn’t bother me. I could understand maybe why you didn’t want to tell me because maybe I gave you that impression, but it’s important to me that you are happy and if he makes you happy then that is completely fine by me.’ I felt a bit guilty for making that assumption about her, and that her reaction was completely not what I expected; she was so supportive.

It never actually crossed my mind that I must hold back now just because Paul is a different race. Why should I put down what I want to feel and what I want to do based purely on the fact that he may not be what people expect me to go for? At this point it does not bother me. My residence knows. I really – I do not have a problem with it. If you have your opinion, then that is fine, but I mean it’s very rarely that if we walk at the Waterfront someone is going to be, ‘Hey, that is dodgy.’

My friends have a big part to play in that I have never experienced any judgement with any of them, any of the girls in my res, nothing. They are fairly open to it. I have never experienced anything like: ‘Oh wow, that is wrong.’ I haven’t experienced any negative feelings within my own friendship circle. Maybe such negative feelings are found among the girls out of my friendship circle. I have honestly never felt that sense that people are looking at us. However, he doesn’t do PDA.

I think initially my mother’s response was how my dad was going to react. Good old Kevin – but it actually doesn’t bother me what he thinks. It really does not. I will respect him as a person; he is my dad and I am very grateful for everything. He pays for my education, so I am very grateful for that, but at the end of the day, my mom told me as well, she said, ‘If you are happy, that is fine; that is your thing; that is you.’ It’s the same with my dad. I haven’t told him because I haven’t seen him yet. We don’t have the kind of relationship where I would tell him that sort of thing. I talk to him and he wants to know how varsity is, but I don’t have that kind of relationship where I divulge everything.

Obviously, I am very close to my mom. They do not live together. My dad lives in Cape Town and my mom lives in Durban. They have been divorced for a long time, I think since I was ten. I mean it has been a while. And they have very different views. Similar in how I was raised, but I just think very different. In some aspects my dad is somewhat chilled, but I have found as I got older that my mom’s attitude is very much like, ‘It is your life, your decisions, and if you’re happy, that is the most important thing.’

I don’t see any reason our relationship should not go on. I mean, it’s not like we have planned it all out to be together for this long. It’s not like it is all planned out.

Paul Makuta
(BCom 2010–2015)

I was born in Lesotho, moved to Pretoria, and then came to high school here in Bloem. At home I am Roman Catholic but I go to CRC [Christian Revival Church] in Bloemfontein. I have a single mother who stays in Pretoria. I have been here on my own from high school. Most of my childhood was in Pretoria. I went to Arcadia Primary School for grades 1 and 2, and then moved to Cornwall Hill College. I think in my grade there were only three black kids. I was friends with the two other black children, but the majority of our friends were white kids in primary school. It was a private school, so I grew up around a lot of white children. You kind of pick up what they do, how they speak, and stuff like that.

High school was totally different. I got a big culture shock when I came to Grey. I didn’t even know what racism was until I got to Grey. Grade 8 was a big culture shock, having to learn Afrikaans and actually seeing how different people are. As time went from Grade 8 to Matric, you would see even the Afrikaans people who were not necessarily racist but very conservative. In Grade 8, people wanted to feel your hair; they didn’t know what it felt like. Some guys will even ask you if your blood is red, and stuff like that. They just really do not know. And as time went by we all kind of became friends, because we stayed in the hostel.

I think it was in Grade 8; there was a fight with a guy called Matthew. I think he is in this varsity now. I was in Dorm 19 and he stayed in Dorm 18. I went next door to ask for a plug to charge my phone, but I had to lean over his bed to pull out the plug. As I was leaving the room, I heard him say, ‘Nee, die kaffir sit op my bed’ [‘No, the kaffir is sitting on my bed’]. But I couldn’t understand because I didn’t know any Afrikaans, so I just went next door to ask my friends, ‘What does this mean?’ and then I asked him, ‘Are people actually allowed to say that?’ I got so angry. I actually got into a physical fight after that. But now, if you put us in the same room, we are like probably best friends.

