Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Alain Mabanckou's acclaimed Black Moses

Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses, set in the People’s Republic of Congo in 1970, is a comic tale of a man helping the helpless in an unjust society and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Black Moses was the only African title to appear on the longlist, but unfortunately didn’t make it to the shortlist.

Read an excerpt from the chapter “Pioneers Awake!” here:

The Director had been pulling strings to get his nephews Mfoumbou Ngoulmoumako, Bissoulou Ngoulmoumako and Dongo-Dongo Ngoulmoumako onto an ideological training course in Pointe-Noire so they could later become section leaders of the National Movement of Pioneers for our orphanage. They still remained under the control of their paternal uncle and particularly under that of two members of the USYC (Union of Socialist Youth of Congo), which was seen as the ‘nursery’ of the Congolese Workers’ Party because it was within this organisation that the government identified the young people who would go on one day to occupy positions of political responsibility in our country. The Director’s three nephews were thus promoted to a glorious future, which annoyed his three other nephews, on his mother’s side, Mpassi, Moutété and Mvoumbi, who were still stuck in their jobs as corridor wardens, though they too dreamed of becoming the orphanage’s section leaders of the National Movement of Pioneers. Unable to express their discontent to their uncle, they took it out on us instead. Their uncle had clearly favoured the paternal line over a family mix which might have calmed things down. Mpassi, Moutété and Mvoumbi felt they’d become underlings to the Director’s other nephews and we revelled in the stormy atmosphere among the wardens, which sometimes looked like spilling over into violence, until the Director intervened and threatened to replace them with northerners – which was enough to bring them to their senses…

It does not fall to everyone to become a section leader of the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo. The government sifted through the applications carefully, taking account of the ethnic origin of the candidates. As the northerners were in power – in particular the Mbochis – the leaders of the USYC were also Mbochis, an ethnic group which represented a scant 3.5 per cent of the national population. In other words, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to fix the appointment of his three nephews, who were not Mbochi from the north, but Bembé from the south. In fact he had only partly got what he wanted because although they accepted his request, the political leaders of the Kouilou region suggested he go halves: his nephews could be section leaders, but under the command of the two northerners, Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé, who in turn would be accountable to the national division at the annual congress in Brazzaville, to be attended by the President of the Republic himself.

“Those two old northerners who come every week for consciousness-raising sessions, how come they’re members of the Union of Youth, when they’re not youthful and their hair is whiter than manioc flour?”

Bonaventure was always pushing me to the limit. It was true that Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé were the kind of adult who looked as though they’d never been young, with their dark suits, and myopic glasses. Either they spoke to us as though we were two- or three-year-olds, or they used their own special language which one of them had picked up in Moscow, the other in Romania. Mfoumbou Ngoulmoumako, Bissoulou Ngoulmoumako and Dongo-Dongo Ngoulmoumako copied their way of speaking, using the same expressions, which they didn’t understand and in which every sentence contained the word ‘dialectic’, or, as an adverb, ‘dialectically’:

“You need to consider the problem dialectically,” Bissoulou Ngoulmoumako would say.

“Dialectically speaking, our history has been written by the imperialists and their local lackeys, we must overthrow the system, the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure,” Dongo-Dongo would affirm.

We never forgot, though, that before the Revolution the three former corridor wardens were just bruisers with zero intelligence. Now the Director had given them an office close to his on the first floor. They shut themselves in there to prepare Pioneers Awake!, a propaganda sheet that they posted on the wall of the hut of the National Movement of Pioneers every Monday morning. We had to read this publication before going in to class.

Continue reading here.

Book details

Book launch - Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics by John Kane-Berman

 
Exclusive Books & Jonathan Ball Publishers invite you to the launch of Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics by John Kane-Berman. John will speak on South Africa: The State We Are In.

Event Details

Book Details

Between Two Fires is also available as an eBook.

Fiction Friday: read an extract from Rehana Rossouw's award-winning novel What Will People Say?

Novelist Rehana Rossouw was the 2017 recipient of a Humanities and Social Sciences Award, hosted by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, in the category single-authored fiction for her debut novel What Will People Say?

Read an extract from Rossouw’s acclaimed novel about the Fouries – a family living in the heart of the Cape Flats at the height of the struggle era – here:

Kevin was waiting at the school gate when Nicky and Shirley strolled out arm in arm at the end of the school day. He stepped forward as they came near. “Greetings ladies, can I escort you today?”

Shirley giggled. “Of course you can, right Nicky?”

Nicky didn’t want Kevin walking with them. He was only after one thing. She hadn’t gone to the SRC meeting at second break; she was too busy sukkeling with Shirley’s problem. She still hadn’t found a solution. As she expected, it didn’t take long – two steps out of the gate and Kevin started on her.

