Monday, December 5, 2011

Little K and the Big World


Because trying to get anything published as a book is almost an impossible task, I have decided to put this thing I wrote in 2004 onto this blog, which is already buckling under the weight of the many words and images it is being forced to bear. For anyone who has delved into the stuff that has preceded this, I think this short autobiographical piece will help them understand where I am coming from.


LITTLE K AND THE BIG WORLD

1)

Little K looks long and lovingly at the carpet of fluffy, yellow, day-old chickens on the Bonza Bay poultry farm.

The farmer’s wife, standing in gumboots among the brood, picks one up and lets him hold it. Oh! It’s so soft, so cuddly.

But Little K looks around at the other fowl runs and realises that before long all these little chicks will become pullets, and then battery hens, laying eggs madly. Or they’ll have their heads lopped off, their feathers plucked out, and will be sold for people to eat.

But at the moment they are chirpingly happy, or happily chirping, this mad mass of sweet, innocent chicks – not dissimilar, Little K notes, to the tiny chicks he finds attached to his Easter eggs each year.

Except these are warm and alive.

He hands the chick back to the woman, who returns it to a sea of yellow feathers, where it is immediately subsumed, its individual identity lost forever, unless . . .

Unless, by some miracle, it is again selected, out of hundreds, for special individual attention. Maybe it will be handled again, by a young, adoring girl.

Or maybe it will be inadvertently trampled underfoot by someone.

Little K has all these strange, strange thoughts there on the chicken farm, under the hot summer sun. He is surrounded by his manifold family, three brothers and a sister, and a hard-working mother. They have come to have tea with the farmer’s wife. It is a rare opportunity to investigate the poultry farm, and Little K laps it up. His world is growing. This is something fresh, a new experience to be left in his memory banks, packed away in abeyance, to be drawn upon when he needs again to think about soft, yellow baby chickens.

-=-=-=-=-=-

2)

Peering into the absolute stillness of a warm summer’s evening, Little K strains his eyes to see them.

He’s at Blue Bend, near the mouth of the Nahoon River, beyond the poultry farm. The picnic has gone on into the evening. Now he, his siblings and his friends are away from the adults, among the bushes, near the tree-bedecked backs of the towering sand dunes. They are looking for fireflies. And yes, Little K and the others exclaim simultaneously as they spot the tiny cockpits of fire deeply embedded among the dense, indigenous foliage. They reach for the little pockets of light, but each time they approach an insect, it goes out. It extinguishes itself. It disappears. Very clever, really, since it would not want to be caught by a child, thinks Little K, sagely.

-=-=-=-=-=-=

3)

Down Forward Lane, then sharp left alongside the tall wire fence surrounding the somewhat buckled concrete tennis court. Little K has entered the grounds of the Bonza Bay Hotel. With his brother, Alistair, he passes the concrete table and bench under dense bush beside the court, then tentatively approaches the gate to the court. Yippee! It’s not locked.

Casting a quick glance towards the black staffs’ quarters nearby, and then down beneath the boughs of tall wild fig trees towards Neptune’s Cove, the hotel nightclub, he and Alistair decide the coast is clear. They dash onto the court where, thankfully, the net is up. One racquet length and the width of a head is the stipulated height of a net. Little K places his racquet vertically in the middle of the net and Alistair rests the head of his on top of it. No adjustment is required. They toss, Alistair wins, elects not to serve and dispatches Little K, two years his junior, to the other side.

Little K is playing into the sun, his pink-rimmed blue eyes battling to cope with the glare. But they change after the first game. This is serious stuff. Real Wimbledon rules apply. Change every odd, so the sun’s not such an advantage, one way or the other.

It’s a close match, a real ding-dong battle. Little K is determined not to be thrashed again. But he struggles to cope with Alistair’s first serve, which is low, flat and fast. Yet sometimes he flukes a cracking return, using the pace of the serve, and leaves Alistair fuming. The set goes well beyond the six-all, seven-all mark. This is the pre-tie-break era. Neither party gives an inch. Sweat pours from their shirtless bodies as the first set goes past 10-all, or 20 games. Suddenly, a problem. There she is. It’s the hotel owner’s wife. We cringe with embarrassment. We didn’t ask for permission. But she’s not angry with us. Says she likes to see people playing tennis. But would we mind finishing up, as some of her guests are arriving shortly for a game. Sure, we say and she leaves. But the match is ruined. We skulk off back up Forward Avenue, climb through the wire fence around our yard, and traipse across the terrace and through the large glass door into the lounge. Settling on the couch, we agree to resume the encounter later, once the intruders have left our court.

-=-=-=-=-=-

4)

His name is Iain MacDonald, but everyone calls him Scotchie. He is, as far as Little K is concerned, a mixture of Donovan and Bob Dylan. He is playing his guitar for the summer holiday crowd, on the grass in the spacious grounds of the Bonza Bay Hotel.

Behind him, Little K is conscious of the row of rondavels overlooking the lawn, where black gardeners click their clippers as they trim edges dutifully. To his right, he is aware of the towering presence of a giant Norfolk pine. It’s the one he can see from his home. In front of him, behind garden shrubs, is the rest of the hotel. The games room is on the right. It is here that, during the holidays, he has played table tennis and deck-quoits with the guests. At night it becomes Neptune’s Cove, a nightclub with a bar, beside a pool. The epitome of adult entertainment. Cigarettes. Beautiful women. Dancing. Smooching. A band sometimes, or just music played through the hi-fi. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, the Troggs, even East London’s own Dealians. Their records and even, sometimes Little K and his brothers have noticed when they’ve peered through the windows at night, the Dealians live. In person. Also Padda Wilson, the big bassist, and his band.

But this is late afternoon. Little K’s eyes take in the covered walkway leading from the games room past the pool (a converted water storage tank) and up to the hotel proper, where, his mind enabling him to “see” through the walls, he places the passage leading to the bedrooms on the left, and another through a doorway into the reception area. Beside the reception, he envisions the public lounge, inside a wall of glass, with a view down the road to the white stones which mark the entrance to a path leading through thick bush to the beach. Inside of the lounge is the dining room, where he has only eaten once.

His parents gave the family a treat, and reserved a table in the dining room one night. Little K loved the array of knives and forks, shallow dessert spoon and deep soup spoon, butter knife and fish knife, crisp white serviette and table cloth, polite black waiters, small starter of fish, main course of roast beef, potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Ice-cream for dessert. Coffee. Silence. Or people talking in hushed tones. The occasional clatter of knife or fork on plate. The various characters, and strange family units. Little K took it all in.

Beyond the dining room was a smaller bar, and then the men’s pub. This is where his Dad would go most evenings. For drinks with his mates. Probably to get away from the five children for a while.

To Little K’s left is the trampoline, embedded in the ground. Dangerous if you jump too high and land with your leg plunging through one of those gaping holes between the springs. Leaden feeling coming off after jumping almost so high you can touch the leaves in the tree above.

Beyond the trampoline, an old Wendy house. And behind it: Lover’s Lane. Under shady indigenous trees, a leaf-covered lane wends its way to even thicker forest, where Little K and his brothers and friends have spent many hours climbing, trying to navigate a course along branches across the entire area without touching the ground. From tree to tree. Like Tarzan. Except they don’t use the monkey ropes and swing through the air. Too dangerous. No, climbing it is.

