Lientjie Wessels Showcases Connections Between Food and Cultures in Geure

Cover and food pictures: Donna Lewis

Foodstyling: Hannes Koegelenberg

Anyone who knows artist/chef/stylist/entrepreneur Lientjie Wessels will remember her for her imagination and individuality. It is exactly those two elements that she exhibits so joyfully in her new recipe book titled Geure (flavours by Annake Müller Publishing). DIANE DE BEER spoke to the author:

As Lientjie tells it, she has for a long time been thinking of writing a cookery book. “My love of  strong flavours and tastes came to the fore when I participated in kykNET’s Kokkedoor 3,” she says. And those of us who know her were quite surprised by her participation. But no one more so than Lientjie herself. That’s just who she is.

The first time I bumped into the extraordinary imagination of the larger-than-life Lientjie was with her Brooklyn Mall shop Lemon Lounge. You knew immediately if this was your kind of place or not and if it was, you were hooked on the Lientjie sensibility and style, which is all her own and has a charm that is completely unique. Her food and her fine art are interlinked and -twined – similarly in this book, which makes this one such a feast for the eyes with the food further enhanced by her paintings.

Her spectacular flair and flights of imagination flourished during her years in magazine styling and also in her much-loved restaurant Li-bel in Sunnyside and later Albizia in Cullinan and for a while on a family farm in that neighbourhood.

There has always been something of a gypsy about Lientjie, the way she embraces life and everything it offers. For those of us who favoured her food tables, there was always the knowledge that it might all be gone tomorrow, but also that it would appear in some other form – as it always does.

That’s why this book, which encapsulates it all, is such a treasure – so if your Afrikaans language skills are on par, this is one worth checking out.

Because flavours, which were introduced to Lientjie by her mother (to whom the book is dedicated), have played such an important role in her food journey, this is the focus: vinegar, citrus, ginger, olives and olive oil, flowers, chilly and mustard, honey, saffron and vanilla, garlic, herbs, spices and salt, sumac and tamarind, nuts, sesame seeds and tahini.

Yum!

Lientjie and Robert.jpg
Soulmates: Lientjie Wessels and the late Robert Denton

She was helped by her late husband Robert (who sadly died suddenly last year) with the writing and, like with everything these two life travellers tackled, it is quirky and simply a joy to experience. Each chapter starts with a description of the flavour showcased and in many of them, Lientjie’s mother’s influence surfaces. “My first memories of vinegar,” she writes, “is absolutely the rows and rows of pickled onions that my mom made each year.”

And then the recipes follow and in this instance it stretches from pickled walnuts on toast with goat’s milk cheese and fast fridge pickle. Citrus is included in recipes of lemon mousse, lemon curd, soup with lamb shanks, rice and lemon, pork fillet with a lime sauce, fruit salad and more.

Lientjie’s food has always been rooted in South Africa but with a strong dose of Middle Eastern and Asian flavours. Her mother was her first and strongest influence and, according to Lientjie, started to cook because hér mother could not. “My grandmother taught me everything else, but  not about making food.”

Lientjie Gnocci
Spinach and ricotta gnocchi

From the first time we talked about food, she has talked about her boredom threshold, and she believes that her restaurant days were always doomed, because she couldn’t be bothered to make a dish more than three times. By then she had achieved everything she wanted. Also probably influenced by her mother, who had such an unusual palate and constantly introduced her family to new flavours and textures. “She always wanted to make something new,” notes Lientjie.

But of course, that’s also what made her dining experiences so unique and unusual. She has a very distinct signature and the menu would always be a surprise. Similarly she has achieved that individuality in this absorbing book.

The colours are vibrant and welcoming, the food – apart from being grouped according to flavour – is a lovely mix of starters, mains and desserts with sauces, snacks, breakfasts and more.

There’s never anything conventional or contrived about this artist. She is probably the last one I would have expected to appear on Kokkedoor and yet, in the end, it resulted in this fantastic book and when you listen to her, she also discovered a newfound confidence in her cooking during the show.

She also realised that she really likes food. Anyone who has had a restaurant will know that it must be one of the most challenging endeavours to attempt . She did it twice and then created a very niche way of dining. It was spectacular and appealed to a select and very loyal group of diners. Local chefs will tell you that South Africans are tough to feed and Pretoria, I have often been informed, is an especially  difficult market at best.

But some of my best experiences were either at a pavement table at Li-bel with Lientjie and Robert’s dogs lying around, drinking a coffee after a delicious meal and never feeling I had to rush anything; or checking in for a Sunday meal at Albizia with Robert, a storyteller extraordinaire, entertaining us with his fables of life on the fast side.

And then there’s Lientjie’s art. It has been incorporated into the book in simply the best way and introduces even more of the way her mind and creativity works. For her, when she makes food or paints, the same principles come into play. “I can taste things in my head,” she says. It’s all conceptual, exactly like her art. “It’s about balance, colour and texture.”

Lientjie Wessels1
Lientjie Wessels

 

Looking at the future, she wants to find a way to make people and cultures touch one another. “We have so many connections through food,” she explains.

And then she shares her delights in the best way she knows how – with her recipes and through her art.

 

 

For more detail on buying the book, contact Annake Müller Publishing: annakem@mweb.co.za. After lockdown they will be sending those books via courier.

Authors Fred Khumalo and Petina Gappah Give Voice to Silenced Perspectives in their Latest Novels

Book The Longest MarchDIANE DE BEER

It’s a peculiar thing, synchronicity, but when  it happens, it feels as if it was meant to be. Like reading two books, Fred Khumalo’s The Longest March (Umuzi) and Petina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light (Faber&Faber) in close succession.

Both of these are novels that focus on marches in the past, both retell the stories from another point of view, and both are based on fact with a fictionalised retelling which reimagines what might have happened in much more detail.

It is a time for many to relook at their histories which have always been told from the conqueror’s point of view, and on this continent that means told from a white perspective, often downplaying or more often disregarding any other point of view even when it was their story to tell or there was participation which shouldn’t have been avoided.

Like so many of these stories from our past, depending on the colour of your skin, they come as a complete surprise.

Book Khumalo-pic-resized
Fred Khumalo

I start with Khumalo, because his story is closer to home. The facts weren’t familiar to me, giving the novel a fascinating backdrop. Approximately 120 years ago, 7 000 Zulu mineworkers walked from the gold mines in Jozi to Natal, covering a distance of 500 km over 10 days.

It wasn’t as if these men had a choice. When war is declared between the South African Republic and the British Empire, the mines are shut down and migrant workers are ordered to leave. But, there’s a problem. There are no trains running so the only way to get back home and away from danger is on foot.

Khumalo decides to tell a story with this as a backdrop as one of the miners, Nduku, decides to take his woman back home with him. Again, there’s a problem – she’s white. The only way to achieve this is to make her a mineworker’s wife and all this in spite of the couple having broken off their engagement.

There’s more than enough drama to go around – the physical and emotional journey for both Nduku and Philippa – who have to survive many mostly physical obstacles but also a handful of unseen and unexpected dangers.

It won’t be a South African story if someone doesn’t take advantage of those already in trouble. On the sidelines yet part of the journey is a group who are hoping to cash in on the salaries of these migrant workers on the long march home.

It’s gripping stuff and Khumalo is a supreme storyteller, but more than anything it was the march that really intrigued me. Of course it’s not something that was part of our school history during the apartheid years, and I would be joyous and surprised if it has become part of the curriculum even now.

But to discover and learn about this extraordinary sidebar during one of our many wars at the turn of the century is exhilarating. This is what is supposed to happen in a more enlightened time in a country.

Histories should be re-written and retold to reflect the role of everyone who was part of the story. For far too long the world has listened to too few voices simply because they weren’t there or drowned out by those who held the power.

