The idea of Book Dash start barely 10 months ago, but as at the time of this publication, some 22 childrens books have been published and more than R64 000 has been raised via the Thundafund Campaign – which has been extended to Christmas Eve – to ensure that these books get into the hands of the children who most need them.
Talking at the final fundraising bash held earlier this month at The Book Lounge, Arthur Attwell said, “When we started working on this project we believed that South African literacy organisations needed to be able to give more books away that were created locally, in local languages and at much lower prices.” He was joined in a fascinating discussion with editor, Glynis Lloyd, literacy advocate, Kathryn Torres, artist, Alice Toich and publishing professional Nicola Rijsdijk.
Attwell explained that his background in the publishing industry had given him insight into how the expenses of administration, overheads and infrastructure push up the prices of books.
Driving this project with him is Tarryn-Anne Anderson and Michelle Matthews. “We figured there were enough creative types in Cape Town, also the World Design Capital, to produce beautiful children’s books on volunteer time. We gathered volunteers together, first in a very small way,” he said.
The first (unofficial) Book Dash took place at their office with two teams, including the well known children’s author Helen Brain. Within just six hours, two teams had experimented with the model to investigate its viability. This was tremendous fun and offered the team useful insights into how to run a big event. In June, some 40 industry professionals gathered at the City of Cape Town Central Library to share their expertise as writers, illustrators, designers and editors.
“By the end of the day, there were 10 new books in the world that hadn’t been in existence before,” Attwell said. “An initial sponsorship enabled us to print and donate 750 copies of the first three books on Mandela Day to the Jireh early education centre. “It was the moment when we started handing those books to small children, some as young as two years old, the circle of production is closed. You realise just how incredible it is to be part of a movement of people volunteering their time to give books away.”
At that precise moment, his two-year-old son arrived waving a book. He climbed onto dad’s lap, anticipating a story. It is no coincidence that the logo on the back of each book is that of a father reading to a child. Inherent in the vision of the project is the deeply cherished hope that the battered institution of fatherhood might benefit from this inspired image.
Attwell continued: “Aidan’s a big reason that Book Dash exists. Watching him learn to read was the first time I saw the power books have to open children’s minds, to bring the world in close.”
After the success of the Jireh Centre giveaway more sponsorship arrived via Rock Girl. The second major Book Dash went ahead with the vision of creating biographies of inspiring African women, offering strong female role models to young boys and girls.
The tales of the lives of Basetsana Kumalo, Graça Machel, Zanele Situ, Phyllis Spira, Miriam Makeba, Wangari Maathai, Sindiwe Magona, Helen Martins, Dr James Barry and Albertina Sisulu Soon another 10 books telling South African women’s stories in an accessible and age-appropriate way had been created.
“Once we’d created all these beautiful books, we didn’t want them to live as PDFs on our website. They needed to be turned into books and given to children. We had to print a lot of books and the quickest way to print thousands of books was – again – to ask the community. We needed individuals to get behind a project that was close to their hearts,” Attwell said. This brought the project to the Thundafund crowd-funding campaign.
Nicola Rijsdijk spoke about volunteering. “As a professional in publishing, you’re often working alone. You believe in fiction, in the power of words, and you believe in empathy that a reader derives from a text, but often you’re alone. Sitting in a group of people collaborating together, the creative energy is fantastic.” Alice Toich echoed her sensibilities and said, “It didn’t take long for Tarryn to persuade me. When I thought back to my childhood and the books that I’d loved, I realised what a tragedy it would have been to grow up without them. It’s great to imagine you can influence a child’s experience of reading.”
Kathryn Torres is part of closing the circle of creation via The Shine Centre. “We’re going to ensure that even the youngest of children are going to own their own book,” she said. “It’s relatively easy to get hold of second-hand books, but for a child to hold a brand new book in their hands is much harder.” She said it was tremendously important that children had books in their home, that reading wasn’t merely something one did at school.
Glynis Lloyd said Book Dash made it easy to do service. “It’s a defined amount of time, 12 hours, and the results are fantastic. You feel like you’re producing a book. It’s challenging professionally, because it’s a very different way of looking at and exploring book production. It raises a lot of questions about how we make books in the industry.” This is a completely different kind of process possessing both advantages and disadvantages.