Little K watches as Scotchie entertains this group of 15 or so people, who hang onto his every word, his every note. He sings Catch the Wind, Colours, Hurdy Gurdy Man, then moves onto the Dylan classics: Blowin’ in the Wind, Mr Tambourine Man, My Back Pages. Each time he consults the back of his acoustic guitar, on which he has the names of his songs listed. Little K is so impressed he can hardly believe he is witnessing such mastery. The songs sound just like the records his elder brother has been getting them all into over the past few years. Little K wishes he could become a folk-singer one day. He’d sing Dylan and Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the mournful songs of Leonard Cohen. Crowds would flock to see him. He would also compose his own songs, which would become world hits.

Little K dreams on.

-=-=-=-=-=-=

5)

Summer on the Bonza Bay Beach. Little K is under an umbrella with girls from upcountry and brothers and friends. Some are in the surf, some lying on the sand, soaking up the sun. Some in the shade of the brollies. Little K can’t believe his eyes. He catches a glimpse, just a glimpse mind you, of a girl’s pubescent breast, including the nipple, as she lays down her towel, and places her browned body on top of it. Her bikini top is somewhat loose and the breast lies tantalizingly within its cusp. Soon it is lost to view.

But everywhere near-naked young bodies lie flaunting their allurements at Little K. He is, of course, still too young to become physically aroused. But these images imprint themselves on his brain. He will, over the next few years and decades, be subjected to torture of this sort on a grand scale. The beach will become his home from home, and on it he will grow up alongside girls who will brown their bodies tantalisingly in the sun, then saunter down to the sea for a dip to cool off. Little K will enjoy those visions of Johanna and all the other fair maidens immensely.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

6)

It’s early evening in the lifesavers’s shack, on the esplanade beside the Bonza Bay River. The square, stone building Little K remembers as having long served as a kiosk. Old black men and women, including Lo Weeds, who’d sometimes arrive at 4am in summer to weed the family garden, came to the kiosk to buy their wares. Coins wrapped in a handkerchief, secreted somewhere within nondescript clothing. A pathetic collection of coppers. Each item bought separately. Then the money left over counted to see what remains for another purchase. The kiosk is also, Little K recalls, the place where he and his brothers and sister would go to buy sweets with their pennies, ha’pennies and farthings, their tickies and sixpences, occasionally their shillings and half crowns. Big dark toffees, or bright pink wads of Wicks king-sized bugglegum. Sweets with writing on them. Things like “I love you” and “Give me a kiss”. Innocent terms of affection and endearment.

But now Little K is witnessing something he does not think is quite so innocent. He has not yet reached puberty, although he does not actually even know the term. No-one has thought to explain the facts of life to him, to teach him about the birds and the bees. He doesn’t even know he doesn’t know. He is an observer of what the older boys do. And now they are looking at some Playboy magazines one of them has stolen from his dad and they are playing with their tollies until they fire off white fluid all over the place. Little K is outside the little stone room, which is filled with the jerking boys and with all sorts of lifeguard paraphernalia: paddle skis, a long roll of rope, flotation buoys. But the day’s lifesaving is over, the bodies are bronzed and fit, and the older lads are venting their spleen over the pictures of naked lassies in the banned magazines. Little K doesn’t know what to think. He wanders off, perplexed.

-=-=-=-=-=-=

7)

It’s after the summer holidays and Little K is on the beach by himself. With a plastic soccer ball. Perfect weather. The tide is out and there are acres of hard wet sand on which to play. He keeps the ball in the air. Ball control, like the real soccer players do. He can even put one over his head and hit it back with his heel. A hundred or more without letting the ball touch the ground. Little K is honing his skills and, he hopes, his body. He sees Andile approach and feels embarrassed. Andile knows him and comes over to chat. He is in awe of Andile because Andile is the Black Mister South Africa. His photograph has been in Indaba, the Xhosa supplement to the Daily Dispatch. He has even made it into the Daily Dispatch proper on occasion. Because of his body-building exploits. His national title was for the small man division. So he’s not a massive person, but still probably around six feet tall. His black body is perfectly toned, with narrow hips, muscular legs and an upper torso that simply ripples with power. Andile is also a lifeguard. He heads the Gompo Lifesaving Association, who do duty on the black section of the beach, off towards Nahoon. There, among the rocks. Where whites wouldn’t dream of swimming. But Andile doesn’t appear put out by this.

We are standing in the no-man’s land of the beach, somewhere between where the white bathing area ends and the black area begins. Little K asks Andile, naively, what he thinks of his, Little K’s, body. Can you believe it? Big Andile doesn’t scoff or laugh. Bodies are his thing. His fame has been built around his body, so any question regarding one’s physique is right in his sphere of interest. No, Andile tells Little K, your legs are strong, but you need to work on your upper body, to put on more muscle around the shoulders and chest. It is as Little K suspected. He is a spindly character, too weak in the upper body even to paddle a surfboard successfully, like his brothers and friends do. For hours he watches them out in the sea, paddling around like dolphins, seemingly untiringly. To compensate, Little K spends his time either kicking the ball about, or body-surfing. He thanks Andile for his time, tucks his soccer ball under his towel, and dives into the sea. Andile, meanwhile, has found his place beside his bit of sea.

-=-=-=-=-=-

8)

The beach, it is, that troubles Little K most. Why can Andile and his black friends not swim where the whites swim?

Little K decides to put it down in writing. A letter to the editor of the Daily Dispatch. Attacking beach apartheid. He does a rough draft, then prints it out in capitals on a page in a writing pad. Mom provides a stamp and envelope and he drops the letter into the red post box on the corner of Lotus Avenue and Forward Lane. Then he waits. And waits. He estimates how long it will take the letter to reach its destination: the Dispatch office in Caxton Street in the city centre. Maybe a couple of days. Then they have to decide whether to use it, before placing it on the letters page. Maybe a week, all in all. And lo and behold, about a week later he sees his thoughts in print, with his initials and surname, and his family’s home address. He reads and rereads his letter. He can’t agree more with what he has written. Yes, he’s spot on. Beach apartheid must go. Makes no sense. An insult to black people. An affront to their dignity. He’s learnt how to oppose apartheid from Dispatch editor Donald Woods. He and his brothers admire Woods for his courage in the face of apartheid.

Little K becomes hooked on this kind of battle against apartheid. The pen, he believes, will be mightier than the sword. Words, logical, persuasive words, will prick the consciences of white voters. People will see the folly of apartheid and vote the National Party out of power. All it will take is a flood of letters to newspapers, and some good organisation of the electorate encouraging them to vote for the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman.

But all this is in Little K’s future. His initial letters are sporadic. He is testing the water, sharpening his skills for the war to come.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

9)

There is a phone call at Little K’s home. Someone passes him the phone. The house is its normal lively self. Lots of noise, comings and goings. The voice on the other end is unfamiliar. Little K, it says, we’re going to get you. Before Little K can ask who’s speaking or think of a reply, the caller puts down the phone. Little K’s little heart is thumping. He tells his brothers and sister. Yes, they agree, it was a threat, probably from the security police. Because of his letters. Then they continue what they were doing.

Little K wonders about his safety and that of his brothers and sisters, and widowed mother. There have been nasty instances of people’s homes being shot at in recent years. But he soon enough forgets about the call, and when the next apartheid issue spurs him into action, he dispatches his next letter. Then another, and another. Then another threatening call. Then another long pause.

Little K and his siblings are working in the evenings for the renamed Progressive Federal Party. They have been inspired by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Colin Eglin and Helen Suzman. All these bright people opposing the government. Surely the majority of white South Africans will see the light too, thinks Little K. Elections are held. Peep, peep, peep! Peep, peep, peep! Election result for the East London North constituency. Another crushing defeat for the PFP. Another win for the Nats. And so it goes around the country. But the PFP do secure some seats, and Little K feels there is hope. If only. If only.