Book out-of-darkness-shining-light

In similar vein, Zimbabwean author Pettina Gappa tells the story of a very different march but with many similarities. Most importantly it is about bringing the main players in this drama from the shadows into the sunlight as the title implies.

Most of us will be familiar with the name Dr David Livingstone but unless you are a history buff, few people will know the story of the body of “Bwana Daudi – the Doctor”.

This is the story of the 69 men and women who carried his remains over 1 500 miles (imagine that!), so that he could be taken back to his homeland across the sea and thus buried in his own country. The heroics of even contemplating that deed make it extraordinary that this wasn’t part of our history.

But of course, never during apartheid and I again, I’m sure it still isn’t taught at schools or university as a general historical lesson. I’m not holding my breath that someone proves me wrong either – perhaps in some specialised field…even that would be good.

Bk Petina Gappah

Gappah is a fascinating writer, not only in the way she tells stories but also in the stories she decides to tell. This one, as you can imagine, is above everything else set in a time of slavery, which brings yet another dimension to the tale. The fact that Dr Livingstone gave his slaves their freedom didn’t mean automatically that that would happen. Sometimes it was also a better life to keep toiling as if you were still in the same circumstances as before.

But also the people’s dedication, that they would even want to carry a white man’s bones so that they could be sent for burial in  his homeland – at that time, is astonishing. In her acknowledgements the author notes that she spent 10 years on historical research. “But,” she writes, “I am under no illusion that this work is in any sense historically accurate. While rooted in historical fact, this novel is above all imaginative fiction.”

She points to a few historians but above all Thomas Pakenham, whose first chapter of The Scramble for Africa sparked the idea for this book as long ago as 1999. She adds that he was also both generous and kind when she consulted him on the project.

She believes she also had the privilege of consulting original letters, photographs, and other documents related to David Livingstone that are collected in all kinds of institutions, including the National Library of Scotland; the Peace Memorial Museum, Zanzibar; the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre; and the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare.

“I especially want to mention the youngest Livingstone enthusiast of them all, dear Tayani Mhizha, who wrote a brilliant International Baccalaureate analytical essay on him at the age of seventeen,” she adds.

She also consulted many different letters and documents that are collected by different institutions around the world and pays homage to Livingstone Online, a programme initiated by all the institutions that are repositories for documents related to his life and travels.

Thanks goodness for technology – again! She concludes by saying: “The historians gave me facts, and my imagination supplied the rest.”

She also illuminates her writing with an introductory quote from The Last Journals of David Livingstone:

I trust in Providence still to help me. I know the four rivers Zambesi, Kafué, Luapula, and Lomamé, their fountains must exist in one region … I pray the good Lord of all to favor me so as to allow me to discover the ancient fountains of Herodotus, and if there is anything in the underground excavations to confirm the precious old documents, the Scriptures of truth, may He permit me to bring it to light, and give me wisdom to make proper use of it.

And then follows a most intriguing tale beginning with the death of Livingstone and those around him, how they made the decision to carry the body and everything else that happened during that final journey to the coast.

It illuminates much about the continent, the people, the period, how certain parts of history have simply been ignored as part of any narrative and the dangers waiting along the way for these intrepid warriors who were determined to do right by a man they felt deserved a final resting place in peace.

If only we would take the time to listen to Africa and its people more closely. It’s one of the reasons I love living on the continent – that people don’t speak with one voice but give us the chance to look at things from different perspectives. And then we can start living with some wisdom.

Giving voice to silenced perspectives has given a whole new way of experiencing the world.

Johan Swart’s Hidden Pretoria Celebrates A Capital City With Hidden Treasures

Hidden PretoriaPictures: Alain Proust

Hidden Pretoria (published by Struik Lifestyle)

“Hidden Pretoria places the buildings of our capital city in the spotlight,” writes author Johan Swart, Lecturer and Curator Archive collections Department of Architecture, University of Pretoria.

 

 

The word Hidden in the title also suggests that much of what is showcased would not all be obvious to even Pretoria residents and for those visiting, would serve as an exciting guide to the many spectacular buildings in the city.

Even having worked in the city centre for most of my life, I was only vaguely familiar with a mosque right in the centre of the city which had through the years become hidden because of certain buildings that obscure it from the public eye.

But because of Swart’s architectural eye and non-Pretorian photographer Alain Proust’s specific and individualistic way of looking at and capturing buildings, the beauty or unusual features of even a familiar building emerge much more strongly.

Hidden Pta Page 72
A different view from the Palace of Justice eastern tower, with details of the entrance lobby roof visible in the foreground and the western tower behind. The old State Bank building is on Church Square is visible below.

“With the Hidden Pretoria project the publisher was looking to work with someone in the academic sphere. My focus area at the university is local (South African) architectural heritage which was a good fit with the project.

“ It also made sense for a Pretoria-based academic to take on this task, as a great amount of effort went into ‘location scouting’ and access arrangements for which I called in a number of favours within local architectural and conservation networks. I also have access to a number of archives and libraries that contain information about sites in Pretoria,” explained Swart.

He also had the difficult task of appeasing the highly critical academics among whom he finds himself, while ensuring that the book is accessible to a much wider audience at the same time. “I needed the book to be a responsible account of the architectural history of our city, something that could be prescribed to a student at our department, but also a book that these students would be able to lend to their family and friends as an enjoyable read.” And he certainly pulled that off.

It’s clear that he did extensive fieldwork before selecting buildings for inclusion in the book, and he says that only places that he had visited and where he saw (and felt) a deep quality of place were chosen.

Hidden Pta Page 67
Palace of Justice: The colonnaded entrance halls are flooded with natural light from leaded-glass skylights and clerestory windows.

The book serves as a reminder of what the city holds. “Architecturally, Pretoria’s buildings tell the story of a 19th Century republican outpost ignited by the politics of the British Empire, transformed through apartheid-era restructuring and evolving into a 21st century African metropolis,” writes Swart.

In the initial stages, the book posed many challenging questions. For example, which buildings are the most representative of Pretoria’s architectural legacy? What contribution can this publication make to the historical record? How can a broad audience be introduced to the city and its buildings?

His answers to these served a number of aims: Hidden Pretoria is both a momentary snapshot of spaces that might soon change or vanish, drawing attention to their incredible value and potential,  and a photographic documentation of the city, structured and written as an architectural survey. Diverse hidden spaces are exposed, he explains, and ultimately the range of buildings captures the collective spatial identity of the city.

The theme dictated that the book be curated as a journey of discovery revealing a series of surprising spaces in a manner not accessible to the majority of readers. This is enhanced by Proust’s particular eye for a picture.

He has collaborated with Struik Lifestyle for decades, so he was the obvious choice for the Hidden series of which Pretoria is the third city following Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Hidden Pta Page 14-15
Panoramic view over Church Square, the geographical and historical heart of Pretoria looking towards the north west from the roof of the Old Standard Bank building.

“But apart from that,” says Swart, “I also believe he is one of the best architectural photographers around, the style of his photographs are straightforward in terms of angles and perspective but incredibly good in terms of light, colour and focus etc.”

He was thrilled that Proust managed to get incredible quality and richness out of even the most elemental architectural moments. “He was at moments surprised with the quality of buildings and spaces in Pretoria and I believe the journey of discovery that we embarked on also enthused him to capture the best of Pretoria for a wider South African audience.”

Many of the spaces lie just beyond the surface of known facades, notes Swart. “Historical buildings such as the Palace of Justice and Old Standard Bank are well-known neoclassical edifices in full public view that hide beautifully articulated interior volumes.”

Hidden Pta Page 152-153
The auditorium of the Capitol Theatre described as one of Pretoria’s most unexpected interior spaces is enveloped in Renaissance-themed decor under an imitation sky ceiling. A parking area has replaced the ground floor seating.

