BOOK CLUB: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

GARETH LANGDON lauds Sean Christie’s excellent account of stowaways living on the margins of a quickly gentrifying Cape Town.

"Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard" by Sean Christie

Taking a ship is not like taking a taxi. If I get the chance, I will go, and after that you never know. I might not come back.

Cape Town is often lauded as a city of contrasts: white sandy beaches and rocky mountain outcrops. The green, leafy, English speaking South and the dry, arid, Afrikaans speaking North. The rich, safe suburbs and the dangerous poor squatter camps.

Poverty, as many have sadly noted, is as much a part of Cape Town’s landscape as Table Mountain or Camps Bay beach. So much so that many of the city’s most destitute and lost go unnoticed and forgotten, living out lives that are foreign to the privileged such as myself, camouflaged into the city’s intersections and park benches, pavements and grass embankments near highways. Few venture into the areas that the poor call home, unless it is to “clean up” and ask them to leave. Sean Christie is an exception to this rule.

In the excellent Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Christie ventures deep into the underground world of African stowaways who call Cape Town’s and other coastal city’s bridges, highways, and forests their home. The foreshores and harbours of these places offer the perfect viewing point for those whose lives are dictated by the tides of ships coming in and out, offering escape routes and temporary shelter. Befriending one stowaway in particular, Adam, Christie infiltrates the exclusive culture of the stowaways who call themselves the Beachboys, and examines in personal detail some of the most destitute of Cape Town like few others have before. Christie drives Adam around in his Conquest, loans him money, his cellphone and laptop, food and even takes a lengthy trip with him to Dar es Salaam and back, a promise he had made a long time before and had never expected to keep. Through Adam, Christie is introduced to and allowed to talk openly and frankly various members of the Beachboys, and learns in great depth about their lives up to this point, and their hopes for the future.

The majority of the stowaways hail from Tanzania, but few actually still call it home. A big part of Beachboy culture is the belief that the ocean is your true home, the source of life, and unless you are out at sea you are not truly home. Naturally, this lifestyle often clashes with the realities of these men’s situations, many of whom have left families, daughters and sons behind in the various countries they have lived and worked illegally over their time as stowaways. Many of them have serious drug addictions, illnesses and injuries which go untreated. Their lives are hard and strenuous and the sea is their balm. Adam himself has a daughter, Aniya, who lives a healthy life with her mother Rochelle in Birmingham, England. The book captures a beautiful moment in Adam’s young life where, for the first time with Christie’s help, he is able to reach his daughter through Skype, having not seen her for several years. Christie writes the encounter adeptly, with Adam’s excitement about his daughter and the technology as totally foreign both brought to full view. As I read, I was reminded of my own complacency with the resources I have access to.

The danger of investigative journalism like Christie’s is that it can slip easily into the realm of limited self-awareness. Few explorations of this kind are conscious of their own bias, or privilege, when engaging with their subject. However, Christie cleverly avoids falling into this trap by interweaving memoir and investigation – a technique that Billy Kahora on the over-leaf calls “genre-busting”.

Christie speaks frankly about the personal experiences that led him to investigate the Beachboys, his own struggles with a lack of purpose and with alcohol. After completing his education and flitting between various writing gigs, other odd jobs and still not finding fulfillment, Christie embarks on his journey with Adam after an introduction through photographer David Southwood, whose pictures feature in the book. From his own platform of waywardness Christie is not simply describing the lives of the Beachboys, but constantly searching for possible parallels between their lives and his, and strives to assimilate the parts of their philosophy which he believes are able to guide him along his own winding path. He allows himself to experience the true nature of poverty on the trip down from Dar es Salaam, draining his bank account, sleeping rough and hopping the border. For the reader, there is a feeling both of admiration for Christie’s bravery and of excitement for the story – you really just want to know what will happen to them all in the end.

