Author Jonny Steinberg writes Brilliantly about People that Matter in the Award-Winning One Day In Bethlehem

This is another of those books that could be titled #blacklivesmatter and it makes perfect sense that it was awarded the 2020 Recht Malan Prize for non-fiction. As is his nature, Jonny Steinberg perfectly captures this moment in time with his latest illuminating investigative writing. DIANE DE BEER reviews:

 

bk one dayOne Day In Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg  (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

From the Harold Pinter inscription (A thing is not necessarily true or false; it can be both true and false) to the first sentence which states that the author, Jonny Steinberg, could have sworn that he had read the newspaper report that triggered this book in his office, he is at pains to make a point about memory and how people remember things.

Apart from the horrific life circumstances of most of the men featured in this book (they’re all black and tragically, that is the only explanation we still need in 2020), especially Fusi Mofokeng, who is the one focussed on in most detail and depth, he also searches for the truth and how this can be distorted through constant lifelong trauma.

For Fusi, a resident of Bethlehem, life has been tough. And even though he had a rough childhood, nothing could prepare him for what was going to happen to him on the eve of our new democracy – what should have been a time of freedom became a loss of life as he understood it.

The summary on the back page of the book captures it thus: A bakkie full of men armed with AK47s is stopped by two policemen on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the Free State. The men open fire on the policemen and, from that moment their lives are irrevocably changed. So too for Fusi Mofokeng, a resident of Bethlehem, who was not in the bakkie but happened to be the brother-in-law of one of the perpetrators. He and his drinking buddy, Tshokolo Mokoena, are accused of being accomplices and are tried, sentenced and jailed.

Jonny Steinberg_One Day In BethlehemAnd then begins Steinberg’s story in his exact, detailed style as he unravels the lives of those involved to get to the nub of the story but also to put you in the shoes of the people whose story is being told.

For most of the white privileged world, this is important because you still today have people saying in total ignorance that the playing field is level, for example. When you follow these lives, you quickly understand that for many people, in fact the majority in the world, this is simply not true and can never be.

When starting to interview especially the two men wrongfully accused and imprisoned for life (they served 19 years), Steinberg found that he struggled to connect with Tshokolo during the first evening and the notes he made were filled almost entirely with Fusi’s words. This is where he focused and why he persisted.

“During his years in prison, the world outside, he said,  slowly emptied of the people he loved.” Already you have a lump in your throat, and this is page 8. It is not an easy read yet as all Steinberg’s work, it is compelling. No one was more reluctant to read The Number, one of his earlier books dealing with prison gangs. It completely overwhelmed me and I have been a Steinberg disciple ever since.

And he does it again. He takes you into the lives of others and teaches you about a world, perhaps unknown and unfamiliar, and brings understanding and much more empathy than you might have had before for your fellow (sometimes world) citizens.

The detail he exacts from his subjects makes sense at the end as he gives you a particular life with specific circumstances, whether it is someone who is reluctant to be treated for Aids, dealing with the harshness of prison life or trying to come to terms with life imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. That must be one of life’s most difficult battles and in a world where black men are viewed through the harshest of prisms, Steinberg is at pains to show how Fusi met some Samaritans along the way which gave him courage and confidence to fight for freedom at any cost.

One of those was a social worker in Kroonstad who spotted Fusi’s anger and helped him to understand that eventually it would kill him.

“It’s amazing to me that you are not angrier,” writes Steinberg about an early conversation with Fusi.

“’I was very angry,’ he replied. ‘I realised if I didn’t stop being angry, I was going to die…’

‘I was shown the connection by a warder, a very good man, a white man. His name was Steyn.’”

He took Steyn’s advice to heart and realised it was his only way out.

He wrote to everyone he could think of; officials in government, the ANC, the TRC (which rejected him for amnesty because he didn’t commit the crime) and the list went on. Finally he made contact with Jacques Pauw (or so he thought) and this hard-hitting journalist who uncovered so much of what has gone wrong in this country, decided to check the story of the two innocent life-long prisoners. At the time he headed the Wits Justice Project.

On his way to interview Jacques, Jonny reminisces: “Fusi’s is a tale one resists. One listens intently and thinks one has taken in the depth of it, but it is not so. For one does not want to walk in his shoes.”

And again he encapsulates in that one sentence the thing that gnaws at you throughout reading the book. How and why does this happen to people? And so often the very people who don’t have the means (and here I don’t even mean money) to do anything about their momentous dilemma.

As the book winds down, the author allows himself to speculate, to capture some emotional moments in prose that’s breath-taking. But he also wonders and philosophises about especially Fusi’s life and what would have become of him if this bakkie full of freedom fighters hadn’t stopped over for that dreadful day in Bethlehem.

 

It’s a fascinating and rewarding read. He has always had the power to tell stories – especially those set locally – that fling the doors wide open and allow us into a problem(s) while bringing understanding and depth to a news headline. Locally but also worldwide, we so easily accuse without empathy or understanding. This is a time to stand still and take stock and Steinberg’s insightful book is a powerful way to do that.