Specifically to capture the intent of the book, the cover picture captures exactly that ethos. It is the most dramatic example of a hidden treasure behind a relatively nondescript facade right in the heart of the city.

The author also explains that some buildings are not only architecturally important but also worth exploring for the hidden objects. The works of artists like Alexis Preller and Walter Battiss, for example, remain locked in the abandoned TPA Building and like the mosque, some buildings are hidden because of their urban context.

For city dwellers themselves, some of the facades have disappeared simply because of familiarity and the interiors are quite breath-taking, yet we walk past them sometimes on a daily basis never having ventured inside.

Hidden Pta Page 174
The lower areas of Freedom Park with the continuity between the building and its surrounding landscape evident in this view.

One of Swart’s aims was to inspire a general awareness and appreciation of the architectural heritage of the city. All the selected buildings are of heritage value and their relevance in the present, can be measured according to a number of themes.

As an architect who works in academia himself, he argues most succinctly and with each building or site also details many facts that would be unknown to those of us who simply see an interesting or historical building – some which we might even in these past decades have turned our backs on.

He points out, for example, that the Dutch Reformed churches at Universiteitsoord and Burgerspark are of particular  architectural and historical interest because they’re illustrative of the Regionalist and Brutalist design approaches that prevailed in the 1960s. Both the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park have value as spaces of reflection and debate as they present as reference points for dialogue about identity and memory.

HP THE MARIEAMMAN TEMPLE: PRETORIA
The Mariamman Temple viewed from the Tamil Hall over the central core of the temple complex with arda mandapam to the left, and maha mandapan (pavillion) in the middle, and the gopuram (entrance portal) to the right.

Those who know and visit Marabastad for some extraordinary shopping and food or drive past on their way to the city centre, would have noticed the extraordinary Mariamman Temple, a place of gathering and an anchor point  for the identity of its faith community, says Swart, as he goes on to point out many more features of Pretoria’s unique architecture.

Some would argue about the choices, and others might miss some of their favourites, but no one could be critical about the way the city is showcased from both a public and private point of view.

Hidden Pta Page 170-172
The Voortrekker Monument is an impressive granite structure with Art Deco articulation and a variety of symbolic motifs.

I loved the few private homes chosen; the fact that the home and work space one of our best artists, Angus Taylor, is featured. Or that House Jooste (Pretorians will know it as Brasserie de Paris) is featured as a homage to Le Corbusier as well as for locals who have a taste for French cuisine and Brutalist architecture. And then there’s Ora Joubert’s Ivy Villa Studio which makes a specific architectural statement, which was also its intent. She has been critical of the mediocrity of design in too many of our suburbs and has taken great pleasure in breaking that mould.

Whichever way you want to use or look at this book – whether a resident of the city or a visitor – it has been beautifully crafted from the selection of buildings and places to show. Extraordinary photographs and informed research guide the traveller, and finally, all come together to present something which is much more than a coffee table book.

And a final word from the author: “Even as a Pretorian who knows the city rather well, I was once again surprised with the intriguing and beautiful places that are to be found in and around the city. It takes a good amount of effort to discover and explore our cities but the personal reward makes it worthwhile.

“ I have a much more comprehensive and embodied understanding of our city after completing this project. It is also remarkable once we start understanding the incredible financial, architectural and social investment that was spent in the making of these special buildings, Pretoria really does have a ‘grand’ architectural legacy to take pride in and be inspired by.

“Another surprise is how wide the spectrum is along which the condition (state of conservation) of buildings can be placed, a surprising amount of heritage buildings in the city really is in almost pristine condition, where other sites are in complete and indefensible decay, perhaps this reflects something of the schizophrenic nature of South African society in general.”

Hopefully Hidden Pretoria will highlight the neglect of some of our hidden treasures, remind citizens of their architectural riches and enlighten visitors who might think the city only offers the Union Building with the monumental Mandela statue and the Voortrekker Monument. There is that but also so much more.

Yea Pretoria!

Rock Legends Patti Smith and David Bowie Offer more than the Perfect Escape

Books are a uniquely portable magic.
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

 

It’s a strange time when being at home alone (with family or perhaps a friend) can become quite demanding, but if you are privileged enough to have the luxury of viewing it as a time to take stock, catch up and get to all those things you love doing but never have time for, this will also be a time to read, read and read as much as you can. It is the perfect escape. This is the start of some suggestions by DIANE DE BEER in random fashion and as eclectic as reading can be for each individual. Hope you find some inspiration:

Book Yr of the Monkey

 

You have to know when tackling a Patti Smith book titled Year of the Monkey (Bloomsbury) to expect the unexpected.

Nothing about her life will be ordinary or familiar and a willingness to follow her on whatever journey she takes is a prerequisite to starting this equally melancholy and madcap journal.

Someone mentions that anything is possible, after all it is the Year of the Monkey, hence the title of the book which should be another loadstar to where these Smith meanderings might lead you.

It’s been a year of coping both with ageing (her 70th birthday looms) and dying, when her friend the producer, rock critic and manager Sandy Pearlman is hospitalised and yet another close friend and former partner, playwright Sam Shepard, is also deadly ill and needs her help to finish what will be his last book. (If you haven’t read her obituary of Shepard, it’s worth finding online.)

But first things first. Apart from these close encounters with friends and her own mortality, it’s also a helter-skelter time politically with elections in the air (and we all know how that ended) as well as Smith’s tendency to intertwine her different realities. You’d better be on your toes to keep track of her eclectic mind. Some might be fatalistic given her circumstances but others are quite fantastical as she starts communicating with an  inviting hotel sign with the name Dream Inn.

She doesn’t have everyday conversations and even loses a ride when she can’t stop talking even when warned she could only tag along if she didn’t say a word.

Whether you know and like her music or not, your enjoyment of the book depends on whether you fall in love with her eclectic lifestyle, her unusual way of making her way through life and perhaps, the age she’s at, which determines this somewhat fatalistic mood.

Along the way, she always has her camera on hand taking artistic shots of seemingly mundane features like an unmade bed in a nondescript hotel room, a writer’s shoes, a café in Lisbon and anything that catches her fancy or captures her mood.

This is not any ordinary diary but someone musing about a time in her life that finds her at particular crossroads because of circumstances beyond her control. We all know that place, but for someone with Smith’s particular capabilities, it takes what might be for many quite strange detours. It’s as if she allows the universe to dictate, as if finding it difficult to determine her own pathway right at this time.

We all know that feeling of drifting but few would actually take on the physical reality as well. Perhaps the end of a run of New Year concerts helped her along. Spent as she must have been, a time to unwind and throwing herself to the wind might make sense of a world that feels as if it is turning on her. The election of Trump also having some impact here. It is Patti Smith after all, how could it not!

If all this sounds dire because of the loneliness and a certain desolation, it is also a novel way of capturing your own feelings – especially in this time, making sense of a world that seems out of control and lending insight to others who might experience similar feelings without knowing how to get a different grip on life.

And in our present circumstances, this might be the escape some of us have been looking for. It is a writer who uses her imagination to inhabit a world she doesn’t understand – or even want to.

Book Bowie's BooksFor Bowie, one suspects, had he still been living, he would have dipped into one of the many books he loved, far beyond the 100 listed in Bowie’s Books: The Hundred Literary Heroes who Changed His Life by John O’Connel (with illustrations by Luis Paadin) published by Bloomsbury.

It’s a fascinating read, which tells you much more about Bowie while explaining the books. In the introduction that explains the writing of the book, O’Connel quotes a Sunday Times location report: “Bowie hates aircraft so he mostly travels across the States by train, carrying his mobile bibliothèque in special trunks which open out with all his books neatly displayed on shelves.”

This portable library sported 1 500 titles, more than enough so that he would never run out.