I think it was at Intervarsity 2013 where Ingrid and I first met. It was just very briefly. I think I was about to go on stage to play. She was with other friends and then we kind of met through mutual friends there. It got serious a year later. I think we spent more time together last year. She made the first move. It was not really forward; it was more like subtle hints. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but we kind of got on and I thought maybe there could be something. And then we started spending more time together and it just evolved from there. I cannot really give a step-by-step. It was not a love at first sight. We get along. It’s not an effort to be around her. It just works. Even if we were just chilling, it felt like I had a good time. Even when we were friends. It doesn’t feel like this relationship is any effort; it just works.

I think if it was at an earlier stage, I would have been more worried, but I’m not really concerned with other people’s opinions. If they have a problem with us, nobody is going to come to me and say, ‘What are you doing?’ If they are not directly getting in my space, I don’t really mind what people are going to say or think. Nobody will come to your face and say, ‘This is wrong,’ even though you get a sense that people are looking at you, yes, always. I am a very private person, so maybe that’s why. If we are walking together, you can feel when people are looking. Unless somebody is coming to interrogate me or tell me something personally, I will not have a problem with it at all. They are entitled to their opinion. My mother is very liberal. She is very strict and stuff, but she is not prejudiced against anyone. My mom has never known about anyone that I dated. She will ask me, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ and I will be like, ‘Mom, relax,’ but I don’t really speak to her about girls. I think the only time I have ever told her I had a girlfriend was probably one-and-a-half years ago and I thought I might as well. (I don’t like speaking to people. Even this interview, Ingrid had to convince me.) I told my mom I am seeing this girl and the first thing she asked was, ‘Oh, is she white?’ I think she already knew before she asked that she was white. She didn’t seem too upset about it. And she asked, ‘Is she Christian?’ and stuff like that, and she was fine about it.

I cannot see any reason why our relationship would not continue. As far as I can see, unless I have to move away or something and be in a long-distance relationship, it might be a problem. Otherwise, I think the relationship would continue. We spoke about that the other day. Other relationships that I have been in feel like you have to put in so much effort to impress a person. Then you don’t really feel comfortable with things that they do. Let me say ninety per cent of what I am looking for I find in her. There are arguments, like small ones. I am happy and I think it can go on for quite a while.

Making Love in a War Zone

Book details

"Daardie aand was die leeus nie ’n gerieflike kilometer ver nie, maar op ons stoep." Lees ’n uittreksel van Annelize Slabbert se ’n Luiperd in my bed

'n Luiperd in my bed“Met die middagson kom die lugspieëlings wat aan die vallei sy naam gegee het: Deception Valley. Dan skuil alles wat asemhaal in die koelte van ’n matjarra, rug na die wind gedraai. In die lang geelwit gras lê die leeus uitgestrek en slaap. Net die vlakvarke draf stertorent nader vir ’n modderbad.”

Annelize Slabbert was ’n joernalis in Johannesburg en haar man, Gerard, ’n apteker. Doodgewone stedelinge. Toe word hulle moeg vir die lewe in die stad, die spitsverkeer en die gejaag, en verhuis sak en pak na Botswana. Hier, in die son en sand van die Sentraal-Kalahari, gaan hulle ’n luukse vierster-lodge bestuur.

Min het hulle geweet wat wag.

Tussen die luiperdwyfie in die slaapkamer, die dansende Russe en “wilde diere” in die swembad, sal ’n Luiperd in my bed jou laat lê van die lag . . . en jou twee keer laat dink voor jy jou eie landelike idille aandurf.

Leeus op die stoep en luiperds in my bed

DIS al ná vyf in die middag en nog lank nie somer nie, maar die sand stuur steeds warm lug op. Die blare aan die matjarras voor ons huis is steeds dig, maar vaal van die wit Kalaharisand, deur die bronstige wind verwaai. By die watergat minder as tien tree van waar ek sit en lees, staan vyf kameelperde.

