10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally

BY GARETH LANGDON

Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

WORK/LIFE: Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler grew up in what is now Mpumalanga, and studied journalism Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has spent most of his working life in the advertising industry in Cape Town, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is currently creative director at a leading advertising agency.

His first two novels, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)  and Wasted were both published by Kwela Books. His third, The Safest Place You Know, was published by Umuzi earlier this year.

What does “writing” mean?

Different things to different people, I suppose. Writing could be a corporate email, a legal contract, a WhatsApp to your BFF. To me it’s an opportunity to play with language, to mould it the way I want, and my challenge is to deploy it unusually, to make it sing. The writer is the lens between the reader and the story, so it’s the responsibility of the writer to reward both the reader and the story in the telling.

What book changed your life?

The Little Iron Horse, one of the Bobbsey Twins adventures. I was six, in bed with mumps, and it was the first “novel” I read on my own. It was my first experience of disappearing into a written story, and it also made me aware that there must have been someone who wrote it.

What are you working on at the moment?

Trying to make time, mostly. When I do, I’m working on my fourth novel, Theo & Flora, and on a collection of short stories, which for now I’ve called The Theatre of Obscurity.

Describe your workspace.

Depends. It can be a coffee-shop table or an airport. Best, though, is sitting at my old knee-hole desk in my study at home, where the walls are a deep Venetian red, the backdrop to framed copies of my books and photographs, and where I get to choose the music.Mark's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Observation. Without it the pantry would be bare. I’m a serial eavesdropper and people-watcher. I steal and hoard, and then Frankenstein bits and pieces together as it suits me. So second to observation is interpretation – how do you take what you’ve witnessed and make it make sense?

What’s your most productive time of day?

I have a demanding day-job, and actively exclude my private writing from my office hours. This means I need to be productive in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. I do best in darkness, though, and when it rains.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I’ve come to believe being stuck is the brain’s way of begging for a rest, so I no longer try to force things when I’m stuck. Instead, I read, or try to do something I’ve never done before, or at least do very seldom.

How do you relax?

I spend time with my family, or jump on my mountain bike. Movies. I used to watch rugby, but recently it began having the opposite effect.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My high-school English teacher was hugely influential, lending me challenging books that weren’t part of the curriculum, such as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist etc and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Authors who’ve influenced me include Carey, McEwan, Bellow, Gordimer, Coetzee, van Heerden, Rushdie, Okri, Marquez, Barnes, and so on and so forth, as well as poets such as Eliot, cummings, Pound and Owen. Also, the many years I’ve spent as a copywriter have been invaluable in learning about the importance of concept, craft, language and voice.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t try to edit while you’re writing, or you’ll spend a year crafting Chapter One instead of building momentum and getting to the end. There’ll be more than enough time to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite) once you’re done. So: start, go, and don’t stop.

Your favourite ritual?

Don’t really have one, other than to put on classical music – lyrics distract.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the time for it – and then realising that an idea you loved is stillborn after you’ve spent weeks trying to take it somewhere.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

That I seem to have a ceiling of around 75k words, many of which are then necessarily pared away in the editing process. I’d love to write a great big door-stopper, like Wally Lamb or John Irving, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, tequila, and running out of ideas. And being dead, of course.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Don’t start at all if it’s something you’d “like” to do. Start only if you cannot stop yourself from writing.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

An obvious answer, I suppose, but it was probably having my first novel published. I’m sometimes asked how long it took to write it, and while the technically correct reply is less than a year, the real answer would be closer to twenty-five years – that’s how long it took to figure out how to do it.

THE READER: Cateringa & Kompanen

Alexander Geijzendorffer and Odrada Burghoorn are members of Cateringa & Kompanen – a Dutch artist collective of makers with a specific interest in mixing food, art and the interaction between people. They find food and its context to be an artistic material like copper, clay or pain. Yet it offers so much more in terms of how its perceived. What is “good”? What is “normal”? What is “health”? What beholds the future? They challenge and investigate these concepts in various forms, from performance and installations to interactive buffets and experimental film nights.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Ai. You caught us at just after a massive book binge. I’m trying to read nine books at the same time to prepare our research for next year. Ahem… Let’s say the main two today are Ingredients by Dwight Eschliman and Steve Ettlinger and Chemistry for Dummies by John T. Moore. The first is “a visual exploration of 75 food additives & 25 food products”. It’s my breakfast and coffee book. Page after page of glossy photos with whitish powders or translucent liquids. The second helps me to bring back the fundamentals on food chemistry that I realise I lack for fully understanding the other seven books.