And it seems the time is right. Finally everyone seems to listen and hear that black lives matter.

Author Jeanne Goosen – a Woman of Wise and Wonderful Words – a Force of Nature

DIANE DE BEER

When author/poet/playwright Jeanne Goosen died at the beginning of June, a unique voice was silenced.

But fortunately with writers, they do leave their voices behind and while Jeanne’s mother tongue was Afrikaans, one of her most acclaimed works, Ons Is Nie Almal So Nie, was translated into English by André P Brink who, in a twist of irony, had a few decades  before slated her first poetry book. This, in turn, had paused the publishing of any new anthologies for quite some time according to her biography.

So crushed was the young poet that, while still writing, she didn’t want the humiliating results on any further public display of her poetry.

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Author Jeanne Goosen

That’s who Jeanne Goosen was. She was one of the journalists at the interestingly staffed Oggendblad in Pretoria where I started my journalistic career in the ’70s and I was hooked. She was a storyteller and someone about whom stories were told – and still are.

Coincidentally, at the time of her death I had just started the Petrovna Metelerkamp biography Jeanne Goosen; ‘n Lewe Vol Sinne (Hemel en See Boeke) which I found absolutely fascinating. I knew enough about her to find an easy way in, but even though this book has been described as “skoongeskrop”, for those of us who didn’t  know Jeanne that well, there’s enough to form a very vivid picture of someone who lived her truth – even though most of her friends would agree that the going was tough.

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Having read a few of her works recently while also listening to a tribute production on RSG of Elders aan Diens with Luna Paige, Nicole Holm and a name I only recently encountered, Frieda van den Heever (who directed the most fantastic production at the recent Woordfees, Die Poet, Wie’s Hy?), it’s evident, while very funny and no holds barred, there’s always a tragic underpinning.

This is emphasised in an in memoriam former publisher Hettie Scholtz wrote for litnet of the gloriously wild and wonderful Jeanne (and with her kind permission I repeat):

In response to one of Jeanne’s short stories Hulle noem my Jean, she asked the author where she found the courage and she surprises her with the following lengthy quotation from Ania Brookner’s Look at me;

“When I feel swamped by my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is a way of piping up. Of reminding people I am here. And when I have ordered my characters, plundered my store of images, removed from them all the sadness that I might see in myself, then I can switch on the current that allows me to write so easily once I get started, and to make people laugh. That, it seems, is what they like to do. And if I manage this well enough and beguile all the dons and the critics, they will fail to register my real message, which is a simple one.

“If my looks and my manners were of greater assistance to me I could deliver this message in person. Look at me, I would say. Look at me. But since I am alone in this matter, I must use subterfuge and guile, and with a little bit of luck and good management this particular message will never be deciphered, and my reasons for delivering it in this manner will remain obscure.”

And now you begin understanding the melancholy, the willfulness and the discomfort in her own skin – always the outsider. But when you start reading Jeanne (in Afrikaans), it’s her understanding of the life she views from the sidelines, her determined and not unexpected iconoclastic view of the world in general, the frustration of even close friends because of an unpredictability that all come rushing through.

Hers was not an easy life to view but more than anything, a tough one to live when you read the biography.

And then she dies, a voice suddenly gone and the words are all around and they are magnificent. They always were, we just forget.

Apart from the biography which is a portrait of a true artist, an illuminating recent anthology Het Jy Geweet Ek Kan Toor (Hemel en See Boeke) as well as a book of stray sayings which the biographer couldn’t resist compiling titled Los Gedagtes (Hemel en See Boeke), a true gem and just for those non-Afrikaans speaking readers, I loosely translate a few that capture some of her truths. Metelerkamp notes that these were random phrases written down, the grammar unfixed, not filed according to topic, that highlight the amazing thought processes of a thinking artist:

Who wants a constructive relationship?

Stubborn women rule.

A postcard is an orgy in sepia.

All suffering is man-made.

Posthumously rehabilitated.

One eye is always completely open. It considers, watches, and sees the silliness of everything.

Food spiced with the blood of killers.

The cold and poverty of this winter was gruelling and humiliating.

To write is like dreaming while being awake. It’s like being a magician.

Writing is like having a love affair with death.

Life is energy and a head filled with facts.

Materialism is a kind of psychological ideology and a lifestyle.

Dead: If you are dead, you are dead and that is that. If you are alive, you are dead most of the time anyway.

Don’t overestimate people’s intelligence.

Death is life’s healing drug.

Perhaps I was Tchaikovsky in a previous life. But what did I do wrong that fate dumped me in Parow amongst these people who don’t understand anything?

Total independence. Total freedom.

I will eventually reach the truth if I keep on making notes.

His beard starts in his nose.

I fail in the human world. I should have become a nature conservationist.

And she goes on…gloriously so, sometimes so sad and sometimes hysterically funny.