Sadly however, the book leaves little room for hope for the Beachboys. It concludes with the realisation that, for all the claims towards progress, Cape Town and South Africa at large remains a place of extreme contrast and poverty, and what was once a haven for the destitute Beachboy stowaways has, thanks to development and gentrification which purports to bring prosperity, has now become, ironically, unliveable. The Beachboys are pushed out of their makeshift homes by the sea in favour of glass and steel buildings along Cape Town’s foreshore, and new business and apartments for the privileged throughout Woodstock and Salt River. Without their views of the ocean, one is left to wonder what happens to a Beachboy culture so heavily steeped in salt water. Forced away from the water, what becomes of a Beachboy? Christie laments and accepts the conditions of his home city, and rather than offering some kind of solution or resolve, seems resigned to the fact that – like most Capetonians – there is not much to be done in the face of such enormous systemic and structural inadequacy when addressing poverty of this scale. One is left to wonder after reading, “How can I help?”, but also with a distinct feeling that this urge to help is misplaced and even condescending to a group of tough men who have found their own way of living, albeit one which contradicts our own limit understanding of how things should be. Although poor, many of these men are not unhappy. Half forced into and half choosing their stowaway lives, they have insights which, perhaps, many of the comfortable like you and I lack.

For Adam, home lies at sea and not, as you would expect, in Cape Town or Birmingham or Dar es Salaam. Pushed out and away from the land by years of rejection – from his father, from his mother, from the governments and citizens around him – Adam has found his peace and comfort in the water, his own kind of final frontier.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is a revealing, personal and touching read in its entirety and – especially for those familiar with the streets of Cape Town – a deep insight into the hidden worlds around and within us, poor or not.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books (type AERO in the box that says “Discount” at checkout). You can collect your purchase in-store or get it delivered via courier (delivery fees still apply).

THE READER: Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto is the London-based Head of Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa Economics at Nomura International. His cogent analyses of South Africa’s political economy have made him one of the most widely quoted South Africa-watchers in the media.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I travel a lot I always have at least one book on me though these are invariably non-fiction or work-related. I’m currently reading The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk which I think provides a useful journalist’s view of the development vortex of institutions and ever-shifting policy landscape. I find development economics one of the most bewildering and fraught areas of economics and the book is a reminder of how hard it is to alleviate poverty through direct scalable interventions without getting some simple foundations in place first like institutions and natural markets.

How do you decide what to read next?

Much of what I read I have little choice over – dry budget or policy documents from governments, tomes from central banks of international institutions which can take up a considerable amount of time looking at many different economies. Autobiographies of politicians are always the hardest to deal with and demand to be glanced at but can be dull beyond the titbits picked up in the press. Helen Zille’s book is a prime example which thankfully had an index to remove the need to deal with it cover-to-cover. But I always try and intersperse my reading with fiction from countries I’m dealing with (Francophone Africa is on my list next and especially Diogo) and “hobby” reading (currently about the technicalities of winemaking!).

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I think reading enlightenment thinkers has had the most profound and lasting impact on me. Smith, Locke, Rousseau and then later Hayek etc. as well as their critics. Whilst I’m somewhat towards the libertarian end of spectrum politically now (a place sparsely populated in South African discourse) it’s interesting to see how one’s views shift over time as you read more and see more real-world problems to deal with. The long-term development path for individual countries in Africa is going to be a battle between enabling governments with appropriate redistribution and governments that strangle development and growth. South Africa may find itself on the wrong side of that dividing line versus other places like Ghana or,most exciting, probably Kenya. South Africa needs to find a base of black libertarian voices to steer it in the right direction. For fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst has had the most profound impact on me. The Line of Beauty has pulled me to read straight a number of his other books.

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

Paper still has its uses when travelling and for whatever reason I think I absorb information better and enjoy it more with books versus computer screens which seem too much like work. Having a massive stack of books also makes for a more interesting home and brings back memories of poking around my grandparents’ library of books – floor to ceiling – that they had. I wonder sometimes what people will surround themselves with when they grow old if it isn’t books! Blogs though are increasingly a more important source of information especially around my two favourite hobbies which is collecting SA modern art and SA wine.

What were your favourite books as a child?

It depends how far back you want to go! I always remember a fascination with systems, engineering etc (of the “Little Jonny visits a building site” type!) from an early age. It turns out I ended up studying economic and political systems every day but the roots are the same! I think a fiction serious I read most assiduously was Swallows and Amazons and the issue of self-reliance appealed to me.  

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Daunt Books in London is a treasure trove of appropriate books for presents even for the most discerning reader and the natty totes the bags come in are still an enduring icon for a present to come in. I think the last set of books I got as a present was for my dad who, as a former captain in the merchant navy, is into anything relating to boats or exploration.

The most useless thing you read at university?

Endless books on the underlying theory behind econometrics. Economics should ultimately be a practical social science and learning to derive by hand statistical theories was just too much! Using econometrics to practically analyse the SA economy is a much more hands-on experience.  