From March 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition David Bowie Is travelled the world for the next 5 years. To coincide with the show’s first port of call, Ontario, the V&A issued the list on which this book is based, explains the author. It is the 100 books Bowie considered the most important and influential – not, note, his “Favourite books” as such – out of the 1 000s he had read during his life.

Bowie had through his life advertised his bookishness, according to O’Connel, not through interviews “but more obliquely in his work and in the range of masks he wore when he presented it to the public”.

We  learn, for example, that he didn’t do well at school – not through laziness it is surmised, or an inability to retain information, but rather, speculates the author, an impatience with formal education. He enjoyed teaching himself much rather than being taught by someone else.

He loved passing on the knowledge and passionately argued for a book he enjoyed to the extent that he started reviewing books for Barnes and Noble (book stores in the US).

One could also see the influence of different arts and genres in his work, in his songs, his presentations, even his album covers. That’s what makes this such a fascinating read for those who aren’t that familiar with his work

Bowie also liked playing games, says the author – hence the lists. “The V&A list is but one element of a game he enjoyed more than any other – curating his own mythology”.

One of the most incisive quotes in the introduction is something he said to Michael Parkinson during an interview: “I spent an awful lot of my life …actually looking for myself, understanding what I existed for and what made me happy in life and who exactly I was and what were the parts of myself that I was trying to hide from.”

O’Connel emphasises that the role reading played in  this quest cannot be underestimated.

It’s an extraordinary book and one that constantly surprises. The secret is in the way it has been written. With a 100 books to run through, O’Connel rarely gives more than two pages to a book in which he explains the author, who he is and what the book is about.

There’s also the significance to Bowie, a context in some way as well as insight not only into the book but also into Bowie himself.

It’s not necessarily one of those books about books that send you rushing off to read most of them. More importantly, it is about the man who read them and why he found them so significant.

Prue Leith: A Splash of Vibrant Colour

Pictures: Corne Ann Photography.

Prue Leith school

With her recent visit to the Prue Leith Culinary Institute in Centurion, mainly to celebrate their success as well as her 80th birthday, it’s her youthfulness that bowls you over. DIANE DE BEER finds out more about her unstoppable drive:

It’s Prue Leith’s constant refrain when talking about yet another venture, “I’m a  commercial woman”, and how fast she runs her life, that keeps her young. The energy obviously rubs off, that and her exuberance, her dazzling embrace of bright colours, and partner John Playfair who never stops the banter, but also gives a helping hand when she moves around the room for book signings.

Prue Leith and partner
Partners in cameraderie John Playfair and Prue Leith.

That’s just who she is. Instead of asking everyone to stand in line, she moves around the room to do the necessary with John in tow for selfies and anything else she might need, the perfect team.

In town for amongst other her birthday celebrations (she wanted to do some of that in Cape Town as well), she admits that she isn’t that happy that everyone knows her age. But when she opened her restaurant in London at the age of 29, she was loud and proud about the achievement.

Ever practical, Prue isn’t too fussed and chats happily about her many endeavours, of which her return to the food world precipitated much of what is bubbling in her booming business sphere.

Prue blowing out the candles...finally!
Hurricane Prue blowing out the candles in her exuberant style.

At the time of her first association with the food world, the British food establishment was in the clutches of Escoffier (but not in the right way, according to Prue), it had become stifled, always sticking to the rules and not taking heed of the great French master’s advice that one had to move with the times. “It was all about following the rules and if it wasn’t Escoffier, it wasn’t cuisine,” she says.

“You would find all the same items on the menus across London,” she says. When she left, she started campaigning in the food world for good school lunches, for example, and another successful launch was her fiction writing, which resulted in a clutch of novels and a revealing memoir. And she’s still writing because it is something she loves.

After a break of 25 years, she was lured back into the food world as a judge on The Great British Menu and discovered a brave new world. “It was so different with the chefs all turning to flavours from the  Middle East, for example,” and she found herself stealing their recipes.

Suddenly chefs were regarded as the great artists they had become and were taken more seriously. All of this appealed to Prue as after 11 years she was lured to The Great British Bake-Off, replacing Mary Berry when the show moved to Channel 4 in March 2017

Prue Leith dessert
An extravaganza of honey festivity, Ode to Bees,  at Prue Leith’s Chef’s Academy as they spotlight the role of bees with some food for thought.

Not only is it one of the most watched shows on British TV, it also has a huge younger demographic. “The children are all watching,” she says, which has brought her new-found fame in the food world. “I was absent for so long and suddenly there are new generations discovering me.”

Prue pretty in red
Prue, pretty in red, casts her much prized eye in the kitchen.

She’s excited about this younger generation who probably all start off baking cupcakes but even if baking is what gets them started, they will follow with cooking meals. She recently participated in the first Junior Bake-Off series with the children ranging in age from 9 to 15 years. “I thought it was unfair, that the younger participants would be at a disadvantage, but it wasn’t the case,” she says.

What she discovered during her conversations with the youngsters is that most of them learnt to bake and cook on Youtube. To her it doesn’t matter how it happens. “The more children bake, the more will cook,” she believes.

Prue Leith and another selfie...
Prue Leith and a selfie with 2nd year student, Obakeng Chiloane.

Even a stop at a petrol station means endless selfie moments says John. But what really excited Prue with her re-entry into the food world was the opening up of new vistas. She published a new recipe book after a long absence and was urged by her publishers to start with an introductory book covering all her favourite recipes, rather than launching into a specific genre.

She followed this with The Vegetarian Kitchen together with her niece, pastry chef and vegetarian Peta Leith. “I have wanted to do this for ages but 25 years ago, my publishers advised that a similar title would not sell,” she says. Even though she is not a vegetarian herself, she has always been partial to vegetables and had a full vegetarian menu alongside the main menu in her Michelin-starred restaurant.

These days, she often opts for vegetables but isn’t preachy about it.

A totally new venture and one she’s eager to promote is her collaboration with eye wear specialists Ronit Fürst. She was quick to make a note of the many people that asked her about the brightly coloured specs she was wearing on Bake-Off.

They were hand painted and expensive but her timing was right when she approached the company to come up with a bright yet more affordable series which is now also available in South Africa. She advises that one simply googles Prue Leith glasses. I did and found a few optometrists in Joburg but with the range available locally, you optometrist should be able to get hold of the distributors. When you see the range, you will want them.

Prue’s advice: “Shoes and handbags spend most of their time under the table. Across a table, people are looking at your face – hence the glasses.” Always the sensible woman.

Prue Leith graduate
A graduate that gives them bragging rights.

And then to a matter of the heart. It took Prue a while before she became involved with a cookery school but from the start, she was hands-on with the Prue Leith College of Food (1997) named Prue Leith Chefs Academy (10 years later) and now another decade on, Prue Leith Culinary Institute. She visited sometimes twice a year and was always aware of what was happening and where she could offer advice.

Prue with the Prue Leith staff
Prue with the female-dominated staff at Prue Leith Culinary Institute: From Left to right: Nicola Eksteen, Executive Chef, Prue Leith CBE, Patron, Maria Dixon, Head of Training, Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen, Managing Director, Debby Laatz, Head of Academics .

These days with the classy Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen as Managing Director and a brilliant female-dominated team of super chefs, Prue hardly has to do more than admire – and she’s smiling.

“I am so proud,” she says and as the trooper she is, she returns enthusiastically to yet another of the many functions hosted on this celebratory visit.

For more info, check http://www.prueleith.co.za

Majak Bredell is an Artist with a Mission

Majak Bredell n1983 study
Majak Bredell – 1983 study

Majak Bredell is one of those artists whose exhibitions feel like an adventure you’re undertaking as she maps out the journey you’re embarking on. DIANE DE BEER tells some of her story:

 

Majak Bredell - Self portrait 1995 (002)
Majak Bredell – Self portrait 1995

Majak Bredell’s upcoming exhibition(s), MAJAK BREDELL: THE NEW YORK YEARS: 1981-2003, is a case in point. Not being someone who believes in keeping it simple, it is a curated collaboration between the Association of Arts Pretoria and the Pretoria Art Museum suggested by the association’s director Pieter van Heerden.

