FICTION: Amnesia


She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

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).

Shining a light


Global, huh? That’s a bold and sweeping claim. This time, however, it’s accurate. For in Global Muckraking, there is a rich and stimulating aggregation of the world’s best journalism – stories that changed circumstances and therefore lives – and many of them from the global south.

Editor Anya Schiffrin scoured yards and yards of column inches to find the reports that influenced social and political change in some of the world’s most repressed societies over the past 100 years. She brings to this mammoth task the sensibility of a foreign correspondent (she worked in Europe and Asia for 10 years) combined with the intellectual curiosity of a para-academic (she now directs the media and communications programme of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs). The result of her thoughtful search is no dusty museum of once-remarkable exhibits; it is a vault of reporting wealth.

As many journalists do, I paid attention first to the bylines. Scanning the table of contents immediately quickened the reading pulse. Schiffrin’s collection shows an impressive range of investigative reporting emanating from some of the planet’s overlooked media crevices. They are, unsurprisingly (happily), all from print and they represent the world’s excellent journalism from Azerbaijan to Angola, El Salvador to Equatorial Guinea, Brazil to Burma, Peru to Principe.

Yes! There is South Africa – three entries – represented by Benjamin Pogrund, Jacques Pauw and Henry Nxumalo. And there is Mozambique and Carlos Cardoso, Angola and Rafael Marques. There is also West Africa (labour abuse and the bad taste of chocolate), Liberia (genital cutting of women), Nigeria (Ken Saro-Wiwa on the imminent war over petroleum reserves), Equatorial Guinea (a country’s oil wealth enriches its ruler), and Uganda (illegal detentions without trial). And there’s “Africa” featuring the Guardian coverage of the Nestle boycott and the way that company milked the poor.

Schiffrin’s truly innovative response to this breadth of subject matter is her inclusion of local guides to these journalistic sites. Thinking like a newspaper editor, she has commissioned contemporary specialists to introduce each contribution. Thus we read Anton Harber on Pogrund’s expose of prison conditions recounted by the just-released Harold Strachan and published in the Rand Daily Mail. Harber also introduces Nxumalo’s Drum piece on the Bethal farm labour abuses and Pauw’s Vrye Weekblad coverage of police hit squads. The reports and their reporters are set in a context both historical and journalistic, with layers of nuanced understanding which a remote and cerebral editor could easily miss. The delight begins with the first entry: Adam Hochschild introducing the 1904 forced labour scandal in King Leopold’s Congo. This investigation was part of a long campaign by E.D. Morel, a writer and journalist who was neither Belgian nor Congolese and who therefore embodied the view that an abuse of one human is an abuse of us all.

Dipping into Global Muckraking feels a bit like joining an articulate reporter for a drink at the local. It becomes an act of relish to receive the insights only an insider can provide. In every way, then, Schiffrin has conceived a work of journalism. This she delivers with an essay outlining her research and the thought it provoked. She asks herself, and therefore us: Why does something become news? Many of these pieces were not the ones which broke the story. They were lengthy reports published when the story was already pretty old – yet these became the reports which changed perceptions. She writes about spread and timing, influence and impact, and she writes about repetition. The same stories recur, she notes, across countries and across time.

So dipping by whim or reading from front to back are both legitimate approaches to this volume which has reach in every plane except length. Books made of paper have their limitations and a finite number of pages is one. But the judiciously edited extracts of these investigations adequately demonstrate their points. Resisting the predictable logic of chronology, Schiffrin assembles her selection thematically. The table of contents shows the stories of our place – this globe – and of our time, of all time. These are our stories. Labour abuses. Anti-colonialism. Corruption. Oil and mining. The environment and natural disasters. Food shortages and famine. Military and police. Rural life. Women. Together they offer almost 50 examples of muckraking – and not one of them from North America or Great Britain.

Is there a quibble with this book? I’m still investigating.

Global Muckraking is published by The New Press.