As a young journalist, to watch her in action was spectacular. She was larger than life and even years later when I had to review Trudie Taljaard in Kombuis-blues, I could still hear Jeanne’s unique gravelly voice in my head. If she happened to cross your path, you remembered her.

Similarly with her writing and there’s so much more. If at all possible, try to read as much of her published works as well as the biography. Who she is and what she wrote is extraordinary.

And there’s so much more than can be captured here…. her passionate love for dogs and other animals; her love of music,  and ability to play piano and perform … and on and on.

If I could wish upon her star, cherish her words and honour the author. She deserved so much more.

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies Captures the Devastation but tells of Reclaiming a Life, Making a Difference

With the current tensions and peaceful resistance in the US (and now worldwide) following yet another police killing of an innocent black man, the insensitivity amidst all of this for example of a white sportsman trying to tell his black teammate why he should not dishonour the flag or his country by taking the knee, Bradley Steyn’s own battle with his privileged whiteness could not be more relevant

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Bradley Steyn was still a teenager when he crossed Strijdom Square (at the time) to visit his mom at the State Theatre. His life exploded into the sharpest of tiny shards as he found himself centre of the horrific Barend Strydom massacre (with 8 black victims murdered and 16 injured) yet wasn’t targeted because of the colour of his skin. He tells DIANE DE BEER about the decades of trying to recover his splintered life:

Two journalists capture much of why Bradley Steyn’s book Undercover With Mandela Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed The Square (Jacana) is such a mesmerising read if like me, you aren’t immediately drawn to yet another story about our past as told by a white man.

The first is Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm who writes about Bradley Steyn and his book: “Bradley Steyn’s book is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.” (And I implore you to find this article at Daily Maverick and read it, as further proof that this is an illuminating read, as she does a wonderful piece, putting it all into its political context of the time – 1988).

And this concluding paragraph in journalist Ranjeni Munusamy’s column in a past Sunday Times:

“Ours is an impossible story: It began 25 years ago with the triumph over a system that forced us to hate ourselves and each other.We are and will always be a deeply damaged people. On our journey we lost our humanity and our values were eroded. We lost our national pride.Now begins a new era. Broken or conquered, we must find our way.”

These, in different ways, encapsulate Bradley Steyn’s story Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who crossed the Square and the title is perhaps so much more vivid if you live in Pretoria where it all began.

And then, to further intrigue, there’s yet another catch phrase on the cover: Four sworn enemies. The MK ANC Spy team that infiltrated the heart of the apartheid regime.

And the preface begins with: “It’s been 30 years. It’s time I got over it.”

He is, of course, talking about that horrific day that impacted the rest of his life. “There was a court case,” he writes. “A killer got the gallows and was sent to Death Row. I saw what he did, saw him murder those people, but I survived. I got a job. I married. I had a child.” Survivor’s guilt is often what really survives – in these kinds of situations.

Bradley Steyn, who was only 17 years old at the time, was no different. In fact, nothing in his personal circumstances helped either – not because people are bad, but because they don’t know how to react, how best to help. That includes everyone from parents, to teachers, to friends.

He explains his own circumstances best: “But then like a cassette tape unraveling, everything suddenly snarled into a noise I didn’t recognise, and that life I had before just screeched to a halt. “The story of his world following the shooting on the square is how his life took on a life of its own.

“I had escaped physically unscathed, but the real damage lay within. I have never recovered emotionally.” He acknowledges that the post-trauma he suffered was hard on his parents, as his stress disorder intensified in the weeks that followed the slaughter.

“The desolation of not having the school principal or my teachers or the other children – except a couple of close friends – even acknowledge what had happened has remained with me to this day.” It’s a chilling sentence which captures the terror this young boy must have felt following the killing spree he was witness to – allowed to escape simply because of the whiteness of his skin.

That has been his battle and what propelled him into a life dictated mostly by the use of force as he found his life spinning into a routine of violence, seemingly the only thing he understood at the time.

“A child today would be given a time to heal, to be filled with fury, and then to dip and rise – whatever was needed,” he notes.

But there was nothing like that, not for any of the victims. His mind was left to rage with bedtime becoming hellish. It’s so typical of how white people in this country reacted to horror at the time, they turned away, brushed it aside and those directly affected, just had to cope. No one did.

And as he explains, the devastating after-shocks didn’t stop there. That was just the beginning. In desperation, his parents decided that the military might help to bring order to his chaotic life and it did, on the surface – but also honed all his skills for a way of life that led to him announcing the following resumé: Thug for hire. Highly qualified.

As he passed from being a bouncer at nightclubs to a life much darker and dangerous, he writes: “I was just a humble thug, a 19-year-old taken in by the lure of an undercover life where I could blow off the terrors inside my head without having to answer to anyone…the people I came across were often brutish, unafraid of blood and even death. That was the criminal underworld, and I guess I had been shifting more and more into that zone of absolute indifference because it fulfilled a need in me to shut off all emotion.”