When you can, go big, is what Majak does well and because of the scope, she was thrilled about the collaboration.

The two part retrospective overview in the two galleries is accompanied by a full-colour catalogue that includes an essay by the curator, Prof. Elfriede Dreyer.

Looking back at her life, when Majak emigrated to New York in 1981 with her husband and two young children, she embarked on a journey that would lead her “from the confines of a traditional marriage on to the riches this world-city had to offer a searching artist.”

Majak Bredell Gesture Drawings
Gesture drawings

The works on show at both the venues cover a period of 22 years that follow the trajectory of the artist’s initial confrontations with issues of belonging and dis-belonging as the chasm between her mother country and her adopted home were mediated in both image and poetry. Several artist’s books with images and bilingual poems resulted from this.

majak poetry
A page from Mother Passage which has been framed for the exhibition.

The Association’s showcase is an introduction together with a book titled Mother Passage, which includes 20 etchings and 20 bilingual poems, all of which she had framed so that it can be viewed in a particular way in the gallery.

The Pretoria Art Gallery covers similar themes and it was helpful to have a curator like Prof Dreyer who could pull things together. “There are so many works,” says Majak, “we could only use half of all the actual pieces.”

She also has a slideshow of all her workbooks and sketches and she was still crossing fingers (at the time of our chat) that she could achieve it technically – so that it could run on a loop. “It’s been put together in no particular order, no narrative, so that people can start watching at any point,” she says and it will take 33 minutes. Nothing is left to chance. She also has text cards throughout her exhibition to guide the viewer. “I’m covering a big arc,” she acknowledges.

This is an artist who very early on in her career knew that she didn’t want to use her art to make a living. “My lifeline couldn’t be diluted,” she says earnestly. She wanted no compromises. Instead she made a living as a graphic artist, something which has also stood her in good stead because she can self-publish her amazing catalogue for example.

Majak Bredell - Study for mother passage (002)
Majak Bredell – Study for Mother Passage

Bredell states in that catalogue accompanying the exhibitions:

“Through art-making I quarreled with the legacy and unyielding demands of the patriarchal Calvinism that shaped my childhood in the 1950s South Africa. This journey, accompanied by Jungian therapy and much reading, eventually led me to a gender shift in the image of the sacred, culminating in my resurrection of ancient notions of the great mother, goddess, the sacred female.

“In this process, I imagined an embodied reflection of those parts of being that had been marginalized or rejected by western monotheism’s misogyny and its casting of the sexual female body into the abyss of so-called original sin. During my sojourn in that great city, art-making remained my passion despite limited exhibition opportunities.

“Longing  for my mother country and the loss of a South African identity eventually precipitated my return to South Africa after a hiatus of almost 23 years.  By which time my identity had shifted to include my New York identity that I wore like a second skin — a double identity I wear to this day.”

Majak Bredell 1998 Arc of Life
1998 Arc of Life

Since her return to South Africa, the themes developed in New York were further elaborated and exhibited:  2009: Alter Images: The Black Madonna & Sisters; 2013: Roll Call: a vindication of the lives and bodies that were destroyed during the centuries-long European witch persecutions; 2016: Codex Magdalene+: towards a new iconography and re-imaging the mythology and legends of Mary Magdalene; and her current works in progress, Earth/Body, that explore dialogues between the human body and the body of the earth.

And underlying all of her work is her quest to emphasise why the gender of God has done such damage to women’s bodies and a sense of self. “I was highly influenced by the writing of the spiritual feminists,” and she rattles off a slew of names as well as the website www.feminismandreligion.com for anyone interested.

Do yourself a favour. Set aside a day, or perhaps two mornings or afternoons to break it up. Visit both exhibitions and do them thoroughly. It will be like reading an extraordinary book by a remarkable woman sharing her soulful story.

 

majak4
A favourite dress – layers of being. Graphite and charcoal on Arches cover paper

Details of the Pretoria exhibitions:

1: — an introduction to the work
Opening:  Friday 6 March 2020 at 7pm

THE ASSOCIATION OF ARTS PRETORIA
173 Mackie Street
Nieuw Muckleneuk, Pretoria

Opening speaker: Dr Avitha Sooful

Walkabout by the artist:  Wednesday 11 March 2020 at 12 noon

Closing:  Wednesday 25 March 2020 at 3pm

 

2: — the comprehensive exhibition
Opening:  Saturday 14 March 2020 at 11 am

THE PRETORIA ART MUSEUM
cnr Francis Baard and Wessels Streets
Arcadia Park, Pretoria

Opening speaker: Prof. Elfriede Dreyer

Walkabout by the artist:  Tuesday 24 March 2020 at 11 am.

Closing:  Sunday 14 June 2020

Bredell’s book, SACRED SCARS, will be introduced at the Association of Arts Pretoria at both the opening and at the walkabout.  The artist researched and compiled images that represent humankind’s embodied relationship to the sacred female in art and artefacts dating from pre-history to the early modern period.

Bumper Toyota SU Woordfees Goes All Out To Wow Possible Festival Groupies

All who pass2
All Who Pass

A bumper Toyota SU Woordfees runs from March 6 to 15 in Stellenbosch. DIANE DE BEER picks a smattering of highlights for theatre, music and book chats, but as these are strictly a personal suggestion, there’s so much more to explore:

 

For those interested in theatre, here the accent is on participants for most of these are unseen productions, some in English and some Afrikaans:

All Who Pass: written by last year’s Standard Bank Young Artist Amy Jephta, directed by Quanita Adams, starring Elton Landrew, Iman Isaacs, Carmen Maarman, Roberto Kyle and Jawaahier Petersen; This is such a strong team, they’re hard to resist as they tell the horrific story of District Six with a family spending their last night in their home in 1974; and then restitution in 2019 as a daughter returns to claim her inheritance.

Cellist - cred Monique Pelser large size-1154
Cellist with Rabies. Picture Monique Pelser.

Cellist with Rabies: pairs artists extraordinaire Jemma Kahn (writer and performer) and Jaco Bouwer (director and set design with Rocco Pool) also starring David Viviers. The facts are stranger than fiction and as the name implies and the description – a peculiar romantic tragedy loosely based on questionable science – determines, they will be turning your imagination upside down.

Die Vermoeienis van Vlerke: is a translation of Lara Foot’s successful The Inconvenience of Wings which deals with the impact of disabling mood disabilities on friendships and family, directed by the luminous Sylvaine Strike and starring Henriëtta Gryfenberg, Frank Opperman and Chris Gxalaba in an exciting re-interpretation of this provocative play.

Lab class pic
The Market Lab students in action with Hani: The Legacy.

Hani: The Legacy: produced for the Market Lab, it comes with a reputation following its Gaunteng and National Arts Festival runs. It was inspired by the landmark American musical Hamilton and set to contemporary music, including rap, hip hop and ballads, with the approach aimed at inspiring the youth with the legacy of the slain warrior Chris Hani directed by the inspired Leila Henriques.

Hoe Change Hulle: It’s difficult to resist a production called Bossikop Productions and with text and costumes by Veronique Jephtas, direction by Lee-Ann van Rooi and starring Marlo Minnaar, it tells a story of the ghetto and the lives of those many prefer to ignore.

Bobs Live – Off The Record: If you haven’t heard of J. Bobs before, this will all change as his artistry is being recognised with a Young Artist Nomination for Drama at this year’s National Arts Festival. Performing with his Sketch Trio that includes Phillip Dikotla (of the extraordinary Skierlik! fame) and Pule Welch, know that you will be both challenged and charmed as he promises to play games that have to be taken seriously.

