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Thabiso Mofokeng has created a character who makes the reader pause and consider his plight – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Last Stop

This review was originally published in the Witness

THE central character of this short novel is Macko, an illegal immigrant who has been in South Africa for many years and who struggles to make ends meet by driving long distance taxis between Quaqua and Johannesburg.

As the popular stereotype of taxi drivers has it, he goes through stop streets and red lights, and in his unroadworthy taxi – the door keeps falling off – he is something of a menace to other road users and his passengers alike.

But Macko is not the villain of the piece.

His boss, Tabola, is the guy who is orchestrating taxi violence in an overtraded industry where to get rival organisations off the road means more cash for the winning bosses.

Tabola also has an interest in Macko’s girlfriend, so sending his driver off on badly-paid, dangerous long-haul trips offers him certain opportunities.

When the story begins, Macko is heading for the funeral of a child who was killed by a bullet meant for him.

He feels guilt and distress, and at the funeral, he seems to see the detective who has been investigating the killing, but the man vanishes.

And this is not the last time he sees someone who may or may not be there.

As these strange visions proliferate, they seem to give him a message: “Go home.” But where is home? It is many years since he saw his birthplace, and he no longer has contacts there.

Macko is rootless and lost.

The Last Stop
chronicles a life in meltdown, set in a world of casual violence, betrayal and despair, but a world that can also offer kindness and that can also offer kindness and generosity, particularly through well-drawn minor characters.

The novel gives a glimpse into something that many probably regard as a necessary evil as they try to get to and from their place of work, either as taxi passengers or fellow road users.

However, in Macko, Thabiso Mofokeng has created a character who makes the reader pause and consider his plight. He engenders pity as his life spirals out of control to a sobering conclusion.

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Listen: AmaBookaBooka interview Christa Kuljian

In 1871, Darwin predicted that humans evolved in Africa. European scientists thought his claim astonishing and it took the better part of a century for Darwin to be proven correct. From Raymond Dart’s description of the Taung Child Skull in 1925 to Lee Berger’s announcement of Homo Naledi in 2015, South Africa has been the site of fossil discoveries that have led us to explore our understanding of human evolution.

Darwin’s Hunch reviews how the search for human origins has been shaped by a changing social and political context. The book engages with the concept of race, from the race typology of the 1920s and ’30s to the post-World War II concern with race, to the impact of apartheid and its demise. The book explores the scientific racism that often placed people in a hierarchy of race and treated them as objects to be measured.

In 1987, the publication of “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution” suggested that all living humans could trace their ancestry back to an African woman 200,000 years ago. Again, many scientists and the general public in the West were slow to accept such a claim.

Listen to author Christa Kuljian discuss her Alan Paton award shortlisted book, sharing her thoughts on revisiting science, and repeating Australopithecus Africanus 10 times in this recent AmaBookaBooka interview:

 

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“Power is the thing that caused my face to swell. The thing that showed me love in its rawest form.” Read an excerpt from If I Stay Right Here

If I Stay Right HereWhat is Sex? Sex is a humid climate. What is Desire? Desire is snow. What is Loneliness? Loneliness is a badger trying to figure out why it looks different to an otter. What is Obsession?Obsession is trying to fix a broken chair without realising that the chair is just bent at the knees and that’s how it was born. What is a Dyke? A dyke is an intricate, indecipherable encryption.

Chwayita Ngamlana, in her electric debut book, explores the above questions through her characters as they struggle through the volatility of love, the danger of not knowing themselves and
discovering their voice in the world.

The story follows the characters, Shay and Sip, who are very different in class, style, character and education. Shay is a journalism student working part time as an intern on a site that has no clear sense of direction. Sip is an unemployed varsity drop out and ex-gang member.

Their vastly different lives make it challenging for them to be the kind of couple they so desperately want to be. Unable to get themselves untangled from the web they’ve created, Shay and Sip use money, other people and sex to fix things, but is this enough?

Ngamlama has created a world that is somewhere between the present day and a sub-world of delusion. The reader will want to watch both story and characters unravel. This book will touch anyone who has lost themselves or their loved ones to unhealthy, destructive relationships.

Chwayita Ngamlana was born and raised in Grahamstown. She is an only child who found comfort and companionship in reading and writing from the age of 10. She has a degree in music and has her master’s in Creative Writing. This is her debut novel – and it won’t be the last.

The Worst Power

In this place a fist represents strength, freedom and empowerment.

They told us that in those institutions for fragile minds. With only a few years on Earth, we listened attentively to experienced superhumans who dedicated their lives to showing us how to live.

We concluded that they must have dropped down on our planet to tell us what they see from above. We didn’t know much back then.

Small eyes looking up from wooden desks, scared that these superhumans would ask us questions or say the words “spot test” or check our homework to see if we regurgitated correctly.

They had a leader and the leader was their hero.

She was our hero too.

She was like the queen of the bee hive. Whenever people were sent to her office she banged her fist on the table. I had only heard about this fist, but eventually I too found myself seated across it. It was more terrifying than the fist the superhumans banged on their desks whenever we got a little too loud and excited.

Her fist put a lump in my throat and seemed to shake the ground beneath me. I didn’t have to go to her lair all that much, thankfully. I wasn’t as interesting as the bullies, thieves and back chatters. She saw them the most. I remember how she squeezed that bony fist until her knuckles whitened, her bones protruding through the skin, stretching it thin. She pounded it on her desk and used it to punctuate her words, to fuel them so they arrive quicker.

It was then that I learned how loud a fist against wood can be.

Then they taught us about a superhero who was bigger than she was. A man who had come out of a 27-year-long struggle. He told the nation that in each single fist are a thousand reasons to keep living, to persevere and to form a unity. That was the latest meaning of a fist and it stuck. Every knuckle, a symbol of the country’s colours and willingness to stand for something. We accepted the strength of the fist because we were told these things, we saw it in action and we read about it.

Years later I’m clenching my hand hard to see what a proper fist is supposed to look like. I want to feel its power.

I’m realising that a closed fist is not easy to make. Wikipedia told me to curl my fingers into my palm and then lock them in with my thumb. This is also supposed to help me with my anxiety and help me recall information. I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it right.

Nothing about it makes me want to stand tall, be proud and raise it to the sky.

All that’s happening is the escape of my blood and the surfacing of yellow fat.

It says that if I’m able to form a fist then I’ll qualify for a fist bump – “a display of acknowledgement and friendship, sometimes celebration or greeting” – and the list goes on. Whatever I can’t say through my mouth will be tucked away in between my fingers and then passed on through a collision with another fist.

So why five knuckles? Better to put a stamp with, my dear.

Knuckle no. 1 – to imprint a lasting, prominent dark mark.
Knuckle no. 2 – to add a shade of green to the mark.
Knuckle no. 3 – to release passion.
Knuckle no. 4 – to get you to hear me.
Knuckle no. 5 – to show the world what is mine.

Without these it would be impossible to show you how I love.

I imagined her telling me this when I came to on the ground. The car I had left idling, slowly dimming its lights now, trying desperately to hide me so that I may disappear into the night and pretend I was never there.

The car has a lazy eye.

The street lights worked against me. They didn’t know me enough to protect me or show mercy. The stones pricked my back, gave me tough love, pushing me to get up.

