EXTRACT: Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard

An extract from the book by Sean Christie.Sean Christie

‘I don’t remember the name of the first ship I stowed. I’ve stowed nine ships since and I remember all their names but not the first one. I was in a hurry at the time. I was 17. I had been living with the Durban Beachboys for six months, trying to get a ship every night. Nobody was trying harder than me. One night, February I think, a cargo ship docked at Pier 2. I was with a friend called Nnanani, and another guy called Bambo. Nnanani had already stowed a ship about a month before. He was caught and deported to Dar es Salaam, and he had just arrived back in Durban that day, and already he wanted to stow another ship. We came closer to the port and noticed that the crew was Chinese. Bambo decided to turn back when he saw this because Beachboys were too afraid of Chinese crews at this time. A lot of our guys had already been thrown in the sea by Chinese seamen in the nineties. It is better now, but in 1999 people were proper scared, especially of the mainland Chinese crews. Hong Kong Chinese are better, but you can’t tell who is who from a distance, so Bambo left,’ said Adam.

When Adam and Nnanani saw that the gangway of the bulk carrier at Pier 2 was unguarded, they sprinted up the steps and made it onto the deck, which, at 1 a.m., was clear. Skirting the cabins, they came to a place where fuel drums had been stacked one on top of the other.

‘We each climbed in a drum and made our bodies small,’ said Adam, folding his arms against his chest. ‘After an hour a guy came and shook the drums but he never looked inside. Afterwards I felt the ship going. I don’t know what he was thinking but Nnanani climbed out of his drum and came and shook my drum. I thought I had been caught until I heard him whispering to me. When I came out I saw the sea all around the ship, and the land far away. I thought, What the fuck, Durban is leaving. I’m at sea for the first time. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain.’

The two friends needed to find somewhere better to hide, and decided to climb the tower of the ship’s cargo crane hand over hand on the vertical ladder until they reached a platform which, if they kept their bodies flattened, shielded them from view.

‘It is very high, if you drop you’re dead, but I grew up climbing coconut trees in Tanzania so it wasn’t a problem,’ said Adam.

The ship tracked South Africa’s east coast in the darkness and by mid-morning drew towards another port.

‘Nnanani knew what was going on. He said, “Yow, we’re docking at Richards Bay,” a South African port in the forest, near the border with Mozambique. He said we needed to stay hidden until the ship left, but after five days we were still there. I said, “Nnanani, we don’t know when this ship is going to leave and we can’t go on like this. I’m going to try and escape.”’

Having observed the deck-top activity for days, the stowaways knew exactly when the crew took lunch and, at this time, scuttled down and made for the gangway. Rounding the cabin block once more, they ran into a Congolese security guard.

‘The security officer radioed for chief officer, who came and said, “Where you stow?” I said, “Durban.” He said, “You sure?” and then he punched me. He asked again. Nnanani said, “Durban,” so he punched him too, and almost broke Nnanani’s thumb. After that he locked us in a cabin and brought us food and water.’

The Beachboys slept for hours, and when they woke it was to the barking of sniffer dogs, searching the ship for other stowaways. When this process had been concluded, the cabin door was opened and a man the boys had never seen before ordered them down the gangway and into a minibus with the name of a stowaway detection service written on the side. The sniffer dogs went in the back, and Adam was guided into the passenger seat, with Nnanani behind him on a bench.

‘I had big amount of ganja in my sock, seventy grams or so. I was thinking, They’re going to take us to the police station straight, so I decided to leave it under the seat of the car. But they just stopped the car outside the port area and said, “Come off.” Richards Bay harbour is surrounded by a big forest and they just left us there in the bushes. We hugged each other then, me and my brother, because we were free to carry on with our lives.’

Adam and Nnanani were too naïve to know it then, but their sudden release was not out of the ordinary. One of the unlisted services that stowaway detection outfits provide to shipmasters is the removal of stowaways from under the noses of port authorities. The procedural processing of stowaways costs a great deal of time and money – up to R100 000 a case, according to insurers – and shipping companies happily pay for alternative outcomes.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard is published by Jonathan Ball. Save R40 when you purchase online at Bridge Books before 27 April 2017 (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).

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 reluctant writer

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

I first encountered Michiel Heyns at school – when I devoured his second novel, The Reluctant Passenger (2003), as a 15- or 16-year-old. It made quite an impression: not only was it very smart and funny and eloquent, but this spot-on new South African satire was, I suspect, the only book in the library at Rondebosch Boys’ High to have a tantalisingly explicit gay sex scene. It probably still is.

More than a decade later, Heyns continues to dazzle, with a slew of books showing the breadth and depth of his literary talents. There have been the historical – The Typewriter’s Tale and Bodies Politic; and a murder mystery, Lost Ground (which won the Herman Charles Bosman Award for English Fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2012).

