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.

Umberto Eco, historic Port Elizabeth, colonialism, Aidon Westcott

Umberto Eco is best known for his novel, The Name of the Rose, which was made into a cracking good film. But this Italian writer is also one of the great thinkers of our time. In 2005 I reviewed his book, On Beauty. Also in this posting is a piece I wrote condemning an ANC plan to expand the historic Port Elizabeth City Hall, thereby destroying a treasured vista. There is also a letter attacking my views on colonialism and a review of an exhibition by Aidon Westcott.

My review of Umberto Eco's On Beauty, which appeared in the Herald's TFIG supplement on February 18, 2005. (Please click on the text to see it larger.)

My piece criticising the ANC council's plan to disfigure a treasured part of the old part of Port Elizabeth, which appeared in the Herald on February 21, 2005.

Back then my views were even deemed worthy of official comment from the Herald's leader writers. This sub-leader appeared on February 22, 2005.

Taking the broader view on the impact of the colonisation of this part of Africa was not always welcomed. This letter appeared in the Herald on February 28, 2005.

My review of Aidon Westcott's exhibition, Fish Symbolism, which appeared on March 1, 2005.