“So Nicky, I was expecting to see you in the meeting this afternoon. There’s work to be done. We planning to bring the country to a stand still for the tenth anniversary of the ’76 uprising.”

Thick, dark irritation filled her face. What must she do to get Kevin to leave her alone? Nicky didn’t want him to escort her anywhere. She wanted to be alone with Shirley; she was planning on going home with her. Shirley shouldn’t be alone on a kak day like this. “I had other things on my mind, okay?”

“What can be more important than the struggle?”

Nicky stopped and planted her fists in her hips, staring daggers at Kevin. “A lot, you idiot. Shirley, for an example. She’s much more important than your blerrie struggle. She got a big problem. Her mother wants her to leave school and go work in the factory with her.”

Kevin turned to Shirley, his face squeezed up like a lemon. “You’ll be a semi-skilled worker fed to the machine to become another alienated unit of capitalist labour.”

Nicky felt like her head was about to burst open like a dropped watermelon, the irritation was so thick. No one could get to her like Kevin. “Speak English Kevin! This isn’t time for a political speech. Shirley needs help. She’s not an issue. She’s only sixteen and she must go work to feed her brothers. You such a blerrie fool!”

Kevin looked like a foster child on his way back to the orphanage.

“Of course I think that’s really kak, Nicky! There must be a way out. We must strategise, see what we can come up with.”

Shirley smiled at him. “You think you can see a way out of it?”

Kevin gave a couple of firm nods. “Let me think on it for a while. As Lenin would say: What is to be done? That’s what we must figure out.”

Nicky stared at their backs as Shirley and Kevin walked away without her. That boy had a nerve! Didn’t he see he wasn’t wanted?

She was going to come up with a solution for Shirley’s problem. They didn’t need him. Why was Shirley hanging onto his words like he was her saviour? She rushed to catch up with them.

The girls’ route home took them past the taxi rank at the Hanover Park Town Centre. The rank fed routes into town, Claremont, Wynberg and Mitchells Plain. Gaartjies shouted out destinations and ushered people into revving sixteen-seaters; pushing flesh and parcels inside as they slid the doors shut.

Nicky, Shirley and Kevin wove their way along the pavement between people streaming to the rank and the hawkers lining the sides. Most were selling vegetables, but there were also stalls with tinned goods, bags of bright orange chips and loose cigarettes. A bakkie blocked the pavement, its back piled high with snoek. A plump man covered with a red-stained, yellow plastic apron gutted and beheaded his silver, toothy catch while customers waited. The fish was wrapped in newspaper and exchanged for a five-rand note. Nicky could smell the sea on the bakkie as she walked past.

Continue reading at thisisaerodrome.com.
 

What Will People Say

Book details

"The farmhouses stood abandoned, the fields lay unploughed and we saw neither human beings nor domestic animals…" - read an excerpt from Martin Meredith's Afrikaner Odyssey


 
 
For six months, Deneys Reitz made his way southwards, traversing a landscape that British cavalry forces, in their hunt for commandos and civilians alike, had turned into a barren wilderness of burned and abandoned farms devoid of people, horses, livestock and crops. In March 1901, following in the wake of one of Kitchener’s pulverising ‘drives’, Reitz set off on foot in the company of a band of backveld Boers walking along the length of the Magaliesberg hills in the hope of reaching De la Rey’s commandos in their hideouts in the western Transvaal.

‘A deathly quiet reigned over the hills and empty spaces and demolished farms.’ The first sign of life they came across after five days was a Boer woman, her two small children and a black servant girl who had hidden for the previous ten days in a wagon in a wooded kloof; her oxen had strayed into the open and been captured by passing soldiers, so they were stranded.

By the time that Reitz reached De la Rey’s men, his clothes were in tatters: ‘I was walking around with no more than a pair of veldskoen, a pair of leather leggings and an old, torn moleskin jacket.’ His only protection against the approaching highveld winter was a threadbare blanket. De la Rey presented him with a pair of breeches and a coat, but was unable to provide him with a horse. His own commandos were in dire straits, short not only of horses but also food, weapons and ammunition.

After several weeks as a foot soldier, Reitz found a spare horse and joined an assortment of burghers and foreign volunteers, edging his way southwards, fighting occasional skirmishes, evading capture, passing through smashed and deserted villages and suffering intensely from the bitter winter cold.

Riding down towards the Vaal River, with views of the great plains of the Free State stretching beyond, Reitz and his companions encountered a women’s laager of about 30 wagons camped on the Transvaal side. A group of about a hundred women and children had bandied together determined to avoid internment by the British, subsisting as best they could on the veld.