She highlighted how all aspects of a children’s book are important, the written text, the visuals and design. She said, “Those three things need to work together. In conventional publishing, because of the chronological way in which books are done, we often don’t get the opportunity to really consider how those things work together. Book Dash forces you to consider how the text works with the illustrations and with the design in a positive way.”
Attwell suggested that it was hardest on the day for the illustrator, who had to produce at least 12 images in 12 hours. Each book has 12 double page spreads to tell the story. Toich spoke about the “crazy” time constraints and how they shaped her sensibilities. “A major thing to remember during the 12 hours was to avoid getting stuck on minor details. Working in watercolour, I wanted it perfect. There are these whimsical mistakes that creep in. I try to remind myself that ‘progression is better than perfection’. Let’s get to the next point. Let’s keep this rolling. That’s the energy I tried to keep going.”
Rijsdijk recalled working with Karen Lilje on Kom Terug, Kat! who had a hard time finishing the illustrations on the day. “The text could only say so much but little in-jokes arrived via the illustrations. The fact that the cat had muddied the laundry was not what I had written,” she said. “I had been able to work ahead of time, writing the story, but it was such a privilege to work with the illustrator in the moment.”
Attwell said a real anxiety had been whether the process could truly produce books of quality. He put Torres on the spot and praised the standardised size of the books that would help young readers identify them as Book Dash books. She loved the visual humour of Kom Terug, Kat! and the precise amount of text on the page, suitable for a small child. She predicted that after the parents read these books to their children, they become books that children can read to themselves and then to one another. “Often children’s first readers are dry and droll. In all these books, the local flavour, the personalities – Miriam Makeba – the gentle language is balanced with humorous illustrations,” she said.
Lloyd articulated the challenges of the second Book Dash, where she guided teams writing the biographies, saying, “The writers needed to do their research, to be sure about their facts. The responsibility as editors was to make that due respect was paid to whomever was being written about.” Rijsdijk added her considerations: “Most of the volunteers have worked in this kind of intellectual medium where you have had to confront the ethics of putting something down on paper that will affect people, and change their perspectives. This influenced the quality of the work that was produced.”
Sloman expressed his excitement on how Book Dash aims to get children’s books into children’s hands, saying, “This project is incredibly important. Hearing participants talk about their experience and how fantastic that has been is testament to the brilliance of the project, as well as the people involved. The harder part is to see this thing grow ridiculously. I want to be sitting here in six or nine months times, hearing how you have distributed 50 000 books.”
Sloman asked, “How is that possible? You have many of the elements nailed down, in terms of the creative process and cutting out superfluous costs in the production line. Is this the next step trying to get big corporate involvement? Or will that screw it up? How do we make this explode?”
Attwell lies awake at night, pondering these questions. He recently registered Book Dash as a non-profit organisation which is already unlocking possibilities for fundraising. “We’re now working with Jill Ritchie of Papillon Press, who doesn’t usually take on small new organisations,” he said.
“Folk tend to step it up a notch when they’re volunteering,” he said. “Watching people work, there was a kind of determination in everyone’s eyes to get this right.”
For those who care about this country, this is something wonderful to celebrate. There are a whole lot of things going right here. Any and all support in the last few days of the Thundafund campaign will surely make a difference.
* * * * * * * * *
Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:
* * * * * * * * *
Books by authors involved in Book Dash include:
The Mail & Guardian has collected Zapiro cartoons that were viewed most on their site in 2014. These also feature in It’s Code Red!, this year’s Zapiro annual.
Zapiro is known for his scathingly on-point critique of political foibles, foolishness and failings, so a round-up of his best is also a round up of South Africa’s worst.
This year the hapless, but perhaps deserving, victims of Zapiro’s sharp pen included Steve Hofmeyr, Jacob Zuma and Oscar Pistorius.
Look at an excerpt from the list of top 10 Zapiro cartoons of 2014:
Jerm, less commonly known as Jeremy Nell, is a cartoonist who provides cutting and entertaining commentary on South Africa’s political buffoonery.
Jerm has been published in a number of newspapers, both locally and abroad.