Met sy sierlike nek styf vorentoe gebuig, sak die karamelkleurige mannetjie se kop na die water. Hy plant sy voorbene beurtelings wyer uit mekaar tot sy kop laag genoeg is om te kan drink. Ritmies suig hy met diep teue, om dan met ’n slinger van sy lang nek sy kop omhoog te ruk terwyl waterdruppels die lug in spat.

Die rustige toneel by die watergat volg op ’n grillerige ondervinding in die middel van die middag.

Augustus het gekom met al sy nare wind en ook met temperature diep in die dertig. Saam met die hitte kom die somerslange, pas ontwaak ná ’n kortstondige winterslaap. Hul spore word oral in die droë veld gesien. Gisteroggend het Kapokkie, terwyl sy ons huis skoonmaak, sleepmerke op die werf opgemerk. Die spore het in die rigting van die agterdeur beweeg.

Gerard en die Boemans was gou by om die slang in die huis te soek. Met ’n klein katjie en twee honde, om nie eens van die skrikkerige bewoners van die huis te praat nie, is die aanwesigheid van ’n giftige reptiel allermins wenslik. Die soektog het niks opgelewer nie.

“Die slang is seker weer by die deur uit buitentoe,” verseker Gerard my.

Verdiep in my boek sit ek op die warm middaguur in die slaapkamer en lees toe ek ’n geritsel hoor. Ek kyk verskrik op en daar! Agter ’n prent teen my muur hang ’n lang loodgrys stert, ongeveer twee sentimeter dik.

“Dis ’n mamba! Gaan kry die manne,” beveel Gerard en ek laat nie op my wag nie.

’n Mamba-byt is dodelik. Maar dis steeds ontstellend om te dink die stomme dier word oral met soveel weersin en geweld hanteer. Gewapen met knopkieries en ’n spesiale haak word die arme slang grond toe gebring en genadeloos met die kieries aangerand, tot hy na die mening van die hele vergadering geen fut meer oorhet nie, al trek sy spiere steeds krampagtig saam.

Ná soveel jare in die bos bly dit steeds nodig om jouself voortdurend daaraan te herinner dat die wildernis aan die wild behoort en nie aan die mens wat glo hy is die heerser nie.

Aanvanklik was ek baie versigtig om al die deure en vensters toe te hou. Vroegoggend en ná skemer word die diere ingebring en die deure toegemaak. Maar soos die winterdae langer rek en tyd maak vir soel someraande is die behoefte aan ’n briesie te groot. Die groot houtraam-skuifvensters van ons huis is so wyd moontlik oopgetrek tot die somerson rondom die middaguur die sand en die stoep tot kookpunt gebak het en die huis so dig moontlik gesluit word.

Op een so ’n laat-lenteoggend kom Gerard en ek tuis vir ’n toebroodjie en tee. Met die eerste oopmaak van die sogenaamde Jolie-deure wat op die stoep uitgaan, voel ek iemand se teenwoordigheid in die huis aan. Gouelokkies se drie beertjies het waarskynlik dieselfde gewaarwording gehad toe hulle ná hul stappie in die bos tuisgekom het.

“En wie het op my bed gelê? Wie het my drafskoene rondgegooi? En wie het hulle STUKKEND GEBYT?”

Ons storm deur die slaapkamer na die aangrensende badkamer van waar ons die stort hoor ruis. Ons badhanddoeke tref ons in flarde aan die haak langs die stort aan. Die badkamervenster is nog wyer oopgedruk as toe ons daardie oggend in die stort was.

Buite los Gerard die raaisel op.

’n Fraai jong luiperdwyfie, wat ek Leila gedoop het, is die week tevore gereeld by die hooflodge en in die omgewing opgemerk. ’n Mens kan jou net verbeel dat Leila, soos die prinsessie wat sy was, daardie oggend behoefte aan ’n ruskansie in die hemelbed, gevolg deur ’n weelderige stort gehad het.