Best book on economics you’ve read?

The literature on behavioural economics starting with Richard Thaler (and non-academic books like Nudge) has probably been the most fascinating and relevant I’ve read especially given its use in everything from policy to explaining financial markets after the 2008 crash. It’s an important bridge from the dry theory of micro- and macro-economics to the real world we live in.  This segues into pop economics books like Levitt’s Freakonomics of which most of their explanations of economic phenomena in everyday life come down to behavioural economics.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Reading a lot of dry non-fiction doesn’t necessarily provoke laughs! Private Eye in the UK is normally the most reliable comic antidote to these very serious times we are living through. I suppose the most random book I came across that made me laugh straightaway having found it in a hotel room on a business trip was Carrie Fisher’s autobiography which simply cut through with its candour and honesty to make parts laugh-out-loud funny.  

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

I try to read fiction from the countries I cover to get into the local psyche. Sometimes this works like reading Achebe, Gordimer, Adichie or Coetzee and is useful and insightful. However, this failed spectacularly when I used to deal with Iceland and tried reading Halldór Laxness and came back from one trip there laden down with books. There are now several unopened books on my shelves after failing to get more than a few chapters through the bleakness that is Independent People 

What book do you turn to for advice?

I am a big sceptic of self-help and advice books. They are so often repetitive fluff and it depresses me the number of people reading them on the train every morning. The closet I’ve probably come is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. There are a range of books now coming about the crisis in economics as a profession which are on my reading list which might count as self-help….  

If you could take an author out (dead or alive) who would it be, and where would you take them?

In the South African context it would have to be Nadine Gordimer who always struck – with her quite strength and moral determination – me as someone who I would most want to take out for a nice dinner somewhere with a hushed atmosphere which can sometimes be hard to find in SA! DW11-13 in Joburg is one of my favourite go-to places and would have just the right atmosphere for such a meeting! There is a quiet confidence of purpose to the books she wrote which is captivating.

A book that most aptly sums up the state of the South African nation?

I always find the economic and political books from SA rather depressing. Walking into Exclusive Books I just get confronted with a wall of books that continually seem to say the same things in the same way. They either fall into SA-exceptionalism or are overly simplistic in their characterisation of the issues in SA. This is partly why I’ve resisted calls from people to write a book on SA – it is very hard to cut through prevailing narratives around the situation in SA which are often grossly over simplistic. One book that has stood out has been Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years which cuts through to the underlying currents in the country very well.

The magazines and newspapers you most frequently?

I have to read the entire South African press every day! The most interesting thing I read is probably The Daily Sun which gives an alternative perspective of grittier reality with Tokoloshe stories etc! Whilst I don’t work with The New Age, I think it’s also always worth a read in these times of capture and to know what certain factions are thinking. The most random thing I probably read locally is the SA version of House and Garden which gets physically delivered to London. I really love the SA design scene and it’s also a nice bit of escapism to get the summer edition when it’s the middle of winter in London and is always a spur to book another holiday to SA!

EXTRACT: Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor

An extract from the book by Elsabé Brits.
Elsabe Brits

Towards the end of 1909 Emily saw a doctor in London after she had been forced to cancel several “suffrage” appointments for speeches under the banner of the PSF. The doctor’s diagnosis was that  her heart did not function properly, and that she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis (which she knew already). Moreover, she felt “horribly fat and bloated”, while she had never been overweight in her life.

Alice Greene, an old friend from South Africa, visited her in London and was shocked to see how weak Emily was. “She is just very ill and very lonely and no wonder. She has broken down her health for the sake of others and I doubt whether there is one person both able and willing to help …”

Regarding her “poor heart”, Emily remarked to Smuts: “I think South Africa would be found stamped on it for South Africa wore it out. Nevertheless one often loves the very thing that kills.”

Emily returned to Italy with great reluctance, as she yearned to participate in the British women’s fight for political rights. A year later, in November 1910, Emily was also absent when the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, received a delegation from the PSF. It was a decisive event; shortly afterwards, Asquith announced that the franchise would be extended to all men while it was also being contemplated for women, as proposed in the Conciliation Bill of 1910.

Earlier that same year, on 31 May, South Africa had officially become a Union, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Louis Botha became the Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture; Jacobus Sauer of Uitkijk the Minister of Railways and Harbours; Jan Smuts the Minister of Interior Affairs, Mines and Industry, and Defence, and JBM Hertzog the Minister of Justice – all people whom Emily knew. Jaap de Villiers was appointed Judge President of the Transvaal division of the Supreme Court. As a result of the death of King Edward VII on 6 May, however, festivities had been muted.

