Book review: Lost and found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser

Weirdly enough, as I read Mark Gevisser’s neatly crafted memoir of place and identity I found myself thinking about yet another writer born 12 800 Kilometers away in Harlem, sometime in the 1920s, who, in his lifetime, became more than an essayist or a novelist or a social critic, but came to embody the voice that would attempt to draw America and the world back to its humanity by taking his country and the world through his Harlem, where he grew up. It isn’t such a startling thing when you consider that Mark Gevisser is a queer Jewish writer who grew up during apartheid and James Baldwin, a queer black writer of 50s, 60s America. And Baldwin, by the way, wasn’t so radical a writer as popular culture has made him out to be. In his own word he wanted “to be an honest man and a good writer” and I can say the about Mark Gevisser and this book. I find in both writers a compassion for humanity, be it from different positions within the systemic structure of oppression and the complex drama of humanity – one being from a position of privilege and the other from without. When I looked at both writers I didn’t think of comparisons – for none can be made – but rather each writer’s commitment to his own truth and the manner with which he shares his story.

Reading this book, I had expected to encounter a lens into Johannesburg not too dissimilar to that of ‘Conversations with Bourdieu’, the book by Michael Burawoy and Karl van Holdt sans the overt prism of Marxism, of course. But something similar to it. Instead I found myself drawn in by Mark Gevisser ‘The Dispatcher’ and his odyssey (for the book unspools as such) to memorialise his city and to restore his memory: the memory of his childhood and upbringing; the memory of his family; tracing it back to an obscure town called Zelva, somewhere in east Lithuania. This is how thorough, if not pedantic, Mark Gevisser’s research process is, that he went far and wide and within, as if desperate to map out his own identity by so doing, and this book is the diary of that journey, rendered in three parts. He pulls out maps and pictures and books, dispatching the reader as he did so himself in his childhood and both – reader and writer – begin the journey of collecting the constituent parts of his memoir.

The narrative is enriched by countless actors, stories of political activists turned politicians, artists and laymen, robbers and writers, former Security branch police and current policemen; in the end one gets a sense of Johannesburg as a place of many moving parts, being one thing at one intersection and the other just down the road. However, the one thing that remains constant about the city in Gevisser’s words is its premise: “Johannesburg had none of the allegiances to the past that constrain ancient cities. Everybody came from somewhere else, and they all came for one reason – to make money.”  Through his curlicued style of writing – a show of his writerly sensibility, no doubt – he lured me in, page by page, then chapter by chapter, until I realised the book was nearly finished only after a day of reading.

I lived in Joburg for 10 years, moving from Lombardy East, then Braamfontein, then Parktown, then Naturena, Rosettenville, Randburg, Fourways, Douglas Dale, and finally, Bryanston, before relocating to Cape Town a few years ago. In a sense, the topography of the city, especially downtown, as Gevisser maps it out in this book, evoked my own intimate, if not complicated, relationship with the city as I remember it. When I began living in Joburg, Hillbrow was already dinge and dangerous (according to my parents). As first years at WITS we would waddle along Enoch Sontonga Avenue on our way to visit our colleagues at the then WITS Technikon scantily aware that in the cemetery – just to our left – one of apartheid spatial policies was alive and well even in death, for “The southern portion of the Old Cemetry” as Gevisser puts it “…had been consecrated for Christian denominations…while the northern portion seemed to be reserved for other faiths: ‘Chinese’, ‘Coolies’, ‘Cape People’, ‘Mahomedans’, ‘Kaffirs’, and – my favourite – ‘Christian Kaffirs’, this last exposing the fiction that [the separation] was about religion at all. It was, of course, about race. Separating the two portions was a large buffer, running to almost the full extent of the cemetery: ‘Jews’.”