Die prosaïese verduideliking was dat sy bloot wou speel, die skoene en kussings na hartelus rondgegooi het, en toe ondersoek in die badkamer gaan instel het. Die nuwerwetse krane in die oop stort word nie gedraai nie, maar met een veeg opgeklap. Hoe die kleine Leila haar onder die strale water geniet het, kon ek net raai. Dalk was sy ergerlik oor die onverwagse bui reën en was dit waarom sy met haar skerp naels die handdoeke bygekom het. Ons het haar moontlik verras waar sy nog met haar toilet besig was – vandaar die oopgedrukte venster, haar ontsnaproete.

Op die stoep, wat oor die lengte van ons huis skadu op warm somermiddae gee, is gestoffeerde leunstoele waarin ’n mens met ’n boek kan opkrul. Dié lekkerte is eintlik vir die bewoners van die huis bedoel, maar in die ongetemde wêreld waar ons ons stadsgeriewe in stand wil hou, is daar te veel weerstand uit wildgeledere. Twee families leeus bewoon die plaas, een groep aan die westekant, ’n paar kilometer van die lodge, en die ander aan die oostekant, sommer digby ons.

Kort ná ons intrek in die Kalahari Manor, die koloniale plaashuis wat Gerard eintlik vir gaste gebou het, word ons een aand deur die angswekkende gebrul van ’n groep leeus wakker gemaak.

Die MGM-leeu se brul is ’n power namaaksel van die dawerende keel van ’n Kalahari-leeu. En daardie aand was die leeus nie ’n gerieflike kilometer ver nie, maar op ons stoep.

Bewend van skrik het ek met my flits op die Jolie-deur se glas gelig, reg teen die neus van ’n tiener-vuilbaard met net die ruit tussen ons. Langs en agter hom was nog vier jong lede van die bende moeilikheidmakers. In een se bek was ’n stoepkussing. In sy oë, verbeel ek my, ’n uitdaging.

Ek doen alles wat Gerard my vertel het hoe om koelkop in ’n leeukrisis te bly. Ek klap my hande. Dan hou ek my arms bo my kop in ’n poging om so groot en intimiderend as moontlik te lyk.

Maar die maaifoedies kyk my verveeld aan en nog een gryp ’n ander stoepkussing terwyl die ander een sy kussing met groot genot rondskud. Binne oomblikke bars die nate oop en warrel handevol kapok die naglug in.

Nou is die groepie in hul element.

Nóg kussings warrel deur die lug. Dit lyk soos sneeu in die Kalahari.

My kwaai vermanings val op dowe ore. Vanselfsprekend, want watter jong leeu sal hom laat rondsê deur ’n indringer mens in pajamas? Tot in daardie stadium was ek vies maar veilig. Maar die volgende oomblik stamp die voorbok, oftewel die voorleeu, met sy skouer teen die glasdeur, wat natuurlik nie gesluit was nie. Wie sluit jou deur in die bos? Daar is in elk geval geen sleutels vir die deure nie. Maar daardie deure het die nare geneigdheid om vanself oop te gaan wanneer iemand teen hulle stamp. Die gespierde katte aan die ander kant van die deur het heel anders gelyk as die singende leeugesin ’n Walt Disney se Lion King. Dié leeus was nie daar vir ’n pajamapartytjie nie.

Gelukkig het die kussingdiewe soos kwajongens met verbode vrugte besluit om die loop te neem met die kapok al warrelend om hul koppe. Die volgende oggend het ons kapok en stroke geblomde Sanderson ver en wyd opgetel en vir baie lank daarna het die Boesmans nog stukkies lap met roosmotiewe in die veld opgespoor.

My eerste belewenis van ’n familie leeus van naderby was in die modder-en-mis-huisie waar ons in die eerste jare van ons verblyf op die plaas gewoon het. Die woonplek het uit ’n kombuis-cum-leefvertrek bestaan, met twee houtvertrekke in ’n U-vorm langsaan – twee slaapkamers met aangrensende badkamers. Met net die dun houtmuur tussen die koppenent van die bed en ’n watergat waarin ons stortwater uitgeloop het, kon ek snags besoekers wat hul dors kom les dadelik hoor: Die bruin hiëna wat drink soos ’n hond, die koedoes wat suig.