The cartoons below are an excerpt from Jerm’s latest book, Comedy Club. They are about none other than our esteemed president, Jacob Zuma:
Anton Taylor is known to Books LIVE readers as the author of The Wisdom of Jozi Shore, a book of quotes from the web parody which sees “Jo’burg ‘boets’ meeting Cape Town ‘hipsters’.” He sporadically writes incredible Facebook rants in a serious tone peppered with humour and sharp wit. Helené Prinsloo caught up with him in Cape Town.
* * * * * * * *
I first thought we should probably take note of where Anton Taylor is heading on a literary level when I heard that he is part of the illustrious UCT Creative Writing MA class of 2014. (Former graduates of this degree include Henrietta Rose-Innes, Lauren Beukes, Diane Awerbuck, Ben Williams, Tom Eaton, Ellen Aaku and Toast Coetzer.) Then Ron Irwin tweeted saying he no longer thinks of him as a student, but a protégé. This confirmed my thoughts and I decided to meet up with him to find out more about Anton Taylor, the writer.
Drinking tea from a chipped mug, using a side plate as a saucer, we made some small talk, settling in for an interview with little to no idea of where it would go. After introductory chit-chat it was Dominique Botha’s award-winning False River that kicked off the real conversation.
Anton Taylor: I was really impressed by that book, hey. Someone had mentioned it, and I couldn’t remember what they had said, and then I saw it laying on the table in the library and I thought, hey, I should give it a go. And gee wizz, was I taken aback by it!
Helené Prinsloo: Now False River is not really the book I would expect Anton Taylor to pick up … author of The Wisdom of Jozi Shore digs False River is a statement in itself. So tell me about writing side of Anton Taylor, former international man of Movember?
[Holding his book] You know, I love this book. But I don’t think it showcased my fictional prose abilities. I am the first to admit that it’s no War and Peace, but it was a great experience.
I’ve always loved writing, and I’ve always wanted to do creative writing, and there has always been a part of me that needed, or wanted, an outlet for my creativity. In South Africa there aren’t really as many outlets for short stories as there used to be. When I read the biographies of older writers I see all these platforms and spaces which we don’t find today. Also, I don’t think my writing is up to scratch for the existing platforms … so a lot of my creativity comes out in YouTube videos and MCing and acting and things like that but, truth be told, all I’ve ever wanted to do was creative writing.
I finished my English undergrad, but I had been mucking about so I decided to go and repeat an English course in postmodernism to up my mark. But a lot of academic drama led to me not being accepted for Honours degree in English. So I took another English elective, did well and eventually got into the Honours course and did pretty well. I applied for the Masters in Creative Writing, but got rejected. So I applied again the next year and finally got in. In the meantime I was doing all this stuff [pointing to his book] and it was really great and, you know what, it was helpful. Because when I applied for the Masters I could say look, I know it’s no Damon Galgut, but in South African terms it sold pretty decently and it has my name on it. I think it showed some level of determination because eventually I got in.
I had been tinkering with the idea of writing humour, because I seem to have a capacity for wit, but I think my work tends to be of a more serious nature.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
[Pauses] Fiction. I think there will definitely be a time for non-fiction … during this year I did a non-fiction course where we had Ron Irwin and Greg Fried (one half of Greg Lazarus) and Justin Fox, the travel writer. I got really good feedback from them, but I think I will wait a bit to write about my own life as it’s quite personal so I don’t think I am ready for that. So for now, fiction is the direction I will be going in.
Who were your other lecturers this year?
So there was Ron Irwin for non-fiction. Then for fiction in the first semester we had Imraan Coovadia and then in the second semester we had Etienne van Heerden.
What was your experience like with Coovadia?
He’s a great writer. Quite interesting. He was great as an introduction to the course. He was very different to Etienne – very laid back, relaxed. Its very scary to start writing fiction and he was a good guide in that time.
At the launch of his latest book, Tales of the Metric System, it was mentioned that it might be the great South African novel we have been waiting for. As an emerging writer, do you feel the pressure or desire to write that elusive great novel?