These boundaries – frontiers, really – are laid out and deconstructed throughout the book. The boundaries that existed (and still exist) between the home owner and his domestic servant; between the Jew, the black, and the Afrikaner; between the life of privilege and its counter-point, between a normative existence and its other. In one passage that speaks also of the particular condition of subaltern black bodies in the post-apartheid drama, a passage surely to resonate with anyone who had been reading newspaper in the recent years about the protest movement in Cape Town, Mark Gevisser writes: “Like the Klip River, the Jukskei also rises in the city…churning down rapids as it enters Alexandra, flooding its banks every rainy season and leaving squatters homeless. Until the relatively recent laying-down of sewers, the townships human effluent streamed down open dongas into the river…Even after the sewers were laid, there were problems…because the township’s pipes were so much narrower than Sandton’s, even though all of Sandton’s sewage needed to flow through Alexandra to get down to the sewage-treatment plant on the Jukskei.” In this passage, a certain Sizakele Nkosi “an Alexandra ANC politician” remarks: “It was the shhhit! from Sandton that was causing all the trouble in Alex” and continues a page later “…the rich man’s shhhit! must trouble the poor man.”

It is this and all other kinds of “shhhit!” that make it impossible to place the book aside for later reading. However, its magic is in the way Gevisser helps you over the fence – guided by his own internal cartography – into the laager of white suburban enterprise and its fears of the known and the unknown. There are wonderful facts in the book and intriguing insights into history and present. How this book reminded me of that famous Harlem writer, James Baldwin, is its refreshing honesty even when it doesn’t bode well with your own predispositions, even the prejudices he harbours about the world around him. I would hate to spoil this book for anyone, but there are really beautiful parts that will arrest even the most bigoted among us: the story of Phil and Edgar, for example; or, the bit about the late Bram Fischer’s backyard pool on Sundays. In the end, Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and found in Johannesburg’ is a book for a curious reader. Its bibliography alone will whet your appetite. There are references and detours to works of Ernest Cole, Wally Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali and William Kendridge, interwoven with the narrative to give you a thick, satisfying slice of Joburg, of childhood, trauma and healing.

Originally appeared in Cape Times*

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The Hunting Of Youth: South Africa’s sugar-daddy culture

Money is everything, says Azure, the thirteen year old protagonist in K. Sello Duiker’s novel: Thirteen cents. The novel excoriates the culture of the ‘new’ South Africa that props itself up through exploiting its most vulnerable members: that is, its children. When I read the book I was made profoundly uncomfortable by Azure’s testimony of sexual exploitation at the hands of affluent older men and powerful gangsters.

I was terrified by the crude fact that a 13 year old understood the ways of the world so much so that he had gone as far as to sell his body (or turn tricks) to survive. I found it very hard to conjure these middle-aged men who bought underage children for sex. Until, that is, my own memory exhumed a vivid image of a man who used to offer children 20 cent coins at a now defunct bioscope in Mthatha in return to have the pleasure of masturbating around the children who played Street Fighter on the arcade machines.

I must have been six or seven years old, then. I remember, now, how I had averted my eyes and ran out of the bioscope never to return – and since, erased the memory from my mind out of shame and guilt.

It has been only recently, and without warning, that that image came back to me in a bathroom stall in one of Cape Town’s fine dining establishments where a mural of a young girl with pigtails is embossed, in black vinyl, in the men’s rest room. The effect being that when you come to relieve yourself, you do so on the belly of this silhouetted image of a young girl behind the urinal. It is then that the question formulated itself: why is our culture obsessed with sexualizing children? If it is not the classic paedophile that one finds in Nobokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita, it is the ‘sugar daddy’- the darling of our acquisitive culture  – who prowls the streets, day and night, hunting for young flesh.

For the ‘sugar daddy’ just as Azure, knows that “money is everything.” And he has bucket loads of it – or at least enough to trick a child into having sex.

This mutual recognition of the prevailing realities of contemporary life by the child and the predator reflects not only a global culture of consumerism and the commodification of bodies, but also a more terrifying phenomenon: that the bodies of children have become the site of mining for cultural and social capital among middle-aged men, and more explicitly, businessmen and politicians.

This violence, experienced by the underage girl of 15 or the 12 year old boy, is also bound up in the structural violence that evidences itself everywhere around them.

I remember all too well that during the birth of the ‘new’ South Africa children were our future. I also remember the emphasis with which children’s right were etched into the psyche of the new nation. Much of Chapter 2 of our bill of rights is dedicated to this emphasis, and in the section “child” means a person under the age of 18 years.