En toe daardie eerste keer, agt leeus, op hul voorpote gekniel, hul koppe styf teen mekaar om die watergat. In die maanlig kon ek hulle goed sien en duidelik hoor hoe hulle met sagte “oemffs” met mekaar praat. Dors geles, het hulle vyf meter van my venster (oop, natuurlik) in die sand gaan lê en saggies gesels.

Daar is min wat ’n stadsjapie kan voorberei op hoe bevoorreg ’n mens voel wanneer sulke besoekers by jou hul dors kom les. Eintlik is dit heel verkeerd om hulle “besoekers” te noem, want dis ons, die mense, wat besoekers aan hul wêreld is, ’n plek van verwondering gereël deur natuurwette.


"Be loyal to your car, but don’t give a sh*t about it." Haji Mohamed Dawjee celebrates her anti-establishment hero, her grandfather, in this extract from Sorry, Not Sorry

Published in the Sunday Times

Haji Mohamed Dawjee celebrates her anti-establishment hero, her grandfather, in this extract from her new book Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa.

He was an honest guy, my grandfather. A bit left-field with his thoughts, but always honest. His support of my creativity started when I was really young. I spent a lot of time with him at our old house in Laudium. Before I realised I liked writing, I sketched. All the time. He supplied pencils and paper, and I replicated Secret Seven book covers. SABC News was always on in the background and compliments for the Indian news presenters spilt out of him. They were all Hindu and he never failed to voice his disappointment and, well, disgust for the Muslim community, who he said never did anything with their lives. “Baby-making machines,” he called them. “Will never amount to anything,” he said. He admired women journalists and was frustrated that none of those he saw were Muslim. Subconsciously, I think this played a massive role in my becoming a journalist.

He was a writer too. He wrote poems. Lots and lots of poems. When he wasn’t reading them, he was writing them. They were really short, but he took ages to type them because he wasn’t used to a computer. He punched each letter in with two fingers and sometimes got the upper- and lower-case letters wrong, resulting in an ee cummings aesthetic. I assisted with formatting when asked.

The poems’ themes varied from religion to memories of his mother and his childhood. He was never published. Such opportunities did not exist for his generation, class and race. He bought a DIY manual on self-publishing and read it studiously, but nothing came of it. To satisfy his byline needs he got a printer and compiled the poems in files so that they looked like real books. The poetry anthologies of Cassim Mohamed Dawjee are still lying around somewhere in Pretoria.

Reading, writing and watching the news are just about the only conventional things about my grandfather when considered in the light of cultural and religious norms. With every decision, thought and opinion, he proudly lifted his middle finger to the world he found himself in and carved his own path. He didn’t care what anyone thought. In that way, he is my hero. He made me laugh without knowing he did. But he also made me think.

Once, when Muslim evangelists pitched up at the gate, he asked that the dogs be released from the back yard to scare them off. He went outside with a whip to do the same. I love that story.

What follows are a few things my grandfather did in his life, and the lessons I learnt from them.

Be loyal to your car, but don’t give a shit about it.

My granddad drove an ancient, massive, olive-green Mercedes-Benz. I don’t even know what model it was. It was always falling apart. It was an automatic and it’s the car he used to teach me to drive. He was always doing things to the engine that I am pretty sure didn’t need doing and only contributed to its demise.

At one stage, the window on the driver’s side gave in. It would stay wide open because it just slid right down into the door panel. Instead of having it fixed, Pappie, as we called him, used a butcher’s knife to hold it in place. This. Was. A. Terrible. Idea.

He drove me and my sister to school in that car every day. It was a long drive because we lived in Laudium and our school was out of town in Valhalla. He didn’t drive well because he always handled the steering wheel with one hand and had his other hand out the window, fingers tapping the roof of the car. In the summer when the whole window thing happened, he’d try to roll the window up and down while driving, constantly dissatisfied with the temperature.