Sho. For me … I think that a lot of starter writers feel a lot of pressure to push their techniques on a literary front or to write the so-called South African novel or even just to be revolutionary in their approach to writing a novel. I feel there is a lot of pressure from especially academic institutions to write literary novels, or just not bother. You know, the kind of book which will win awards but won’t necessarily make the average man on street pick up the book. This [picking up his book] is obviously right at the other end of the scale. It’s fun, people are going to buy it mainly as a joke … but I think as a novelist who is starting out you should focus on the basics. Unless you happen to have a remarkable talent, and you know what you want to attempt will definitely work, stick to the recipe. There is a reasons why it is there in the first place. Look at Dominique Botha – she didn’t use pioneering techniques. She just relied on her voice and it’s a great book. But, to answer your question, I am not saying I am going to be focusing on writing airport novels, but I don’t think I feel that pressure. I am just going to write and see what happens.
The interesting thing about airport novels and other paperbacks, which will never win literary awards, like Jodi Picoult – there is an unimaginable amount of research that goes into those books. But because of the box they are put in, which is labelled unworthy in academic eyes, nobody will list them on their greatest book lists.
Exactly! Once you get put in a box, it will be hard to get out of it. People just look at you and go [holding his book up] you know, just look at this [rolls his eyes]. Now, if you look at the English market it is quite risky to release a novel. I wouldn’t too early in my career want to release a novel and then forever be remembered as that oke who did that …
But, Jozi Shore (and all the other things you have done) has given you a name. You are Anton Taylor, author of Wisdom of Jozi Shore and you have a very specific following. The books that you want to write, will they work with that following?
I think so. I like to believe that I have ideas that people like, and it seems that I can appeal to people. Also, I want to write well. The novel I will write will hopefully make more literary people go, ‘Whoa, I did not expect this’ because after seeing my first book they will have thought that I could probably not write more than a paragraph. So I know my novel will probably surprise them. And I would like to think that people who liked this book and wouldn’t normally be appealed by novels would pick it up based on what they know from my creative projects and also be surprised when they find different variations on ideas they know come from me. I hope to keep that same element of interesting subjects.
For me, the task is to see to it that my actual writing and my prose comes up to scratch to see to it that my ideas and themes are delivered in an appropriate way.
There is a lot to be said about the responsibility of the writer, be it to educate or whatever. Would there be any sense of responsibility to your writing, in getting the crowds who read this [picks up Taylor’s book] into reading more “serious” books, or is that a stupid statement?
No, not at all. Look, I don’t like ever saying that the writer has a responsibility, just because I don’t like ideas of imposing things on people, saying what they should or shouldn’t be doing. But … I think there is one responsibility for the writer: to take it seriously. There are a lot of people who say they are writers but they don’t really put much work into it. For me, I would like to write books that make people feel good. And that is quite a challenge! It’s almost easier to write stories with sombre endings, or are quite bleak. And it’s difficult to write happy endings without them becoming mulchy or contrite. But I would like to make people feel good.
For me, it’s writing about South Africa that counts. South African identity. South Africa’s sense of common shared identity and culture. This is important to me. What I would love is for the guys and girls who loved Jozi Shore could read some of my stuff and be like, “Oh, this guy makes some good points”. And if that could in any way make them understand something more about South Africa that would be a great success for me. My work will probably always be locally based about things that go on here.
Humour is a sly way to get people to think about things you would not expect them to be thinking about.
Exactly. With humour, people let their guards down so they can allow new information and thoughts in without them even noticing it. People have walls keeping and barriers against certain ideas but when you present something to them and decorate it with humour they welcome it.
The thing is, we as people like to judge people based on what they are into. For example, if they enjoyed Jozi Shore I would not be able to have a meaningful conversation with them.
You know, it sometimes does bother me when people think that people with certain tastes in music or literature or film are unintelligent. But often that is simply what they like! It’s what entertains them. It doesn’t mean they can’t have depth. I am not for a moment suggesting that this [his book] is a sort of, you know, serious social commentary …
Hey, I have won and lost fights defending my theory that Jozi Shore was an extensive social experiment, so I need to believe that there is more to it than pumping iron and scoring chicks. This brings me to my next question: People will read things into your work. I don’t care if you, the creator, tell me personally that Jozi Shore was not a deep and meaningful comment on society because that is how I read it. And you can’t tell me how to read it.
Exactly. Or interpret it.
But why then do we ask writers what they mean with their work?