Fast forward to 20 years later, and one could swear that the age that defines a “child” or a “minor” has been adjusted downward – within the realm of culture – and made the inevitable that much more delectable and acceptable to the lewd tastes of these predators of youth.

When I discussed this with a writer friend recently, we realised that the phenomenon of socially tolerable paedophilia or “sugar-daddyism” is woven into contemporary capitalism and the way it acts on the bodies and imagination of men.

That perhaps it is not the innocence and purity of the child that these men enjoy the most, but it is the newness of the object of their desire in comparison to what they think they already know – in this case, the older woman, mother and wife.

This “newness” is ever the focal point of our acquisitive age. The effect must be that mature, maternal women remind the middle-aged men of our time of their own mortality, their inevitable death.

Young flesh, in this sense, becomes a refuge from the spectre of death, even if only for a moment. A refuge with devastating consequences for the younger woman or teenager, for sugar daddies are infamous for their refusal to use protection during sex.

My friend and I then tried to flip the lens from middle-aged men to the under-aged boy who fancies the maternal as a site on which to inscribe his manhood. We concluded that this desire probably owes to the younger man’s confidence in his own youth. Perhaps, that’s the condition. That only once this youth begins to fade away does the shift occur, moving to an interest in youth as a defence against mortality.

Perhaps both cases point us to the male anxiety regarding death, but manifested through different kinds of men: one who returns to what he once knew (young flesh), and the one who explores what he imagines to lie ahead (the older woman), both in search of a sense of reassurance. And that psychic sense of reassurance plays out in the field of culture as it has come to define cis-hetero-masculine identity in this country. And it is further consecrated by an androcentric economic hegemony, which is backed up by a self-assured patriarchy.

Thus you have all the ingredients for disaster – for the perpetuity of exploitation of children and women through sex and violence, of HIV infected teens who have been manipulated, molested and impregnated by their male teachers, of young marginalized boys like Duiker’s Azure who are exploited in the shadows of our city streets by men of status and community standing.

All their young bodies are the site of struggle and conquest, in a culture that uses money, power and prestige to prey on its weakest members – its children.

Illustration by Pola Maneli

Originally appeared in Sunday Times*

Art review: Ian Grose on art, material and materialism

I suppose one is tempted to speak about Ian Grose’s work in pure abstractions for the work is so nebulous and elusive, being one thing at one distance and transmuting into something wholly different up close. His latest exhibition ‘Refrain’, currently at Stevenson on Juta Street in Braamfontein is a solemn, single minded meditation on the philosophy of painting, materiality and materialism. In interrogating the surface of the painting in material terms he begins to speak directly to the idea of materialism, which relies on the hypothesis that nothing exists except that which is in the physical realm. In turn this creates isolation between the real surface that’s in front of you and the represented surface. That isolation is palpable in the images as much as in the manner in which the exhibition is curated.

Take, for instance, the fabric paintings: here marks are made onto fabric in order to realise the painting which are contrasted with the fabric being represented.Picture of flowers 1, Dissimulation 12, Dissimulation 13 – images which have been cropped tightly – have an unsettling metaphysical quality. There is almost an immaterial presence to them; of being embodied by a form not quite accessible on the surface, thus creating an intersection between the image, life and transcendence. They suggest a presence of life inside the image or a possibility of transcendence through art. This feeling contrasted with the careful play of light and shadows which create what seems like wrinkles.

This isolation finds relief in the paintings’ own internal dialogue. At first, the two images seem opposed to one another and as one looks closer, they become two different ways of seeing the same thing. This results in one being able to oscillate between the one image and the other, between real and imagined or real and the representation. The central concern in all of the works seems to be the questions: how does one begin to deal with the surface of this world behind which there is nothing? If materialism has replaced religion, how does one deal with that surface of the painting, of art, and respect it in the same way one respects what one associates with matters of the spiritual? In interrogating the paintings one is led to ask: “Do surfaces transcend what they are?” In the realm of imagination one is able to smell the flowers on the linen and press against the body alluded to in, for instance, Dim Cloth. It is this gravitas that allows fabrics, especially, to bridge the gap into the world of something that is not here, not necessarily metaphysical, but maybe something to do with memory or longing.