From there he followed a short route into doing dirty work for the apartheid regime and at some point, was flipped to the other side, eventually fronting as a far-right fanatic to infiltrate an even scarier world which eventually led to him fleeing the country for his life.

 And finally my first reservations when handed the book, and I will again explain this courtesy of Marianne Thamm and journalist/author Janet Smith who was instrumental in the writing of this book:

Smith wrote about her first impressions: “If I was wary of supremacists – who didn’t hesitate to DM me with threats of slitting me open from top to bottom and rejoicing if I was gang-raped – I was cautious of Bradley at the get-go. I was affected by his experience as the boy who crossed the square, but I was immediately suspicious of everything else, especially the depth of his relationship with the ANC.”

She explained that while she was “moved by his having witnessed Strydom’s massacre, I felt he had to be that white male stereotype of a special kind that my generation of South Africans knows only too well. He would want to be ‘protected’ and treated as special in some way because he had always been told he was.”

Thamm in turn writes: “Smith’s sentiments echoed my own when I first picked up this remarkable book. Do we really need another damaged white person who finds redemption through black suffering and pain?”

And when reading the book, these are issues the author battles with himself and which makes this such an intriguing read. He had to come to terms with his demons. And the serious position he takes is underlined by the space of time elapsed since his life was turned on its head.

I love the way Steyn ended the book by giving the details of all the victims of that horrific Strydom Square nightmare, fortunately now with a powerful new name and that of a woman, Lilian Ngoyi; but also the details of the people who played a large part in his life.

It is a book that captures the devastation on so many levels of people living in this country during apartheid, but it also tells a story of reclaiming a life and making a difference, something which this country is also renowned for.

 

Pretoria Boys High’s Education Warrior Bill Schroder Tells A Headmaster’s Story

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It’s a time to dip into books that you might not always get time for as one of the few good things of lockdown has been the gift of time. DIANE DE BEER reviews one such example:

 

 

 

 

 

As I don’t have children, schools have never loomed large in my adult life and, having had my own dose of prestigious same-sex schools in my youth, the traditions etc. don’t factor into my thinking.

But (full disclosure), as Bill Schroder is a family friend and I had listened to him speaking in general and more specifically about schools – also being a Pretoria inhabitant for the past 40 plus years – I was tempted to see what he had to say following his retirement (not that he has ever given up fundraising for his final alma mater).

And thus when starting with A Headmaster’s Story: My Life in Education by Bill Schroder (Jonathan Ball Publishers), it took a few chapters for me to fully engage. But once he grabbed hold of me, it was a fascinating read.

With the current pandemic, most people will have realised how vital frontline or essential workers are to all of our lives. These are the people who are taken for granted, held in little regard and paid extremely badly. With money being power in the world we live in, no wonder the teaching profession is not taken seriously.

And yet all of us go to school and we all know the impact those special teachers in our lives have on our future. They are the people who speak truth to power, who are intent on showing their pupils the things that count and who often steer us in a direction that we never thought was possible.

What we should never forget with these essential workers (and this is exactly what teachers and educators are) is that they are often driven by an overwhelming desire to do the best they can. It is a calling rather than a career and that’s why the good ones always rise to the top.

Once the young Schroder realises that what he wants to do is be a headmaster, to lead, and to do it his way, there’s no stopping him. He paid his dues and proved his mettle at schools that were write-offs in the community but he also learnt valuable lessons right through his teaching career from the day he started.

He is someone who knows and acknowledges when he could possibly have done better (a rare trait) in the competitive world of top schools where it is dog eats dog (as in any of these mini societies that are understood only by those who are part of them). To survive all the in-fighting and the struggle of getting it right is a feat in itself, especially if you are an outsider,  which in many instances is what he was.

But this is not where this headmaster lingers. He is much more intent on dealing with the way he did things and why he believes they work.

For the reader, it is clear that he had some blessings – his wife Cherry the most important one. Both of them are their own people but Schroder is very clear on why he could deliver his ideals – his wife supported him in everything he did as a headmaster. When they had to move even in the worst of circumstances, she simply got packing. And often his teaching duties included that of serving as house master at one of the boarding homes, which included the co-operation of the whole family. Irt was never an issue And allows you to focus where it’s necessary.

There are many stories and lessons he imparts but often it is best just to hear what he has to say.

As the book progresses, in his own words, he offers the perfect example of his leadership with this example:

“…I feel strongly that when a principal is involved in major (and not so major) disciplinary and behavioural issues, he or she can frequently defuse them and prevent long, drawn-out disciplinary issues that then end up in the hands of people who are not necessarily skilled or experienced enough to deal with the problem. It is vital their parents to know that the head finds these issues important enough to get involved.

“I know there are procedures that are prescribed for dealing with various disciplinary issues, but in my opinion, these should be a last resort. I am sure that when serious disciplinary issues arise in schools, there has not been visible leadership, getting to the source of the problem immediately and decisively.

“…this underlines the need to surround yourself with good and trustworthy people, and to let them pick up the issues at which you as leader might not be competent, and in so doing also to acknowledge your weaknesses.