-=-=-=-=-=

10)

It’s been a turbulent time. Soweto has risen, been suppressed, and subsided. Little K has been conscripted into the military, where he has spent the past two years. He is an unhappy little cat. The great big powerful state has forced him into the army and he has had to obey, or face prison. The apartheid state has fought as a proxy for the US in Angola, and almost secured Luanda against the MPLA. But then those pesky Cubans, backed by the monstrous USSR, spoilt the party. And they drove the South African boys out with their tails between their legs. But that was before Little K was conscripted. He’s now part of their war effort. He’s part of the Total Strategy implemented by President P W Botha to combat the communist threat: the Total Onslaught. White states have collapsed in Angola, Mozambique and, while he’s doing his two years, Rhodesia. South West Africa and South Africa are all that remain. The apartheid government wants every able-bodied white man to help it stay in power. To keep at bay the scourge of black nationalism, as embodied in the banned African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress. And the Black People’s Convention and, from the early to mid-1980s, the United Democratic Front.

-=-=-=-=-=-

11)

Little K is in Port Elizabeth now, working on the Evening Post as a reporter. His colleague, Jimmy Matyu, shows him the ropes. Teaches him who’s who in the townships of the country’s most politically aware city. The paper, the Post, is a mouthpiece, in a sense, for the anti-apartheid struggle. It’s Extra edition is its top seller. It carries all the political news about the struggle, about police oppression of activists. It’s City Late edition carries news more in tune with white sensibilities and sensitivities. As the uprising gets under way in earnest, the paper becomes a key sounding board for both sides. The police, even under successive states of emergency, court the paper, all the time trying to undermine the growing support which the UDF and its civic-association affiliates are enjoying. Even when the Cradock Four and Pebco (PE Black Civic Organisation) Three are brutally murdered. The hand of the security police or military intelligence is suspected.

Little K is enthralled by his luck at having landed a job on a paper that is so close to the key political struggle of the country. He attempts to voice his personal opinion on matters but is told by a deputy editor that as a reporter he must stick to reporting what others are saying. So he does just that, covering the gamut of the socio-political upheaval. Until the apartheid state finally starts to unwind in the late 1980s. And, with Little K securing a two-year stint in London as a correspondent for South African Morning Newspapers, the big change comes on February 2, 1990.

-=-=-=-=-=-

12)

It’s as if the past never existed. That year, 1990, sees the end of the Cold War, as the Iron Curtain comes down across Eastern Europe. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika had precipitated a velvet revolution which tore down the Berlin Wall and liberated Russia and its satellites from communist oppression.

Ensconced in London, Little K watches matters unfold with delight. And, on the morning President F W de Klerk announces the unbanning of the ANC, he dashes off to the SA Press Association office in Fleet Street. Sapa boss Mark van der Velden has his TV on Sky News. Little K cannot believe it. Is this the end of communism worldwide? he asks himself. But what of the SA Communist Party? It seems ironic to Little K that while communists are in retreat in most of the world, in South Africa they are in an alliance with the future rulers of the country, the ANC. But, he wonders, surely the ANC will ditch their socialist ideas and allies now that communism has been proved to be an absolute failure in Russia. Although, he hastens to remind himself, there is still a communist regime in China, an uprising in Tiananmen Square having been brutally crushed in 1989, and others in Cuba and North Korea. Africa, of course, is still littered with dictatorships.

Yet Little K is optimistic as he returns to the liberated new South Africa in late 1991.

With a new wife and eight-month old baby in tow.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

12)

Predictably, the ANC wins a landslide victory in April 1994. The Democratic Party, successor of the PFP, whom Little K worked for in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is almost decimated. And the saintly Nelson Mandela reiterates his commitment, as president, to national reconciliation. Even when the horrors of apartheid are exposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he refuses to utter a word against the former white rulers. Indeed, he even has Mr De Klerk in his government of national unity, as a symbol of their partnership for the country’s reconstruction and a new rapprochement between the formerly oppressed and the former oppressors.

Little K has gone from reporting to sub-editing, now on the Eastern Province Herald, established in 1845 and the oldest daily newspaper in South Africa. It is a direct product of the arrival in 1820 of some 5000 British settlers in Algoa Bay. Initially placed in the Bathurst area as a buffer between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa tribes, the settlers had an impact on all facets of life, bringing with them, as they did, links with the imperial British, at the time the most powerful and influential nation in the world. Trade flourished and Port Elizabeth, the town which grew up around the 1799 Fort Frederick in Algoa Bay, became the colony’s leading port for a long period in the nineteenth century. But the collision of cultures in the Eastern Cape was to have long-term ramifications for everyone in the future South Africa. Black tribal Xhosas were eventually, after umpteen frontier wars, assimilated into the periphery of the first world economy, albeit that the voting franchise was only grudgingly granted on the basis of strict qualifications. Many of the Boer descendants of the original seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch settlers, who had migrated east, decided to quit the Cape Colony, fed up with British rule and the imminent emancipation of their slaves. They trekked inland and set up republics in the Orange Free State and Transvaal.


Little K reflects on this history as he sees the regime of Robert Mugabe turn from one of relative stability and conciliation towards its white inhabitants, to a despotic dictatorship. This happens virtually overnight in early 2000. As Zanu-PF thugs steal thousands of white-owned farms and drive off their owners and farm workers, Little K looks into the future. He sees new President Thabo Mbeki, who does not issue a word of condemnation of this blatant disregard for the rule of law and human rights, as someone who sometime in the future may implement similar policies in South Africa.

He sees Zimbabwe as a litmus test. And when Mbeki continually hides behind a policy of “quiet diplomacy” as the situation deteriorates by the week, Little K feels compelled to take up the pen again, as he did against apartheid.

It is a tricky thing for Little K. Because he is accused of being a racist bent on a return to apartheid. Yet he knows he cannot keep quiet in the face of injustice, even if in his heart of heart he acknowledges that black people in Zimbabwe are indeed hungry for land. He knows they were dispossessed by the settlers 100 years ago. But he also knows there is no going back. That the Zimbabwean population has grown considerably and that there is no way black people can return to a medieval agrarian economy such as existed before the advent of the white man. So Little K writes, both articles in the Herald and letters to the editor of the Herald and the Sunday Times.

His old struggle friend, Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack, who led the youth wing of the UDF in Port Elizabeth in the 1980s, is now a successful businessman, riding on the back of the ANC’s policy of black economic empowerment and affirmative action. Little K has attacked these policies as anti-white and racist. He has received flak from Jack and many others, but also, predictably, support from white people concerned at the way Mbeki has led the country in the new millennium.

But, Little K thinks, at least there is still freedom of expression. He still occasionally gets the powers that be on his newspaper to use his articles critical of the government, and his letters to the editor. They do stir up debate and elicit many letters in response. Little K feels their real importance lies in establishing a culture of tolerance of dissent. He hopes in vain to get the support of black people, but even without it, believes that in years to come, young black people will think back on how Little K voiced his opposition to things which were clearly wrong.

But one day Little K gets an e-mail from a deputy editor. While he is free to continue submitting articles, he is told, he and all other staff members are no longer allowed to have letters to the editor published. Little K senses a degree of outside interference in this decision. However, he has no alternative but to accept the ruling. But it does reduce the scope for his ideas to be aired. It does seem, to him, to be a form of censorship.

Still, he has had some success with his similarly politically incorrect letters being published in the national Sunday Times.