From her sofa, Emily wrote to Smuts in pencil to congratulate him on the fact that the “first act of your Union Cabinet was one of justice towards Dinizulu”. Dinuzulu, a son of King Cetshwayo, had been captured by the English in 1890 and exiled to the island of St Helena for seven years on account of an armed rebellion against the British annexation of a part of Zululand. Nearly a decade later, Dinuzulu was charged with fomenting the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. He was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. After Botha became prime minister of the Union, he ordered that Dinuzulu be released and allowed to live on his farm Uitkyk in the Transvaal.

Emily also seized the opportunity to convey a pacifist message to the new Minister of Defence. “Well, dear Oom Jannie, mark my words – you will defend your country best by not defending it.” She warned him against having a standing defence force, as it was an evil.

Always attuned to health and a frugal lifestyle, and old-fashioned in some respects, she urged Smuts  not to use his new official motor car but to rather stick to his horse. Horse riding kept a man healthy. He should get the children ponies to ride on. In crowded Europe, motors had become “a pest of noise, dirt, danger and smell”.

He should also listen to Parliament, which was the voice of the people through its representatives, and guard against becoming an autocrat or “a Czar”. She reminded him that “we, the people, we democrats, want to have a say in matters concerning ourselves …”

She was beginning to wish, she wrote, that not merely kings but also ministers could be done away with, as it seemed to her that cabinets were “hotbeds of mischief manured by ambition”. She held cabinets responsible for “endless evil and little good, and I believe the secrecy appertaining to their counsels is the root of the evil”.Emily Hobhouse

A letter from Smuts in which he had referred to politics as “worldly” and a “sorry business” upset her so much that Emily reprimanded him angrily. Politics was in such a sorry state “because you men let it be and because you won’t or don’t lift it out of the rut”.

“That has been from the beginning of history the fault with men’s management of politics and public affairs – and I look above all to the entrance of women into politics to purify them and lift them to a higher level. Secrecy is one of the first things to get rid of …

“Oh! It makes me mad to think what great issues lie in the hands of a few stupid and obstinate men!”

She expressed the hope to Smuts that they in South Africa “will be wise and firm and keep yourselves to yourselves and not have any standing army or any battleships – for these things are the beginning of all Evil”.

“The next thing is you want an opportunity to use them …”

In the autumn of 1911 Emily was in Florence, Italy, where she hoped to find a cure for her health condition. But, as one could expect from an art lover, she first visited the museums, including the Palazzo Piti where, ironically, she was overwhelmed by Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Minerva – the goddess of wisdom, but who was usually depicted holding the weapons of war with which she had come into life.

In Botticelli’s painting the barefooted Minerva stands one step higher than the centaur next to her, whose long hair she has in a firm grip. He looks sad and submissive. A wreath of entwined olive branches on her head resembles a halo, while a mesh of olive shoots encircles parts of her upper body and her partially revealed breasts; in her other hand she holds a halberd, her ginger-brown hair falling in loose waves over her shoulders.

“I think it the most beautiful female figure in the world,” an enraptured Emily wrote to her nephew Oliver, now a student at Oxford. In Florence, Emily went to see a Doctor Carloni who had apparently developed a special treatment for people with heart disease; she had heard it had been wonderfully successful in some cases.After the first examination he found that she had overexerted herself mentally and physically, and that her heart was enlarged (which she knew already). She had to learn to sit still “and possess my soul in patience”.

Carloni made use of electric pumps, breathing apparatus, diets and other methods to treat his patients. Among others, they had to breathe in iodine through a device he had built.

Emily also had to lie in a bath of carbolic acid, which worked “wonders” for her.

Within two months she felt like a new person; her cheeks were “as rosy as a Dutch doll’s”, and she had regained her slim figure. She was especially pleased about this, as she set great store by her appearance.

After five months in Florence she decided to return to Rome. She had been in the Valley of the Shadow of Death but life had suddenly broken through again within her, she wrote to Tibbie Steyn. For the rest of her life she would keep to the advice she had been given in Florence by the Italian doctor – small portions of food, a diet of eggs, cheese, lots of vegetables and fruit, as well as bread and other starchy food. She almost never ate meat or fish again, except for occasional pieces of biltong from South Africa.