Valrsrivier: is the stage adaptation by Saartjie Botha directed by Janice Honeyman of a hugely popular book with, amongst others, Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Stian Bam. It’s a no-brainer so run for tickets. It’s the age-old struggle of loyalty, loss and growing up against the backdrop of the old South African landscape.

Wit Isse Colour: with writers Ronelda S Kampher and Nathan Trantraal and Jason Jacobs as director, brace yourself for some edgy brilliance. The script is based on Trantraal’s experiences and daily encounters as well as stories from published work in which everything from toxic masculinity to a re-imagined history of Autshumao and Jan van Riebeeck is explored.

Salome 2
Geon Nel in Salome

 

Salome: Wilken Calitz (text) and Gideon Lombard (director) have shown their collaborative power with Karatara (which can be seen at KKNK) and here they tackle Etienne le Roux’s Sewe Dae by die Silbersteins with a solo performance (Geon Nel) as Henry van Eeden struggles with some bizarre encounters while trying to find his future wife Salome.

 

 

 

w9(1)
Rehane Abrahams

There are too many to consider, but check Pieter Dirk Uys’s trio of productions; Sandra Prinsloo’s Kamphoer; Tien Duisend Ton with Cintaine Schutte and Albert Pretorius if you haven’t yet seen it; as well as the Nico Scheeper’s driven Triple Axel and Die Engel by die Dam; the wit of Rafiek Mamon’s Die Garage; Johnny Boskak Voel ‘n Bietjie ... if you haven’t seen this Craig Morris tour de force; Chris Vorster’s Die Hart Verklap; and the extraordinary Brandbaar with Rehane Abrahams and more…

 

 

And now for some other showstoppers:

The wonderful LGT Young Soloists who represent 15 countries across the world is a happening classical experience.

Devonecia+Wilken Albumbekendstelling is a combo that could be fascinating. She is an artist with super-sized talent, supported by the crafty eye of muso Wilken Calitz, sparks could fly – even gently.

Kyle Shepherd Trio @ Standard Bank Jazz in the Quad with Shane Cooper (bass) and Jonno Sweetman (drums) will be a thrill. Anything with Shepherd is worth the time. And similarly any of the concerts in the quad.

Sho Madjozi is a rapper, singer, poet, composer and actress who grabbed the SAMAs for both best newcomer and female singer last year. Check her out.

Gerhard Marx teams with Toast Coetzer, Shane Cooper and Kyle Shepherd for Vehicle: Soundings and Fathoms in an attempt to give a voice to to lifeless objects. All the artists involved point to the kind of experience you would want to see/hear.

Nataniel in song1No longer a regular at festivals Nataniël: Hoekom Hulle Swing will be precious as he swings between thoughtful yet tantalising.

On the bookish side – and this is but a tiny fraction…

Wreed én mooi is die dood with Tobie Wiese, whose collection of stories about the experience of death includes an essay by Karin Brynard, whose husband, Rien, passed away after a period of illness, and more.

Willie Esterhuyse: Oorlog en vrede in conversation with Moeletsi Mbeki: The author contemplates how to turn an enemy into a friend. Is it even possible?

What’s in a name: The New Queer Frontiers: Jaco Barnard-Naudé talks to Mark Gevisser about his book The Pink Line; The World’s Queer Frontiers to be published later in the year, and the authors of They Called Me Queer, Kelly-Ann Koopman and Kim Windvogel, about the taboos and debates surrounding identity politics across the globe.

Giving voice to victims: the Scottish Damian Barr and Fiona Snyckers talk to Francois Smith (Kamphoer). In his novel, You Will Be Safe Here, Barr attempts to give voice to the victims of gender violence. In Lacuna, Snyckers turns JM Coetzee’s dramatic novel Disgrace on its head when Lucy Lurie, the rape victim says: “Enough. I am going to tell my own story as I experienced it.”

Muckrakers or Watchdogs: Jacques Pauw asked three well-known journalists, the award-winning Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Gangster states: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture), amaBhungane’s Pauli van Wyk and Foeta Krige (SABC8) of the essential, but demanding work of investigative journalists in an era of increasing corruption and fake news, wondering how much of a difference a journalist can make.

ANTHONY BUTLER_RAMAPHOSA_S LONG GAME(1)

 

Ramaphosa’s Long Game: Cheryl Carolus, Anthony Butler and Ralph Mathekga talk to Adriaan Basson  about the President, who is at a crossroads and whose choices will have far-reaching consequences for our country.

Foeta Krige: Die SAUK-8 with Lukhanyo Calata and Ivor Price: Why is a free press so important in a new democracy? Three members of the SABC8 share the shocking story of becoming the news and how it affected their professional and private lives.

 

 

Jonny Steinberg: One Day In Bethlehem; Non-fiction with Sandra Swart: It was a remark by Fusi Mofokeng, released after 19 years in jail, that led to this book. He said that the biggest surprise of his new life wasn’t smartphones or Google, but “that a white woman actually served him in a restaurant, and she was friendly”.

Breaking Independent News: Paper Tiger: Herman Wasserman talks to Chris Whitfield, Alide Dasnois and Dougie Oakes: When Independent Newspapers was bought by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium, journalists at South Africa’s largest newspaper firm were optimistic. What followed instead was media capture.

Ronelda Kamfer & Nathan Trantraal: twee digters tesame in conversation with Louise Viljoen: Chinatown and Oo’log mark the first time (almost) that the Trantraals, Ronelda Kamfer and Nathan, publish together. How do they manage a marriage, raising a child and being creative?

To Lose Everything: Three International Authors: Azille Coetzee talks to Christy Lefteri, the child of Greek refugees, who spent time in a Syrian refugee camp as research for her book The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Mira Feticu (Al mijn vaders) left her family when she moved from Romania to the Netherlands. Suketu Mehta was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for Maximum City, Bombay Lost and Found, his account of growing up in Mumbai.

Go to https://woordfees.co.za/en/ for the full programme. The full force of the arts available is astonishing.

 

 

Niq Mhlongo’s Black Tax: Burden …or Ubuntu Reminds us of the Discrepancies Determined by the Colour of your Skin

Black Tax bkLike so many things in South Africa, Black Tax: Burden …or Ubuntu? (Jonathan Ball Publishers) will be read and understood in very different ways depending on the colour of your skin. DIANE DE BEER gives some insight:

 

“Black tax,” writes the author/editor of the book, Niq Mhlongo, in his introduction, “is a highly sensitive and complex topic that is often debated among black South Africans. While these debates are always inconclusive due to the ambiguity, irony and paradoxes that surround it, as black people we all agree that ‘black tax’ is part of our daily lives.”

He notes that the book acknowledges these complexities and tries to represent a vast variety of  voices on the subject. “I tried to get a diversity of viewpoints by incorporating young and old, urban and rural, male and female contributors.”

In an attempt to answer the question represented in the title, the idea of both the black family and the black middle class is interrogated. “As an ideological concept, the black family is constantly changing to accommodate new economic, political and social realities and opportunities.”

That is what makes this such a fascinating read because to some of us, it explains a concept we know about yet doesn’t affect us in exactly the same way (I know some people will argue that white people also pay forward but it is an entirely different concept) and for black people, it captures the differences of opinion. Your financial status because of the endemic poverty in this country will determine whether black tax will be either a burden or a blessing.

As Mhlongo underlines, “a black person may earn the same salary as their white counterparts, but they will have more financial responsibilities to their family, which is often trapped in poverty due to the inequalities that were engineered by the apartheid system.”

That in itself is a response to people who question those who still point a finger at apartheid when regarding daily obstacles in their lives. Yes we’ve been in a democracy now since 1994, but the effects are here to stay for generations to come. That’s why, amongst many other examples, it was and remains such an evil system.