Another recurring motif in the work is that of broken busts and statues. For example, Pentimento 1-4. In this series of paintings one finds further multiple representations; painting representing sculpture, representing a historical subject and representing power. This extends further to how a material as banal as stone is moulded into an instrument of political power and the representation of that political power in space. These are detailed and visually complex images. In a way they speak of how society has ascribed meaning to meaningless things. Of how we’ve constructed differences and ‘otherness’ where there was none. These recurring motifs in the exhibition are part of the project of representation in that one image echoes throughout the show. This speaks directly to how ‘Refrain’ is informed by repetition or the repetition of refusal.

What is more, because there is no focal point to navigate towards in the image, one feels a sense of vertigo, of pointlessness and of being snubbed by the unyielding refrain from within the image itself, keeping one at distance. In the fabric works one finds the real fabric and its representation in a single surface. Between the space of real and representation one is able to formulate meanings. Questions of materialism arise at this point because the philosophy of materialism relies on the hypothesis that conscious states are identical with the material world. In Grose, this creates isolation between the real surface that’s in front of you and the represented surface and the image in one’s own mind and imagination. This is the remove and isolation that one experiences with this body of work.

Originally appeared in Artthrob*

Lecture review: Curator Ukhona Mlandu on Public Art

We might as well begin with the end.

“If the South African ‘rainbow nation’ is not the biggest whimsical art piece – disintegrating in front of our eyes – then I don’t know what is,” says Ukhona Mlandu at the end of her lecture on public art at Greatmore Art Studios in Woodstock.

It’s past seven in the evening. I cannot for the life of me recall the date. It’s two or three weeks ago. As she speaks, the night grows deep. The lecture takes place in the main hall. A clean quiet rectangular white room temporarily disrupted by cheers and murmurs from the audience. Imposing art pieces hang side by side on the wall. The unmistakable waft of red wine careens in and out of the dyspeptic air.

“It is important, then, to keep in mind the simple fact that Cape Town is a city in Africa, when engaging with the issue of public art. As far as public art is concerned, in Cape Town especially, it would appear that we must skip a step and not engage with the colonial representations in our public spaces. The logic seems to be: we must leave those colonial statues intact and shift our focus to whimsical beauty and to art that transcends any politics.

“I find that highly problematic, unless we were to decommission all colonial statues that exist. It is disingenuous and dangerous to ask the public to skip the important step of producing a counter narrative to what already stands. And then #RhodesMustFall happened. This showed us the fault in the reasoning that these colonial structures are a nonissue.”

Ukhona Mlandu points to the fact that in the discourse of #RhodesMustFall there were counter arguments to the effect that “the movement must conform to some form of respectability politics and to keep their actions in line with the status quo”.

In the myriad debates on public art, what we are essentially interrogating is memory, memorialisation, and symbolic power; not merely the statue as a thing in itself divorced from its historicity and social impact, but the statue as the manifestation of our continuing class and race struggles.

“We are being dismissed when the State insists on processes that must be followed whenever we bring up an urgent matter,” Ukhona says. “It would be disingenuous to suggest that people had no feelings toward these objects before the #RhodesMustFall movement. What the spark of the #RhodesMustFall movement accomplished was to make people comfortable to come forward and speak out on what had been eating them.”

Underneath the surface of social cohesion and other ways in which the disenchanted marginalised poor are placated in this country, a festering wound grows. One of the accomplishments of #RhodesMustFall was that it drew the conversation on public art to the reach and language of the majority of South Africans. When the Department of Arts and Culture says there are processes to be followed and other more pressing issues to be debated, it only follows the same dogged logic that has plagued the release of Fulham Commission’s findings on the Lonmin massacre of mineworkers in Marikana.

“When one reads the reports of utterances from government, nowhere does one find instructions on the processes that have to be followed so that steps may be taken to address the issue at hand,” Ukhona goes on. “Urgency is met with indifference. The aim is, of course, to weaken the collective voices of the marginalised, whose history is at stake.”