“No matter how small or inconsequential a problem that a pupil brings to you may seem, if it is important to him or her, then as a leader you need to respect that importance. Theories of leadership and leadership styles abound; arguments about whether leaders are born or can be made have gone on for centuries; and of course your leadership style is a reflection of many things, and in particular your personality….

The next priority for me was support for my staff. …”

It is this kind of insight that makes this such a fascinating read. For those of us living in Pretoria, many stories swirl around about loved headmasters. There’s a reason for that; they make a difference to lives – more importantly young lives.

And Schroder didn’t only make a difference to the lives directly under his care. As the former headmaster of one of the country’s top schools, a few years after retirement he was approached to consider mentoring a secondary school in Soshanguwe.

He was persuaded by a former member of the governing body of Boys High to assist them. His brief was specifically to mentor the principal and his staff at this particular school. He describes it as a “most interesting, challenging and at times a depressing relationship,” but more importantly he goes on to say, “from which I have learned as much, if not more, than they have.”

Like much of his advice throughout the book, it is often relevant to ordinary lives. He was blessed with a great partner who stood by his side throughout his career and brought her own special magic as the headmaster’s wife. That allowed him to walk and talk his own truth which he imparts in this smart book.

And even for those who don’t have kids at school, it’s good to know that we still have these educators who are in it for all the right reasons. It has always been one of the noblest and most precious professions, but it gets tougher and tougher to make it a choice.

It’s time that we honour these noble warriors who still stand up to be counted. It’s a calling and they can’t help themselves.

We need to salute them.

Tremendous Mantel Trilogy On Thomas Cromwell Comes to an End with Third Man Booker Deservedly in her Sights

The library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night.

– Isabel Allende

 

Diane de Beer

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The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate):

 

 

When the third in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy landed at home (thanks to the publishers), Covid19 had already surfaced across the world, I had an arts festival to attend and I thought it would be the perfect read for my husband who was staying at home, alone, for 10 days.

On my return, the lockdown hadn’t yet been announced, the book was waiting – and lockdown happened.

Unintentionally, I had in my hands what I think might just be the perfect lockdown read. It’s not every day that you’re excited about starting an 875-page book. For one thing they’re heavy to hold in bed, but Mantel being the writer she is, the topic – an extraordinary one and this third in the trilogy – as had been proven with the first two Booker-winning books, will take you to another world completely.

One which also has plagues it must be said, but then it’s reassuring to know that the world made it through those too – and they don’t play a large role in the story while adding to the overwhelmingly precarious circumstances of everyone except those serving the king – and they have the threat of possible death hanging over their heads all the time.

“But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.” Sound familiar?

Hilary Mantel is in a league of her own when it comes to historical writing. The layers of every sentence are mind-boggling, her language pure poetry and her storytelling abilities backed by research that  is painstaking.

It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of her storytelling without it sounding tough to read, too much hard work or simply too much of a drag to even tackle. And I won’t lie, it isn’t easy reading in the sense of just picking up the book and diving into the story. Dealing with Henry VIII and his constantly changing court, depending mostly on his whims, you have to keep your wits about you to know who is who.

But Mantel knows that and she reaches out a helping hand with a very strong listing at the start of the book including all the main players. To give an indication what we’re dealing with, it starts with the heading The Recently Dead with the main topic of the previous book, Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, first on the list.

If you have read the previous two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, you will know that the trilogy while dealing with the reign of Henry VIII, centres on the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals; that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

What his job(s) is really about is being constantly on call and responding to the king’s every whim. This is about a ruler and a time when his word and every wish was what everything was about. “Once Henry says, ‘This is my wish,’ it becomes so dear and familiar a wish that he thinks he has always had it. He names his need, and he wants it supplied.” And “He (Cromwell) thinks, I want to be able to locate the knave at a moment’s notice. The king spits at the name of Becket, but give him a year or two and he may change his mind, and make him a saint again. Sad, but those are the times.”

The complete disparity between the king and his immediate circle and the rest of the people reminds strongly of the world we live in today, so glaringly visible during Covid19 where the treatment in so many instances is dependent on good health services. Obamacare is beginning to make sense and when you see the statistics in the US of the disparity in communities worst hit by Covid19 nothing more has to be said. Similarly, the squalid circumstances of our squatter camps. Many people don’t even consider space a luxury.

More than anything though, because you have to pay attention when reading the dense writing of Mantel, it transports you into another world far removed from the one we live in because it is so far back in time (1536 – 1540). In a recent interview with Mantel when the interviewer wanted to know something about the world we find ourselves in now (this was before Covid19), her response was quick as she reminded her audience that she had been living in the 1500s for quite some time. With research, the book took 7 years to write and is described by the author as the “greatest challenge of her writing life”.

But just breathe in some of her writing:

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Hilary Mantel

“After supper, as a hush falls and the long midsummer day folds itself and disposes to dusk…”

When talking about the latest choice of wife for the king: “Which one will he take? They say the one has brown hair and the one blonde.