In 2012, we were treated to the Jamesian Invisible Furies – subtle and aching and elegantly devastating. Heyns’s seventh, A Sportful Malice, came out last year, marking a return to the comedic lightness of The Reluctant Passenger, but set, like the Paris-based Invisible Furies, in Europe. I sat down with Heyns recently to chat about the book, which is styled as a series of emails that Michael Marcussi, a young South African academic, is writing to his partner back in Johannesburg as he romps around Florence and rural Tuscany.

Heyns explains that the book’s inspirations coalesced from a series of trips to Italy: two month-long stays in a little Tuscan village (which inspired the hamlet which Marcussi decamps to for several weeks), and a six-week fellowship at Civitella Ranieri, an Umbrian castle. Characters poured from life onto the page – an elderly couple he met outside of Asisi for example, who were “fanatical representational artists” that showed great contempt for abstract and performance art. Then there was a good-looking young performance artist who inspired the book’s Paolo. These two extremes – old and young, figurative versus performance – formed the book’s two conceptual poles.

Echoing JM Coetzee, Heyns believes a story is “there and you discover what is there by writing”: you figure out what you want to say as you write. The more he wrote, the more he realised he was exploring the theme of representation – the way things are presented: whether in art, or on Facebook, or to a lover back home.

“Ideally the organic and the conceptual knit seamlessly,” he says. “Things start falling into place in a way that’s very satisfying if you’re a literary scholar as I am and you’ve been teaching your students that they must see how the patterns work.”

“I think in all of my novels there is a seriousness but I try not to approach these things to solidly,” he says. “This is the most over-the-top of my novels, I think – and I enjoyed that. But also, it’s not just a romp.”

The novel’s email letter format gives allowed him to “create a character that you’re not necessarily subscribing to as author: he is a character – that is his voice, not mine”. There is a “sense of a voice speaking to you – to the reader”. The intimacy created through addressing his lover back home means Marcussi is “expressing himself without any kind of inhibition” – and his snobberies and conceits can be fully displayed in a fiercely personal, subjective way.

* * *

I ask Heyns what the Civitella Ranieri fellowship was like. He says that having all day to write was initially “quite inhibiting”. “You don’t even have to feed a dog. And that paralysed me for a while.” For several days he would go on long walks through the forest – which would provide inspiration for Marcussi’s encounter with a boar-hunting party. Eventually he was able to get into a writing groove.

And back home – does he have a writing routine?

“It comes and goes,” he says. “I write very sporadically. When I write, I write fairly quickly, and then I have these fallow periods.” He envies those who are able to write every morning and afternoon, for set periods. “I think you must be very productive when you do that, but I don’t. In fact I’m quite often surprised that I get anything written because I don’t seem to spend very much time writing.”

Does he enjoy the process?

“Most writers seem to be quite oppressed with the idea of writing,” he says. “I think it’s also easy to exaggerate that – I mean it can’t be such hell, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. But there is a reluctance to sit down, and there is a sense that I now have to dig into my guts. And then when you’ve sat down and it happens, it’s wonderful.”

“Much easier” is the translation he does (he has translated, from Afrikaans into English, Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat and Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam – among other works). “I don’t have that creative block, because translation is creative in its own terms, but not in the same way – it doesn’t come from your guts.” It also pays better than fiction, he adds.

When it comes to his novels, he sometimes asks himself, “Why am I bothering?” But then he also wonders what would he would be doing instead. “I don’t play golf. But it’s not just that. There is something that compels. If I don’t write, I start feeling very restless. If you were religious you could say that God’s given me this one talent and I must use it in terms of the parable of the talents. But without being religious about it, there is a sense that this is something I can do and I would be wasting my life if I didn’t.”

Heyns spent 30-odd years teaching English literature at the University of Stellenbosch. I ask him if he misses academia.

“No, not at all,” he replies. Not having to drive to lectures or mark essays is “a wonderful luxury”. He enjoyed working with young people, enjoyed sharing something he perceived as valuable, but it could “become very frustrating”. He recalls the “dead snoek eyes” of bored students. “English literature is not very big in young people’s lives.” He can’t blame them, he says, for dreaming about their date that evening instead of considering the nuances of Chaucer – but their indifference could be dispiriting nonetheless.

“I started writing when I was at school,” he says. “I wrote short stories and I submitted them to magazines; of course they were rejected. And then I stopped. And now, when young people ask me for advice I say, ‘Don’t be discouraged; at the same time, be realistic – not everyone is a writer; but if you really feel you want to write [then write].’”

“I just realised at the age of 55, there’s only one life,” and that “a novel is not going to write itself,” he says. Although academic life – with its intensive research and marking demands – was hardly conducive to creative writing, finding excuses not to write is “too easy”, he says. “You just have to tell yourself, ‘Bullshit, you’ve got time.’ When I was in the army, and they said ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ and you said, ‘I didn’t have time,’ they said, ‘What were you doing at four ’o clock this morning?’ You have time. But it’s not always easy.”

I ask him about the state – or fate – of South African fiction.