A rise in reactionary positions from the government have been discouraging. Government, in these reactionary utterances, wants to be seen as if it is doing something about the issue while in fact the opposite is true. And we – the public – ought to see that clearly.

Originally appeared in Creative Cape Town online magazine*

Art review: Dan Halter and the problematics of representation

In Dan Halter’s work one finds a longing for a home. Not the distant, objective, home implied by most commentators who are desperate to always read his work as a critique of Zimbabwe (that infamous pariah state), but rather an internal resting place further away from the anxieties of life and its attendant violence. Over a decade since Dan Halter left, or rather fled, Zimbabwe that restless nervous condition is still prevalent in his work as though owing to a palpable dislocation from humanity itself.

In ‘The Original is Unfaithful to the Translation’ this sense of dislocation finds relief in looking back at Zimbabwe’s botched decolonisation project of the early 2000s and weaving that moment into other moments of the reproduction of refugees all over the African continent.

When Zimbabwe was imploding Dan Halter was evacuated and has since made a new home in the safety that is Cape Town’s centre. It is in this sense of safety and privilege that Halter begins his search for the source of his despondency and dislocation. And it is through this lens that I began to read Halter’s new work as a timely critique of white privilege from the doldrums of a ‘survivor’s’ guilt.

In this exhibition there seems to be no trace of a necessary binding concept other than the idea of immigration.  In a work such as The Map is Not the Territory (2015), Halter seems to acknowledge that, especially in Africa, one has only a singular conception of the immigrant: that of a poor, black African made destitute by political instability, war and famine. Although Dan Halter’s own evacuation from Zimbabwe owed to one or more of these stated reasons, through his middle class whiteness he is still at home in his new country and is allowed to take on his new identity with relative ease. This is where the fabrication of his narrative lies: that he is a migrant and yet, he is not. He cannot be ‘The Original’ – he is merely the translation. He will only suffer mild xenophobia if any at all. He still retains most of his privileges while his countrymen risk crossing the Limpopo, risk harassment, even death, at the hands of South Africans.

However, knowing very well that he is among the few who can relate the story of the post-2000 Zimbabwe, Halter deliberately re-appropriates African cultural aesthetics. In doing this he conveys the nature of white power and privilege and the manner in which it exploits African migrants all over the world. In a work such as V for Vendetta (2015) the ubiquitous tourist ‘curio’ that is the ‘African mask’ takes the form of the European Guy Fawkes mask from the eponymous graphic novel.

It is in this way that Dan Halter puts whiteness in its rightful place, right in the centre of his work.  For the artist, his new life in Cape Town no doubt bares some resemblance to the kind of privilege whites enjoyed in Rhodesia.  This in the exhibition is contrasted to the violent rejection that meets the black migrant whether from Zimbabwe or elsewhere in Africa.

As he has done before, Halter makes the plight of the black migrant poignant in the torn and tortured ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags pinned  up against the backdrop of the pristine whiteness within the gallery space itself.  In Kure Ndokusina Kwachiri Unofa Wasvika (2015)  — loosely translated from Shona as Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way — there’s a disquieting violence in the falling of a mini-migrant/Zimbabwean bag, in the middle of the gallery; its free falling acceleration only broken by what looks like parachutes. It is an installation very reminiscent of the manner in which the west delivers aid to ruined African States. The mat below is the colonial map of Africa in iconic mesh patterns.

Africa’s migrant status becomes a space through which white privilege sanctifies itself through aid, NGO work and philanthropy as poignantly illustrated by the parachuting down of a tiny plastic mesh bag falling anywhere within the meshed African continent.

By the time one is done with the exhibition one thing becomes clear: well-meaning, white, liberal sentiment and aid only perpetuates this cycle of displacement. Even that gesture fails to re-connect those with privilege with those without, or level one’s survival guilt with the political and material struggles of African migrants all over the world.

Originally appeared in Artthrob*

Manufacturing Memory: History of slavery and Public Art in Cape Town

We gather under a callow tree in Church Square on Spin Street for a conversation on history and memorialisation in Cape Town, which is hosted by writer and filmmaker Roger Young, and education manager at the District Six Museum, Mandy Sanger.