“Go for the blonde, is my advice.” …

“His tastes may have changed.” She looks at him as if he is simple. “I do not think blondes go out of style.”

That could be part of any contemporary story.

And this extraordinary thinking by Cromwell on plums: “He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white ash; round amber fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon and it black , the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone…” and it goes on.

The richness of the description says as much about Cromwell’s need to have diversions as about his attention to detail, whether it is the king’s needs or his longing for the riches he was starved of in his rotten and abusive childhood.

And that’s what is so extraordinary about her writing. Mantel tells a story of the time as much about the people as the way they lived. One dithers constantly between caring deeply for or discarding Cromwell for his dastardly deeds. He was doing the kind of dance someone like Dr Fauchi or Governor Cuomo has to do around Donald Trump. It’s not that they want his favour, they need it to serve the nation.

For Cromwell it was about survival. While he accumulated much wealth and an enviable lifestyle at the time, his family savoured his successes after his death rather than him ever having the time. He was simply treading water and even though the reader knows the end of the story and the death of Cromwell from the beginning, it’s with huge sadness that you follow his downfall in the final chapters of a book that masterfully concludes a long sojourn with Thomas Cromwell and the king he served with everything he had.

Perhaps too well, but he never had any choice. And even the outcome was destined. If you have read the first two, this isn’t even an option. And if you haven’t, this is the perfect time to tackle all three. You won’t be sorry – almost guaranteed.

I can’t wait to see where Mantel goes next. Wherever it may be, I will follow.

 

 

It’s Time to Catch up with Some Extraordinary Performances both Local and International – all of them Universal

Kev Mike on beach
Cody Mountain as Kev and Joel Rosenblatt as Mike in Cut-Out Girls

These are tough times and yet for those of us privileged enough to stream and have other entertainment options like DStv, the options of how to pass the time with reading, movies, theatre, documentaries in-between work, are endless.

DIANE DE BEER reviews three of her current favourites:

We have to start with local and I was thrilled to see when Nicola Hanekom’s debut movie Cut-Out Girls appeared on Box-Office (currently at a mere R25 a movie).

Hanekom is one of our most exciting theatre director/writers who has recently also moved into television and now film, with this, her first feature film. In interviews she explains that she first wrote it as a play, specifically for young actors she was working with at the time.

The audience reaction  was so unexpected (it’s a story about date rape), that she decided it needed a wider audience, and in this instance a film. These are debut film roles for all the youngsters. That’s amazing! And they had to do crowdfunding to make it all happen.

Rape is such a scourge in this country that we are all duty bound to talk about it. Even with this pandemic, around the world, abuse is a huge problem because so many people cannot deal with this kind of pressure and violence is their own release.

And with the young, the world we live in now, it’s not that everyone has to live scared, but they have to live smart. We have to know the dangers out there and how to keep ourselves safe – women and especially young women, who don’t yet have their cynicism radars working fulltime, have to be vigilant.

I remember Redi Thlabi in her book Endings and Beginnings writing about being scared when walking to school at the age of 11, highlighting the parallel universes we live in. Nevertheless, we’re all vulnerable and what Hanekom’s exposé uncovers so smartly, are the monsters within.

It is sometimes the boy next door, the tennis star, the popular personality at school who feels entitled. Because danger is something we live with in this world, we sometimes forget when we have to be on our guard. And this is the aspect Hanekom spotlights.

Being both writer and director and informed by an intimate knowledge of the cast, she could work smartly with a small budget. You certainly don’t feel short-changed and the performances are beautifully balanced.

It’s a film of our time, speaks to both young and old and extends the reach of one of our most innovative artists.

Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo
Harriet starring a powerful Cynthia Erivo

Another film I was keen to see, is also part of the Box-Office collection. Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, the woman who not only escapes from slavery herself, but also freed many slaves as part of the underground railroad, a perilous freedom endeavour of that time.

At some point, Harriet says people should not be owned by other people, a sentence that is so obvious yet so ignored – even today – still. That’s why these stories are so important. This is also the time when the people affected (still today) by these abominations are the ones telling the stories. That makes a huge difference in both tone and authenticity.

And for this one specifically, Cynthia Erivo’s performance is epic. She was rewarded with the ONLY Oscar nomination for an actor of colour and also for the best original song, which she both co-wrote and performed. She’s a remarkable talent both as actor and singer. She has a strength of character and a powerful presence, which served the character well and her voice has a quality that stops you in your tracks.

Her rewards have been well deserved and this following huge controversy because she was a British actor playing an American character – but she proved them wrong and hopefully people were big enough to concede and witness her prowess.

The story is a great one but there are problems with the way the story was told – just clumsy and sometimes with too little subtlety and sensitivity. One would think it is a story that almost tells itself especially with Erivo as your talisman.

But it remains a story worthy of your time and money.