Removing and replacing the knife required him to use both hands. The car went everywhere and so did the massive knife. It was quite a spectacle and quite a chore. The knife needed to be properly rammed into the side of the little window slit, which took some force. He endeavoured to keep his eyes on the road while trying his best not to miss his target and stab himself in the leg. He never missed, and I’m glad about that, but I often find myself laughing to stop from crying with fear of just thinking about it.

Lesson one: Sometimes in life, all you need is a huge knife to cut through the bullshit. If you believe in yourself, you can always make it work, no matter the risk. And screw the rest.

Book details

Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Niq Mhlongo's Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

If the apricot trees of Soweto could talk, what stories would they tell? This short story collection provides an imaginative answer as it captures the vibrancy of the township and surrounds.

Told with satirical flair, life and death intertwine in these tales where funerals and the ancestors feature strongly; where cemeteries are places to show off a new car and catch up on gossip.

Take a seat under the apricot tree and be enthralled by tales both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Niq Mhlongo was born in 1973 in Soweto. He has a BA from the University of the Witwatersrand, with majors in African Literature and Political Studies. His first novel, Dog Eat Dog, was published by Kwela in 2004 and was translated into Spanish under the title Perro Come Perro in 2006. This Spanish edition was awarded the Mar de Letras prize.

Besides writing novels and short stories, Niq has written a screenplay for the animated children’s TV series Magic Cellar and scripts for a comic magazine called Mshana, the first issue of which appeared in February 2007. After Tears is his second novel.

Read an abridged extract from the story “Turbulence”:

“Are you EFF or ANC?” she asks doubtfully, as if afraid to over­ step the bounds of our friendship.

“Neither really, but I support most of what the EFF says about sharing our beautiful land. I also support most of what the ANC has done to this country. I’m in between, if you like.”

Her face breaks into a forced smile. Our overhead lights are off, and I can only see the whites of her eyes. She bends over and looks like she is gasping for breath. She clears her throat with a few drops of water from her plastic bottle.

“That’s why I’m going to Perth. First, I will stop at my daughter Tanya’s place in Abergavenny, in Wales. She is married there to a nice Welshman. Maybe one can find happiness in those distant places of Wales and Australia, away from what I used to call home. Since this ANC took over, the white people in South Africa have no other refuge, but they are a target of some blacks. There are a lot of good black people. But there is no protection from the ruling party for white people. Look at the farmers that are being killed every day.”

“You think so. But all this is a legacy of apartheid. It was a sys­tem of violent oppression and dispossession. At least you have a place to run to, and you’re welcome in Europe because you’re white. I can’t go to Zimbabwe or Mozambique, unfortunately, because they are worse than South Africa. Unlike you, Europe cannot accept me. I’m stuck with Zuma and Malema.”

“The problem is that this ANC government is rewarding their cronies with tenders. This has become a shortcut to power and money. There are no opportunities for capable and qualified people. The government has made hardworking black people lazy and over­reliant on social grants. It is bad. It’s just like the land issue. Everyone wants land in the urban areas. But there is so much land in the rural areas. Land is land. People must understand that the only open land that is left in South Africa exists in rural areas, but no one wants that. That is the nature of our stupidity and incompetence. And it is perpetrated by the stupid ANC government.”

I let her speak without interrupting while I fortify myself with my gin and tonic. She smiles such a kindly smile, as if she thinks she is an old friend of mine. I nod sleepily. The time is ten past eleven. The person in front of me is snoring loudly. The turbulence worsens. Outside, it is thundering so hard that everyone stops talking. The overhead lights go on and off a few times and the monitor screens flicker. The smell from the toilet perfume thickens and blocks my nose.

Elsabe blows her nose several times. We have to hold on to our drinks so that they don’t fall off the tray tables. We are silent as though by prearrangement. The turbulence stops after some twenty minutes, and Elsabe starts talking again.

“But liberation movements are dying out,” she says. “Look at what happened to Kaunda’s party in Zambia.”

