EXTRACT: Rapid Fire by John Maytham

In Rapid Fire, veteran broadcaster JOHN MAYTHAM has collected questions submitted by 567 CapeTalk listeners to test his remarkable general knowledge in the ever popular insert of the same name on his afternoon drive-time show. Here are a few of some the oddest, arcane and most surprising questions – and answers.

John Maytham

Are there animals that can live without water?

The North American kangaroo rat is most often cited in internet discussions of this topic. These rats do need water to survive, but they have evolved such that it is possible for them to go through their entire life cycle, between three and five years, without ever drinking water. They collect seeds during moist conditions, and live off the nutrition and moisture stored in those seeds.

Then there is an extraordinary water-wise amphibian, the Australian water-holding frog. It stores water in pockets of skin all over its body, but holds most of it in the bladder. It is able to store double its body weight in water, and can live for up to five years without needing to take a drink. Local Aboriginals, if they’re thirsty while out in the bush, will try to catch one of these frogs and squeeze the water directly from the frog’s bladder into their mouths.

Why are weddings rings traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in many Western cultures?

This is based on a traditional (but incorrect) belief that there is a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart. It was called the vena amoris, the “vein of love”.

What is the link between the musical works of Handel and Bach, and the one-rand coin?

The words Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory) appear on the one-rand coin. Those same words are also part of the dedication of many works by the likes of Bach and Handel.

Can a vegan eat a fig?

Hmmm, lots of nuance in the answer! It depends – on the fig and on the vegan. Some figs, like the Smyrna, are pollinated in such a way that the female wasp dies inside the fig. The body will be dissolved by acid activity, but strictly speaking,

there will be animal matter inside the fig. Some very strict vegans might see that as reason to avoid the fruit. Forgive me for being technical, but some fig species are parthenocarpic, which means they develop fruit-like structures that don’t require pollination. (Don’t worry, I don’t understand it either.) All vegans can eat these varieties with a clear conscience.

Bananas, on the other hand, are a different story. If they come from a field that has been sprayed with a pesticide like chitosan, then very strict vegans will look the other way because shrimp and crab shells are on chitosan’s list of ingredients. Did someone mention slippery slopes?

The first British astronomer at the Cape, Fearon Fallows, is buried in the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory in a suburb of Cape Town. His grave has one very unusual feature. What is it?

The grave is twelve feet deep. Fallows knew he was dying and, fearing that his burial site would be disturbed by grave robbers, he asked to be buried twelve feet down. As the observatory is on rocky ground, the digging must have been very hard work!

What was bought in the first-ever bitcoin purchase?

Don’t ask me to explain bitcoin – it’s dark matter as far as I’m concerned. All I can do is report the fact that on 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 000 BTC. And the fact that, had he made himself a sandwich instead and held onto those bitcoin (bitcoins?), then at the time of writing this book those 10 000 BTC were worth $11 million. (I hope those pizzas were really good.) [Ed’s note: today those pizzas are now worth more than $105 million.]

Advertisements for watches usually feature a watch face set at a particular time. What is that time and why has it been chosen?

The time is ten past ten, because this position of the watch hands is seen as the best possible framing of the manufacturer’s logo and also creates the happy impression of a smiling face.

Why did George Dawson rise to fame in the US?

He learnt to read at the age of 98. Still described as ‘America’s poster child for literacy’, Dawson had a rough life, being the grandchild of slaves and first put to work at the age of four. He died at the age of 103, but enjoyed national attention in the five years between learning to read and passing away. Two universities conferred honorary degrees on him; television programmes were made about him; he appeared on Oprah, where he said, “It’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning now”; he had a school named after him; and he co-authored a biographical work, Life Is So Good, when he was 102.

Rapid Fire is published by Tafelberg.

EXTRACT: There Should Have Been Five

An extract from the novel by MJ HONIKMAN.


He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.

In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.

“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.

“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”


Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.

A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”

“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.

Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!

A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.

Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.

Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.

“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.

As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.

A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.

An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”

Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”

The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.

Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.

He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.

Where would he find a big white flag?

Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.

Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.

He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.

“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.

Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.

The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.

There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review 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.

Mission Impossible Five


It was clear from the moment I picked up The Impossible Five: One Man’s Search for South Africa’s Most Elusive Animals that I would have little trouble finding common ground with its author, Cape Town-based photographer, journo and novelist Justin Fox. He is a twelve-year veteran of Getaway magazine and I had done some “Big Five” wildlife guiding myself, enough to be similarly engendered with a keen interest in seeing the rarer and lesser-known of South Africa’s wide mammal variety. I was excited to hear just how Fox had made it his personal mission to track down and sight five of these extraordinary creatures.

Speaking to Fox over Skype, I ask him how he came up with the idea of going in search of what he has dubbed “The Impossible Five” – the endangered Cape mountain leopard, aardvark, pangolin, riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white lion. “Doing a lot of bushveld and game reserve stories [for Getaway] and having ticked off the Big Five, the Little Five and all the kind of ‘obvious’ animals, I started to move on to the slightly more interesting ones and eventually got fixated on the pangolin, because there was just never any chance of seeing one,” he explains. He had asked many game rangers about the pangolin, and been repeatedly told it was impossible, that he should forget about it. “And that was sort of the red rag to the bull,” he tells me. “I had to find one.” What started off as a search for the pangolin then progressed into the idea of an “Impossible Five” hunt – an attempt to track down those animals one shouldn’t have any chance of finding.