Until, one day, he gets a letter, forwarded by a deputy editor on the Sunday Times. It is from the SA Human Rights Commission. Little K shot off an article or two when the SAHRC conducted its probe into what it called “racism in the media”, but which Little K insisted on calling “alleged racism in the media” in the early 2000s. The probe, Little K believed, was an unsubtle attempt to cow the media into toeing the ANC line. It failed to find such racism, but set the agenda for the millennium, where the Mbeki regime would play the race card at every turn. But, as Little K was to observe, even the race card was useless in the face of growing government corruption and ineptitude. Little K believed it in the national interest to expose and oppose cases of government failure. He slammed the ANC on its Aids policy, believing Mbeki should be leading a national campaign to combat the scourge, not casting doubt on the very existence of the HI virus which causes it.

So now, as Little K holds the letter from the SAHRC in his hands, he wonders what they want. It is surely not a pat on the back from them. Or a letter inviting him to become a member of the commission. No, the letter is a warning. A threat. It accuses him of having written a piece, a year earlier in the Sunday Times, which painted black people as being inferior, and whites superior. It is a legal letter designed to intimidate.

Here is Little K’s letter, published under the headline “Don’t write off the whites” on August 24, 2003, which supposedly caused offence:


“Dali Mpofu’s citing of township entrepreneurship as a panacea for our job-creation woes (‘Moletsi Mbeki gives ammunition to the opponents of true change’, August 17) just won’t wash.

“The only example of such entrepreneurs having successfully created any significant number of jobs is the taxi industry, and what a shambles it is.

“Firstly, the industry has thrived because taxi owners have never had to pay taxes, while the taxis themselves are generally safety hazards due to poor maintenance and cavalier driving. Then there are ongoing wars between taxi associations.

“No developing country can achieve economic growth without the sort of entrepreneurship which white people introduced during the much-maligned colonial era.

“In Port Elizabeth, for instance, locals enticed both Ford and General Motors to set up plants, along with numerous related component industries, during the first half of the last century. Volkswagen followed.

“The same applied in the mining industry, and virtually throughout our formal economy. These partnerships with Western firms have proved virtually the only major creators of wealth and jobs, along with commercial agriculture.

“By undermining white people, who through generations of business connections can initiate such wealth-producing industries, is to shoot yourself in the foot. Yet that is what affirmative action, black economic empowerment and employment equity, along with crime, are doing.

“Until black people start establishing job- and wealth-creating businesses on a similar scale, they should focus primarily on skills development in order to benefit from globally competitive enterprises established by those capable of doing so. Heaven knows, we’d all love to see black people establish large new industries and enterprises. But will it ever happen?”


And here, verbatim, is the SAHRC’s letter, received by Little K in July, 2004:


“Dear Sir/Madam

“Re: COMPLAINT

“We have received a complaint from Mr E Mahlobo, who is one of the Sunday Times newspaper readers, about the article you wrote which was published in the Sunday Times newspaper of the 24 August 2003 wherein it is alleged that, you disseminated propaganda or idea (sic) which propounds the racial superiority of “Whites” and inferiority of “Blacks”.

“Kindly be advised that the South African Human Rights Commission is enjoined to investigate violations of human rights and from the abovementioned allegation and without your version there is prema facie (sic) violation of both section 9 of the RSA Constitution and section 7 (a) of the Equity Act.

“Kindly therefore favour us with your response to the abovementioned allegation within 14 days on (sic) receipt of this letter.

“Counting on your co-operation.

“Yours faithfully

“Kaya Zweni

“Legal Practioner”

After taking advice from a long-term advocate friend, Little K responds with a letter to the SAHRC, saying:

“Dear Mr Zweni

“Your letter of July 13, 2004 (a photocopy of which was forwarded to me by the Sunday Times, to whom you faxed the original) concerning my Letter to the Editor, published in the Sunday Times of August 24, 2003, refers.

“My letter was written as a contribution to an ongoing debate.

“I regret if any offence has been taken, as none was intended.”


A few months later, Little K is interested to notice a press report stating that Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon, for the past decade the bete noir of the ANC, has been found not guilty by the SAHRC of hate speech, following some or other speech Leon has made.

It gets Little K thinking about his country and about how easily governments become despotic. Threats from statutory bodies like the SAHRC are the thin end of a Stalinist wedge, he now believes, as he weighs up his options and those of his family.

Will my country become another Zimbabwe, wonders Little K, or will common sense prevail and enable it to become the shining light of Africa. He says he’s not taking any bets on the latter option, but will keep on writing. Even if no-one wants to use his stuff.

It is, after all, he believes, the thoughts that count.

-=-=-=-=-=

13)

Or is it? What use, muses Little K, are powerful thoughts and ideas if they cannot be expressed and disseminated through the national media? Since the Sunday Times forwarded the HRC letter, their use of his writings has virtually dried up. Even on the Herald, the number of feature articles used has been reduced to less than a trickle. The pieces lie dormant before finally being totally overtaken by events.

Little K’s targets have, over the past five years, been the ANC government’s condoning of Mugabe’s reign of terror and destruction of his country, its (inexplicable to him) failure to deal with the Aids crisis which affects primarily black people, and the new racism of black empowerment legislation. Then there has been the growing incidence of corruption, nepotism and simply inept administration. Little K, like he did some 25 years ago, finds it hard not to put pen to paper. But he is frustrated. No more letters in the Herald. Very few if any in the Sunday Times. And his feature articles in the Herald are also being increasingly ignored.

He loses his cool. He is on his long weekend – four nights free from the mind- and soul-destroying night-shift duty he has been fulfilling for the past decade. He sends off another scathing article, laying the blame for his country’s woes primarily on two women: health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for her advocacy of African potatoes, garlic, lemons, beetroot and condoms to combat Aids instead of antiretrovirals and abstinence; and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, for her failure to act out of common decency on the Zimbabwe debacle, and for fraternising with the likes of Mugabe, Castro and Gaddafi. But he is also angry, because his previous three articles have been steadfastly ignored. He writes a note on top of the article before e-mailing it to the woman who lays out the leader pages, and sends a copy to the new editor, a former Zimbabwean who happens to be black. Little K has no problem with working under a black editor, so long as the ethics of journalism remain paramount. He even has to accept the glaring attempts at social engineering as people of colour are elevated at an early age to positions of power and influence around him. It is part of his penitence for being white in a time of transformation.

But what he is not prepared for is the response to his note, in which he asks – given the rejection of his previous articles – whether it is the policy of the paper not to publish anything critical of the ANC.

Oblivious to the ruckus his words have caused, Little K arrives his customary half hour early for his shift, only to be told by his chief sub that the editor wants to see him. The editor has always been friendly, with a broad smile. So Little K is somewhat taken aback to find him in a foul mood. Gone is the old camaraderie, the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” bonhomie. Instead Little K finds himself under attack. It gets nasty, personal. Does Little K realise the pressure the editor is under from the ANC? And what about this attack, in the note, on his political correspondent for toeing the ANC line?

Little K, the editor says, you are from now onwards banned from writing anything in my paper.

Little K storms back to his desk, where his workload of laying out at least half a dozen news pages a night, which has been his lot for months on end, saps his strength. And he thinks about what will happen now. Can he actually be fired for simply sending through an article with a note to which the editor of the paper took exception? Is that fair? What about freedom of expression?

A few days later and it is his day off. He gets a phonecall at home from the arts page layout person. Did he know that two art crits he has written have been pulled from the page by the new (black) deputy editor? Did he not know that no more of his stuff will be published in the Herald?