“Not necessarily. What about Frelimo in Mozambique, MPLA in Angola and Zanu in Zimbabwe?” I ask with an ingenuous smile. “They’re still there.”

“Well, I guess some are still there,” she says reluctantly. “But I think they are running dictatorship regimes.”

“But South Africa is a democratic country under the ANC,” I say, taking a sip. “Anyway, I hope you enjoy your new home in Perth.”

“I don’t know. But I’ve heard there is tranquillity and limitless peace there. I hope it’s not a lie.”

She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. It’s two in the morning and the darkness looks impenetrable outside the win­dow as I open the blind a little to check. The universe seems a very dark place out there. Next to Elsabe, John Lennon dozes off, wakes up, and dozes off again. At one point, he wakes up dizzily for few minutes and raises his nose as if he is smelling coffee. He shakes his head and closes his eyes again. His shoulders droop and his arms flop loosely at his side. A string of thick ropy saliva runs from the corner of his mouth. He runs his tongue over his mouth and teeth and almost spits. Apparently, he realises just in time that he is still on the plane and not in the comfort of his own home.

“This Black Economic Empowerment thing has given black people false desires and greed.”

“We’re all corrupt, after all,” I say, feeling really tired. “Maybe the only difference is that white corruption was done moderately and hidden with great tact.”

“South Africa has become one big corruption ­and crime movie,” she shrugs. “Our country is moving down the path of destruction just because of the ANC. Just look at our junk status credit rating. Most youths are forced to become career criminals in the town ships and cities because of the huge unemployment rate, all caused by the ANC.”

“The main thing is not to lose our bearings.”

“They are so corrupt. And because of the lack of employment and poverty, youths are schooled more in crime than anything else. They are illiterate, so they have to work their way from swindle to swindle to make ends meet.”

Another bout of heavy turbulence starts. My toes curl in my shoes and I grip the headrest of the seat in front. I close my eyes and silently prepare myself for the death that I think nothing will defer beyond an hour if the turbulence continues. On my head, I can feel the tuft of my Afro shivering and shaking. The skin beneath it feels warm. At times I can’t feel my legs. Elsabe holds on to the armrest between our two chairs. John Lennon is fast asleep, but small beads of sweat cover his beard like dew.

The turbulence lasts for about twenty-five minutes this time. Then the seatbelt sign ahead turns green and the plane moves smoothly again. Without a word, Elsabe opens the small hand­ bag that she put in the seat pocket in front of her. Her lungs seem to be working with increasing difficulty. She takes a small bottle of pills and a water bottle to the toilet. To pass, she has to wake John Lennon, who gets up grudgingly. Elsabe winces, as if she has knocked her foot against something. She walks slowly to the toilet, as if her legs have become heavier.

Most people are asleep, but there are a few TV monitors still playing movies. Some people have blankets wrapped around them. As John Lennon sits down again, I decide I will fake being asleep when Elsabe comes back. I drink up my gin and tonic and close my eyes. But I realise that I have been looking forward to a movie all night and I won’t be able to sleep without watching at least a little bit. I search through the list, and settle on Tell Me Sweet Something. Not long into the movie my eyes keep closing on their own. I’m drifting in and out of sleep, missing scenes here and there.

I wake up at about three-­thirty, realising that sleep has finally won without my finishing the movie. Elsabe is still not back. She has left her small handbag half open under the seat. I peer inside and see a few pounds and many Australian dollars – rolls of fifties and hundreds. It is just lying there, open for the taking. Would she even miss some of it? I could take a roll of notes, I debate with myself. Payment for having had to listen to her the whole flight. Of course I’m going back to Glasgow broke. But what if it is a trap? What if there are cameras inside the plane? What if the John Lennon guy is not asleep at all, and is just waiting for me to do it? What if the money is marked somehow? And where is Elsabe? Had she returned and gone to the toilet again while I was asleep? Surely I would have woken up if that were the case. Anyway, she could return at any moment.

