africa south

A Literary Con

A Literary Con

Rereading Dugmore Boetie’s Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost

Excerpt from Experiments with Truth in the Johannesburg Review of Books. 1 April 2019.
(With thanks to Jen Malec and JRB for image / montage of book covers.)


‘Is this Long Street?’

Everybody knows Long Street, so why was I being asked this by a large man who came out of a side alley?

As I began to give a cautious yes, the large man was shooed away by a smaller man in a high-vis jacket that read CCID (City Centre Improvement District).

‘They know you like to talk, Nigerians’, he said: ‘Be aware’.

Further down, the CCID had set up some large screens on which you could watch CCTV footage (taken by cameras on Long Street) of people being mugged, pickpocketed and scammed. The jerky black and white clips had been edited into a range of informative segments. The dangers of the open bag or the visible iPhone; lightning fast card swaps by people offering help at cash machines. A more elaborate version of this is the ‘false pop up’. Fraudsters tell tourists that they need a special permit to walk down a street, since it is closed for a film shoot, but that that this can easily be obtained from the nearest ATM, and let me help you with that.

There was also footage of the Shoe Scam – a ‘man particular’ con – which a friend of mine had just recently been a victim of. Staggering along drunk at night, he suddenly had someone beside him saying ‘Hey brother, we’ve got the same shoes!’, grabbing him by the shin, pulling up his trouser leg and comparing sneakers. This, the video explained, was a textbook diversion and desensitisation technique. It draws attention to the shoes with one hand while the other snakes round to remove a wallet, which is then swiftly passed it to an accomplice walking in the opposite direction. 

Long Street was closed to traffic for the evening, and a crowd had gathered. People were mesmerised: to see something so furtive and fast captured in the grainy footage. To see the obliviousness, the ease, the skill of it, the way pickpockets moved when in the act, so that even the rest of their bodies seemed unaware of what the one frantic hand was doing. The woozy surprise and confusions of the marks, then the sudden realisations – it was all there in archival black and white, ‘Recorded at 00:43 a.m. on Long Street’. The footage was so transfixing that a rumour, or a joke, began to run through the crowd: people were being so drawn in by these on-screen cons that they were being pickpocketed, again, in real life.

Read More

The Institute for the Less Good Idea

The Institute for the Less Good Idea

Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.

Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016 | [PDF].

My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:

I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.

Read More

Half-lives, Half-truths

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 10.52.54 AM.png

Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.

Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.) I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point...

Read more on the PEN SA website 

Literatures of Betrayal

Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies
‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words.

Read More

Xolobeni and the Violence of 'Development'

poster-xolobeni.jpg

Screening and panel discussion hosted by Environmental Humanities South.

For over a decade, members of the Amadiba community in Xolobeni have expressed their opposition to mining titanium on the sand dunes of Pondoland, on the Wild Coast of South Africa. This community is also opposing the extension on the N2 toll highway that will be required to transport the minerals from this remote rural area.

In screening ‘The Shore Break’ documentary, we hope to open a conversation about how to think beyond the language of ‘development’, with its many binaries and trade-offs. How to listen to those affected? How to engage without imposing? How to imbue political voice? How to overcome the binary language of development discourse, which is framed as for or against, either/or, mining versus ecotourism?

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts. 
ICA, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions...The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language.

Read More

Nuclear Summer

Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.

Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams...

Read More

A Useless Life

photographer-billy-monk-005.jpg

Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

Download PDF.

About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

Read More

Relocations

screen-shot-2015-12-13-at-3-05-12-pm.png

 A public lecture series transformed into a beautiful book.

Relocations: Reading Culture in South Africa | University of Cape Town Press | 2015. 

With essays and reflections by Gabeba Baderoon, André Brink, Imraan Coovadia, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Rustum Kozain, William Kentridge, Neo Muyanga, Zackie Achmat, Duncan Brown, John Higgins, Isabel Hofmeyr , Peter D. McDonald, Rajend Mesthrie, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Coilin Parsons, Sandy Young. And me. Designed by James King and Alexandra Dodd. Published by Juta.