The next day he returns for his evening shift, very troubled. He asks the deputy editor if can speak to him. He is feeling very humble now. Obsequious. In fact, he has psyched himself into a severe dose of humility. He is metaphorically on his knees as he speaks to the deputy. But he finds this works. The deputy says no, there’s probably been a mistake. Maybe the editor was just referring to his political articles, not his art crits and books reviews, which Little K knows bring in a little extra cash. So Little K plucks up the courage and enters the editor’s den. It seems like a den, a lion’s den, to Little K, who still has on the same supports he wore on his wrists the last time he saw the editor, when the great confrontation occurred. These supports are an attempt to keep at bay the tendonitis which has plagued him for the past eight or so years. They add to his sense of humility. He feels suitably inferior in the face of the besuited editor. He in his tattered old jeans and shoes, and cheap Mr Price checked shirt. No, the editor, a few years his junior, is all sweetness and light. He even apologises for his outburst. Sure, Little K can write his art crits and book reviews. Just no political articles for a while, hey? Let’s see how it goes. Little K recalls that the editor has commented favourably on other articles he did, such as when he wrote in support of such things as the more integrated nature of the evolving post-apartheid society. Positive things.

He likes positive things, Little K realises. But not negative articles, attacking the ANC.

So Little K decides that discretion is the better part of valour. He has swallowed his pride, and eaten humble pie. Now he will have to bite his lip. No more will he be able to contribute to the political debate to which he has devoted his life. It is, he reflects, a small price to pay, so long as he keeps his job and is able to feed, school and clothe his family.

-=-=-=-=-=

14)

Then Little K, who is nearly 50 years old, thinks back longingly to those cosy days when he cuddled day-old chicks and looked in awe at the magic and mystery of fireflies.

And he wishes he could be three or four again.

If only for a while.


THE END

Monday, October 31, 2011

Henry Morton Stanley


I have had my attention badly diverted in recent weeks by Rugby World Cup action on the telly, and a son writing his matric exams. But, before returning to the record of my published journalism, I thought I'd drop in a piece I wrote around 2004 which was never used. The Herald, in Port Elizabeth, where I have worked for more than 25 years, downgraded its book review section just at a time when I had ploughed through an interesting book on Henry Stanley and written a lengthy review thereof. In the end I lost the book itself (handed in for some pictures to be scanned and not returned) and the review was never published. Anyway, in a small attempt to rectify that omission, here is that review.



STANLEY, Dark Genius of African Exploration, by Frank McLynn (Pimlico):

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?” That famous line, which Henry Morton Stanley uttered on finding the veteran Scottish explorer on the banks of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, is probably what he is most famous for.

But it occurs just one sixth of the way into this exhaustively researched biography, in which it emerges that Stanley was in fact one of the world’s greatest explorers, on a par, says the author, with Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

It is hard to believe that much of central Africa in the 1870s was still unexplored by white people. Vast swathes of the Congo and the Great Lakes area had not been “discovered” by Europeans.

Those who did venture into the “heart of darkness”, as Stanley called it, were often searching for geographical information such as the source of the Nile, but always there was a trade agenda – and along with mineral wealth, palm oil and rubber, ivory was the product of choice in the late 19th century, especially for billiard balls.

Purely from a human endurance perspective, what Stanley achieved was phenomenal. In his four major journeys – between 1871 and 1889 – he covered tens of thousands of kilometres through inhospitable terrain inhabited by understandably antagonistic tribes.

He twice ventured into the heart of Africa before turning back, and twice crossed the continent –first from the Kenyan coast at Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo River and, a couple of years later, the other way, with many a lengthy detour en route.

This was at a time when he was often charting new territory, paying hongo (or tributes) to chiefs for the right to pass through their territory, and most of the time he and his wangwana, or Zanzibar porters, had to walk. There were obviously no roads or railway lines, just the occasional use of donkeys, which battled to survive.

Stanley and his party plunged through savannah, swamps and hundreds of kilometres of dense jungle, often having literally to cut paths with pangas. He explored massive lakes in canoes hewn from trees, bartered or seized, or in large boats lugged by porters and assembled in situ. He survived hundreds of bouts of various forms of African fever (at a time when it wasn’t known, for instance, that malaria was mosquito-borne). He braved monsoons and droughts, regular cases of near-starvation and scores of attacks by tribesmen who often mistook his group for slave traders.

Indeed, throughout this book the presence of Arab slavers offers pause for thought. One of the criticisms of Stanley is that by opening up the Congo River, he also enabled the Arab slavers operating out of Zanzibar and north Africa – like the notorious Tappu Tip – to extend their destructive operations into hitherto secure parts of central Africa.

Interesting too is the similarity of African languages. I grew up hearing the Xhosa word “nyama” for meat. Stanley speaks of the cries of tribesmen, whom he feared were cannibals, who shouted “niama!” at his party, no doubt to put the fear of being eaten into them.

This book is rich in political and historical detail. The author also analyses Stanley’s personality, and concludes that his childhood – having been born into a broken home in Wales on January 28, 1841 and raised in a workhouse – gave him a stubborn will that enabled him to drive himself, and his men, to the edge of endurance – and many beyond it.

He was certainly a controversial figure, with the politically correct lobby in Britain quick to condemn him for his occasional excessive use of force, though it is moot whether he would have survived at all had he not sometimes resorted to the use of arms. On numerous occasions he was able patiently to negotiate treaties with local chiefs, and comes across as one who had genuine respect for black people. Indeed, he was later praised by the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Stanley – who was christened John Rowlands but who took the name of a kindly businessman who “adopted” him in the US when he travelled there at the age of 17 – went from being an absolute nobody purely through the power of his will, and a fair amount of good fortune, to becoming a household name around the world.

It is, in fact, a miracle he survived those 20-odd years of travel through Africa, not to mention his earlier adventures during the 1861-65 American Civil War.

After finding Dr David Livingstone at midday on a Friday in 1871 at Lake Tanganyika for his New York newspaper – considered by many the scoop of the century – his fame spread. He was later hosted by, among others, Queen Victoria, Prince Bismarck, the future Kaiser Wilhelm and the author Mark Twain, who was a close friend.

Addicted to travel and adventure, he also happened to be at Suez on November 17, 1869, when the canal opened, giving him another huge story for the New York Herald.

Tremendously well read – he devoured the classics on those long, laborious sea journeys – his descriptions of Africa all those years ago, especially on his first east-west crossing when he found the source of the Congo River, reveal what an ecologically rich place it was. Elephant, hippos, antelope, giraffe and quagga abounded. So too did lions, crocodiles, snakes, insects and ants.

I was also amazed to discover that in places the Congo River is so wide, several kilometres across in fact, that you can’t see one bank from the other.

While his first two journeys – to find Livingstone and across Africa – had no real hidden agenda, it was later, when he worked for Belgian King Leopold II, that the commercial exploitation of the Congo became the prime motivation. The “scramble for Africa” was on, and Leopold was determined to make the Congo his private domain. And Stanley – or Bula Matari (breaker of rocks) as he became known in the Congo – had the iron will and experience to set up a row of trading stations on the river, laying the foundation for the Belgian Congo. But he had no hand in the “bloody and barbarous” colony that it later became.

Stanley’s final adventure was something of a disaster. Sent to locate and bring relief supplies to embattled Prussian naturalist Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria, Stanley on several occasions came close to death. When Emin was finally found, Stanley was so short of supplies himself after nearly starving in the Ituri rain forest, he could do little to assist him. Instead, he insisted Emin return to the coast with him – as another African exploration “trophy”.

Stanley’s life ended abruptly, after a late marriage – unconsummated according to the author – and a short stint as a British MP, during which he paid a brief trip to the Cape Colony for the opening of the railway line to Bulawayo in 1897. He visited the new mining town of Johannesburg and met Transvaal president Paul Kruger in Pretoria. His dislike for Kruger manifested itself in a rabid imperialism on his return, with Stanley becoming a staunch advocate for his overthrow.