“People don’t really read,” he says. “We make fun of reading groups – but thank heavens for them. People say at Franschhoek [Literary Festival], ‘Here are all these grey haired ladies’ – well thank heavens for the grey-haired ladies, because the blonde boys aren’t reading.”

The market is too small “to make authors rich” – although “oddly it does seem enough to keep publishers going”. I suggest the publishers are staying in the black thanks to cookbooks and sports biographies, rather than novels.

Heyns agrees. “And religious books,” he adds. “I have a friend who writes cookery books and we decided we should write a religious cookery book – preferably with some rugby thrown in.”

Although South Africa’s fiction market might be miniscule, it’s not all gloom. “I think it’s remarkably easy to get published in this country, compared to, say, England,” Heyns says. “Publishers are open to new writing which is great, although it often means the writing’s not that great. You can get published here without having an agent, which you can’t in England.” Even if you don’t make much from it, “at least you get published”.

Heyns’s work is – deservingly, of course – finding increasing appeal abroad. Many of his novels have been translated into French; The Children’s Day, his first, was published in the US. And Lost Ground has been snapped up by the Scottish publisher Freight Books, which has also commissioned another novel from him.

A Sportful Malice by Michiel Heyns A Sportful Malice is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.

EXTRACT: Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

My grandmother seldom spoke directly to me about her feelings. It was only when she prayed that I could hear how she felt. So, in hospital that first day, and for many months afterwards, I heard how she felt. She would begin by thanking God that I survived, because I could so easily have died. This she said over and over again. Sometimes she would ask God straight out what he thought she should have done if I had died. How could she ever look after another child if this happened to the one she was looking after with an involved heart? All of this I heard in her prayers.

I also heard the doctors expressing their surprise: why did the bullet not go through my head and blow open the other side?

Two days later, the police came to take a statement. I was still in great pain and my face was swollen. They showed me a photo: was it him? Yes, it was. They had already arrested him. As Pindile was a fugitive, the photo had gone up all over Mthatha. A taxi driver saw him getting into a cream bakkie, took the registration number and phoned the police. The police followed the bakkie to the rank for Cape Town buses and arrested Pindile as he was paying for a ticket to visit his family in Gugulethu. Apparently he acted surprised.

‘Do you know Sixolile?’

‘No, I don’t know her.’

‘So you don’t know the one you raped and shot?’ ‘Who told you that?’

‘She, she is in hospital.’

He was shocked. ‘Is she alive?’

I stayed in hospital for almost three months. When I was discharged, I couldn’t walk properly. I was not fine.

Initially I went back to Grandmother’s house, but I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t walk or eat. She had to cook soup for me. The neighbours would come in the mornings and volunteer soup and potatoes, because I could not eat any hard food. As they came and went they offered prayers, and in the prayers I heard them saying: God was amazing for sparing my life. I heard that there was a purpose to it that I didn’t die, and that was to give my heart to Jesus. The pastor who took me to the hospital said I shouldn’t cry; it was the way of growing up. If it didn’t happen to me, who else might also have been destroyed? Because I didn’t die, this guy could be caught, and so I saved many, many other girls. There was one old woman who would come into the house and just stand staring at me: ‘Auw mntanam!’ Then she would shake her head for a long time and sigh: ‘We prayedprayedprayed when you were in hospital.’

It was true. Many people prayed for me. I was an Umanyano in the Anglican church – our amachurch. The people from the church came to the hospital to pray, and also later with my grandmother at her house. The community was very shocked and had trouble dealing with what had happened to me. The first rape, that of Fuagase, had happened about five years before, but it was not so violent and had taken place within a family context.

My grandmother slept badly after the incident. She would wake up about four o’clock and start praying and praying. I could hear her grief. At times she would be angry. Other times she just sighed and began to cry, like someone without hope.

The community described Pindile as cruel, as a monster, without ubuntu, to do something like that to a young girl. I heard even the other boys were upset and disgusted with his behaviour.

Growing up as an orphan, I have to say I didn’t have a lot of experience of what they call ubuntu. I was alone, and alone had to fight for everything I had. I became cheeky and learned to look out for myself. I could not blame anybody in Mqekezweni for my suffering, because the one who was supposed to have the responsibility of looking after me – my mother – was somewhere else, enjoying herself.

Although Grandmother was the only one to whom I felt connected, she would sometimes shout and get frustrated with all the burdens and misbehavings around her. When she was like this, it frightened me a lot, because I had to face up to the possibility that one day she might tire of looking after the children of her irresponsible children and abandon us.

Now there was this me, who was not myself, to add to that. I was weak. I was terrified most of the time. I felt unsafe. I had constant pains. I had nightmares. I hardly got up before I wanted to lie down, so I took up more space than anybody else. Nobody in the household could continue as before, as I reminded them of things that they didn’t want to be reminded of. It even felt as if the neighbours avoided me when I came out of the house to sit in the sun.

Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

Extracted from Dear Bullet, published by Jonathan Ball and available from Kalahari.com.