I open the window blind a bit and stare at the darkness out­side. All I can see is the flickering red light on the tip of the wing. The silence in the plane is like that of the dead. Many people are still claimed by the world of sleep.

A wave of sleep tries to woo me too, and it lifts me to the edge of unconsciousness. I can feel it as it drops me slowly back and lifts me again. I finally fall asleep. I have a strange dream of Elsabe as a homeless person along Empire Road in Johannesburg. It is during the time of the local elections, and as I’m passing by in a taxi I see her carrying a placard with the words Give me R100 or I will vote for the ANC and Zuma to rule over us again.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

Book details

Maalvleis-liefhebbers: hierdie empanada resep skrik vir niks!

Evita se empanadas
Lewer ongeveer 12 maalvleishappies
Bereidings- en gaarmaaktyd: 10–15 minute |
Yskastyd: 1 uur | Baktyd: 35–45 minute

Hierdie Argentyns-geïnspireerde maalvleishappies gaan niemand laat huil nie. Allermins. Dis ewe lekker as ’n ligte middagete, piekniekkos of ’n lekker kosblikbederfie. Moenie skrik vir die baie botter nie – die geheim van ’n goeie empanada lê in die vleissouse wat in die pan vorm en dit kry jy net deur, sommer met die intrapslag al, baie botter te gebruik.

2½ k koekmeel
1 t bakpoeier
½ t sout
125 g botter
¼ k water
1 eier
2 e water

125 g botter
1 groot ui, fyngekap
5 stingeluie, in dun ringe gesny
500 g maalvleis
¼ k sultanas, in kleiner stukkies gekap
1 t paprika
½ t rissievlokkies
¼ t fyn komyn
sout en varsgemaalde swartpeper na smaak
2 hardgekookte eiers, fyngekap
13 groen olywe, ontpit en fyngekap
¼ k geroosterde amandelvlokkies

1. Deeg: Sif die koekmeel, bakpoeier en sout saam in ’n groot mengbak. Sny die botter in blokkies en vryf met jou vingerpunte in die meelmengsel tot dit soos growwe mieliemeel lyk.

2. Giet die water bietjie-bietjie by tot ’n sagte, hanteerbare deeg vorm. Draai die deeg toe in kleefplastiek en laat vir 1 uur in die yskas rus.

3. Maalvleisvulsel: Verhit die botter in ’n swaarboompan en braai die ui en stingeluie tot die uie sag en deurskynend is. Voeg die maalvleis by en roer liggies met ’n vurk sodat die vleis nie klonte vorm nie. Braai tot die vleis verbruin het.

4. Voeg die sultanas by en kook saam vir ’n minuut of twee. Haal af van die stoofplaat en roer die paprika, rissievlokkies en komyn by. Geur met sout en peper. Laat die vleismengsel heeltemal afkoel en roer dan die res van die vulselbestanddele liggies by.

5. Voorverhit die oond tot 180 °C. Voer ’n bakplaat met bakpapier uit.

6. Rol deeg uit tot ongeveer 3 mm dik op ’n meelbestrooide werksvlak. Gebruik ’n koekiedrukker van ongeveer 7,5 cm in deursnee en druk 12 deegsirkels uit (’n paar ekstra sal nie kwaad doen nie).

7. Klits die eier en die water saam. Verf die rande van die deegsirkels met van die eiermengsel. Skep 2 opgehoopte eetlepels vulsel in die middel van elke deegsirkel. Los ’n randjie rondom oop. Vou die deegsirkel toe om ’n halfmaan te vorm. Druk deegrande vas om te verseël.

8. Pak die halfmaantjies ’n entjie uitmekaar op die bakplaat. Verf die deeg met die eiermengsel. Bak in die oond vir 35–45 minute tot bruin. Sit warm of teen kamertemperatuur voor saam met ’n mengelslaai.

wenk: Jy kan die deeg nog makliker in ’n voedselverwerker voorberei: Voeg net die blokkies botter een vir een by en verwerk. Voeg ook die water bietjie-bietjie by en laat die masjien die mengwerk doen.