Just over 107 years ago – on May 10, 1904 – his body finally caving in to disease after the hammering it endured in Africa, Stanley died. But in death he was snubbed by the bishop of Westminster Abbey, who refused to bury him alongside his hero, Livingstone, due to his controversial past.

Beautifully written, this 910-page tome – including about 180 pages of notes and references to Stanley’s books, journals and other documentation – is a must for lovers of history.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Peter Dickson's TRC submission


In the wake of the untimely death of Peter Dickson, a former colleague on the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth a few weeks back, another ex-journo colleague, Mike Loewe, of Grahamstown, started a forum on his Makana Moon website, where those who knew Pete reminisced about him. Mike Loewe included a copy of Pete's submission to the TRC, which just happens to mention yours truly on two occasions. Indeed, it makes me appear far braver than I was. However, for the record, I am including a copy of Mike's note and Pete's submission.


Mike Loewe's note: I’ve unearthed Pete’s statement to the TRC, one of a batch Ecna collected to make that point that there were whites who did their bit to bring down the regime, to give substance to the demand for a non-racial, democratic alternative to apartheid. It’s a brilliant piece of writing; precise, lived and furious. Dave Macgregor was hired for the project and he did a fantastic job.


Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
By Peter John Dickson, 33, News Editor, East Cape News Agencies (Ecna), Grahamstown, 20 May 1996

When I was appointed to the permanent staff of the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth in January 1988, PW Botha’s successive States of Emergency and their attendant media regulations had been in force since 1985.

Soon gaining a reputation for supporting and promoting street committees, youth and labour organisations and the End Conscription Campaign through personal contact and relentless reporting, it was not long before I gained the attention of the security police.

In fact, in 1993 when I returned to the Herald after having left Port Elizabeth in 1991 disilluisoned with the Post’s staunchly white-oriented and non-resistant attitude to apartheid’s brutality, a prominent ANC activist and friend who is now a member of the Eastern Cape provincial legislature welcomed my return as a return of “that energy we are missing so much in the struggle”. I had tacitly been regarded as “our man” in the Press.

The attention from the security forces, in parallel with my own hardening attitude, can be divided into two phases. The first, from late 1987 to mid-1990, taking the form of indirect intimidation, culminating in late 1990 – as organised violence threatened to derail negotiations – in a direct assassination attempt.

In 1988 in Port Elizabeth when the Times Media group had been restructured and rationalised and had come under conservative self-censoring stewardship, it was known in the liberation movement that Kin Bentley, before his two-year transfer to London, and myself were the only white reporters “on side”.

This did not make us popular at Times Media, nor in wider white society, and certainly not in security circles. Promotions or merit awards at work were denied and stories often spiked – the editor-in-chief, now the publisher, said a pre-trial story I had written on conscientious objector David Bruce would not be published as he had a wife and family to protect from terrorists – while so-called disciplinary measures were threatened for so-called misdemeanours. Ostracism was the social order of the day, especially by senior colleagues, which explains why it took two years, only after intervention by my ANC friend, to rehire me in 1993 on the ironic ticket of “black politics, education and labour reporter” now that the New South Africa was a fait accompli. This beat, too, was replaced with court duties.

In 1988 and 1989 we were frequently followed, covertly photographed, our telephones and those of immediate family tapped, mail tampered with or missing, and frequently telephonically threatened with injury or death by anonymous people.

My Press card for that year was withheld for months before I was summoned by security policeman Karl Edwards to his office at Port Elizabeth security police headquarters at Louis le Grange Square in mid-1988.

Taking place on a strangely deserted floor with he the only policeman present, this meeting was a weird pitch at intimidation and recruitment that failed dismally. He had held my Press Card since the beginning of the year, he said, while my credentials and background were checked, ending in my strangely being deemed satisfactory.

He knew the date I had started at Times Media in 1987, even what I had worn, and had gleaned my background from his younger brother and fellow security policeman Lloyd Edwards. The elder Edwards was proud of the fact that he could come and go at Newspaper House, even the library where several files most notably on the Cradock Four, the Pebco Three and pictures of policemen like himself steadily disappeared. He showed me a thick file of covert photographs of Herald and Post reporters entering and leaving various buildings. He called it his “favourite photo album” and said it was his job to “look after the Press”.

He knew all about my wife’s pregancy and that – it was some weeks later on June 20 – we were expecting a son very soon. His request to send my regards to her came across as more sinister than sincere. He offered me the use of the security police library “anytime”, but I declined the unsavoury self-motivated offer as a clumsy recruitment pitch. This terminated the meeting.
Several weeks later, he and a young woman who was not his wife and mother of his five children, attempted to gatecrash a private family party to unoficially launch a family friend’s Zareba Street, Central restaurant. The notoriously vain, hair-dyeing Edwards naively thought I would not blow his cover. Unlike that of other generally polite “lefties” at the time, I was a bit more hardcore. He was the enemy and I introduced him as such, to his great consternation and embarrassment, and my father-inlaw threw him out of the restaurant, due to officially open the next day. The restaurant, Wally’s, suffered endless Sanab harassment and problems with the Liquor Board before closing down the next year with its owner in financial ruin.

It was also during this time, as I became actively involved in the campaign for non-racial amenities in Port Elizabeth and relentlessly agitated for the release of emergency detainees through regular reports updating their names and numbers, that the intimidation became more of the Ku Klux Klan type. Kin Bentley was in London and, with only the moral support of my considerably more frightened black colleagues, I had to endure the harassment alone.

It began, roughly, with my awakening one night to see an unusual light flickering outside the window of the bedroom my wife and I shared with our baby son. On investigation, with a single tinted-windowed car idling further down the street, I discovered my post box on fire.
After my divorce in 1989, I flung myself even further into the liberation struggle, helping organise and vigorously publicise protest marches and non-racial picnics with the Port Elizabeth Action Committee and publicly refusing to serve in the SADF. I also wrote copious anti-apartheid copy, maintained excellent contacts that amazed my peers during the 1990 riots in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas, called for the release of hunger-striking detainees whose plight at St Albans I first exposed, delved a little too deeply into the non-activity of the Returned Exiles Committee that we now know was set up by MI to help divide the ANC, and wrote perhaps a little too much about self-confessed Vlakplaas operative Ronald Desmond Bezuidenhout. Apparently arrested as a “terrorist” at Port Elizabeth’s Sea Acres resort, he disappeared. I established, after repeatedly approaching Adriaan Vlok’s office through his spokesman Leon “Die Ridder in Swart” Mellett, that Bezuidenhout was a security operative.

An unsavoury-looking short middle-aged man bearing a motorbike helmet and in a black leather jacket, after my second story exposing Bezuidenhout, arrived at the Post claiming to be Bezuidenhout’s uncle. he wanted to meet me, he said, at a house in Forest Hill to tell me more. After he had left, my intuition ringing in my ears, I checked the map and saw the address was the last house at the bottom of a dead end surrounded by bush. I decided to abandon the night time meeting. My editor soon informed me the story was now a non-story. Mellett politely urged me to forget the whole thing. I wrote a third story, quoting Mellett.

One August night soon afterwards, on my regular walking route home to my central flat from the city centre It’s Country late night restaurant, a woman stopped me and asked me for the time. As I looked at the watch, there was a flash of a white bearded face and then a blinding light and enornmous pain in my head, I felt my legs buckle and I remember nothing beyond the sudden slap of the pavement I fell on. Having had a few drinks which made my body more relaxed, I came to rather quickly, but listened to the little voice in my head I have learnt to trust that told me to play dead. I peeked a look, still lying on the Russell Road pavement, and noticed sandalled white feet.