Among the former Rhodes Scholar’s twelve previously published works are stories set in Mozambique (the non-fiction work With Both Hands Waving, published in 2003) and Kenya (his first novel, Whoever Fears The Sea, published last year) as well as several South African travel and photographic books. How ironic, then, that number thirteen would turn out to be the one he would need the most luck for. “I actually went into this project extremely pessimistic, thinking that I would get a great story out of not seeing these five animals,” Fox admits. “I anticipated the book to be about the adventure and about the people along the way and about the science. So it was almost like seeing four and a half was a bonus.” A few pages in the middle of the book show beautiful colour photographs of Fox’s Impossible Five, including a camera-trap image of the Cape Leopard, the only one on the list that he was unable to spot more than a shadow of. Hence “four and a half”.

In terms of sales, and public interest, lucky number thirteen seems to be more than pulling its weight. “It’s the first one in a long time that’s really selling well and catching people’s imaginations,” Fox says. “My last book was a novel which just kind of trundled along, but this one’s been flying, which is a wonderful change. As a writer in South Africa you need a bit of luck occasionally to get books on a roll.”

I ask whether The Impossible Five was targeted at a South African audience in particular, but Fox says that he did in fact want to appeal to as wide a market as possible – though a certain peculiarity revealed itself among his South African readers: “What I do find is that South Africans are incredibly knowledgeable about the bush. They’ve got bird books and mammal books and tree books and insect books. They’ve been so many times that they really do know a lot. So obviously, first and foremost, this book does try to appeal to the knowledgeable South African reader. But I would like to pick up a foreign readership as well.”

The Impossible Five also makes use of several references to familiar characters like Bugs Bunny and Brer Rabbit, stories that I fondly remember my own grandfather reading to me when I was a young boy. Apparently, this is no coincidence; as Fox elaborates, “The other audience I’m hoping for is a younger audience … about 12 or 13 and up, and as a consequence I bring in a lot of my own childhood memories and childhood readings. I think it’s accessible to younger readers and I intended to make it as such.”

We chat about how the mission to find these animals ended up being a whole lot more than he’d bargained for. The first revelation, Fox confides, was the people, “These mad scientists who have dedicated years and years of their lives and are still out there, in the middle of nowhere, often going for months without even spotting the creature that they’re looking for and being completely obsessed with things like faeces. They’re weird loners, often quite isolated people, and they are fascinating.” The people he describes are passionate, single-minded and all a bit crazy. “You meet guys who write all their notes on their body because they don’t take paper with them into the field – it’s fantastic. Characters made in heaven for a writer,” he says. The second revelation was the idea that these animals are an inextricable part of a greater ecosystem, a food web of biodiversity in which everything fits together. “Every single animal is part of a cohesive whole and if you start taking any element out of it you start to damage it – maybe irreparably. So the book started off being about animals and ends up being about ecosystems, really.”

During his stay with Linda Tucker and her white lions on Tsau Reserve, Fox was exposed to people who seemed to have a mystical connection to the animals. I ask him about this and the idea of spirituality in nature. “I’ve been reading a lot of Ian McCallum’s writing and poetry where he talks about sacred groves and how we as humans in the 21st century still really need spiritual and sacred places for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet,” he tells me. Though not a religious man, Fox goes on to explain that there is certainly an element of that spirituality, which he came to understand better through this journey: “I picked up a lot from people like Linda Tucker about having a reverence and understanding of Nature that goes far beyond just looking for furry animals. It’s about our own soul and spirit and about how we need them more than they need us.”

So has The Impossible Five generated ideas for future projects? “I’m always writing a couple of books at the same time,” Fox says wryly. At the moment it’s a World War 2 novel and a poetry book, both of which he admits are going in completely different directions to The Impossible Five. Yet the popularity of TI5 has given him cause to consider pursuing the theme further: “Maybe a children’s book along these lines – taking these animals and putting them in a very accessible manner for young children.” There’s also a host of other weird and wonderful animals, both extinct and living, that Fox expresses interest in tracking down. The Cape lion, dodo, quagga, king cheetah and white leopard all seem to be clamouring to be on his next “impossible” list. “I do seriously consider a possibility that I’m going to continue looking for strange animals,” he reveals.

I ask him which, if he had to choose, would he say was his favourite animal or most rewarding experience during this project. “Certainly the most adorable and the one that captured my heart was the aardvark,” he answers, somewhat to my surprise – I had expected the magnificent white lion or the elusive pangolin, his original quarry, to top the list. “Largely because it looks so cute and ridiculous,” he explains. I concede he has a point in describing the aardvark as “a cross between a pig and a rabbit, with a long hoover snout”. It did look like it should have been knocked off the evolutionary ladder a long time ago. But as for the one that gave Fox the most trouble to find, “it was probably the pangolin. I spent night after night waiting outside a hole for the bloody thing to pop up!”

I ask Fox if there is any chance for a reader to track down any of these animals, but he replies despondently: “I’d say zero chance on all fronts. Your best shot is the white lion, if you can get in with Linda Tucker, though she doesn’t generally take guests. To see the other four, you really need to be with a scientist and tracking them with telemetry. Even then, you really are in the realm of pure luck. I set out to find these animals in three months, and it ended up taking me three years.”

So, did that mean he wouldn’t be traipsing around the Cederberg on the trail of a Cape mountain leopard any time soon? “I think I’m done with these five for now,” Fox says with a rueful laugh. “I’d like to go and find another bunch, though. There are a whole lot of animals that I still haven’t seen, like the black-footed cat and the Knysna elephant. They could be on the next list.”

The Impossible Five is published by Tafelberg.