Still I lay there like an injured stray dog.

The breeze brushed over the dry streams on my cheeks and gently carried the news to whomever it may concern. I saw it struggle to carry this heavy mess and drop it where it found it. It decided to wait until I got finished off so it could take my spirit instead. Spirits are far easier to carry.

I didn’t know that even stars can form a fist – a replica for the five-knuckled bony fist that collided with my face earlier and left its residue on my heart. The sky became a mirror, the stars now forming hearts around the fist, mocking me.

This is how we take care of each other now. Raising fists in the air is no longer the ultimate gesture of power. Power is the thing that caused my face to swell. The thing that showed me love in its rawest form.

I lay there and closed my eyes, drifting deep into blackness and back again. This is the part in the movie where the girl clutches her T-shirt, rolls over to her side and gets into a foetal position while crying hysterically. She turns to her side so that the tears don’t get into her ears. There were no tears, though.

I was on my back, stones still pricking me, unable to move. The loud sound of a fist still ringing deep in my ears. I didn’t remember a fist against wood being that loud.

I turned my head to the side, took gravel into my left hand, formed a fist and watched the soil seep through.

Fists are so valuable they could be sold. The superhumans must have forgotten to tell us that.

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#YouthDay: win a copy of The Road to Soweto

2016, a year of recollection and remembrance – it is 40 years after the Soweto Uprisings, a date that marks a significant shift in the struggle against apartheid, but it is the year where a generation of so-called “born frees” are again fighting for access to education.

In the four decades since the Soweto Uprising, a consensus account of the politics of the mid-1970s, and the role of Soweto in them, has emerged. In this account, the Uprising arises out of a period of political quiescence.

It is the moment of the emergence of a new generation of activists – mostly under the age of twenty years – who would go on to drive politics in the future. And it was the product of local resistance to national state policies and practices, shaped by the experiences of students in Soweto, of youth gangs in the neighbourhood and their contingent encounters with the police, and taken up nationally.

This consensus story sees the Soweto Uprising as a solitary moment of transition, from apartheid hegemony to popular resistance.

The Road to Soweto begins by giving an account of the decade that preceded the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 that not only transforms our understanding of this crucial flashpoint of South Africa’s history, but also creates a longer, more evolutionary, historical narrative for the overthrow of apartheid.

It argues that the suppression of opposition movements after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 did not lead to a period of ‘quiescence’, as many writers maintain, in which activists retreated into private acts of dissent and the opposition went underground, followed, a decade later, by a sudden eruption of the townships, first in Soweto, and then across the country.

Rather, these years were marked by experiments in resistance and attempts to develop new forms of politics which prepared the ground for the uprising in Soweto, introducing new modes of organisation, new models of protest, and new ideas of resistance, identity, and political ideology to a generation of activists.

The explosion of protest in Soweto was a catalyst for the reshaping of South Africa’s politics and began the processes that led to the end of the apartheid order and the creation of the new post-apartheid state, but it did not do so in isolation.

Julian Brown is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

He is the author of South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics in South Africa (Jacana, 2015), as well as of a number of scholarly articles on South African politics, history and socio-legal studies.

He completed a DPhil in Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2009.

Visit our Facebook page for a chance to win one of five copies.

The Road to Soweto

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“We make our mark when we defy norms” – read an excerpt from Miss-Behave

Upon encountering historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s quote, ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, Malebo Sephodi knew that she was tired of everyone else having a say on who and what she should be. Appropriating this quote, Malebo boldly renounces societal expectations placed on her as a black woman and shares her journey towards misbehaviour.

According to Malebo, it is the norm for a black woman to live in a society that prescribes what it means to be a well-behaved woman. Acting like this prescribed woman equals good behaviour. But what happens when a black woman decides to live her own life and becomes her own form of who she wants to be? She is often seen as misbehaving.

Miss-Behave challenges society’s deep-seated beliefs about what it means to be an obedient woman. In this book, Malebo tracks her journey on a path towards achieving total autonomy and self-determinism. Miss-Behave will challenge, rattle and occasionally cause you to scream ‘yassss, yassss, yassss’ at various intervals.

Chapter One: Misbehave:

I am a petrolhead, an engine enthusiast.

I love the smell of petrol, possibly because of an iron deficiency, but I have a passion for engines nonetheless. From cars to fighter jets, with motorbikes topping the list. My machine of choice is the Honda CBR1000RR superbike, otherwise known as the Fireblade.

Although the likes of the BMW S1000RR superbike has won the hearts of many due to its sleek aesthetics, unmatched performance and disruptive power, the Fireblade has always owned the road. This is of course my tested opinion.

My love of motorbikes started at the tender age of 13. I saw one passing by and knew I would one day ride it. I fantasised about riding into the dusk on a silver-maroon Harley Davidson, the only make I knew at the time. In 2003 I had the opportunity to attend a bikers’ church; it was heaven glazed with metal.

In still trying to deal with the idea that bikers have their own church, I was overwhelmed by the number of bikes in the parking lot. I had to blink three times in order for me to believe what I was seeing. I was not conscious of this but I do not remember noticing any black bikers. While the church service was in procession I slipped outside to bask in the metal of my dreams.

I had never seen anything like it. When church was out, I met a couple who offered me a lift. When they pointed to their bike, my heart skipped a beat. There it was in its metallic glory: the fierce iron horse that had always captured my imagination. Everything that I had daydreamed about was parked right before my eyes. Walking towards the bike felt surreal. I was finally doing this. I could not believe it. Tears welled up, camouflaged by a light drizzle. The owner, Manfred, said: ‘Gear up and get on.’ His partner handed me her safety jacket and helmet. ‘First rule of the bike: always protect yourself,’ she said. I put on the jacket first and then the helmet and she pulled the tie under my chin to secure the helmet. I mounted the bike, wrapping my arms around Manfred’s waist, and rested my head against his back. His partner laughed and told me I could sit up straight and hold on to his sides. I grabbed both sides of his jacket and held as tightly as I could. He started the engine and the sound eased through my ears as if it were something natural to me.

The bike started moving, and with the increase of speed all my sorrows disappeared with the wind as the rain before us formed a stage curtain that opened onto the horizon. My dreams were coming true. When we got back, Manfred slowly moved in between other parked bikes and stopped. With his hands on the handlebars and both black boots on the ground he said, ‘Thank you.’

I clung to his waist and squeezed to relate my gratitude.

Nodding his head, he stretched his right arm behind him and tapped twice on my forearm. From that day I was obsessed with the idea of owning one and chasing sunsets. Every time I closed my eyes, I relived how the wind kissed me that day. The experience stayed with me and seeing bikes on the road gave me the hope that I would own a bike one day too. Four and half years later, in 2008, my dreams got closer to becoming a reality. I went out to Maponya Mall in Soweto for drinks with some friends. On leaving, I saw some men gathered around and admiring whatever it was they had enclosed. I walked over to peep a black Kawasaki Ninja with silver linings parked right next to the pavement, with the owner sitting next to it, enjoying the admiration his bike was receiving. I stood around the circle and joined in on the conversation. When my turn came to speak to the owner, I said, ‘Nice wheels.’ He laughed and responded, ‘That’s Fire, not wheels, Fire.’ His bike’s name was Fire. We spent the next 30 minutes talking about bikes. He explained the different bikes you find on the road, the different biker clubs that one could join and all the events that get hosted by bikers.