Where we are seated, in a bow around our hosts, is a paved square, which just a few years ago used to be a parking lot. The parking lot, back in early 18th century, was marked by swarms of slaves who waited for their masters in the whipping sun or pissing rain to pour out of the Groote Kerk every Sunday, for nearly 200 years.

Barely visible from where we are gathered is a memorial site, a plinth in the middle of Spin Street: here a tree stood under which the slaves would wait for their masters to finish with their prayers. Next to this negligible plinth is a dazzlingly cheap looking orange structure, a frustratingly orange thing, an artwork meant to memorialise the tree that sheltered the slaves on sunny afternoons.

“People are distant from the person who created it,” Mandy says about the orange thing snarling back at us from the middle of the street. Nadya Glawé, the artist who created the work, is among the people who have been invited to the conversation. “No one knows what the site means,” Mandy continues. “The common perception is that the material is cheap; the entire thing is removed from the people it hopes to address.” The indictment isn’t solely aimed at Nadia, who jumps in defense of the work by pointing out that the artwork was meant to create a dialogue, a goal that it – considering it’s been the centrifuge of our conversation for the past 15 to 20 minutes – might have achieved.

However, Mandy isn’t convinced, neither are any of us who are crammed in a half-moon around her. Although the Slave Tree is Nadya’s brainchild and partially funded by World Design Capital (WDC2014), Mandy points out that, without fail, when it comes to projects about monuments of memorialisation in the city, the Cape Town City Council seems to prefer proposals from white, affluent artists than those from people in the townships and fringe suburbs who are represented, in the main, by organisations such as hers.

The organisation for which she works is dedicated to the memory of District Six as a lived space; it memorialises the lives of the many families who were forcibly removed from their homes and their neighbourhoods in the bosom of the city and flung to the fringes of Cape Town by the apartheid regime in the 1970s – where they remain till this day. In Cape Town race is always implied in space: the segregationist spatial design of Cape Town bears testinomy to this fact.

There are two cities in this city, almost two planets. The challenge is how to converge these two disparate worlds. In creating spaces of inscription whereby all citizens have access to contribute to the accumulating narrative and history of Cape Town, we might shift the axis from a city obsessed with the interests of the affluent class to that of an open city, accessible to even those splayed on the rims along its margins. When the city council rejects applications from community-based organisations such as District Six, who workshop communities on projects such as the memorialistion of slavery, they are in fact refusing the historically marginalised access to the public memorials and narratives inscribed around the city on their behalf. This is a deliberate erasure of their history. In a city borne on brutality, the erasure of an experience as intimate – and as violent – as slavery re-enforces that historic violence in the present moment.

Behind our curved semi-circle, which has grown into a forest of faces fixed on our hosts, is Slave Memorial – a group of granite blocks that were commissioned by the city council to a pair of artists (unsurprisingly, both white), Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge. They are unremarkable, almost negligible, as Roger Young points out, against the towering statue of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, standing just a few strides away. “We must begin with the removal of statues that celebrate the colonialists, starting” – of course – “with the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the Rhodes Memorial.”

Memory and memorialisation in public spaces is competition; the public space is a garden on which competing narratives of history play out. And by erasing the one narrative in favour of the other, by erasing the voice of the descendants of slaves and celebrating that of the descendants of the oppressor, we are effectively perpetuating the historic violence that founded Cape Town to begin with. This why, by the end of the conversation, the most poignant issue discussed is that of the manufacturing of memory: who gets to tell the history of the slaves? Sadly, the colonists have taken it upon themselves to do so and as such have distorted our history and present.

At the end of the debate we agree that the monuments and the memorials aimed at telling the history of the slaves and their descendants – those who continue to be excluded, both socially and spatially, in Cape Town – cannot be left to the bureaucrats in the city council who get to pick who transcribes and frames the memory and history of slavery. We agree that the city is in need of an inclusive narrative, that the “Other” residents of this city need to be allowed to inject meaning into the monuments built on their behalf. We speak of the mobilisation of the city’s citizens behind the efforts of community-based institutions such as the District Six Museum. After an hour and a half or so, our mini-circle disintegrates and vanishes into the web of the lit up city streets.