The man, fairly tall and well-built with a beard, said he had seen a “kaffir” hit me and had come to my rescue and chased my apparent assailant away. But I knew he was the assailant. My face was streaming with blood, my head pounding in acute pain, and I was unable to walk – I was at his mercy. he said he would help me to my home and where was it? I knew, as a human being only can know in such a situation, that I was going to be killed. My mind desperately racing, I guided my “helper” through as many well-lit public areas as possible to my Surbiton Street flat.

On the Donkin hill, aproaching Belmont Terrace, I saw a police van and tried to hail it, but the man clamped his hand over my mouth. They drove on without seeing me. It was then that he started speaking about how he hated “kaffirs and communists”, bragged about killing while a member of Koevoet, and produced a bloody knuckleduster-knife combination with which he had smashed my face in only minutes before. I knew I was in terrible trouble now – my mind was thinking of testimony before the Harms Commission in which Gavin Evans escaped CCB death by stabbing in his flat, to make it look like a robbery, by having moved shortly before the planned assault.

At the time, I had a tenant, whose surname ironically was Malan, sub-letting a room from me. A younger man, he was rarely home at night. Perhaps owing to Lady Luck and the lateness of the hour, he was home that night. If he had not been, I know in my heart of hearts that I would not be alive today. My assailant, still holding his arm around my neck, went from room to room in the flat to ensure it was empty, instantly letting go when he switched on my tenant’s bedroom light and saw him sitting up in bed. My shocked tenant, who was well built, asked what had happened. My assailant repeated his “kaffir attack” story. I was in the bathroom by now, washing the blood from my face, and I shouted out that I had been attacked by a white man. The man then dashed for the front door and fled. We tried to chase him, but he had disappeared by the time we reached the street. I did not report the attack to the police – I felt it would be like reporting a burglary to the burglars. They were, after all, the enemy.

The doctor established my nose was broken in three places, that if the powerful knuckleduster-knife blow had been a little to the left I would have been killed instantly. My sinus passages are virtually blocked and I will battle to breathe, the most basic requirement of living, for the rest of my life. The struggle for breath, made worse by extremes of heat or cold, brings intense migraines at regular intervals and for which there is no treatment. These are accompanied by dizzy spells, weakness of the leg muscles, and lack of co-ordination in walking.
These are my memories of apartheid society and I declare them to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I want these memories recorded only for posterity, lest we forget, so that our children may never experience – or turn a blind eye to – this evil again. I seek no retribution and no compensation. I want personal possession of my security police and MI files.

PJ Dickson

20 May 1996

Monday, September 12, 2011

Usen Obot, Nomabaso Bedeshe, Number Four, white males, no signatures, Paul McCartney, Pinkey Watermeyer, Bretten-Anne Moolman


It is mid-2006 and I am still barred from writing articles of a political nature for the Herald in Port Elizabeth, where I first started working as a political reporter on its sister paper, the Evening Post, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1984. Anyway, my art crits and the odd book review keep me busy before I go to work each evening as a sub-editor. This posting does, however, include one little political missive, which I managed to sneak into the Sunday Times's Lifestyle supplement.



These two reviews appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2006. The work is by Nigerian expat Usen Obot and ceramic artist Nomabaso Bedeshe. Below that is a review of an exhibition of some of the municipal gallery's treasures. (Please click on the text to see it larger.)



Tim Hopwood has helped put photography on the map as an art form in Port Elizabeth. I reviewed his exhibition on King's Beach on April 25, 2006.



This is my review of Number Four, a book about the establishment of the Constitutional Court. It appeared in the Herald's TFIG supplement on May 5, 2006. Don't you love that picture of Madiba and colleagues, taken from the book?



This letter appeared in the Sunday Times's Lifestyle supplement on May 7, 2006.



Cuyler Street Gallery owner Tossie Theron held an annual No Signatures exhibition. This crit appeared on May 17, 2006.



My review of a book on Paul McCartney, which appeared in TGIF on May 26, 2006, was badly hacked in the sub-editing process. I include a print-out I made of the original, below.



My original review of the McCartney book. It is interesting to note how editing can distort what was written.



My review of an exhibition by Pinkey Watermeyer, who wrote the book Sixteen Farms about rural life in the Karoo, appeared in the Herald on May 30, 2006.



Another veteran artist, Hilda Bischoff, I am afraid, took a bit of flak in this review from June 15, 2006. Also exhibiting was Vanessa Moore.



It was a pleasure finally to write a glowing review about an exhibition by Bretten-Anne Moolman. This appeared in the Herald on June 20, 2006.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jurgen Schadeberg, Frans Mulder, Adriana Elian, Rick Becker, Julian Barnes, Tracey Dossin


It is early 2006 and by now I am firmly ousted from writing anything of a political nature in the Herald, where I started working as a reporter in 1988. Now as a sub-editor, I am left with just my art previews and reviews, a diminishing amount of space for book reviews, and the occasional letter to the Sunday Times. Anyway, for this posting I kick off with a preview of a Jurgen Schadeberg exhibition. There are also crits of a few other exhibitions and two book reviews.



My preview of a Jurgen Schadeberg exhibition, which appeared in the Herald on January 25, 2006.



I've never been a great fan of wildlife art, but this review of a Frans Mulder show appeared in the Herald just below the Schadeberg piece.



My crit of an exhibition by Adriana Elian and Rick Becker, which appeared on February 2, 2006.



My review of Knights of the Cross, a novel of the Crusades, by Tom Harper, which appeared in TGIF, a Herald supplement, on February 2, 2006.



Julian Barnes, I notice, has again been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. My review of his novel, Arthur & George, appeared in TGIF on February 24, 2006.



Tracey Dossin was a year or two ahead of me at Jack Lugg's art school in East London in the 1970s. This review of a show by her and a few others appeared on March 22, 2006.



My review of an exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth to mark its golden jubilee, which appeared on April 5, 2006. The only problem is they changed the gallery's name, so it kind of lost all significance. I campaigned in vain for them not to ditch the original name, the King George VI Art Gallery.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bob Dylan, Brenda Schmahmann, Jeanne Wright, Strydom van der Merwe, NMMU, Epsac


A few postings back I ran a vitriolic attack on my competence as an art reviewer by Rhodes University art history professor Brenda Schmahmann. In this posting I again run pages from the Nelson Mandela Metro Art Museum newsletter - this time from three months later, July 2005. I had responded to that attack, and my response was duly carried - but wedged in between two further assaults. This post also includes a review of a CD by Abstract Truth and a couple of art crits. But let's kick off with a review of the first part of Bob Dylan's autobiography.



My review of Chronicles, the first part of Bob Dylan's memoirs, appeared in the TGIF supplement of the Herald, Port Elizabeth, on December 9, 2005.



Instead of kicking off their "Hard Talk" section with my reply to Schmahmann's attack of three months earlier, the art museum launched off with another tirade from Jeanne Wright. Re-reading this, one thing that really jars - and which Schmahmann also used - is the need for a critic to be "responsible". What, in heaven's name, is responsible criticism? Responsible to whom? A critic's only responsibility is to the visual truth, not the painted word.



Then came another piece dripping in sarcasm, followed by my reply. But notice how they even stressed that Schmahmann has "the last word". This concludes below, whereafter we are told the discussion is closed. So I had no right of reply to these further attacks.