It was all too much for me to take in, so he promised to take me for a ride and introduce me to other bikers. His name was Zee. He was about 1.8m tall with broad shoulders and arms that looked like he could pick his bike up. We formed a very close friendship and he took me to a bike club launch, where I was introduced to a community of bikers. I felt my dream ignited from within. Seeing black people owning bikes inspired me. Granted most of them were men, but when I looked around I found a few black women, which inspired me even more.

Lady Zee, real name Zanele McMurray, was a goddess. When I saw her, I knew I needed to speak to her. I gave myself a pep talk to go chat to her. She was standing around a group of bikers. I approached her and all I could think of was how she represented a divine deity. I tapped her on her left shoulder, but I couldn’t say anything past: ‘I also want to ride a bike like you one day.’

Her eyelids closed and she broke into the most beautiful warm smile and said, ‘I can’t wait to ride with you one day.’ I looked up to her and venerated her existence.

She has been riding forever and supports many initiatives through her biking. One initiative is a yearly campaign called Cancervive, where she and a few other bikers ride for cancer awareness. The first day I learned of Cancervive, I also learned that Lillian Dube, whom I grew up watching on TV, was a biker as well. She survived cancer and lives to tell the tale. The cause is very close to Lady Zee’s heart and she uses biking as a way to champion it and create more awareness. It was important to see other black women riding, because as much as I believed dreams do come true, this dream seemed impossible, and witnessing Lady Zee on her bike made me realise the endless possibility in achieving my dream. She became the key in unlocking my first steps towards being a biker. My dream did come true – I got to ride with her.

When I became part of the biker community I was first known as Eagle Rose and later as Lady Gripen. Bikers often have aliases to describe the type of personality they show in the sport. Most are earned, but some are chosen. I called myself Eagle Rose because, at the time, I loved eagles and roses.

I went on to name my bike Gripen, and it is because of this that everyone called me Lady Gripen. It’s a fitting name for my bike because a Gripen is a Saab fighter jet that can break the sound barrier – an amazing phenomenon to watch. Unlike the jet, I have never broken the sound barrier and this has become a goal to achieve in life.

Riding back then as a black woman came with wide-eyed stares and required frequent explanation. This was a fascination to many but it did not come without its fair share of judgement.

There are many stereotypes nurtured and protected. On one occasion at a petrol station, when I was getting ready to mount my bike, two gentlemen in a red SUV approached me. I was putting my helmet on when they started making small talk about my motorbike, going on about how beautiful it was. I thanked them, but you could see they were not really talking to me. I ignored them and continued to put on my gloves until they looked in my direction.

One of them asked if I was not afraid of the bike and if I trusted my boyfriend enough to ride with him. He looked around, scanning for this boyfriend of mine. I had already become used to such questions, so with a sarcastic tone I responded: ‘My boyfriend is afraid of speed.’

I mounted the bike, spun my back wheel hard enough to leave them confused and then sped off. They often say your bike is like a shy boyfriend: do not try to show off with it because it might embarrass you. That day proved what rubbish those gendered aphorisms are, because my bike was such a team player in causing discomfort to gendered perceptions – not that my skills on a bike could change people’s sexist assumptions.

Even though I rode on the same road and hit the same curves, I found that I was viewed differently from fellow bikers, the men. Many assumed I couldn’t perform basic bike maintenance, such as greasing my chain, taking care of my tyres or any other simple duty every bike owner should be able to do.

My mere existence as a biker disrupted so many deep-seated gender beliefs.

Being the cause of disruption comes at a heavy price, but it is a price I have always been willing to pay from the minute I chose to make history. Historically, biking is a sport that has been dominated by white men. Not because whites are braver and more excitable, but because motorcycling is an expensive sport to which black people have had little or no access. For a long time the only bike associated with blacks was the delivery bike, which I grew up calling Velaphi.

Although by 1986 there were black men who rode bikes for leisure under the Eagles Bikers Club, one of the first black motorcycle clubs in South Africa. When black men started invading the sport in numbers, white society was dealt a shock. And now both the white and black men have to deal with black women.

Most of the time I rode alone because I could not stand how I was viewed as a biker. I hated being referred to as a ‘female biker’ while men were referred to as ‘bikers’. Gendering my position as a rider inevitably erased me when one started to talk about bikers. When a person said, ‘A group of bikers came around the corner,’ it was translated as ‘men coming around the corner’. This automatically obliterated my participation, even if I were riding with them. Whenever anyone engaged me on my riding capabilities, the questions would revolve around my femaleness as a biker and not just my ability and skill on the bike.

This gives you no choice but to seek those who will make you feel comfortable in such environments. Because biking is a sport I love, I want to do it knowing that I ride it within safe spaces and that I do not feel exhausted from trying to defend my right and will to participate in the sport. That is why I found solace with other black women who’d started riding before me, with me and after me.

Lady Zee, in particular, is a force in her own right. She continuously gives me the affirmation to shake up a field dominated by men without fear. Another fellow biker always reminds me of a quote that kept her on her two wheels whenever she felt the weight of sexism. I can’t quite remember it verbatim but paraphrasing it sounds something like: ‘When our great-grandchildren speak of us, they will remember that we were bikers.’

And snapping her fingers she adds: ‘And fast ones at that.’

And that’s the thing: we will not be remembered for all the ‘normal’ things we’re expected to do, unless we do them exceptionally well. We make our mark when we defy norms.

These norms do not have to be changed by moving mountains; we just have to step out of the box that has been constructed for us – even though we stand to be labelled as ‘not well behaved’.

To misbehave is to resist

It has always been interesting how my behaviour as a woman is policed by whichever part of society I interact with, whether as a biker or just a woman who leads her life day by day.

So when I first saw the quote ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, I knew that it was something that I would hold on to for a long time. I did not know who wrote it at the time but it was often attributed to Marilyn Monroe, which was very fitting.

Monroe’s legacy has never been defined by any sort of good behaviour in the ways the world would expect good behaviour to manifest. If anything, she crossed boundaries and till this day remains a mystery to me. Monroe was a worldwide star who lived with a troubled past and battled with a life full of personal darkness. She always made the gossip column, mainly due to her sexuality.

In an era that was underpinned by sexual anxiety, she had posed nude and expressed no regret for her actions. For many who tried to box her in the stereotype of a ‘blonde’ woman, assuming that because of her sexual appeal she could never have any intellectual prowess, she proved the assumptions wrong, showing that the two can coexist. She ran her own production company in a feat to be able to do whatever it was that she wanted, whenever she wanted.

I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this slogan was coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a historian at Harvard University. I discovered that it first appeared in a 1976 academic article written about the pious women who were celebrated in funeral sermons.

It was only in 1996 that it found its way into popular culture and was soon printed on mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, magnets and websites. As with anything in the public domain, it opened itself up to different interpretation.

Some interpreted it to mean that if you are going to make any significant change in the world, then it matters not what people think of you. To others it meant that ‘good girls’ never receive credit for anything or that being a ‘bad girl’ is more rewarding.