While they were there, an old Boer church-warden galloped into the laager, warning that a British column was moving down the river no more than 13 kilometres upstream. The laager leaders swiftly decided to cross the river to the Free State side:

Immediately all was in bustle. There was a ford of sorts close by, over which we helped the women to get the wagons, but it was pitiful to see them standing waist deep in the icy water, tugging at the wheels, and urging on the oxen in their anxiety to put the river between themselves and the column.

Reitz and his companions crossed the river a day later, riding along the south bank, finding the homesteads there still intact, occupied mainly by women and children. But their days of tranquility were numbered. In the distance, Reitz observed pillars of smoke rising from where they had come, and at night watched the sky redden with the glare of burning homesteads: ‘The women took the matter bravely, although there were tears and weeping at times, but each family, as soon as they realized the danger, fetched the oxen, inspanned the wagons, and trekked away south across the plains, out of harm’s way.’

A few weeks later, Reitz reached Kopje-Alleen, an isolated hill in the plains near the Sand River, visible for 100 kilometres miles around. As a boy he had sat on its summit, watching herds of antelope and wildebeest grazing below:

I climbed to the top, partly for old times’ sake and partly to see whether the land was clear, but there was really no need for anxiety, as we were in empty country.

The farmhouses stood abandoned, the fields lay unploughed and we saw neither human beings nor domestic animals …

The plight of Boer women and children herded into the camps was equally grim. The British authorities carried out no proper planning for the camps nor made adequate provision for the welfare of thousands of inmates who ended up there. The camp at Bloemfontein was sited on the barren slopes of a hill called Spitskop, about three kilometres west of the town. It was placed under the control of military officers who were largely indifferent to the primitive conditions in which inmates were forced to live. Women and children were crowded into communal tents and given only meagre food rations; they were often left short of water and basic necessities. Latrine facilities were rudimentary: unemptied buckets stood in the sun for hours. Little medical assistance was provided. As disease and malnutrition took hold, the death rate began to climb.

British ministers were well aware of how dire conditions were. ‘Pretty bad reports have been received here of the state of the Bloemfontein laager in [January 1901],’ the War minister, St John Brodrick, cabled to Kitchener. He cited: ‘insufficient water, milk rations, typhoid prevalent, children sick, no soap, no forage for cows, insufficient medical attention …’ And he asked Kitchener for a full report to help defend himself from political attack: ‘I think I shall have a hot time over these probably in most cases inevitable sufferings or privations – war of course is war …’ Kitchener replied that he had everything under control and pronounced the inmates to be ‘happy’.

It was not until a lone Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, made her own investigation that the scandal of the concentration camps reached public attention. A 41-year-old Quaker, Hobhouse had arrived in Cape Town at the end of December 1900 on behalf of a relief fund, the South African Women and Children Distress Fund, taking 12 tons of clothes and home comforts to distribute to camp inmates. While in Cape Town, preparing to travel to Bloemfontein, she met Charlie Fichardt, a former mayor of Bloemfontein who had served in the Free State army as head of dispatch riders before his arrest and deportation. Knowing of the difficulties she would encounter, Fichardt suggested that Hobhouse should stay with his mother in the grand Fichardt residence at Kaya Lami.

Using Kaya Lami as her headquarters, Hobhouse was swiftly introduced to an inner circle of leading ladies that included Tibbie Steyn, the English-speaking wife of President Steyn, and Hannie Blignaut, the president’s sister, who had been allowed to remain in Bloemfontein, carefully monitored by the British, while President Steyn and his government laager moved about the vast expanses of the Free State, avoiding capture.

In a letter written on 26 January 1901, Hobhouse described her first visit to Spitskop. There were about 1 800 people there at the time, mostly women and children, along with a few ‘hands-uppers’, living in tents on the bare veld with ‘not a vestige of a tree in any direction, nor shade of any description’. In the afternoon, the heat was suffocating. She started by tracking down the sister of a woman whom she had met in Cape Town and her five children:

We sat on their khaki blankets, rolled up inside Mrs B’s tent; and the sun blazed through the single canvas, and the flies lay thick and black on everything; no chair, no table, nor any room for such; only a deal box, standing on its end, served as a wee pantry.

On wet nights, the water streams down through the canvas and comes flowing in … and wets their blankets as they lie on the ground.