NT Doon Mackichan (Feste) Tamsin Greig (Malvolia). Picture Marc Brenner
Doon Mackichan (Feste) and Tamsin Greig (Malvolia). Picture Marc Brenner

Last on the list is the latest NT Live streaming of 12th Night with Tamsin Greig as the main attraction. But she says herself, this is an ensemble cast as anyone familiar with this Shakespeare comedy will recognise. And while this is a matter of confusingly mistaken and hidden identity throughout, with director Simon Godwin’s gender-fluid production, you really have to keep your wits about you.

Greig is cast as Malvolio (or in this case Malvolia) and hers is the performance on which the play hangs. Not only is the gender switch in these times fun to watch and navigate but with a play that is a dialogue between order and disorder, puritanism and revelry, and finally, control and fear with terror the driver of control, another contemporary evil.

That is how the director viewed it says Greig in an interview which is useful to watch (even with a few spoilers) before getting into the play itself. It’s also part of the NT Live stable on YouTube and easy to find.

We have had our own innovative 12th Night (a Clare Stopford production in 1998 with amongst others Langley Kirkwood, Isadora Verwey, David Dennis and Bo Peterson) and it is a play that lends itself to interpretation as you heighten both the comic and tragic effects at will.

NT Phoebe Fox as Olivia second from the right. Picture Marc Brenner
Phoebe Fox as Olivia second from the right with her entourage. Picture Marc Brenner

This being a first class British cast with some exceptional performances, a set that enhances the fast flow of the story, some excellent songs with a brilliant burlesque interlude stuck in between, Shakespeare can hardly be more contemporary. Just check a striking ensemble stepping out in their 21st Century ubiquitous veils.

It’s sassy and smart with as much laughter as there’s food for thought in a time when gender fluidity and identity could not be more centre stage. It’s exactly where we are now as Shakespeare in his constantly shows us: the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

Catch it on NT Live on YouTube until Thursday at 8pm when Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch follows. Don’t miss that either.

 

 

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.

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

The Klein Karoo Arts Festival Cancelled Because Of the COVID-19 Pandemic

KKNK Dis 8.Waldi en Brendon en kat
Waldimar Schultz and Brendon Daniels and the cat in Dis 20h15.

Unfortunately the KKNK Festival (promoted in story below) has been cancelled because of the COVID-19 Pandemic with all the Festival heads meeting shortly to find innovative ways forward for the arts. Watch this space….

The story below is no longer valid…

The Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (March 23 to 29)  has made sure that their entertainment package packs real punch. DIANE DE BEER picks a few favourites:

Nicola Hanekom is back at the festival with one of her fearless yet fantastic site-specific pieces Mirre en Aalwyn. She is well known for her work in this genre with her site-specific trilogy (Babel, Lot and Betésda) as well as the harrowing Land van Skedels, which had great success at the KKNK in the past. Vinette Ebrahim, Amalia Uys, Kenley Swart and Hanekom regular Grethe Brazelle star in this much anticipated production set in a dilapidated house just outside Oudtshoorn. Jessie returns to her parents’ home after an absence of many years with magical ideas and confrontation in her heart. During her visit, the family learns hair-raising things about her. Her way of looking at the world upsets the status quo.

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset
Tinarie van Wyk Loots and Brendon Daniels in Opdrifsel.

Opdrifsel, a new script, written and directed by Philip Rademeyer, features Tinarie van Wyk Loots and Brendon Daniels as a couple dealing with the death of their teenage son. They grieve in different ways and battle to understand one another. They have many questions but few answers. There are regrets, accusations, anger, heartache and closed doors. Mainly it is about a couple who are overwhelmed by their sorrow and have to find a way out and forward.

It is so worth watching Rehane Abrahams in in Brandbaar, a translation of her previously performed Womb of Fire. Accompanied in song by Lukhanyiso Skosana, it is a complicated but intriguing text that has to be experienced and explored. It’s about roots as told through different women with complicated backgrounds who find themselves in a world where their whole being in all its fullness is ignored. Directed by Sara Matchett, it is an extraordinary performance.

“We’re looking for the perfect coloureds for the future,” reads the headline in Die Son. Everyone is searching for a place where race and identity aren’t a priority and where you are seen as an individual and not the middle child. Starring Stephren Saayman, Jurgen McEwan, René Cloete, Shamim Gallie, Cole Wessels en Eldine Beukes, Dankie, maar nee dankie! has fun with the issues that dominate so many lives.

KKNK Die vermoeienis van vlerke
Die vermoeienis van vlerke with André Roothman, Chris Gxalaba and Henriëtta Gryfenberg.

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, André Roothman and Chris Gxalaba in an exciting re-interpretation of this provocative play.

KKNK Wit Isse Colour 2
Ashwin Arendse in Wit Isse Colour directed by Jason Jacobs.

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.

Following their first successful outing, Brendon Daniels and Waldemar Schultz in their roles as Francois and Pieter, are planning a bank robbery in Dis 20h15. The problem to begin with is that they don’t know where to start! Pieter involves the worst character he knows, Billy from Cash Invaders, to help with their seemingly failed scheme. Will they pull it off? Will they find a bank? Will it be one they can rob? In this their second outing following Road Trip, let’s see if they can again capture the cameraderie.

