BOOK CLUB: Firepool

Firepool, Hedley Twidle’s outstanding new collection of essays, is an exquisitely observed snapshot of contemporary South Africa and a deeply personal journey into the mind of its author. By GARETH LANGDON.

In an age of social media, blogs and easy self-publication, the idea of the personal essay (and indeed, essays in general) has become almost repulsive to me. As Jia Tolentino opined in The New Yorker earlier this year the genre, which came to be dominated by whiny 20-something white women with a MacBook and a Lena Dunham poster on their wall, has largely faded away leaving in its wake a scorched earth of forgotten blogs and silenced millennials.

However unpopular it may be, the essay provides a unique lens through which to view the world. A good, well-written essay situates the author in the world in a particular, subjective way – providing a personal spin on a set of ideas or an argument that novels sometimes can’t do. In Hedley Twidle’s new collection of essays, Firepool, he does exactly that.

When I took Twidle’s English classes as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, I found his teaching always engaged students in a way that was more casual, more inviting, and more human than the more formal lectures I was accustomed to elsewhere in the department. Twidle has done a good job of achieving this same comfortableness in his essays, without losing any of the intellectual rigour or political punch so necessary in a country as fraught as South Africa.

The collection moves, somewhat chronologically, from the author’s days as a young pupil at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, through to his years as a student at Oxford, his years as a lecturer at UCT, his personal experiences travelling through the country and some views on the contemporary politics of South Africa. The collection is named after an essay about the tragicomic “firepool” saga in which President Jacob Zuma used an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money to pay for additions to his private homestead in Nkandla. He claimed the lavish pool area, complete with auditorium style seating, was a “safety precaution” – the water there to be used in case of a fire breaking out among the many thatched rondavels of the homestead. The joke was aided by the performance of firemen pumping water from the pool to demonstrate its usefulness in an emergency. Twidle deals eloquently with this issue, and what it really says about our country and its leaders, in the final essay of the collection.

But “Firepool” is not a political opinion piece. It is not a criticism of South Africa and its many faults, nor is it explicitly an examination of the country’s many good qualities. What made “Firepool” an enjoyable read for me was how it placed the author’s personal experiences of the country in a broader national context. Novels, as Twidle notes, are protected by the golden rule of literary criticism: “This is not a book about the author, don’t read into it”. But the essay removes that veil entirely and in fact embraces the personal as a central part of its conceit.

Twidle is at his most deft in an essay about his hike along the Otter Trail, a five-day hike along South Africa’s coast. One of Twidle’s party is unashamedly racist; the essay carefully exposes the flaws in this man’s arguments, and the many frustrations the author suffers when engaging with him. It concludes amicably, noting the humanity of each attendee on the hike, despite their flaws. For Twidle, alongside a necessary self-awareness, is the empathy required to engage effectively in post-apartheid South African discourse – to be human in the face of hurt across racial divides.

The majority of the essays in the collection run in this fashion, placing the author in a seemingly typical situation – on campus, on a hike, writing or discussing literature, or thinking about his own position as a writer and teacher in South Africa – but manage also to look inward, relating the external to the internal. This kind of subjectivity speaks volumes of Twidle’s self-awareness and his desire to speak up and speak back to the national condition, something which is sorely needed in a society that all too easily loses perspective. Sucked up in the news cycle, from disaster to disaster, we can so easily forget about human emotion and its relationship to political experience, and its important role in the creation of a better future.

Without delving into each essay in detail here, I would go so far as to say that as a snapshot of contemporary South Africa, and as a deeply personal journey into the mind of the author, Firepool stands out amongst its peers. Twidle shows that it’s time to wrench the essay medium from the hands of the millennials, and bring it back to the bestseller shelves. For the right reasons.

Firepool is published by Kwela Books. Read an extract from the book here

POEM: The Cry of the Youth

BY LAZOLA PAMBO

Was it foolish of me,
to cast my vote for you
on that cold
Saturday morning?
Today, I am still unemployed
after your one hundred
empty promises
and still counting.

My sister is expecting
baby number three,
all the township girls
running away from university,
claiming that
child grants
are the best policy,

My elder brother conformed
by ministering in tavern,
and so today
he is a heavy beer drinker,
an academic of the lager.
Was it fair for you,
to bribe me with liberty
and build a mansion of lies?
Maybe we should rebel,
bring back 1976.
Have I been cast-away?
Oh Mr President,
I want to hear no more lies,
for such an occupation
is fit enough for lawyers,
who do a far
better job at it!

EXTRACT: What’s Gone Wrong? by Alex Boraine

Control is almost a fetish. It is not sufficient to control members of parliament; even mayors have to have their sanction, provincial premiers are elected by Luthuli House, all those who hold any office at all are under very tight supervision. The executive of the state has been replaced by the top six ANC leaders, who are Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Baleka Mbete, Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte and Zweli Mkhize. Nothing happens without rigid control and deployment to ensure that loyal cadres are in place.

The aim remains the exercise of power at every level, and leading up to the 2014 election, Zuma and other leaders of the ANC are calling for a two-thirds majority. To what end? To change the Constitution in order to increase the power of government.

A further question which was raised in an earlier chapter is whether the criminality and the culture of corruption which occurred during exile foreshadowed the criminality and corruption which is rife amongst ANC leaders and many in public service, and seems endemic in every government institution. Bureaucracy, maladministration, wrong choices, deployment, political incoherence, the high life enjoyed by the top leadership, were all in evidence during the exile.

If all of this could be seen as a passing phase, mistakes made by a new government, it would be disturbing but understandable. New leadership with integrity could appear and steer the ship of state into a more positive, more moral direction. But if it is symptomatic of the ANC over the last 50 years, then it engenders a deep sense of uneasiness, an ominous suggestion that a failing state could become a failed state if not checked. Very importantly, it also means that reform from within the ANC is impossible.

Of course, there are many good people within the party, both at leadership level and in the rank and file, and many of these faithful supporters of the ANC must be deeply embarrassed and even ashamed by the failure of the senior leadership. But because the culture of power seems to be so ingrained, genuine and extensive reform is simply out of the question. What is needed is a new coalition which will give South Africa a fresh start and enable it to return to the period which has been termed the Mandela years.

It is the ANC’s obsession with power that engenders a culture of suspicion, distrust and extreme intolerance. This was evident in the period of exile and accounts today for the party’s disenchantment with the Constitutional Court and much of the media, and its contempt for parliament. In exile, it could be argued that the ANC had good cause to be paranoid and lacking in transparency. After all, the movement seemed to be riddled with state security agents. But nearly 20 years later, the same phobias exist and the ANC is no longer an exile movement but the government of South Africa. The leadership has not yet learned the lesson that a besieged movement in exile is not the same as a democratically elected government. It remains obsessed with control and is more concerned with the state of the party than with good governance for all South Africans.

What's Gone Wrong? by Alex Boraine Extracted from What’s Gone Wrong?, published by Jonathan Ball and available from Kalahari.com.

At the precipice

BY CRAIG LAURENCE

When a current South African political commentary carries the sub-title On the brink of a failed state, it behoves the reader to sit up and take notice. Even more so when the author is Alex Boraine — the former opposition politician, co-founder of IDASA and deputy chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a man whose experience, acumen and humanity have earned him serious credibility.

What’s Gone Wrong? is compelling reading. It adds a significant contribution to the mounting literature from political commentators who are concerned — even shocked and horrified — at the way the ruling party is running roughshod over the South African political landscape.

Over the course of several chapters, Boraine builds a comprehensive case to support his notion that we should all be very worried about the state of democracy in our country. He argues that much of the current ANC leadership’s approach to parliament, the constitution and the judiciary has been formed by years in exile, and that those years have not forged a culture of true understanding of democratic process. The ruling party cops a few grave hits, but parliament, the judiciary and civil society are all also subjected to the microscope, and all seem to wither under scrutiny. Boraine is as matter-of-fact as he is meticulous in his argument — more Hercule Poirot than Gerrie Nel.

By the time I reached the conclusion, it was with some trepidation that I turned the page to discover Boraine’s prognosis for the future. I thought I had seen glimpses of it in the preceding chapters, and that it would make for more grim-faced reading. Which is why I was a bit surprised when it ended a bit (for want of a better word) meekly. Boraine takes us to the edge of the precipice and then withdraws, perhaps himself afraid of what lies on the other side.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding read from one of the clearest political thinkers in South Africa today. Given its brevity, it is easily readable before the upcoming election, and one would be hard put to find something more thought provoking to pore over between now and then.

What’s Gone Wrong? is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.