There is one point of agreement, explains Mhlongo. “Black tax is a daily reality for nearly every black South African.” That is also why so few black people get to choose the career they want to pursue. “Black parents expect their children to study something that will allow them to earn a high salary one day.”

In closure he notes that the real significance of this book lies in the fact that it tells us more about the everyday life of black South Africans. “It delves into the essence of black family life and the secret anguish of family members who often battle to cope.”

It is all the above that makes this such an important read because it explains the lives of others – so important in a society so divided and often ignorant about each other.

In a chapter titled Black tax – what you give up and what you gain, Dudu Busani-Dube (fiction writer and journalist) writes “…because we are the children of domestic workers and gardeners, we have no ‘old money’ and nothing to inherit. It comes with some anger, too, and no, it is not directed at the families we have to take care of, but at the system that was created to ensure that no matter how much freedom we think we finally have, it will still take us decades to crawl out of the jungle we were thrown in. Black tax is not our culture, no it isn’t. It has everything to do with the position this country’s history has put us in.”

And the “burden” is difficult for those not participating to understand. Nkateko Massinga explains in Casting a Spell on Poverty (poet and 2019 fellow of Ebedi International Writer’s Residency): “My relationship with my family will continue to be difficult because I am yet to meet their expectations. … The expectations of black parents and their need to live a life that looks good to others creates an emotional tax on black professionals.”

Think of the “burden” when starting your first job and everything that goes with the insecurity and the novelty of being in that position. Now add black tax as yet another obstacle to just finding your feet as gently as possible while trying to cope.

As Sifizo Mzobe (writer, content editor and translator) underlines in The Hopes and Dreams of Black Parents: “When a black graduate gets a job, they have a lot to make up for compared to their colleagues from better economic backgrounds. They have a deep economic hole to fill before they can start with their own lives. And life is tough in today’s economy; sometimes impossibly tough.”

That is above and beyond the ordinary high levels of stress in today’s society!

Most of us can remember our first salaries and everything we needed to do with that money. It’s about living expenses and living a life at your own cost for the first time. Nothing comes easy and I couldn’t even begin to imagine also taking care of people in abject poverty or helping younger siblings with their studies.

Think of the unemployment numbers in our land and the crisis becomes even more dramatic and traumatic. It’s tough enough trying to cope with your immediate family’s survival. And then we’re not even thinking of those families working on coal mines or for Eskom who are scared that their jobs will soon become redundant. In those circumstances can one expect people to think of the greater good?

That is what is really so smart about this book. With many different voices, many different ideas surface, many of them landing hopefully in a receptive or at least educational place.

I remember years back reading Redi Tlhabi’s first book Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing. She told a story of how at the age of 10 or 11 she was scared of being raped on her way to school. At the time, thinking about my own youth, I wondered if I had even been aware of rape – all of which reminded me of the discrepancies in the conditions of people living in this country.

Black Tax makes very clear (and we read about it every day) that nothing in that sense has changed. In fact because of the horrific looting of the past decade, for the have nots, it has simply become untenable. And that is exactly what Niq Mhlongo’s exploration in Black Tax highlights.

It is insightful and should be compulsory reading. But apart from that, what a gripping way to get to know one another while adding greater understanding. As South Africans, we owe it to ourselves and one another.

Former Independent Editors Fight the good Fight for Facts in Time of Fake News

Bk Paper TigerIt’s a sad and worrying time for print media worldwide highlighted here in Paper Tiger: Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg). They capture the devastation of a country in  trouble and how that impacts on almost every aspect when it starts to unravel. DIANE DE BEER, a former Independent journalist, celebrates the few journalists who are willing to fight for the facts in a time of fake news:

Print media is in trouble and has been for a while, but quite a few have found a way to counteract the negatives.

The NY Times, for example, returned to the basics, hiring  the best journalists they could find, and after the initial slump, their numbers have been climbing with a strong online presence. It’s tough to beat good journalism. Think of the Gupta Leaks and everything that followed in this country.

Good journalism is probably what editors/journalists Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield thought when they heard they had been bought by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium for R2 billion.

But the joy was short-lived because the day after Nelson Mandela died, Survé fired Cape Times editor Dasnois, seemingly because she disrespected Mandela by honouring the great man with a wraparound because of the dire deadlines. Yet many believed it really turned on a negative story used in her paper about one of Survé’s companies.

“In the dramatic days that followed, Independent’s newsrooms across the country were torn apart by suspicion, recriminations and what many of the journalists believed was a witch hunt to expel those not prepared to toady to Survé.”

That’s how the blurb on the back of Paper Tiger reads. As an Independent journalist at the time, I remember clearly the feelings of things flying apart. I was in my final four years after 30 years with the group and knew Dasnois, who had been an editor at the Pretoria News for a short time before she was appointed to the Cape Times.

I found her to be someone of unquestionable integrity, so I knew we were in trouble. I lasted a few more years, no choice really, but when we were offered retrenchments a year before my retirement date, I was grateful for the opportunity.

Shortly after I left, a half-page column by Des van Rooyen (often referred to derogatorily as Weekend Special because of his short stint as one of Zuma’s disastrous Minister of Finance appointees) appeared in the Independent Papers and I knew I had dodged a bullet.

Even when you’re not directly affected (in your writing, for example, because you’re in the arts), there are certain signs that are tough to ignore – even at the end of your official working years without any other options.

I never met Survé, even though all staff were sometimes summoned for a meeting in Joburg. I was the only arts journalist in Pretoria, which meant I had the excuse of work. It’s a sad state of affairs, knowing what the group represented and what they were before they were first plundered by the Irish, a situation also thoroughly discussed in the book.

According to Mwasa (Media Workers’ Association of South Africa), some 18 years after the initial investment by the Irish Independent Media (Sir Anthony O’ Reilly was the CEO), few of the contributions expected from foreign direct investment had been made. In fact there was an outflow of much of the local operation’s profits.

For those of us working there, the dramatic changes were quickly visible. During the period, for example, from 1999 to 2010, the operating margins were increased from 12,5% to 21,1%. Far from boosting employment numbers however, there was a significant reduction in employee numbers. These dropped from 5 223 at the time of the initial transaction to 1 500 at the end of the Irish run.

I remember that on my 40th birthday in 1992, we were 10 journalists in the Pretoria News arts section. That’s the number of signatures I counted on my birthday card. By the time I left at the end of 2016, I was the only one left, even though with the new democracy, the arts in this country expanded generously as it would have because of the improved circumstances in South Africa.

Instead of investing the money generated locally was used to pay off the Irish company’s debt. The consequences were evident everywhere as anything that could be cut was cut and the editors were pressured to run a financial rather than a newspaper concern.

On June 2 2009, in response to a message from Tony Howard to staff about “tough trading conditions”, Dasnois wrote to him summarising the situation at the Cape Times: she noted that she had worked on five of the company’s newspapers, three of them as editor, and had “witnessed the relentless stripping away of the capacity of those papers to offer the quality journalism which our readers demand and deserve”.

Something had to give and in the end, that’s why the South African Independent Media was sold and a different can of worms emerged, one that appeared to promise much at the start, especially as the circumstances at the newspaper group were so dire.

The rest reads like yet another of those fantastical stories that seem to have become a trademark of business in our desperate country. Good people are the ones who appear to pay the price, while those already bloated rise to the top.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one we can only hope makes a sharp U-turn in 2020. The signs are there that the game is up for those who believed they could get away by making the rest of us pay.

In the final chapter, aptly titled A Sad Day For Journalism, the opening paragraph reads: By 31 December 2016, Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM) had accumulated losses of  R617 million, and liabilities exceeded assets by R393,8 million. By 30 June 2017, accumulated losses had grown to R752 million, and liabilities exceeded assets by R547 million. SIM owed R909, 459,000 to the China Development Fund, R662,722,000 to the Government Employees Pension Fund (through the Public Investment Corporation) and R243,987,000 to the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union. Half of this was payable in August 2018, and the rest in August 2020. In addition, the Government Employees Pension Fund held preference shares to the value of R433,180,000, which had to be serviced at the prime interest rate.