Hobhouse had arrived in Bloemfontein assuming that her mission was simply to distribute her 12 tons of ‘little extras’ – clothes and other comforts – but quickly discovered that there was a shortage of even essential provisions. In her book The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, she detailed her findings of the Bloemfontein camp:

The shelter was totally insufficient. When the 8, 10 or 12 persons who occupied a belltent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rainstorms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps. There was no soap provided. The water supplied would not go round. No katels [bedsteads] or mattresses were to be had. Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without. Fuel was scanty … The [food] ration was sufficiently small, but when … the actual amount did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.

What most distressed the women at Spitskop was the suffering of their malnourished children. Sicknesses such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid were
already commonplace.
 

Afrikaner Odyssey

Book details

Afrikaner Odyssey is also available as an eBook.

Read an extract from Lesley Smailes' account of joining one of the most dangerous existing cults in America

After matric Lesley Smailes took a gap year to the United States. Before she left, her mother, in jest or premonition, said: “Don’t get married and don’t join a cult” – but Lesley ended up in what is considered one of the most dangerous existing cults in America. In Cult Sister Lesley shares the story of her life-changing years with this group – living out of a backpack, an arranged marriage to a Brother, having home births, threats of losing her children and surviving in strange, glorious ways.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Read an extract from her story here:

I am a people person. I love the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group, a greater whole. Community. ‘You should have been an impala, you are so gregarious,’ my Granny Precious once told me. She was right. So was my Nanny Goodness. With me tied to her back sitting straddled across her ponderous buttocks, she told my mom: ‘This one – her name is Thandabantu!’ That means ‘the one who loves people’ in isiXhosa.

My friends have always been important to me, especially when I was a teenager. We were rebels, wild and free, smoking joints, gate-crashing parties and getting sozzled at popular drinking spots. Like strands of thread on a poncho fringe, we joined our lives. What we had in common was the ‘jol’. The high. The experience. The strangeness of growing up in our apartheid-censored country of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Cure, Rodriguez – music helped us define ourselves and make sense of our world. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Are You Experienced? Confused and full of wow-wonder, the lyrics of this Jimi Hendrix song became my personal anthem.

The way I saw it, rules were there to be broken. Even now at age 52, though wiser and more circumspect, I am still an unconventional, boundary-pushing person. This has sometimes landed me in a whole lot of trouble, but it has also opened the door for some incredible adventures, leaving me with my abundance of stories.

This one has been painful to remember. How do I explain that for ten long years I was a member of one of America’s most conservative and secretive cults? That for most of the Eighties I dropped out of the world, changed the way I dressed and spoke, bought into a system of beliefs in which women are completely subservient, married a man I barely knew and had three children with him – all of this while crisscrossing the United States, camping in the woods or squatting in unoccupied buildings that often had no electricity and running water, and eating food from garbage bins.

I know it sounds crazy, but I did it. For a whole decade I turned my back on almost everything I knew to be part of a religious group in which adherents spurned almost all modern comforts and behaved as though they lived in olden times.

We did not have an official title, although we referred to ourselves as ‘The Church’ or ‘The Brothers’. Others called us ‘The Bicycle Christians’, ‘The Jim Roberts Group’, ‘The Brethren’ and some ‘The Raincoat People’, probably because of the long garments the brothers wore. The less imaginative called us names like ‘The Dumpster Divers’ and ‘The Garbage Eaters’. Many people would be revolted at the thought of eating ‘rubbish,’ but to be fair the items we procured were generally more than edible and I can’t say I lacked for sustenance. Nor was I made ill by any of it in my years of scavenging for what was freely available. In fact, I reckon I probably ate better than the average American.

One could find anything in dumpsters, it seemed. If a bakery advertised fresh bread, then day-old loaves were thrown away. If cans had even the slightest dent, they were tossed, if fruit was a little bruised or banana skins brown, out they all went. When a bottle of juice in a crate broke, no one cleaned off the broken glass from the remaining sticky bottles – the whole crate just landed up in the dumpster. Anything that reached expiry date was discarded. All goods that were in any way damaged were dumped. There was a cereal factory that threw away hundreds of boxes of All Bran Flakes because they contained too many raisins. We once found almost twenty litres of organic honey turfed out by a health-food distributor because it had crystallised. Huge blocks of cheese were trashed because of a bit of mould. I could go on and on. If we needed anything we just went to the back of the shop that sold it and there was a good possibility that it could be found in the trash. The Brothers called this ‘checking stores’. I could go for months with only five dollars in my wallet and not have to spend it. I neither went hungry, nor paid rent, although I lived in many different houses spanning the whole of the States. We ‘checked stores’, found things, traded, bartered and lived by faith. There is a scripture that says ‘out of the waste places of fat ones shall strangers eat.’ This really applied to us. Because we got almost everything for free, we didn’t need jobs and that allowed us to focus on what was really important.