PDF

screen-shot-2015-12-13-at-3-04-04-pm.png

Twenty Seven Years

Listening to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa.

Prufrock | September 2015.

This is middle C, my piano teacher would explain when I was about three or four years old. And this is the family of C (playing the pentatonic scale), and they all get on together, that’s why they are a family. And because it is C major they are a happy family.

Major being happy, minor being sad. It’s one of the first things I learned in music lessons (and sometimes I think that these lessons are my first memory). But what does that mean exactly? Is it true? Physiologically true, or just a learned response? And what happens if you express the ‘happy’ via the ‘sad’, or ‘sad’ via the ‘happy’?

These may well be naïve questions, unacceptable to musos and musicologists. But one thing I have taken from the work of the late pianist and composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa is the need to risk sounding naïve, and to begin at the beginning.

Read as PDF.

A Writer's Diary

fullsizerender3.jpg

Relaunching a minor classic of South African writing.

Address by Tanya Wilson at the Book Lounge | 26 August.

Casting an eye over the titles of papers to be delivered at an academic conference in English studies: I wonder whether the authors of almost all these papers do not feel that deep, if secret, shame that comes from recognizing that they are a mere chorus-line dancing to the tune of someone else's music and choreography. I am reminded, in short, of those occasions when I felt myself to be someone who has failed in that primal obligation: to be an autonomous human being. And the almost ontological sense of guilt that goes with it.

Stephen Watson, A Writer's Diary | 8 April 1996.

Confession of the Lioness

A radical call for change framed in semi-traditional forms.

Review of Mia Couto, Confession of the Lioness, trans. David Brookshaw.
Financial Times31 July 2015.

In April of this year, the poet and novelist Mia Couto wrote an open letter to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. “We remember you in Maputo,” it began, “from that time you spent as a political refugee in Mozambique. Often our paths crossed on Julius Nyerere Avenue and we would greet each other with the casual friendliness of neighbours.” Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Couto used his platform to condemn the attacks on foreign nationals that had resurfaced in Johannesburg and other cities. He implored the government to do more, and asked fellow Africans to remember a shared history of cultural mixing, migrant labour and liberation struggle — to imagine the fraternity of an “Africa South” that goes beyond national borders.

One of the most remarkable things about the letter was the fact that President Zuma (usually known for laughing off his critics) responded, and responded at length. He addressed Couto as “my dear brother”, remembered him as a courageous journalist, and acknowledged how the vulnerable Mozambiquan state had sheltered combatants fighting against apartheid. So it was surely Couto’s “struggle credentials” that partly invoked the response. Yet I also wonder if it might have been the particular mode of his address: its careful salutations, its formal language, its poetic and even ceremonious quality.

A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways. This is one way of describing Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012 and now appearing in translation by his long-term collaborator David Brookshaw. It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

An Unnatural History pt.2

An Unnatural History pt.2

An eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.

Review of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi, 2015). Sunday Times, 9 May 2015. Longer version at Books Live.

Now that Cecil Rhodes has been toppled from his plinth and trucked away for safekeeping, the question is what exactly to do with the man. One idea has been to relocate the statue to the Old Zoo just beyond the edge of the University of Cape Town’s campus. It is a lush, unsettling place of stone ruins and overgrown cages, where rough sleepers sleep rough in graffiti-covered enclosures and students sneak off for a joint between lectures. Instead of gazing out toward hinterlands, here the imperialist could himself be gazed at – not unlike like the various animals that he once installed in this 19th-century menagerie. The Old Zoo is at the heart of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s remarkable new novel: an eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.

Read More

Cecil Rhodes: My Part in His Downfall

Literature in the time of decolonization.

My attempt to make sense of the coincidence of MAN Booker International and the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town. Including one amazing fact you never knew (or needed to know) about the Rhodes statue...

The Essay: Life and Arts. Financial Times,3 April 2015.