Some found it empowering while others expressed concern that it was encouraging ‘bad’ behaviour among women. To me, it meant not being satisfied with the ‘normal’ behaviour assigned to women, and living a life worthy to be remembered.

Remembered for the truth that you stood up for no matter how unpopular the costs.

Due to all the feedback, with the issue of misbehaviour emerging as the most common, Ulrich went on to publish Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History in 2007.

In it she explains how the slogan evolved from what she had originally written to achieving widespread fame, but also what her objectives had been from the very start. Her 1976 article had observed how historians of colonial America had little or nothing to write about women. Her response was to write about the daily lives of those women who would not otherwise make it into history books.

It was important for her that she didn’t write about these women as subjects with no agency, but that their daily actions mattered enough to make history. As a scholar, her form of misbehaviour was to take an interest in things that others would easily dismiss as boring, studying in depth lives not considered newsworthy, and exploring the small actions women took that went against the norm.

Although these women were not big-shot influencers, they rejected invisibility.

History is made by all of us, but some are less likely to have their contributions recorded than others. For me, these ‘some’ are the many black women who silently and loudly ride their bikes, using them to shift societal perspectives. Because I looked upon many black women who ride bikes as a way to believe that my dreams could come true. Being able to ride a bike and overcome judgement and opinions from society has allowed me to further build up confidence within myself to challenge any norm that seeks to silence and filter me.

Most times when I encounter someone sharing this slogan, I find they have no prior knowledge of Ulrich’s article and interpret it according to their own context and view of history.

‘The ambiguity of the slogan surely accounts for its appeal,’ Ulrich suggests. ‘To the public-spirited, it is a provocation to action, a less pedantic way of saying that if you want to make a difference in the world, you can’t worry too much about what people think’ (2007:xv). In Ulrich’s analysis about how different women interpret the slogan, she found that the ‘pervasive theme is rebellion’ (2007:xx).

To me, the quote is about so much more than a person’s behaviour, whether they are considered loud or quiet, calm or irrational, oversexed or demure, humble or arrogant. I read it every morning until I memorised it. It gave me a rush. Mostly, the words ‘history’ and ‘well-behaved’ caught my attention.

I shared it with my long-time friend Khosi and suggested we go for a drink to discuss it. Khosi is an excitable companion and knows how to hype up discoveries we stumble across.

We have always explored ways in which we could be part of change by exploring new ideas and actually doing something. In the past we came up with African Literature book clubs, mentorship and investment groups, and we are never short of ideas on how we could make an impact on our nation.

She is the kind of friend one needs because no matter how many ideas we fail at, she is there to remind me that for as long as we are still alive, we have no excuse not to try again. And we fail many times, but we learn valuable lessons each time. We met at a restaurant, and after hours of musing over its symbolism, we established that misbehaviour is our rebellion against the idea of the ‘wellbehaved’ woman that society demands of us.

It meant that we would challenge societal norms that outline a certain decorum for women. We would, at all times, insist that we belong to ourselves and have the agency to make decisions about our own lives. Our voices, whether loud or soft, matter. Our behaviour, whether seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, remains our choice.

Miss Behave

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“Uneasy” is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Son

This review was originally published in The Witness

SOUTH African writer (and New Zealand resident) Neil Sonnekus tackles a tricky theme in this novel – what it means to be a white man in South Africa.

I have mentioned the author’s current home because emigration is a decision his central character, Len, wrestles with in the book and it’s not hard to see some personal connection between writer and character.

Len is a sub-editor on a Johannesburg newspaper in the Thabo Mbeki era. Recently divorced, he spends a good deal of his non-working time in pursuit of sex, usually with limited success. His attitude to women is deeply misogynistic, just as his attitude to his ancient father, who he reluctantly visits every weekend, is, at least at the outset of the novel, pretty unsympathetic. In fact, Len’s disconnect from the world around him is more or less total, though he does relate to his dog.

Sonnekus deals with the racial and sexual politics of South Africa in what is often a very amusing but also a melancholy way. The reader feels Len’s increasing despair, but also comes to see that his situation is not radically new: as he delves into his father’s past as a soldier and prisoner of war in Italy and as a policeman in apartheid South Africa, we begin to see similarities, not only between the two men but also between their lives.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the book moves with increasing speed – there are times in the first half where Len’s morbidly funny sex life and his sparring matches with his father seem to be going nowhere – to a shocking climax. Out of it comes, for Len at least, a degree of self-discovery and the possibility of a kind of peace, but it is only an uneasy one.

And uneasy is the word for the feeling I was left with when I put the book down.

Neil Sonnekus’s exploration of the role of Len Bezuidenhout in the angry, violent and intolerant society that South Africa seems to be becoming offers little to comfort the reader, even at the end. - Margaret von Klemperer

Son

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“I decided to wear black to meet the man who murdered my father” – read an excerpt from Being Chris Hani’s Daughter

When Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and heir apparent to Nelson Mandela, was brutally slain in his driveway in April 1993, he left a shocked and grieving South Africa on the precipice of civil war. But to 12-year-old Lindiwe, it was the love of her life, her daddy, who had been shockingly ripped from her life.

In this intimate and brutally honest memoir, 36-year-old Lindiwe remembers the years she shared with her loving father, and the toll that his untimely death took on the Hani family.
She lays family skeletons bare and brings to the fore her own downward spiral into cocaine and alcohol addiction, a desperate attempt to avoid the pain of his brutal parting.
While the nation continued to revere and honour her father’s legacy, for Lindiwe, being Chris Hani’s daughter became an increasingly heavy burden to bear.

“For as long as I can remember, I’d grown up feeling that I was the daughter of Chris Hani and that I was useless. My father was such a huge figure, such an icon to so many people, it felt like I could never be anything close to what he achieved – so why even try? Of course my addiction to booze and cocaine just made me feel my worthlessness even more.”

In a stunning turnaround, she faces her demons, not just those that haunted her through her addiction, but, with the courage that comes with sobriety, she comes face to face with her father’s two killers – Janusz Waluś, still incarcerated, and Clive Derby Lewis, released in 2015 on medical parole. In a breathtaking twist of humanity, while searching for the truth behind her father’s assassination, Lindiwe Hani ultimately makes peace with herself and honours her father’s gigantic spirit.

Read Chapter 27: “Janusz Waluś – A killer at my table” here:

I decide to wear black to meet the man who murdered my father. Black feels right. Black skirt, black shirt, black stockings, black jacket, black boots. Black is my armour. Only my lips are red.

This time, unlike the rain-drenched, traffic-impeded journey to meet with Clive Derby-Lewis, both the weather and the busiest highway in Africa have come to the party. The sky is a big, blue, cloudless dome umbrella. The traffic is clear. We make the journey from the south of Joburg to Kgosi Mampuru II prison, formerly known as Pretoria Central, in under an hour.

I have been obsessed with Janusz Waluś for what feels like all my life, plagued by questions that have invaded my brain since I was 12. But today my mind is silent, my nerves dead. The last few days I’ve been working hard to keep expectations low. It’s as though I’ve been neutral-bombed.

At the entrance to the prison, the smiling, pretty high-cheekboned prison official has details of Mel’s rental car written on her hand. I called them in to Reverend Kekane, the prison’s chaplain, on our way in. As per procedure, our car is searched.