Our main aim was to talk others into forsaking everything and joining the Church. We used the scriptures to manipulate them into abandoning their families, their jobs, education and lifestyles, encouraging them to drop out of society and be ‘separate from the world.’

We were ‘fishers of men’. I was really gung-ho about this aspect of my discipleship. I can be a very persuasive saleswoman when I set my mind to it. During my years as an ambassador for the Church I had a profound effect on quite a few lives and was successful in talking a number of people into joining us.

Members of the church were constantly on the move, our locations a secret to keep ourselves from being found by our deprived families and friends. I don’t think we ever put ourselves in the shoes of the traumatised relatives who were being ‘forsaken’. We referred to them as ‘flesh relations’ and arrogantly dismissed their grief at being abandoned as ‘worldly sorrow’.

‘Cult’ sounds like such a harsh word. It instantly conjures up images of weird and dangerous sects such as the Children of God, the Moonies and the Branch Davidians. We weren’t as far-out as these groups. But in many ways, although I would never have admitted it at the time, we were a cult. A fairly benign cult but a cult, nevertheless.

A man named Jim Roberts was our leader and we based all our actions on his interpretation of the scriptures in the King James Bible. We referred to him as ‘Brother Evangelist’, or ‘the Elder’. He called the shots. There was to be no questioning, no criticism, no complaints.

What he said went.

How could a rebel like me buy into this? Ironically I think it was the rebellious side of me that found the group so fascinating. They were just so darn radical. It felt romantic, like I was joining a gypsy caravan. We crisscrossed America, drifting between towns and cities, setting up home in abandoned buildings. When we arrived in a new city, the brothers would scout out empty houses and apartments, then go to the deeds office to find the owners’ contact details. They would then phone and ask permission for us to occupy their properties. Often landlords were just grateful to have someone living in these buildings rather than having them stand vacant at the risk of being vandalised. So in return for us doing a bit of light maintenance, we were often allowed to live rent free.

It was only years in that disillusionment set in. My rosetinted glasses slipped and the cracks started to show – but by then there was no turning back. I was married and had three children. Where would I go? The Church was my life. I was Sister Lesley. We were hardcore, almost militant. Our Church made most others seem wishy-washy. On fire, we burned with zeal, often at the expense of our own compassion. So how does a girl from a small town on the southern tip of Africa get involved in all this?

Good question.

 

Book details

Margaret von Klemperer reviews Moira Lovell's Speech after long silence

This review was originally published in The Witness on April 4, 2017.

IT is a real treat to have a new collection of poems by local poet, writer and teacher – and long-standing Witness book reviewer – Moira Lovell. This is her fourth collection, and indeed comes after a long silence. Although a number of the poems here have appeared in various journals, her last collection, Not all of Me is Dust, came out in 2004.

As one would expect from such a long gestation, and from Lovell, the work is meticulously crafted. While the subjects may often be mundane – monkeys in suburban gardens; shopping on pensioners’ day; rubbish bags by the side of the road; a visit to the aquarium; ageing or travel, her take on them is never predictable. Some are deeply moving: many are funny.

As Digby Ricci, the head of English at Roedean in Johannesburg, says in his introduction: “Moira Lovell has an enviable ability to defamiliarise; to make us see the world excitingly afresh.” He then goes on to say: “Such writing is wit in the fullest sense of the word: a wedding of humour, wisdom and learning.”

I would like to quote two poems in full, to give a flavour of what is a beautiful collection of work. – Margaret von Klemperer
 
 

Three Monkeys
They are female beggars –
Their babies held beneath
Like blackmail –
Positioned in triplicate
Along the ridge of the roof
Behind a gauze of rain
Which turns them into ghosts
Their eyes dolefully haunting
The far-below fare
That overspills the platters
Of the fortunate and festive
Bibulously braying
Bulging with indulgence
From amongst whom
A someone suggests
You should make a poem…
Like commissioning a painting
Of poverty.

Pensioners’ Tuesdays
The worst is not the aisles
Where supermarket trolleys
Double as zimmerframes
And dim eyes
Behind unfashionable frames
Peer
At the mockery of prices
The worst is not the queuing
At brisk-bodied tills
Where the assembled goods
Must be heaved out
And paraded
Like assorted luggage on a carousel
Where arthritic fingers
Fumble with banknotes
And credit cards
Wedged into wallets
The worst is
In the carpark
Where miscellaneous
Ageing knights
Don their rusting armour
And
Having abandoned all the rules
Canter backwards
Into the joust.

Not All of Me is Dust

Book details