See also: The Atlantic25 April 2015.

Just uphill from Rhodes, toward Table Mountain, I spotted a second, smaller plinth. On top of the pedestal stood a striking black woman, with her back to the statue and her face, obscured by a traditional beaded veil, angled down as if she was meditating. She wore a black leotard and had a quite untraditional pair of shiny stilettos on her feet.

The woman was Sethembile Msezane, an MFA candidate at the university and a Zulu-speaking performance artist from Soweto, outside Johannesburg. She’d made it her trademark on public holidays to juxtapose her young, black, female body with monuments of old, white, male colonial and Apartheid-era figures, and to turn up in silent vigil at sites of resistance to oppression.

Visions of Tsafendas

Visions of Tsafendas

Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.

Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.

Early version, 'Parliament of Fouls', in the Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.

I am sitting in the National Library, ordering up back issues of the Sunday Times, trying to find a particular paragraph which describes just how dysfunctional parliament became during the 20th year of South African democracy. There were many accounts of the chaotic sessions in the National Assembly just beyond the trees of Government Avenue; but I remembered this one in particular for the attention it paid to the physical gestures made by MPs as they baited each other in front of a public that was by turns amused and appalled.

Traced back to its root, the word ‘Parliament’ means speaking. The Old French source is preserved in the Afrikaans spelling on signs in Cape Town’s Company Gardens: Parlement. But in South Africa, 2014 was the year of ‘unparliamentary language’...It began with a brilliantly effective piece of political theatre: new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters being sworn in while wearing red labourers’ overalls (men) and red domestic worker aprons (women). Since then the EFF have set about jamming the language of the National Assembly in all registers, with little patience for verbal formulae and niceties inherited from abroad.

Read More

On the Brink of the Mundane

On the Brink of the Mundane

Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.

(Much) shorter version at the New Statesman, 9 January 2015: Lost in Joburg: One of South Africa's most accomplished prose stylists gets a timely reissue.

Do copy-editors still use their time-honoured signs: the confident slashes, STETs and arrowheads, the fallen-down S that means transpose? Or is everything now done via the garish bubbles of MS Word Track changes?

Midway through Ivan Vladislavić’s 2001 novel The Restless Supermarket, the proudly anachronistic narrator Aubrey Tearle gives a disquisition on the delete mark. As a retired proofreader, regular writer of letters to the editor, and grumpy but occasionally endearing old man, he suggests that of all his erstwhile profession’s charms, this is the most beautiful and mysterious:

Read More

Earth Ecology Humanities

A new interdisciplinary course at the University of Cape Town.

Environmental Humanities South

Imagining the Anthropocene

What do we mean when we speak of ‘the environment’? Whose environment, and who gets to speak? What propositions about ‘the natural’ and ‘the human’ undergird scientific advice on governance and management of the commons? ‘Sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘conservation’ – these are all terms that we hear daily, yet they are often used uncritically, or in specific, contested ways. What different ‘cultures of nature’ can we discern in a postcolonial setting like Cape Town, a place that opens onto highly contested terrains, both physical and intellectual?

‘Indigenous’ biodiversity set against botanical ‘invaders’ on the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park; constitutional rights to water and its complex social circuits through the ‘human settlements’ of greater Cape Town; predator ‘management’ in the farming districts of the Boland; debates over fracking in the Karoo thirstland; the state policing of Cape fisheries – these flashpoints call for new ways of imagining the relations between state, science, ecologies and publics. The environmental humanities is the term for a dynamic and growing field in universities across the world, one promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that explores how we understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. Ranging from scientific modelling to government policy, from social justice movements to the creative arts, it examines questions of sustainability, human wellbeing and the environment in their broadest sense.  In a 21st-century context of increasing pressure on the biosphere, the environmental humanities provide a vital intellectual space that enables researchers, students, artists, writers, scientists, policy-makers and practitioners to reflect critically on the concepts that underlie contemporary environmentalism, as well as broader social imaginings of ‘the natural’.

Imagining the Anthropocene.