Mel makes small talk about the prison with the two officials who sit in the back of her tiny Ford Figo rental as they direct us towards the area commander’s office. I stay silent all the way.

A smiling Reverend Kekane is there to meet us. I’ve been communicating with him for the last few weeks around the permissions and protocol of the meeting. He’s an upbeat Presbyterian, open faced and nattily dressed in black with a red tie. With Mel similarly attired, black and red seem to be the going colour combo for the day. I have told the Rev on numerous occasions that I need to see Janusz Waluś alone. I’ve insisted that this is a personal journey, to sit in a room alone with my father’s killer, look him in the eye and ask the questions that have been holding me hostage since 10 April 1993. I am insistent that this is the only way I’m prepared to meet him.

Perhaps the Rev has merely agreed to this request to placate me, to get me here, for I am soon to discover that this is not the plan.

From the Reverend’s office, we’re led back down along the red polished stone passage to the area commander’s office. It’s a very unprison-like room. Painted in warm ochre tones, colourful landscapes adorn the walls, the curtains an organza green sheen. The talking point soon becomes the gleaming wooden cabinet behind his large oak desk – an array of silver trophies, medals and statues – accolades to prisoners’ sport and musical achievements.

The area commander is a small, stocky fellow. “I loved your father very much,” says the Reverend. “I was in the middle of conducting an Easter service when the congregation was informed of your father’s death.” After 23 years, I’ve grown used to people needing to tell me what they were doing the day my father died.

Out of the corner of my eye I see Mel take out her phone, push the record button and place it nonchalantly on the table, as it reverts back to home screen. I am not sure whether I am furious with her or relieved that she intends to record this piece of history. It appears that neither the Reverend nor the area commander have noticed.

They begin to explain the planned procedure for the meeting. They are clearly proud of their Victim Dialogue programme and I now discover I am a prime candidate for this initiative.

My throat starts closing. My eyes darken. I have already made it clear that this is not what I have come for. I do not wish to be part of any agenda of the prison system or government initiative, to be a pawn in a bigger play.

“I want to see him alone,” I announce emphatically, forcing myself to keep my anger in check. Who are these people who think they can dictate the terms of this meeting?
The two men glance at each other. The Reverend cuts in.

“Lindiwe, our Victim Dialogue programme has been very successful in bringing perpetrator and victim to sit at a table, for the victim to ask questions and get the answers that they deserve.”
The area commander adds his weight. “You see, Lindiwe, we don’t allow the victim to be alone with the perpetrator in a room. This is because of past experiences; it’s completely against prison procedure. We cannot leave you locked up alone with the man who killed your father. People would think we were mad.”

“So I am not meeting Waluś alone?” I can’t help but reveal how upset I feel. I wanted the visit to be small and intimate, not with a room full of people.

“You will be alone with him. You can ask him any questions, you will not be restricted in any way, but we will be here in the room with you.”

Clearly, he does not see his own absurd contradiction.

But this is non-negotiable. If I can’t do this meeting my way, then it’s off.

I can see that Mel is clearly caught in the middle. On one hand, I know she is here to support me, but she knows we have a book to write. She touches my arm and cautiously suggests that I conduct the first meeting according to the procedure that’s been laid out.

I irrationally want to scream: “Don’t touch me, bitch!” I’m highly irritated – with her, with everyone in the room. This is my meeting. It’s my father we are talking about here. Who are these people who think they can dictate terms to me?

“What if I come in as a normal person?” I say. “Apply to see him as any of his visitors would? Would you then give me permission?”

This has clearly thrown the two officials. They scramble for an answer, “Yes, that could be possible … but, but, but … this is not an ordinary visit.”

From their perspective, it’s clear: I am the victim and Waluś is the perpetrator.

“The thing is, I know what I’m doing,” I respond, stubborn in my decision. “I have been waiting for this meeting for 23 years; there is nothing that Waluś can say that will hurt me. I have said from the start I don’t want to be a part of this victim/offender dialogue – I want to meet him alone. Please respect my request.”

But the two officials are insistent. After much to-ing and fro-ing, it’s clear that it’s non-negotiable: the only way to meet Janusz Waluś is to do it the prison way. This is an official process and there is no way of getting around the red tape. I swallow and try to keep my powerlessness, my raging anger, from getting the better of me. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change silently whirs in my head.

Finally, I nod. “Okay, I’ll do it. But this is only an introductory meeting. Then we can take it from there. Next time I want to see him alone.”

Once again, I feel like I’m being told how to meet my father’s killer just like I was told how to mourn him when he died. I am swamped in the lava of my resentment.
Visible relief washes over the room; it’s only me who’s fuming.

The Reverend thanks me for accepting the prison’s conditions and begins to explain how the process is going to unfold.

“We are going to invite the offender into the room. We will be here and your friend will be here to support you. You are free to ask him whatever you like and you are free to interact with him in whatever way you choose. Just one thing before we bring the prisoner in, we know you have been searched but do you have any objects in your possession that could be seen to be unlawful, a sharp object maybe?”

Mel brings out her red lipstick, brandishing it like a sword. There’s laughter all round.

We take a five-minute smoke break before returning.

*

It’s clear that Waluś has been held in a room nearby. Within minutes of our return, the door opens and he’s led in, accompanied by two prison guards. Dressed in orange prison-issue overalls, he walks in head bowed and takes his place at the far end of the table.

This is the moment that’s been playing over in my head for what feels like centuries. Inside I feel completely dead. I’m in my movie mode again, where I watch events unfolding like some detached spectator.

The Reverend takes over and does the introductions. He suggests we pray. Waluś bows his head, gratefully. He looks highly apprehensive. He clearly doesn’t know what to expect. That makes two of us.

Perhaps he’s expecting an onslaught of anger. Besides firing bullets into my father, the only experience he’s had of the Hani family over the last 23 years is my mother’s unrelenting anger every time he’s appeared in court.

For years I’ve obsessed over the questions I will ask my father’s killer and now I am here before him. It feels like the most momentous thing I’ve ever experienced. Where do I begin? I summon courage from deep within.

“Hello, Waluś. How are you today?” I’m business-like. Cool, calm, Jackie O.

“Hello, Lindiwe. I am well, thank you.”

I take a deep breath.

“I would like to ask you some things about yourself. Like where do you come from? Where were you born?”

“Okay, Lindiwe,” his voice, still heavy with a Polish accent, is barely audible. “I was born on 14 January 1953 in Poland, in a town called Zakopane, which is in the south of Poland. I come from a family where there were three children, myself, my older brother and a sister.”

“Thank you. What was it like growing up in Poland?”

“It was very hard growing up in communist Poland. My father, who was a businessman, lost everything because the government kept taking over businesses. Whenever his business was doing well the government would introduce some tax, even backdate tax and so whenever he could show some success in the business, the government would make sure to take as much as they could and then the business would have to close down. The communists destroyed Poland and many people suffered because of their policies.”

He relays this information, hardly taking a breath.

As he’s talking, I’m amazed at how my recovery brain’s kicked in: “Find the similarities rather than the differences.”

“Is that why you decided to come to South Africa?” I’m surprisingly composed, like some interviewer doing a Q&A on Oprah.