Something that does bother me with this book is when people take it on a very superficial level and think that I am encouraging certain stereotypes and that there is no examination that went into it. But I am always very hesitant to say that, “Oh well this is what we meant.” People can be snobs. So I just leave it up to whoever sees it to make up their own interpretation. But what I do notice, especially from academia, is that there is always a desire to analyse work and apply theories. What I really don’t want is to pretend that there are all these underlying layers and things, whether we are speaking of films or novels or short stories or whatever, when there simply was none involved in the first place and then the actual piece itself suffers. Also, when you want to change someone’s way of thinking through writing you need to actually produce something which is enjoyable. Fun. Which will keep them to the end.
Enjoyment is a very big part of reading, after all.
So which do you prefer, writing or being a YouTuber and public persona?
Look, I enjoy writing more. But the thing with YouTube is I have over a million views. The problem with the written word is that it is far harder to reach that many people. So YouTube is very effective, and I enjoy it – a lot. However, with a written story you can go into so much more detail, and get so much more across … I think, in terms of what fulfills me more I would have to say fiction, and writing. But I guess we would have to see where my writing goes!
On the writing, have you tried your hand at poetry?
I tried, at school. Every time I do attempt it I worry that I am being pompous and self-indulgent … but sometimes for my friend’s birthdays I will write them little poems with vile humour and jokes. But not traditional poetry, no.
In your prose writing, are there any particular themes or genres you are drawn to?
Ja, no defs. I like the theme of people overcoming obstacles, although it is quite an old one in literature. I am quite drawn to people triumphing over adversity but I am also very much aware of the danger of being mulchy. You know, back to the issue of the role of the writer. In South Africa we have a lot going on. There’s a lot of conflict and a lot of people who are upset and great inequality. For me, I don’t think I have the luxury of just writing a lekker story. I would like to contribute in some shape or form. For a long time I just wanted to write a nice story, an easy novel. But now I know I want to be part of making South Africa a better place. So themes of forgiveness, co-existing, reconciliation and getting on are important to me. Also, the role and presence of violence in our society and how it affects people. But in the end I like stories with impossible odds and a happy ending. Have you watched True Detective?
Ah! You would love it! It’s unbelievable. It was written by a novelist and feels like a book you just can’t put down.
On that note, which books, films and series inspire you to write?
Whenever I see something that is well-written or well-filmed, that inspires me. Books that inspire me are a lot of the American writers, their writing itself. Cormac McCarthy is an absolute pro. I read it and I’m like “Oh my God”. His themes are horrific, and very depressing, but he is not afraid of big language. See, I quite like bombastic, dramatic language. Then there is John Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath affected me so much. I have been trying to read as voraciously as possible because I don’t think you can be a novelist without reading. Then there is True Detective. If you look at the dialogue, it’s great. But what also makes it great is the fact that it is loved and watched by millions. People like to say that culture is being dumbed down, etc. Then I look at a show like that and I get excited because it is really, really intelligent and it challenges that idea that if something is mainstream it precludes the fact that it is well-structured and thought out. Oh and of course the James Bond movies, and novels! I have read almost all of them. I quite like the cult character I am presented with by Ian Fleming.
Is writing fulltime a dream?
In the most distant sense of the word, yes. I mean I can’t think of many, if any, South Africans making a living solely by writing and if so it took them years and years to get there.
So, when can we expect your debut novel?
Well I am writing it as part of my dissertation for the Creative Writing course and I have all of next year to produce it.
Who is your supervisor?
I have been very lucky to get Etienne van Heerden.
[Laughing at the prospect of the Ancestral Voices author mentoring the king of Jozi Shore] That is a beautiful but very random combination.
I can’t speak highly enough of him. The reason I wanted him as my supervisor and had my heart set on him is that he is such a rich, considered person and the feedback he gives is always so constructive. And because I know I will probably always write books and do things that are appealing to an opposite market it is really special to have someone so incredibly deep and intelligent go over my stuff and keep it in check is invaluable.
Does he guide your story in terms of plot, or what does he …
Oh everything. The plot in general, but also the writing itself.
You know, if you think of the persona people think I am – you know, they think I am like the character I play on Jozi Shore – then I am lucky to have Etienne as my mentor.