But the doctor had to be paid, and Emily was struggling to make ends meet; she lived mainly on the proceeds from her small investment and the rental of her house in Bellevue. The only person she felt she knew well enough to approach in this regard was Smuts. It could not have been easy for the proud Emily, but nonetheless she requested a loan of £50, which she would repay at six per cent interest.

Smuts sent her £100 – along with the remark that he considered Carloni a quack.

“Dear, dear Oom Jannie, What am I to say? What am I to do? Your generosity is so overwhelming …”

But she stood by her doctor, saying she had personally seen him cure asthma sufferers “like magic”.

In November 1912 Emily was back in Rome, where she saw Tibbie and her husband ex-President MT Steyn from time to time. Six years earlier Steyn had already conceived the idea of erecting a memorial of some kind for the women and children who had died in the Anglo-Boer War. A monument committee was established and various cultural organisations, churches and political parties were mobilised to raise funds and create enthusiasm for the cause. Hundreds of collection lists were distributed throughout South Africa for this purpose. Emily sent the small amount Tibbie had donated to her for her medical costs to the committee that raised funds for the envisaged monument.

Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Read the review here.

EXTRACT: The Compassionate Englishwoman

An excerpt from the book by Robert Eales.
Robert Eales

The camp was about three kilometres from Bloemfontein town on the slope of a bare hill. When Emily arrived, it contained about 2,000 residents of whom about 900 were children. She does not offer a concise description of the camp. Instead she told Lady Hobhouse about her first visit in a letter dated 26 January 1901:

It was about four o’clock of a scorching afternoon when I set
foot in the camp and I can’t tell you what I felt like so I won’t
try.

I began by finding a woman whose sister I had met in
Cape Town. … Imagine the heat inside the tents and the
suffocation! We sat on their khaki blankets rolled up inside
Mrs Botha’s tent and the sun blazed through the single canvas
and the flies lay thick and black on everything – no chair, no
table, nor any room for such, only a deal box standing on its
end served as a wee pantry. In this tent lived Mrs Botha, five
children (three quite grown up) and a little Kaffir servant girl.
Many tents have more occupants.

Mrs Pienaar came in and Mrs Raal, Mrs Roux and others
and they told me their stories and we cried together and even
laughed together and chatted bad Dutch and bad English all
the afternoon. Wet nights, the water streams down through
the canvas and comes flowing in (as it knows how to in this
country) under the flap of the tent and wets their blankets as
they lie on the ground.

The women are wonderful: they cry very little and never
complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, indignities,
loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears, and these
people who have had comfortable, even luxurious homes, just
set themselves to quiet endurance and to make the best of their
bare and terrible lot. Only when it cuts fresh at them through
their children do their feelings flash out. Mrs Meintjes, for
instance, she has six children in camp all ill. Two in the
hospital with typhoid and four sick in the tent. She … expects
her confinement soon. Her husband is in Ceylon [captured
Boers were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Ceylon, India,
St Helena Island, Bermuda and elsewhere]. She has means
and would gladly provide for herself either in town or in the
Colony where she has relatives or by going back to her farm. It
was not burnt, only the furniture was destroyed. Yet there she
has to stay, watching her children droop and sicken. For their
sakes she did plead with tears that she might go and fend for
herself.

One of the women she had met that first afternoon, Mrs Pienaar, was in an advanced state of pregnancy and after hearing how difficult she found it to sleep on the hard ground, Emily bought a mattress for her the next day.Compassionate Englishwoman

However, Emily decided not to rush into the distribution of the goods she had brought until she understood the circumstances better. She had made a crucial, instinctive decision: she wanted to see the situation through the eyes and experiences of the inmates. They were her concern. The official view, the opinions of the administrators, could wait. She visited the camp repeatedly and did meet with members of the camp administration. General Pretyman gave her a permanent pass and introduced her to Captain Nelson who had been in charge of the camp until shortly before her arrival. She met several times with Major Cray, the man responsible for the management of all the camps in the Orange River Colony and who, at the same time, was also the superintendent of the Bloemfontein camp. Gradually her understanding of the situation deepened.

One of the central issues was food. The women in the camp did not complain. ‘We know it is wartime and we cannot expect much’ was their attitude. As a result, Emily did not at first realise how meagre and monotonous the rations were.

Excerpted from The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War, published by UCT Press. Read the review here.