“Yes, Lindiwe. There was no future for me in Poland. My brother and father left for South Africa in the seventies and I joined them in 1981.”

“What kind of business was your father involved in?” Next question. So far, so good.

“He was involved in different businesses but there was a time when I was very young that he was involved in the chocolate business. So I remember I could get a lot of chocolates and sweet things. That is perhaps why today I do not like to eat the sweets.”

He gives a little smile; almost immediately his face straightens, back into seriousness.

The chocolate detail intrigues me. It’s the first time I have seen a glimpse of human emotion. I want to know more about the young boy Waluś. I ask him if he had a happy childhood.

“I must say I had a very happy childhood, Lindiwe. Even when my parents fought and after they separated when I was 13, they did not make their problems our problems.”

“So, tell me about yourself when you were a child. What kind of a boy were you? Were you shy, were you a nerd, were you a naughty child?”

The tension in the room eases. For the first time Waluś smiles openly.

“Yes, Lindiwe, I was what you say – not a very good child sometimes. I didn’t have much achievement at school. I liked sports, I liked being outdoors and I was what you say mischievous sometimes. I was not the model child.”

“Tell me some of the things you did.” I am hoping to hear that this is where he pulled the legs off beetles, tortured cats, where the seeds of his monster were sown.

“Sometimes I would not go home after school. I would stay out and play with my friends. My mother was the one who was at home so she would take care of punishment, but for more serious things it was my father who disciplined us. But it was never serious lashings or such things.”

Mel decides she’s had enough of my questions about little Waluś and his shenanigans at school. Out of nowhere, she leads the elephant into the room.

“Not everyone has it in them to kill another person. The majority of people don’t ever think of killing a fellow human being. What was your state of mind during the time, 1993, when you found it so easy to shoot Lindiwe’s father?”

I am immediately flooded with anger and resentment. This is exactly the reason why I wanted to do this interview alone. I didn’t want to head straight into questions about my dad’s murder. This is the man who has always held a morbid fascination for me. I want to get to know him.

“It wasn’t that easy …” Waluś is thrown and struggles to respond.

“Okay, maybe not easy,” says Mel, “but what I want to know is what was going on in your mind before you shot Chris Hani? It sounds like you came to this country with so much anger – someone who can kill like you did must be a very angry person. I mean, you volunteered to be that guy, the killer. You must have felt a confidence inside yourself … to kill … so maybe not ‘easy’, but what made it possible for you to do such a thing?”

“I am not sure if you can understand this but maybe it had to do with our national political history in Poland. We have been between Germany and Russia for a 1000 years,” Waluś chooses his words slowly and carefully. “We were often attacked from both sides … Maybe this makes us Polish people more susceptible to be performing some violent act.”

Mel won’t let it go. She doesn’t notice the look on my face. “I can’t imagine that most Polish people are sitting in prison on murder convictions?”

“I am just trying to find an answer to your question,” says the man in orange with the silver hair and startling blue eyes.

“So, when you sit in your cell, alone with just you and your past and the memories of what you have done, when you think of your deed, ‘I have killed a man,’ what do you think of, of the you inside yourself?”

“I am trying to understand … I try to answer this question.” Waluś is clearly finding it hard to answer Mel’s barrage of questions. “In a war situation, you find yourself capable to do such a thing.”

Now it’s the area commander’s turn to intercede. He explains to Waluś what Mel is trying to get at – when he, Waluś, self-reflects, how does he feel when he looks back on his deed?
Waluś seems frozen. There is something inside him that is struggling to answer this question.

Mel tries again. “After you carried out your task to kill Chris, did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Clive obviously saw something in you that was capable of being the killer, so I am still trying to find out what was it in you that made you that person that Clive chose to be the assassin … Was it hatred?”

“I would say it was more hatred for the system than hatred for the person I killed,” Waluś finally finds words. “It felt like our way of life was threatened … where the country was going down the same way as it had gone down in Poland with the communists.”

I’ve had enough of the rest of the room running the show. I interject with a question that’s been on my mind for years. “Were you brought up knowing how to shoot?”

“Yes.” He looks straight at me, almost grateful that I’m asking the questions again. I don’t blame him. He is under no obligation to be here and now he’s at the mercy of these three, who all clearly seem to have their own agendas. “As I was growing up, I was taught to shoot when I was 11 or 12 by my father’s brother, my uncle; he stayed in our house for many years. He was a hunter. I had an air gun and this gun it had small power. I learned to shoot target, but always in a very safe environment.”

“Are you a racist? Were you a racist? Did the fact that your target was a black person make it easier?” I ask Waluś quietly.

He takes a moment to find his words. “The thing is, when we were talking about a political solution in the CP no one wanted to listen to us, we believed in a system where you [he clearly means black people] had your homeland. We wanted to have our homeland because we believed in separate development.”

“That sounds just like apartheid,” I say.

“Well,” says Waluś, “you can call it apartheid, but I don’t see anything derogatory about people having to live separately and not interacting.” He corrects himself quickly. “I am not saying not interacting, but definitely not living under one-and-the-same government.”

“But,” says Mel, “why would it be so offensive having an integrated government?”

“You could see the way the other countries like Zimbabwe were going …”

I am very clear on what I’m about to say next. “The problem I have with this is – you come from Poland, a country where there are not many black people, and then you come to a country like South Africa, where the majority of people here are black, and you think in your mind that black people can be subjugated by separate development. And then you say you didn’t have ill feelings towards black people? Did you see black people as equals?”

“We are all created equal,” says Waluś.

His words sound like a cliché. I don’t believe him.

“That’s the Bible,” I say.

“I am trying to … see all people as equal.”

“But that’s now; I am talking about how you felt about black people then?”

He almost stumbles. “I wouldn’t say then … that I didn’t see them as equal.” I still don’t believe him.

Mel interjects. Slap bang to the chase. “I am sorry, but anyone who belonged to the Conservative Party was racist, was anti-integration, was anti-democracy, was anti a black government. It would really help if you could admit your feelings around this, your mentality at the time when you shot and killed Chris Hani. We are talking about Janusz Waluś in 1993 and for you to avoid that … and say, ‘No, I didn’t have those racist feelings’ – it feels like you are lying.”

“I have never treated black people badly; I have never had fights and arguments.”

“But you killed a black man.”

The obvious swallows the room.

“But I did not kill him because he was a black man,” says Waluś. “It did not have to do with his race, it had to do with his politics. Please try to understand this, race did not play a part in this …”

The prisoner at the far end of the table is clearly feeling cornered. But it suddenly occurs to me that in his world, in the Polish head of Janusz Waluś, perhaps the fact that my dad was a commie was far more dangerous than the fact that he was black.

Before I can voice my realisation, the area commander intervenes. “Your answers to these questions are problematic. There’s a conflict in your answers. On one level, you say you believed black people should live in separate homelands, yet you say you were not thinking along racist lines?”

There is a part of me that almost pities this man, grey and gaunt in his lurid orange overalls. Sitting in front of three black people and Mel, being interrogated about his racism.