* * * * * * * *
By this point time had caught up with us. After exchanging reading lists and pleasantries I walked away feeling chuffed with our meeting and the fact that Anton Taylor, the writer, was every bit as astute and bookish as I hoped he would be.
Zapiro, with his sharp eye and sharper pen, is South Africa’s foremost political cartoonist. He released two books this year: DemoCrazy: SA’s Twenty-Year Trip, a compilation that recounts the highlights and low points of 20 years of democracy, and It’s Code Red!, the latest of his annual collections.
Zapiro was interviewed by Gareth Smit for Aerodrome about his chosen vocation and the hard work that goes into saying something worthwhile by means of his cartoons.
Read the interview:
What does being a cartoonist mean?
Cartoonists have a wacky place in the general scheme of things. We’re part interpreters and we’re part directors. We takes threads and snippets and debates from everywhere, absorbing the general discourse like a sponge and then reimagining it and reinterpreting it in funny and new ways.
You have a growing stack of cartoon anthologies. What is involved in the process of transforming a bunch of cartoons into a book?
A lot more than people would realise. For every cartoon that I do we have newspaper articles cut out (because I get a lot of actual newspapers, as well as scouring the net) that relate to the subject.
18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013
Saint, hero, icon, saviour and unquestionable moral titan to some; perpetually misunderstood political hero, reconciler and complex human being if you think about him for a while.
Cartoon by Zapiro, Sowetan © 2000. All rights reserved
There’s not much new that we can tell you about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Everybody knows the basics. How he was born into a Thembu dynasty, how he tended cattle as a boy in 1920s Transkei. How he went to Fort Hare, where he met Oliver Tambo, and then Johannesburg, where he met Joe Slovo and Ruth First, and was mentored by Walter Sisulu. You know about the ANC, MK, Rivonia and Robben Island; about his release from apartheid prison in 1990, and how he was voted in as South Africa’s first (truly) democratic president four years later. About his subsequent global-icon status and the way the world mourned when he finally passed away in late 2013. And if you don’t, well, you’re not going to find too much of that stuff here.
The picture you have in your head of Mandela is a mirror into your own soul. But if you stop and think about it for a bit, it’s possible you might not like the reflection.
The gravest misrepresentation is that Mandela was just a nice old gentleman, a benign and happy grandfatherly figure who only ever wanted black and white people to get along. Something like the personal embodiment of the McCartney song Ebony And Ivory, and about as complex. In this incarnation all Mandela desired was to end apartheid, draw a line under the past and put his feet up while fondly tousling the hair of the bouncy giggling Rainbow Nation. Then the crying would stop, and the beloved country would frolic off into an idyllic future.
Add to that a fuzzy sense of saintliness, as though this was a man who has never done any wrong, and the end picture can become a wilful misunderstanding of the past – and, dare one suggest it, somewhat racist. Many people seem to like the idea of an affable, harmless darkie content with the status quo. Historically, though, the moment Mandela ever said anything vaguely revolutionary, condemnation was rapid.
So when he told the British government to engage in talks with the IRA in the 1990s, people were outraged, even though John Major did just that after he came to power two years later. When he denigrated Dick Cheney as a “dinosaur” in 2002, the White House briefed against him. He strongly condemned NATO’s action in Kosovo in the late 1990s. He caused fury when he said that Tony Blair was the “foreign minister of the United States”. He was apocalyptically angry about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When still in the public eye, Mandela was in fact the perpetual activist, forever calling out injustice where he saw it. And he saw it in places those who dared to dismiss him as a congenial old simpleton didn’t like.
It may seem like madness to some, but there are people who really don’t understand that Mandela, quite naturally, viewed political liberation as only the first step to uplifting black South Africans from a subservient existence bequeathed to them by more than 350 years of oppression of one sort or another. The first democratic elections of 1994 were, of course, just the start to fixing things. Mandela may have been keen to forgive – famously keen, in fact – but he sure as hell wasn’t interested in forgetting.