How do you decide what to read next?

A: Often friends and fellow artists/chefs will advise me books on a topic we are discussing. Occasionally I realise that internet offers mostly superficial snippets and I need something thorough and real.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

A: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. I realised all adults have gone through a phase of existentialism and somehow decided it was worth living anyway. This blew my mind.

O: Still love John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. It covers everything from building a compost toilet to how to see if a chicken egg is fertilised to harvesting and storing your crop. when our modern world collapses you can use this book to stay alive 🙂 

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

O: Tablet and paper. Tablet while travelling because paper tends to be heavy to bring, but i prefer paper at home. When I love something i want to own it on paper.

A: Almost only paper. I loathe all the screen work I have to do and prefer to jump around and do stuff. Paper books are kind of between.

What were your favourite books as a child?

A: Oh! The Witches’ Handbook by Malcolm Bird. An illustrated guide to be a witch, including recipes for worm soup, how to spoil your neighbours’ harvest and useful career suggestions.

O: Meester van de zwarte molen by Otfried Preußler (which in English mean “the satanic mill”) has a fairy-tale quality, magic and a romantic plot and it plays in a mill (yay, bread!).

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

A: Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter. A typical engineer who decided cooking would mix well with graphs and screwdrivers. I’m about to give it as a gift to a friend of mine who never liked cooking till it became difficult. I believe in borrowing books.

O: for my sister one of Ottolenghi’s beautiful books for her birthday.

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

A: Many things. Yesterday I read a comparison of how electrons around the core of an atom try to keep as much distance from each other as they can are very similar to you and another person in the same cocktail dress on a fancy gala. I don’t know which one took more imagination.

O: I stumbled upon the columns by Renske de Greef last week and found them hilarious.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

Ulysses by James Joyce. My interest in novels has diminished over the years to make space for more informative books. This mindboggling stream of words was the first victim to fall.

O: I am OCD about reading books, I have to absorb every word, read a page again when I find myself drifting away, and it is impossible to not finish a book that I have read halfway. And I actually read Ulysses, Alex. 😉

What book do you turn to for advice?

A: Ehm. Heukels’ Flora van Nederland by R. van der Meijden. The biologists’ handbook for determining exactly which wild plant is about to kill you for trying to eat it. The SAS Survival Guide offers some basics on that too.

O: I have a copy of the I Tjing lying around somewhere that I used in a playful manner with my friends to advise us on the important questions in life. That was fun for a while.

The best food magazine?

A: Ai ai ai. I’m afraid I don’t read any magazines. I might follow up on interesting articles that pass by on my Facebook feed from various online magazines.

O: No magazines, but food blogs, I like the dessert recipes of Chocolate Covered Katie.

The recipe book you use the most?

A: Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. I live in a communal house with six other entrepreneurs that love cooking in their spare time. It’s actually a luxury with which I never have to buy recipe books myself. Ottelenghi has an interesting non-dogmatic view on cooking with vegetables (“this would be great with a piece of lamb”), that I much

appreciate. Every kitchen, from raw to vegan to African to molecular has interesting features, but I take open mindedness as the healthiest approach to life.

Favourite book about food?

A: Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking. Great and almost too-thorough bible of the scientific processes that happen in food cooking. A must-read. Maybe prep up on your chemistry basics though.

If you could cook dinner for a dead writer, who which writer would it be, where would you eat with them, and what would you make them?

A: Roald Dahl, whom I feel would appreciate anything cooked with enthusiasm. He would be more than welcome to join us at my house and dig into whatever has been created by whoever that day. Home cooking is as much about informal ambience as it is about the freedom to try new things.

Geijzendorffer and Burghoorn will be speaking in Joburg at the Spier Secret Festival on Sunday, 6 November 2016. Book your tickets here.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.