“I think the problem is that you are answering from your viewpoint today,” I say. Am I trying to rescue him? “And it can’t be easy talking about racism in a room full of black people. You see, Waluś, I don’t feel there is anything wrong in admitting who you once were. So, if you happened to be a racist right-wing person in 1993, who believed that black people were monkeys, it’s actually fine to admit that now. A lot of people felt that way.”

And then from almost out of nowhere, he says, “We all know that we as white people developed first as a race, that we were responsible for civilisation.”

The room breaks out in a belt of surprised laughter – huge relief as the truth finally resounds.

“There’s the Waluś I’ve been waiting for,” I almost shout from the rooftops. “Welcome, Waluś!”

He grins. It’s a bashful look. He is shocked, a little confused maybe, and a whole lot relieved by how happy I look.

“Now tell me,” I continue, “how difficult is it for you these days, surrounded by so many of us? They are all over the place now …”

“The thing is, Lindiwe, I have met a lot of black people here in prison who are so decent. It is not very often pleasant to be in jail, but it is pleasant to be with some of the people I have met.” He looks at me straight in the eye.

“So, do you feel you have changed since 1993?” Mel asks.

“For sure,” he says, “but I don’t want you to think I suddenly am claiming this has been my road to Damascus or something. It’s been a process.”

“Did you make good friends in prison?” I ask.

“Look, in prison you must be very careful in making friends. You must be very selective with whom you can get close and who you can rely on.”

“I read somewhere you were attacked in prison.” I want to hear more about this incident, which took place back in early 2014.

“Let me tell you what happened … I was in the section one floor down – it was a man who was working as a cleaner, he was connected to the gangs. He was a 26 or whatever. I don’t know because I never got involved in such things. But he was always very polite; he was also reading books, like me. I always say reading books can be better than studying – it gives you wider perspective. In prison I have read many, many books. Now this man, he always helped me, when we put our names down for the—” He pauses for a second, looks at the AC and says, “Can I disclose about the phones here?”

The Area Commander laughs and tells him to go ahead.

“So here in prison we have one phone, for let’s say three sections of about 300 people. You have to put your name on a list to keep some order. This man was always helping to put my name on list. So, on this day of the attack, we pass the gates – he said, ‘Go forward,’ because they wanted to close the gates and the next thing he came at me from behind. Then all I see is this red curtain of blood. Blood on the floor made me slip and I couldn’t catch him. At that moment Clive was walking past so, as this man ran out, he hit Clive on the head. I don’t think he even knew why he did this, he was so full of drugs.”

As he speaks, I feel weirdly protective of him, imagining the unsuspecting Waluś incapacitated as he slipped on his own blood.

Now that he’s brought up his buddy Clive, I decide to ask him about his relationship with his co-conspirator. “Do you miss him since he’s been released?”

“We were good friends, we always helped each other, but he is gone now. There are so many people in jail who you can miss. But someone is always leaving, getting transferred, so you can’t afford to get too close to people.”

My plan for today has been to get to know “Waluś the man” a little better. To make him feel a little less afraid and unthreatened so when I get to ask him about Daddy’s murder, he will be able to be as honest as possible with me. I have already decided to only approach that on our next visit. Clearly, Mel and the other two have not been on the same page.
When the session comes to an end, the Reverend asks Waluś if he would like to say anything to me.

This time the grey-haired Polish man looks me long and straight in the eye.

“First of all, I want to thank you, Lindiwe. I cannot tell you how much I have appreciated meeting you; you are a very brave, very courageous woman. If it means anything to you, Lindiwe, I am very, very sorry for what I did to you and your family … I am very, very sorry.” He seems overcome with emotion. I feel the lump in my throat too.

Then it’s my turn.

“Waluś, you were under no obligation to meet me. I appreciate you coming today and I value your honesty. I know this must be difficult for you, as it is for both of us; I thank you for your time.”

The area commander announces that lunch is about to be served. It’s after 2pm. Waluś, the prisoner in his orange overalls, gets up to leave.

“You are invited to eat with us,” says the AC, unexpectedly.

Waluś is clearly thrown. He hesitates, asks if he is really invited, then awkwardly sits down again. He has not expected this. Somehow, unlike with the Derby-Lewises and the forced quiche lunch, where I could not eat a morsel of the food Gaye prepared, for some strange reason I don’t feel awkward about sharing a meal with the man who killed my father.

*

There is something about food that blurs barriers, brings a table of unlikely people together, throws guardedness to the wind.

While we wait for the prison lunch to arrive, small talk with the guest in orange flows surprisingly effortlessly.

“So, did you ever go to varsity?” I ask him. “Have you studied anything while in prison?”

“No, no,” he laughs, self-deprecatingly. “I am not very academic.” Mel and I almost simultaneously disagree. We both believe Waluś is highly intelligent.

He tells us how back in Poland he had difficulty learning as a child, blaming it on his own stupidity. For a moment my heart goes out to the young Waluś who grew up believing that he was lesser than; I know the feeling.

“After I was arrested I was diagnosed with dyslexia.”

At that point in the conversation, the food arrives – plates laden with chicken, chips, salad and fizzy drinks. They’ve clearly made a special effort for our visit. By the look on Waluś’s face, this ‘five-star’ fare is a first in 23 years.

“So, what’s prison food like?” Mel asks him.

He smiles mischievously, then quickly glances nervously at the AC, reticent to reveal his true feelings in front of the boss.

“Well, let’s just say, we often ask: ‘What is this?’”

The room bursts out in laughter. It’s a relief to laugh.

Mel has noticed that there are no knives with which to cut the chicken and requests some. When the bluntish metal arrives, she holds one up, jokingly pointing at Waluś, and asks the AC, “Are you sure you can trust us in the same room as him, with these?”

There’s more laughter; this meal is feeling almost surreally normal.

Before we eat, the Reverend suggests we say a prayer. We bow our heads together. Waluś closes his eyes.

“Thank you God for giving us this opportunity to sit down together. Bless this food that is before us. Let us all go in peace. Amen.”

“Are you a Catholic?” Mel asks Waluś.

“I am, but not a very good one.”

“Well, I am loving what your latest pope is doing these days.” I’m keen to hear what he has to say about the liberal Pope Francis’s much more enlightened attitudes towards the marginalised of our planet. I remember being really impressed when in 2013 he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Last year the Pope angered anti-abortionists when he opened a special, temporary ‘mercy’ window to make it easier for women who have abortions and confess, to be re-embraced into the bosom of the church.

Waluś is clearly not in agreement. “I have to say I am not at all impressed with him.”

“Well, of course you aren’t,” I chirp, “because he’s doing the right thing. He’s washing the feet of immigrants. What do you say, Waluś?”

“You know I am conservative,” he pauses, “but I have to be careful what I say here today because any of this can be used against me in a court of law.”

Of course. That explains his painstakingly weighed answers over the last few hours. He thinks he’s being set up. I can’t really blame him.

I survey my carb-laden plate.

With all my Bootcamping and trying to eat Paleo style over the last few months, I offer my chips to the guests at the table. Mel offers hers directly to Waluś. He politely declines. A heap of chips is sent to the guards outside.

“You clearly don’t need to watch your weight, Waluś. How have you kept so fit and trim in prison?” I ask.

“I think it’s mainly genetics; my whole family looks like this,” he’s almost blushing. “My grandfather was 74 years old when he was showing younger boys in the mountain stream how to swim against the current. I do a lot of physical exercise in prison, sit-ups and also other things like karate to stay in shape.”