So, for example, the image of Mandela portrayed in Invictus is, for want of a better word, unabashedly white. Mandela did not, in fact, spend his entire presidency making friends with Afrikaner rugby players. Yes, he worked famously for reconciliation, and for many white South Africans the memory of the great man appearing on the Ellis Park pitch at the 1995 World Cup final wearing a Springbok jersey is the defining image of the post-liberation era. (See François Pienaar.) There is no doubt he had a gift for making iconic gestures. But for many, many more South Africans, Mandela’s time in charge was marked by something most middle-class South Africans can’t even imagine. Like getting a house to live in. Or a constant electricity supply. Never mind a vote.
The fact is that Nelson Mandela’s presidency marked a fundamental revolution in the way this country approached the governance of the land and the people living in it. How could it not? With able assistance from his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela pursued a radical agenda to change, as fast as he could, the lives of poor black people. He launched the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), introduced the Land Restitution Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act, and heralded the creation of a progressive and world-acclaimed new constitution. This was radical stuff, especially considering just how cowed and conservative South Africa was in the early 1990s.
But he didn’t just realign the architecture of the country. He worked on the ground too, and got things done. The Mandela presidency – only one term, remember – saw the building or upgrading of 500 clinics; nearly three million people were housed; two million were connected to the grid; three million got running water; 1.5 million children were brought into the education system. And amazingly, some people still wonder why the majority of South Africans vote for the ANC!
Indeed, the sentimental picture of a doddery, gentle, kind Mandela does a great disservice to the ANC, especially at a time when its reputation is in crisis. Under the corrupt and seemingly disinterested leadership of Jacob Zuma, following the paranoid and ultimately divisive Mbeki era, the party has rapidly haemorrhaged its reputation as a progressive nation-building entity. It is – to call it bluntly – in the process of looting the country and reducing to tatters our status as a gateway to Africa. But still. The ANC of old liberated South Africa.
Though Nelson Mandela was strategically promoted as the personification of the struggle, he did not ride in on a white stallion and, God-like, gift us all a chance at a future all on his own. Many brave men and women liberated this country. Mandela was certainly the greatest of the lot, but he was the quickest of them all to acknowledge the collective role of everyone involved.
Mandela was a tough, brave and ruthless leader in a liberation movement. Having initially adhered to the ANC’s nonviolent approach, as per the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, he changed tack after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The following year he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, and was sent abroad to drum up support. He received military training and studied tactics of warfare, and went on to oversee bombings on government buildings and institutions that were symbolic of apartheid. The Umkhonto leadership had identified four forms of possible violence: open revolution, terrorism, guerrilla warfare and sabotage. They aimed to use the latter approach only, avoiding human casualties at all costs, but Mandela later admitted that the ANC violated human rights during the struggle, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the organisation routinely used torture. This is not something we lay at Mandela’s feet. But it is because he was willing to face up to the ugly truth about the way in which some of his comrades acted, and to do so publicly, that we mention it. Mandela had no delusions of saintly grandeur. He left that to us – to the likes of the embarrassingly twee and middle-class suburban muppets who liked to sing him songs on his birthday, as if he were a child.
No, Mandela features here not because he was a kind and gentle old man. We love him greatly and admire with awe his legacy of reconciliation and his genuine desire for a nonracial South Africa. Of course. We bow to his huge contribution towards averting violence and killing and general mayhem, especially after the murder of Chris Hani in 1993, a time in our history when civil war seemed almost inevitable. We are forever grateful for his insistence that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, white or black, and we can never thank him enough for his speech at the Rivonia Trial, which ought to be writ large in the halls of Parliament. We marvel at his capacity for the symbolic gesture, for having tea with Betsie Verwoerd (in Orania!), for insisting that his assistant be a young Afrikaner girl. We’ll love him forever for making PW Botha look so doltish and stupid, and for out-living him too.
But that’s only one element of the story. Mandela was a complex, fascinating, flawed human being. As his third wife, Graça Machel, described him, he was “a symbol, but not a saint”. So he finds himself in these pages because, generally, he could never be excluded from a list of fifty brilliant South Africans. But specifically he is here because he was a militant and radical revolutionary ready to die, and to bomb, for the cause – after half a century of nonviolent protest by the ANC at the treatment of black South Africans, it was unfortunately what this country needed to wake it from its moral slumber. It was a lengthy process, but eventually it succeeded – and so it is Mandela, the warrior, we salute.
This is an edited extract from 50 Flippen Brilliant South Africans by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman.