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

BOOK CLUB: Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare is a harrowingly incisive analysis of one of South Africa’s greatest scourges, writes TARAH CHILDES.Rape

Consider, for a moment, our country’s label as the rape capital of the world and then reflect on your reaction to it. No doubt you will feel outraged, frustrated by your sense of hopelessness and perceived inability to help turn the tide against this “endemic” issue. And you would not be alone. As a society, we are overwhelmed by rape: we express our collective horror and shock at each new incident that makes headlines, but to what effect?

It is this repetitive discourse around the taboo, often mysterious and always complex subject that writer, feminist and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola examines and challenges in Rape: A South African Nightmare – a worthy winner of the Sunday Times 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction.

In a series of succinct, analytical chapters, Gqola explores the culture of rape and its normalisation into our country’s social makeup, systematically interrogating our assumptions and attitudes from multiple angles and making sense of rape’s complex relationship to our past as well as its conflation with gender, sex and race.

Beginning by dismantling the idea that rape is a post 1994 problem, Gqola traces it back to its violent colonial roots and use as a tool of subjugation in our past slavocratic society —supported by a system that classified black women as legally “unrapable”, while simultaneously casting black men as sexually ravenous and dangerous. This dynamic continued to be institutionalised under apartheid — a time in which “no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women”. This formed a patriarchal structure that supported “violent masculinity” as a means of control, rendering women compliant and silent.

The initial chapter creates a useful structure from which to tackle the rest of the book — in which Gqola explores high-profile cases that include the trials of Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt, Makhaya Nthini and the rapes of Baby Tshepang, Anene Booysen and Eudy Simelane.

She uses each prominent example not only to debunk prevalent myths about rape, but also to draw attention to our collective and individual reactions to each case, with alarming and unsettling questions about who we deem “rapable” and how and where we apportion blame. Most striking, she points out, is the way in which we demand rape victims to behave and to look — using our prejudice to discredit victims when they do not meet our expectations in what she terms a “violent system that forces victims to ‘prove’ their lived trauma”.

Gqola raises the issue of child molestation and rape to make two important points. The first, that rape is about sex, or that rape victims somehow invite or deserve to be rape because of what they wear or how they behave. The rape of Baby Tshepang, amongst others, defies this logic. The second idea Gqola tackles is our perception that it is somehow more depraved to rape a child rather than a woman. This, she states, diminishes the experience of so many victims and excuses the behaviour of certain perpetrators. “It’s a problem when we show that some rapes are more gruesome than others,” she writes. “What I want to show is that it’s the same thing. I want to show that all rapes are gruesome.”

Most illuminating was the fourth chapter entitled “The Female Fear Factory” – where Gqola details how our society is constructed in such a way that women and those who don’t confirm to gendered stereotypes are taught to fear rape and violence, and are thus controlled as well as devalued. She writes:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check… It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

She makes use of the responses to the rape and murder of Bredasdorp resident, Anene Booysen, to emphasise this point, adding that while we sympathised and mourned her tragic rape and death, we were quick to add that she shouldn’t have been out drinking at night, that she shouldn’t have walked the streets – “all behaviour that patriarchy says is inappropriate for good girls”. Rather than appointing blame on the perpetrators who brutally attacked and tortured her, we criticised the circle around Anene for not protecting her from harm — thus further entrenching the idea that it is women who should fear rape, instead of those who rape being made afraid or deterred from doing so.

The crux of Gqola’s book is the chapter on President Zuma’s rape trial — a time she describes as “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view”. The rape charge was laid by the woman we know as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and a daughter of a friend of Zuma’s. By examining excerpts from media coverage at the time, Gqola notes the way in which both Khwezi and the president were framed, and the worrying way in which we repeatedly diminished the importance of the rape incident, instead expressing views that shamed Khwezi and protected the president. Most troubling is the justice system that allowed Khwezi’s previous sexual history to be admitted as evidence in a bid to categorise her as “unrapable” while relabelling her self-identified status as a gay woman as “bisexual”.

Rape is not an easy book to read. This, of course, is not because it is not exceptionally well written—the academic language is refreshingly accessible and engaging — but because of the odious subject Gqola so methodically interrogates. I reflected on my own reluctance to read the book, identifying with the tendency to divert our gaze and thus enable “violent masculinities” to flourish under what Gqola terms the “cult of femininity”.

Gqola wisely offers no immediate solutions to our country’s complex and entrenched rape crisis. But, by interrupting the insidious and unspoken language of rape and rape culture, she helps us to envision a future in which rape does not exist — and that, as Gqola so emphatically concludes, is one we deserve, and one we must all fight to create.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read an extract of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

Rainbow nation rogues and heroes

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Ragged Glory is lucid, thoughtful and eloquent: a calm and smoothly digestible account of democratic South Africa’s political stage. Peppered with quotes from interviews Hartley did as a political reporter, the book explores the both the style and substance of post-apartheid South Africa’s leaders. There is Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory approach and his bid to steady a listing economic ship, which had been battered by years of sanctions and disinvestment, and had a jittery business community eyeing the life-rafts. Hartley looks at Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance, the insanity of his Aids denialism, and his eventual downfall. Then there is Jacob Zuma’s astonishing — rise to power, and the legal tussles (involving accusations of rape and corruption) that has so far been unable to ensnare him.

But Ragged Glory is not just about politicos. Government’s policy formulation (and its spotty implementation) is accessibly decoded too. Hartley introduces us to the alphabet soup of abbreviations that would mark the constantly shifting approach to tackling apartheid’s legacy and growing the economy. First was the ill-fated RDP (the Reconstruction and Development Programme) whose only significant legacy, it seems, is to be the colloquial (and incorrect) adjective applied to low-cost government housing. Mbeki’s Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) came next. It was pro-market and recognised the need for a labour market in which it was easier to hire and fire people— much to the horror of the ANC’s trade union allies who felt increasingly isolated by the imperious Mbeki’s imperious disdain for consensus-building. Gear was also abandoned, in favour of Asgisa (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative), which emphasised spending on big infrastructure projects to try to curb the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rates. Hartley captures the ever-more vigorous muddying of policy waters as Zuma sought to appease the left wing which had helped propel him into office: in 2009 he created both an economic development ministry (run by a COSATU man, Ebrahim Patel) as well as a national planning commission which would ultimately produce the much-praised but largely unfulfilled NDP (National Development Plan).

While there isn’t much in Ragged Glory that you wouldn’t have known about had you been paying attention (or a frequent reader of one the newspapers Hartley has written for, or helmed) over the last 20 years, Hartley ably puts it all in context, providing sharp analysis and a narrative flow that sweeps you beyond the headlines to a better understanding of the political landscape. There’s not a lumpen cliche in sight; Hartley has a refreshingly crisp, vivid turn-of-phrase — for example: After a cycle in the political washing machine, Gear would have lost its bold colours and emerged as a faded quilt of stitched-together policies.

Hartley isn’t polemical — he marshals the facts to make a quietly scathing indictment of the erosion of the rule of law and “the rising tide of corruption and self-enrichment”. “There is hope for South Africa,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter. But while there is hope, Hartley shows the alarm bells are ringing, too.

Ragged Glory is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.

EXTRACT: SA Politics Unspun

Blue-light brigades

Or: Motorcade madness; VIP security overkill

First erupted: early-2000s

For most people in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal it’s a common sight. A parade of black BMWs, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, blasting through traffic and often driving illegally in the process. All because one person, considered a VIP (Very Important Politician), is being transported from one place to another. Occupying the various support cars are that person’s security personnel, who have no qualms breaking traffic laws, pushing people around and generally acting like they own the place. Which is possibly because they really believe they do.

While Nelson Mandela’s presidential security team was (famously) racially integrated and polite to everyone, things have changed rather dramatically since the mid-’90s, as VIP culture has emerged in positions of power and status. Thabo Mbeki set a precedent by specifying that his entourage include two separate cars carrying doctors, in case one of them was involved in the same accident he was in. Around the country, increasing numbers of ministers – some senior, others less so – worked out that your status was directly proportional to the number of black motor vehicles with blue lights in your immediate vicinity. Kgalema Motlanthe, in his brief time in charge, couldn’t quite keep up with the trends – he often moved around with just three cars; his in the middle – but under Zuma, matters have escalated somewhat.

It now appears that almost every ANC provincial MEC has a set of guards who believe they are well within their rights to break the law. And speeding, reckless driving and generally offensive road behaviour are only the start of it. On the N12 near Johannesburg a motorist was assaulted for getting “too close” to a convoy. On the N3 near Durban a guard fired his gun out the window, while travelling at high speed, when a car didn’t give way; it led to an accident that injured six people. In Ulundi a pedestrian was killed by a car travelling in Zuma’s cavalcade. In Cape Town, another incident involving Zuma’s team occurred when a student was arrested and held in a cell overnight after gesturing at the presidential motorcade while out jogging; he has brought a R1.45 million case against the state for kidnap and torture.

Many journalists covering ANC events can relate stories of being pushed around and confronted by groups of big angry men just because they took a picture of their nice BMW. It’s hard to really contemplate the idiocy of this. Journalists are invited to watch the president in action; visiting a hospital, say. As he gets out of the car TV people and photographers crowd around as he thoroughly enjoys waving to them. But take a picture of the same car a few minutes later and suddenly you’re committing treason…

In November 2012, a car transporting Gauteng housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi jumped a red light and drove over Krugersdorp teenager Thomas Ferreira on his buzz bike. Ferreira was seriously injured and will likely never be the same again. Mmemezi had been late for a meeting. After Premier Nomvula Mokonyane visited the family to pay her condolences, she was interviewed on local radio as she drove away. Over the speed limit with her sirens on. Really. As she was quizzed about this amazingly inappropriate behaviour, she explained that for her “an emergency is when I’m late for a meeting”. So that’s official, then. Feel free to try that excuse for speeding for yourself the next time you have a pleasant conversation with a member of your local constabulary.

Journalists with long memories talk about how much less security there was around Parliament during the bad old days of apartheid compared to now. And that’s not even counting the annual State of the Nation address, when all of central Cape Town is placed in lockdown and you’re lucky to get in without having to leave a limb behind as a deposit. The justification for all of this is supposed to be “threat assessments” that are, supposedly, routinely undertaken by “the police”. But it’s hard to think it’s not much more than a bit of VIP bling for those in power who enjoy showing that they’re in power.

Public anger at these blue-light motorcades is growing; it used to be just middle-class whites venting their frustrations on the topic, but now everybody moans about them. The DA-controlled Western Cape has picked up on this and shrewdly banned them from its roads, looking for (and getting) an obvious thumbs-up from voters.

There have already been plenty of relatively minor incidents – though try telling that to Thomas Ferreira’s family – and it’s only a matter of time before one of these power-drunk VIP protection units actually ploughs into a bus, killing many people and causing a major scandal. Perhaps the people in the backseat could tell their drivers to slow down before we
get there?

Stephen Grootes

Extracted from the “Controversies” chapter of SA Politics Unspun, published by Two Dogs and available from Kalahari.com. Read our interview with Grootes about the book.