We’ve covered religion and diet in five minutes, so Mel decides to introduce love.

“So, have there been any admiring women in the last 20 years, writing you love letters and wanting to marry you?”

“There has been a woman who was wanting to marry me since, I think, 1994, but after 11 years the prison stopped it. I told her she should not wait for me.” He seems wistfully sad all of a sudden.

“How did you meet her? Did she read about you and then start visiting you?” I am curious about this woman.

“It was her and a group of her friends who were supporting me. They started to write letters.”

“Was she beautiful?” I ask. Waluś pauses.

“She is still beautiful,” he says.

“Was she blonde and blue eyed?” Now I’m clearly being provocative.

“She had brown hair and eyes something between brown and green.”

“I only ask because maybe Waluś wants to keep the Aryan race going?” I say, half playfully.

He comes back at me quickly. “Nothing wrong by trying,” he says amidst more laughter at the table.

I keep on getting flashes of how absurd this situation could look to the outside world, me sharing a meal, making small talk, cracking jokes about the Aryan race and the Pope with my father’s killer. But somehow it doesn’t feel wrong.

Sometimes it feels like Mel can read my mind. She feels it too. “It’s good that we didn’t eat at the beginning of this. Food makes people far too nice to each other; we all become bonded in some way.”

For a split second we are all lost in this little human moment.

“So, is this supper for you, Waluś?” I break the moment with a question. It’s almost 3pm.

“He was supposed to have had supper already,” says the AC.

“Jeez, what time do you eat?” asks Mel.

“Well, our dinner is usually served at 2:30pm,” Waluś responds drily.

“So what time is lunch, 11am?” We all laugh.

“And what time is lights out?” says Mel. “Six pm?”

“Well, actually,” says Waluś, “there is never a lights out in prison unless the Eskom fails.”

“So, the lights stay on all the time?” Images of prisoners tortured by 24-hour light abound.

“No, no,” he explains, “you can put your own lights out, but otherwise they stay on.”

“So don’t you get hungry during the night? I mean, the last time you eat is at 2:30pm?” I am genuinely finding prison meal times mindboggling.

“You do get hungry, but then you just think about something else.” He answers in his usual matter-of-fact, resigned-to-his-fate, East European way.

“Now,” says Mel, “without telling any fibs, what is the prison food like? Is it any good?”

There is raucous laughter around the table. Waluś is laughing loudest.

“I would prefer to say: no comment.”

The AC is laughing hard, “Why? Are you afraid of me?”

“Let me put it this way,” says Waluś, “today I am shocked to see this chicken we are eating because there is no blood near the bones. The chicken we get is usually covered in blood. Chicken is always rare, like a steak, underdone.”

“Maybe I should visit you every day so you can get cooked chicken,” I laugh. “What else do you get to eat, say, for breakfast? Do you get eggs or porridge?”

“Usually porridge,” he says. “Eggs we get for supper. Two eggs.” Just in case we think they are starving him.

“We sometimes get hamburger patties and sausages,” he adds, and then, not missing a beat, “I like to call this ‘divine’ food. You know why I call it divine? Because God only knows what it is.”

He is actually hilarious. I laugh with the man who killed my father. It’s surreal.

By the end of lunch, plans are set in place to meet again.

Book details

“I couldn’t for a moment discern another voice than Gerald’s”: launch of Shadow Play

Melville’s Love Books recently played host to the launch of Gerald Kraak’s Shadow Play, posthumously completed by Alison Lowry.

Lowry was in conversation with Michael Titlestad, a professor in the Department of English at Wits University.

Titlestad and Lowry discussed Lowry’s struggle to complete a text without the author’s guidance, with Lowry commenting that Kraak’s absence was tangible.

Yet, she added, not having to work with a stubborn author turned out to be a relief.

She attributed her involvement with Shadow Play to Dee Dee Moyle, a close friend of Kraak who approached Lowry after his untimely death.

After their session, an audience member and close friend of the late Kraak, commented that he couldn’t “for a moment discern another voice than Gerald’s.”

Lowry humbly responded that that was all she needed to hear.

Shadow Play

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Public dialogue invitation: ‘Challenging corrupt networks – the long shadow from Apartheid to State Capture’

About Apartheid Guns and Money:

The apartheid state was at war. For two decades before 1994, while internal resistance grew, mandatory sanctions prohibited the sale of strategic goods and arms to South Africa.
The last white regime was confronted with an existential threat.

A global covert network of nearly 50 countries was constructed to counter sanctions. In complete secrecy, allies in corporations, banks, governments and intelligence agencies helped move cash, illegally supply guns and create the apartheid arms money machine. Whistleblowers were assassinated and ordinary people suffered.

This is an exposé of that machinery created in defence of apartheid and the people who made this possible: heads of state, arms dealers, aristocrats, plutocrats, senators, bankers, spies, journalists and members of secret lobby groups.

They were all complicit in a crime against humanity. Motivated by ideology or kinship most sought to simply profit from the war.

Many have until now relied on lingering silence to erase the uncomfortable truth.

This meticulously researched book lifts the lid on some of the darkest secrets of apartheid’s economic crimes, weaving together material collected in over two-dozen archives in eight countries with an insight into tens of thousands of pages of newly declassified documents.

Networks of state capture persist in our democratic political system because the past and present are interconnected. In forging its future a new generation needs to grapple with the persistent silence regarding apartheid-era economic crime and ask difficult questions of those who benefited from it.

This book provides the evidence and the motivation to do so.

Hennie van Vuuren is an activist, writer and Director of Open Secrets, focusing on accountability for economic crimes and human rights violations. He works from within civil society, challenging corruption and the abuse of power.

Apartheid Guns and Money

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If I Stay Right Here will touch anyone who has lost themselves to unhealthy, destructive relationships

What is Sex? Sex is a humid climate. What is Desire? Desire is snow. What is Loneliness? Loneliness is a badger trying to figure out why it looks different to an otter. What is Obsession?Obsession is trying to fix a broken chair without realising that the chair is just bent at the knees and that’s how it was born. What is a Dyke? A dyke is an intricate, indecipherable encryption.

Chwayita Ngamlana, in her electric debut book, explores the above questions through her characters as they struggle through the volatility of love, the danger of not knowing themselves and
discovering their voice in the world.

The story follows the characters, Shay and Sip, who are very different in class, style, character and education. Shay is a journalism student working part time as an intern on a site that has no clear sense of direction. Sip is an unemployed varsity drop out and ex-gang member.

Their vastly different lives make it challenging for them to be the kind of couple they so desperately want to be. Unable to get themselves untangled from the web they’ve created, Shay and Sip use money, other people and sex to fix things, but is this enough?

Ngamlama has created a world that is somewhere between the present day and a sub-world of delusion. The reader will want to watch both story and characters unravel. This book will touch anyone who has lost themselves or their loved ones to unhealthy, destructive relationships.

Chwayita Ngamlana was born and raised in Grahamstown. She is an only child who found comfort and companionship in reading and writing from the age of 10. She has a degree in music and has her master’s in Creative Writing. This is her debut novel – and it won’t be the last.
 

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