The rest is still playing out and those who worked at Independent, those who still read the papers, and those still working there, are watching and waiting…

It’s not as if newspapers needed any further debilitating and destructive forces to hasten their demise. There were many good people who worked hard to tell the real stories of a country in flux. That was not to be. But you can only fool some of the people some of the time…fortunately.

It’s a fascinating read as I knew it would be, given the authors. Working with one of them for just a short time was a high point in my newspaper career. I knew Dasnois would finally see her day.

The final sentence in the book shows her firing for the farce it was. And that at least makes you smile.

In the meantime, even though the full story has been told repeatedly, nothing yet has changed. But we’re hoping…

Books are Telling the Impactful Stories of the #MeToo Movement With Great Vigour

Book The TestamentsMany are wondering what the impact of the #MeToo movement has had on the lives of women. Has the serial stalking subsided or is it business as usual. The backlash as well as the reinvention of some of the accused might be an indication and yet, like in #BlackLivesMatter, it’s as if voices have been given a freedom to tell stories and more people are listening. DIANE DE BEER highlights some of the good news:

 

There’s no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984 was ahead of its time (some would say at the right time) but now, looking back, it’s almost as if the world has caught up with Atwood’s dystopian tale.

Women’s reproductive functions became their only value in a world where a previously free-wheeling democracy turned into a totalitarian dictatorship in which specific men made all the decisions with no attempt at embracing the needs of the female populace.

Some would say that’s the lives women were living anyway, but with more subtlety in the execution, but perhaps the fact that little has changed for women since, is more of an indictment. Even the new millennium didn’t offer many new horizons.

But there has been a mind shift even if it still only finds its power in the “voices” of those creative women who write or tell stories through film or theatre or other writing of course.

And while Atwood never wanted to write a sequel to her most iconic novel, she might have been pushed by the success of the television series based on her book, which had to its advantage the timing as well as the excellence of the production on all levels.

Some have said enough already, but personally having witnessed a third generation of girls entering exactly the same world I did midway through the last century, that’s where I want to say enough already!

So well done Ms Atwood for both novels, and while The Testaments (Chatto & Windus) has to my mind an easy (yet hopeful) ending (no wonder art historian Mary Beard described her as a “optimistic dystopian”), I was thrilled that the author’s prescience kicked in both times – in 1984 and again in 2019 and that she was thus rewarded with the 2019 Booker Prize (shared as it was).

BK Girl (002)Perhaps on a different timeline but Edna O’Brien’s Girl (Faber & Faber), speaks to similar themes.  While this is a work of fiction, there’s enough fact around for her to tell a story based on reality – and it’s horrific. That 276 female students could be kidnapped by an extremist terrorist group in the Northern province of Nigeria and disappear overnight with all our sophisticated surveillance techniques is astounding.

And yet, while 57 were rescued a few months after the capture, and a few stragglers have managed to escape, more than 200 women (no longer girls, all these years later) are still missing. Hopefully this book by one of the world’s leading writers, described by some as her masterpiece – understandably – will shine a searing spotlight on those still missing.

Had they been on another continent and perhaps not black, more effort would have been made and yet, the same group is still terrorising African people in that part of the world and the women must surely by now be fully integrated into their way of life. It’s been almost six years and they were at a very vulnerable age when first captured.

What O’Brien has done so cleverly is write a story of a young girl, now with a baby, who escapes the tyranny to journey back home through nightmarish terrain. But she is courageous and by now crafty and by sheer force of will, she makes it home.

Many would imagine that would be the end of her hellish life’s journey. But as is so often the case with female victims even someone who has discovered her own voice – she is silently blamed for everything that has happened to her, including the kidnapping and the pregnancy.

It’s tough to imagine how you deal with one tragedy after another and yet, it’s almost as if life keeps throwing those challenges at those who don’t buckle. It is about the strength of a woman fighting for her life and fighting back, in spite of a world which has turned its back on her. It’s full of heartache but finally, also hope for each woman survivor.

bk she saidJodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, have written a book about their article on “breaking the sexual harassment story that helped ignite a movement”.

She SaidBreaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite The Movement (Bloomsbury) is an extraordinary read as they go into great detail to tell the story of their travails to get to a story that had to be watertight, so that it wouldn’t simply be dismissed and disappear into thin air – as was so often the case in the past.

 

What has been happening is that the entitlement of some powerful men turns them into monsters, who believe they can simply take women whenever and wherever they want.

And in the case of perhaps now the most visible alleged sexual molester, Harvey Weinstein, he had an army of enablers around him to make this predator’s sex life run smoothly. Some who didn’t care to confront him, some who went out of their way to help, because it would benefit their careers and others, like his brother, who kept fixing the problem, yet never making it go away. Somewhere in all of this, women’s lives and dreams were being destroyed. No one seemed to care and the women were too scared to talk.

Even the most famous ones. If women like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd couldn’t stand up to Weinstein, what chance did a young assistant or secretary have?

If you never pay for any wrongdoing and you are perceived to be all-powerful, you will believe and write  your own press. And while they tell Weinstein’s story and his efforts to kill the story and to deny any wrongdoing (to this day), they also turn to one of the other high-profile rape cases, that of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

We all know what happened there in spite of amazing testimony by a woman of such impeccable character and dignity. And yet like the Anita Hill case in 1991, where her accusation against another Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas was roughly brushed aside at great personal cost to the accuser, all these years later, the results were the same.

The only impact of the #MeToo movement was more publicity. As a result, it was more delicately handled by the members of congress because of the media scrutiny. But still, the US now have two men accused of sexual crimes, sitting on the highest court in the land.

Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has gained immeasurably as women got the courage to step forward and many mighty men who have been paying cash for their sins in the past decades, yet never punished publicly, have had to leave their high-paying, high-profile jobs as the women stood up and together made their voices heard – too loudly to be ignored.

And because the media was so often part of the story, like in the Fox News case with Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, both mighty powerful and then brought to their knees, the details were given to the world in full colour. There was no more escaping these sins that had been perpetrated for decades on naive young women with dreams – all shattered.

BKcatch & killThe second book covering the Weinstein sexual abuse allegations comes from a different angle – yet making many of the same points. It seems investigative journalist Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill – Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (Fleet) was ahead of the pack but the closer he got to the nub of the story, the harsher the degree of resistance from even his own network that would finally have to screen the story.

It meant that he had to switch from a release on NBC News to a print story in The New Yorker, which the magazine was happy to publish after fact-checking extraordinaire. This book tells how this investigative reporter had to battle violence and even espionage to expose this celebrity serial abuser while focusing on the powerful people surrounding him at his own workplace as well as the coverups from Washington to Hollywood.

Weinstein had learnt and perfected the ways of wielding power and he used that liberally to obtain support for his evil lifestyle with full consent of people – both men and women – who should have known better. It’s an astonishing read, more of a thriller than a news report, which is more the style of She Said.

And while it seems to go on and on, especially towards the conclusion, he wanted to emphasize the lengths he had to go to  get this story told. The amazing thing is that everyone knew. Yet no one was speaking – even the women were too scared to share the horror of their experiences.

It is this silent conspiracy that has turned rape into an epidemic worldwide. When the powerful think they can get away with something, many of them would do just that, as those being accused attest too.

And if anything, what all these public revelations have done is to show why women were so scared to tell their stories. No one was listening and when they did, they simply refused to believe the accusations. Think of Strauss-Kahn, former IMF boss who was accused by the hotel worker cleaning his room.

Finally those doors have been opened. Now we have to make sure that those who have to make decisions are representative of the whole community not only the perpetrators.

Perhaps then, some of the outcomes will make more sense