WORK/LIFE: Marianne Thamm

Marianne Thamm is an author, columnist, satirist, and the assistant editor of Daily Maverick. Her several non-fiction books include the bestselling  I Have Life – Alison’s Story; her two most recent publications are To Catch A Cop: The Paul O’Sullivan Story and Here I Am – the memoir of singer PJ Powers. She lives in Cape Town.

What does “writing” mean?

Essentially using language to make sense of the world and setting this down somewhere relatively indelibly…. Language is a code. Writing also earns me my living.

What book changed your life?

James A Michener’s The Drifters. I read it in the 1970s in South Africa when I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but there. I found six imaginary friends in the book and travelled through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Mozambique from the wendy house in the back of the yard in Pretoria where I grew up.

What are you working on at the moment?

Apart from writing for Daily Maverick, I am contemplating the fact that my dear friend, the Belgian author Tom Lanoye, has created an opportunity for me to think about writing about myself and my strange family in some way. It is a terrifying prospect because so far I have felt most comfortable writing about the world outside of myself – as a journalist and author of non-fiction. My ghostwritings have been exercises in discipline in relation to capturing the truth of others.

I am also currently working with another author – a collaboration of sorts, being a sort of sounding board for a very exciting book on South Africa’s recent history and the role newspapers and various journalists played in the politics. The book also explores exactly how a small Afrikaans-speaking minority managed to capture power in all spheres of life.

I’m thinking about two scripts: one for someone else and one for myselfsome new comedy material, but these projects sort of have to page through magazines in the waiting room of my mind while I get on with whatever’s necessary next.

Describe your workspace.

An extremely safe space – an office at home, furnished with items from my childhood including my father’s old desk, all my books, odd knick knacks that mean something to me, and tons of New Yorker magazines stacked up all over the place. It’s my “woman cave”.

The most important instrument you use?

My MacBook Pro

Marianne Thamm Workspace

What’s your most productive time of day?

Whenever I find myself in my office behind my laptop, which is most of the day and often late into the night.

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

I have never been stuck. Remember, I am a writer of non-fiction mostly so the story exists. I just have to get on with telling it. I always work with music on in the background. Music grounds me. What I listen to depends on my mood – I have a very, very large collection and I am a bit of a slut when it comes to music. My taste is very eclectic: I love Elbow, LP, Beyonce, Arvo Part, The National, Hugh Masekela, Simphiwe Dana, The Brother Moves On, Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Gill Scott Herron, Oscar and the Wolf, xx, Sam Smith, Skrillex, and lately PJ Powers (I rediscovered some of her greatest songs while working on her book).

How do you relax?

I play with my daughters who are 11 and 9. I listen to music, I read … I also love snuggling with my dogs. I should walk more in the forest. I fantasise about living alone in a loft surrounded by my books and my music and nothing else.

Who or what has influenced your work?

Tom Lanoye, Jane Raphaely, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Thierry Cassuto (creator of ZANEWS), Branko Brkic (Editor of Daily Maverick), Zapiro, and my partner of 21 years. They have all pushed me, forced me into a position where I challenge myself and find something I didn’t know was there.

Then the writings of authors like Adam Gopnik, AA Gill, Njabulo Ndebele, Achille Mbembe, Mark Gevisser, Joan Didion, and many others….

South Africa as a geographical space has influenced and shaped the architecture of my mind. I am influenced by the moon … I love the moon – both sides of it: the face it shows us and the face it hides away.

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

Do the work.

Your favourite ritual?

Sitting in my office reading while listening to music. I try and do it as often as possible.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the silence and privacy to do it.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I can be remote and unavailable to the people who love me most.

What are you afraid of?

Not paying enough attention to my children’s needs … Being torn between nourishing them and myself.

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

Just do the work. Take nothing personally. Be curious.

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

Surviving 30 years as a journalist and having adapted to the changing publishing landscape. Finding much joy in every new discovery along the way. Of stretching myself when I least feel like doing it.