KKNK Karatara Shaun Oelf (sitting), Grant van Ster (looming) and Dean Balie as narrator
Karatara with Shaun Oelf (sitting), Grant van Ster (looming) and Dean Balie as narrator.

Karatara, a physical theatre piece with Dean Balie, Shaun Oelf and Grant van Ster was one of my favourites at last year’s Teksmark. Based on the Knysna fires of 2018, it tells the story in dance and drama of a community’s loss. It’s a searing production presented in an excitingly novel way, very accessible yet charged with energy and emotion. A true gem which also explores the imprint of social media, interpersonal relationships, politics, history and the consequences of apartheid. The text is by Wilken Calitz and Shaun Oelf with choreography by Figure of 8 Dance Collective. Gideon Lombard is the director.

KKNK Kraai Wian Taljaard, Stian Bam, Wynand Kotze, Karli Heine
Kraai with Wian Taljaard, Stian Bam, Wynand Kotze, and Karli Heine.

Kraai is a Wessel Pretorius translated and adapted text by prolific and exciting playwright Mike Bartlett. Starring Wian Taljaard, Wynand Kotze, Karli Heine and Stian Bam, the story deals with Johan who decides to take a break from his boyfriend and then meets the woman of his dreams. He brings them all together to test his real feelings. It sounds both hysterical and explosive, the right ingredients for a blow-up.

KKNK Anna-Mart van der Merwe in Terminaal 3
Anna-Mart van der Merwe in Terminaal 3.

Terminaal 3 stars Edwin van der Walt, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, André Roothman, Carla Smith and Stian Bam in this Marthinus Basson-directed and -translated text by Lars Norén, who is regarded as the greatest Swedish playwright since Strindberg. The action is set in a hospital’s waiting room where a young couple are expecting their first-born, while a divorced older couple are waiting to identify the body of their 19-year-old child. The spotlight shines on self-interest and the damage that inflicts on children.

KKNK Zolani Mahola in The One Who Sings
Zolani Mahola in The One Who Sings

Following her soulful performance as an encore with Yo-Yo Ma at Kirstenbosch recently, Zolani Mahola directed by Faniswa Yisa performs in the The One Who Sings. She tells her personal story of growing up in the Eastern Cape during the ‘80s, a world of exclusion and moving into a more inclusive world in the ‘90s as she starts her professional career. It combines storytelling and song as just this extraordinary voice can achieve.

KKNK Waterbrief Minke Marais
Waterbrief with Minke Marais

Minke Marais stars in the other-worldly text Waterbrief by Nico Scheepers and tells the story of Nina captured in the montage of her family who will be torn apart without her presence. Enveloped in the blue and white tiles of the swimming pool where she dives, she is drifting – everywhere and nowhere – as she watches her family in distress.

And for those who haven’t seen the much praised Tienduisend Ton, Kamphoer, and Queenie Hulle, they should top the list.

There’s much to recommend in other genres which have to be explored, but something that caught my attention is the David Piedt Conversations. He has a long history with the KKNK and has this year been honoured for his innovative contributions by Kunste Onbeperk, but the more hidden side of this Klein Karoo native is his transformative journey from bitter and challenging political activist to someone who practices forgiveness and reconciliation in his own life as well as on a more public platform. He believes his involvement with the KKNK and as such the arts and Afrikaans, played a huge role.

In conjunction with the Mayo Angelo philosophy: “the greatest tragedy in life is untold stories”, this conversational series aims to create an intimate space where people can listen to one another’s stories and contribute to the cohesion of the democratic South African tapestry.

These conversations start with Piedt and his wife Marjorie who share their emotional history and their personal life’s journey. This is followed with conversations by other Oudtshoorn inhabitants and is set against the backdrop of their experience during apartheid and how that influenced and impacted on their decisions, choices and way of being in the world post 1994.

Ivor Price will lead the discussions.

 There’s also an extremely strong and diverse music programme

And probably the two highlights will be two performances in the Cango Caves, a rare occurrence.

KKNK Karen ZoidFirst will be Karen Zoid Unplugged on March 27, an acoustic performance with guitarist Henry Steel and on March 28 Steinway pianist Charl du Plessis will be playing selections from his first solo album Freehand as well as the music of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven and Bach.

This hasn’t happened in 24 years, which won’t happen any time soon – if ever.

KKNK Charl du Plessis

Du Plessis will be the first pianist to present a performance on a Steinway in the Caves on International Piano Day. Strict rules will be applied to avoid any damage to this historical site and for Du Plessis, it is a dream come true. “The space, the acoustics, the darkness and the sounds that will embrace everyone!”

Karen Zoid agrees: “I feel very privileged to perform in the exquisite, historical treasure. Not everyone can say they have performed in a cave!”

 

Go to www.kknk.co.za and check the full programme for your own selection.