Schmahmann accuses me of misquoting her texts on the pictures she exhibited. This is nonsense. I read what she had to say and responded to their openly feminist slant. What I can deduce from this article is that she was offended that I failed to read her book. Shame. And bully for the Sunday Tribune writer for putting in all that effort to paint a glowing picture of her brilliance. I am sure as an academic exercise it was most rewarding. But the texts she speaks of - which was the main interface with the public - clearly spoke of an anti-male agenda, and I merely drew attention to that fact. It wasn't "misquotation", it was simply my interpretation. But what of her view that artworks do not have "inherent merit", or intrinsic merit, which is the terms I used (talk about misquotation!). If that were the case, then no one would be able to tell the difference between a Tretchikoff and a Kandinsky. She also adds this remarkable claim: "It is now generally accepted that people aren't born with some ability to appreciate and understand art, and that those unable to make meaning of an artwork are not somehow intrinsically insensitive or incompetent." How condescending. As someone who trained as an artist and studied art history, I think I know enough about drawing, design, and so on, to be able to discern what is worthwhile and what is rubbish. What I do in fact do is lavish praise and appreciation where it is earned. Because, believe it or not, I really love great art, especially painting, drawing and sculpture. I invite the likes of Schmahmann and Wright to peruse at their leisure the myriad drawings I have posted on this blog over the past few years - testimony I think to a life lived for art.

Anyway, enough of this. These articles appeared in mid-2005. It took until the end of 2010 before I was finally relieved of my role as Herald art critic, which I first started around 1992, having previously done the art crits for the Evening Post from 1985 till about 1988. But do you know what's ironic? Since a new editor has arrived on the Herald, Jeanne Wright has been given the occasional exhibition to review - in her dry, academic way. But these have been few and far between. Today the paper mainly relies on previews of shows and articles about the artists themselves - ie, free, uncritical self-promotion, which is what artists love. I always believed that what is most important is the art itself. You can dress up anything purporting to be art as something incredibly important and cerebral, but if the art is crap, it's crap. I covered all manner of show during my time, and will run a few more of those crits in ensuing postings. Often the exhibitions are by local artists who are not out to bedazzle the world. Instead, they are hard-working, practical people trying to sell their work for a living. And if, given my experience, I think the work has merit, I say so. And vice versa. I also refuse to read reams of explanatory, academic verbiage bent on "explaining" what is right before my eyes.



Escaping the dangerous world of art criticism, above is a review I wrote of a strange book called 54. It appeared in the Herald supplement, TGIF, on November 4, 2005.



My review of a Fresh Music CD, Silver Trees & Totum, by Abstract Truth, was hitched onto the end of this music-review article by Leon Muston, which appeared in TGIF sometime in November, 2005, though I forgot to date it.



Since being denied the opportunity to write anything political in the Herald (see earlier posting), I started keeping all my art reviews. I shan't use them all, but just a few to show the sort of stuff I had to cover on a weekly basis. Consider that I was working as a sub-editor on the Herald from around 3.30pm till 11.30pm each night. I'd get up the next morning, drive to an exhibition, spend an hour or two checking it out, then head home to write a review. I'd then make lunch and my evening packed lunch, pick up my sons from school, then head back to work.



This review of the NMMU student exhibition appeared on the same day as the one above. Visiting those exhibitions at the south campus would take at least three hours, considering the long drive and how big the shows were. But I enjoyed seeing where the students were at - and realised from my own experience as an art student, just how good it feels to get a positive mention in the local media.



The EP Society of Arts and Crafts is an institution in Port Elizabeth - as is its annual exhibition. Of course now it is under new management, and the gallery is called ArtEC, or suchlike. I've not been back to the six or so galleries I frequented for nearly two decades since being given the chop at the end of 2010.



Monday, September 5, 2011

Mary-Rose Dold, Tony Grogan, Theresa Hardman, Wim Botha, Marius Lourens, Bill Chalmers, Marie Odendaal, Johan Wilke


In May, 2005, a new editor put paid to my writing articles of a political nature in the Herald, Port Elizabeth. I had had a good run, having first launched into action in 2000, as these postings reveal, in the wake of the Mugabe clampdown on democracy in Zimbabwe. Anyway, I was now confined to writing art crits and the odd book review. Of course this was all done over and above my actual job of working as a sub-editor on the Herald, which I started doing in 1994, after 10 years as a news reporter. I was to carry on with my art crits for the next five years, when the advent of another editor brought to an end nearly 20 years of doing this work on the Herald.



Tossie Theron's little Cuyler Street Gallery in Central kept me on my toes. She staged a new show virtually every fortnight, and made sure I wrote a preview and a review. So here, on the right, is a crit of an exhibition by Ruth and Hunter Nesbit, from June 7, 2005. On the left is one of a show by Mary-Rose Dold, the doyenne of PE artists.



The Ron Belling Art Gallery, in Park Drive, also stages regular shows. Here is my review of another by Tony Grogan, from July 8, 2005.



The main municipal gallery often stages specialised shows of selections from its permanent collection. This one, Cityscape, I reviewed on August 2, 2005.



My review of a Theresa Hardman show from August 13, 2005.



Every year the main municipal gallery, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, hosts an exhibition by the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year. My review of Wim Botha's show was run on August 16, 2005.



My review of a Marius Lourens exhibition from August 22.



A review of a show by Bill Chalmers and Marie Odendaal from August 25.



Johan Wilke exhibited photographs taken in Cuba. This is my review from September 15, 2005.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Jackson Hlungwane, SA heritage, Norman Catherine, Kendell Geers, Adam's Navel


Still reeling from an attack on my role as an art critic by a Rhodes art professor, I nonetheless continued to try to cover the shows as they occurred in Port Elizabeth in 2005. This posting starts with a badly mutilated version of my review of an exhibition of African art. There is also an article about what the cultural emphasis was likely to be in the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony, a review of an exhibition by Norman Catherine, a little letter taking a dig at Kendell Geers and a review of a fascinating book about the human body.



Jackson Hlungwane's carved sculptures are absolutely priceless South African africana. This is my badly hacked crit of Voice Overs, an exhibition of African art from the Wits collection, which appeared in the Herald on April 6, 2005. (Please click on the text to see it larger.)



My article on how the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony should be handled, which appeared on April 14.



I don't know Norman Catherine but feel a kinship for him, if you'll forgive the pun, since we both attended the East London Technical College art school under Jack Lugg. This appeared in April, 2005, but I had not dated the clipping.



I went rather overboard with this letter attacking Kendell Geers, run in the Sunday Times on May 15, 2005.



My review of Michael Sims's book, Adam's Navel, which appeared in the Herald's supplement, TGIF, on May 27, 2005.

Brenda Schmahmann and me, Claton Holliday, the Kamatuka San Cultural Project


In early March, 2005, I received in the mail my quarterly copy of the newsletter of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum (formerly the King George VI Art Gallery), which is Port Elizabeth's premier municipal gallery. Imagine my surprise when I came across a six-page character assassination attempt by Brenda Schmahmann, art history professor at Rhodes University. This followed my review of an exhibition she curated, which was published in the Herald, Port Elizabeth, in October, 2004. I posted it on this blog on August 31, this year. Anyway, this posting also includes a piece I wrote, based on an interview with Clayton Holliday, on the decay occurring in the historic heart of Central. There is also a review of an exhibition by San people based near Kimberley.



The first of three parts constituting Brenda Schmahmann's attack on yours truly. The rest follow. My response, along with another vitriolic attack on me by Jeanne Wright and a further lengthy riposte from Schmahmann before the subject was closed, appeared in the June, 2005, newsletter, which I'll post when I get there. (Please click on the text to see it larger.)



The second part of the Schmahmann article.



The concluding part of her article.



The first section of my piece on Clayton Holliday's views about Central. He was the director of the King George VI Art Gallery for many years until around 1990.



The second part of my piece on Holliday.



My review of an exhibition of works by the Kamatuka San Cultural Project, which appeared in the Herald on March 14, 2005.