Originally appeared in Cape Town Partnership*

Book review: The Alibi Club x Jaco van Schalkwyk

The first chapter of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel is fraught with anxiety. Countless faceless, nameless people are desperate to enter into the United States. People here have no names: only designations. You have Visas and Citizens. Our narrator and protagonist is number A98108755 – a Visa making its way through Customs and Immigration.

“I carry documents certifying I am free of hepatitis A and B, influenza, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles and rotavirus. I am able to prove that I am a good number with sufficient funds, that knows the address to my final destination,” the narrator tells us. The last bit, of course, is a contradiction, which reveals itself as the book unfolds. In the book, this “final destination” is as elusive as the reasons our protagonist is so desperate to get into America.

The story opens in 1998 and catalogues the narrator’s ups and downs in vivid, sharp prose reminiscent of gonzo journalism. One can sense an acute sense of self-disgust in the tone of the book. It begins to feel as though the language and style is used as a tool with which to try speak of the psychological trauma of having grown up in the conservative silence of white apartheid South Africa and the white post-apartheid fear of the unknown. The novel is hinged on a character who has left a new constitutional democracy led by a government of what he must have been taught to believe to be terrorists, to the crafting of a new American identity in post 9/11 that was founded, quite overtly, on the imagining and cultural production of “the terrorist” as a Muslim body, and how that affected the American psyche.

In one of the most superb understatements in the book, the 17-year old protagonist, who has just left South Africa exclaims, “I feel anonymous and free,” upon setting foot on American soil. Soon, he’ll find himself at The Alibi – a seedy bar in Brooklyn where he finds work cleaning toilets and mopping vomit off the mottled floors before graduating to become a barman of a mangled bar. In short, staccato sentences that sting, the narrator catalogues the drunks and the drug dealers and the drugs; the racists and the whores and the warmongers – every moiling muppet who finds himself along DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.

This is the Fort Greene soon-to-be gentrified, a place that is miffed by the looming presence of bull-horned hipsters. This Fort Greene is still rowdy and unpredictable. Our narrator survives the violence and the drabness of his new home by drowning in drink. We are never told about the narrator’s past in Cape Town, South Africa. We are never allowed even a glimpse into the nature and reason for his despair and detachment from his home country. Perhaps here the author aimed to navigate away from the niggling bits of contemporary South African history and its racial politics.

It is through the unsaid that one might say The Alibi Club represents a liminal space for our narrator. Between 1998 and 2007 his life dangles aimlessly on crumbling American ground and the birth of a dangerous Americanism built of war on terror and a fickle urbanism built on the faux-culture of hipsterism. During this time of transition, of waiting, and of not knowing what to do next or what will happen next, he finds refuge in the smoky haze of an ‘old time bar’ – The Alibi Club – where he meets the characters that give the novel such sharp luminosity.

It is these skeptical, cynical characters – desperate and dejected by the changes in their environment and with America at large – and the author’s tight-fisted language that lends the novel its pungent stench. Take for instance:

“Everybody has an Amy. Amy has a Hotmail account. Amy is crazy. Amy makes me crazy. Amy eats uppers out of plastic wrappers. I’m mad about Amy. I think we’re mad about each other. Amy wants me deep inside her. She has her reasons.”

Or:

“Tommy is a boss while Owen is gone. His hands get sick. Boils from inside his palms. He can’t paint. His skin breaks out in a rash up to his elbows. He says it’s from washing dishes.”

Or:

“Before Jean-Baptiste disappeared entirely, he owned an Alfa Romeo. Nobody owns an Alfa Romeo in Brooklyn. His was a red 1974 Spider Veloce. When it didn’t look like rain, JB drove around the neighbourhood in his Spider. The Spider moved into the raw space on Waverly Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby, before he did. Later, above the garage, he fashioned a room with a bed and a glass coffee table on which he could do more cocaine.”

The book follows this logic and economy until the very end. It is filled with countless characters that enliven its every page. However, they never quite give you any depth or any real insight into their lives and motivations and despair. As one reads further, the characters begin to feel more like caricatures and the novel begins to feel like an assemblage of images than a construction of meanings. Perhaps, this owes to the author’s background as a visual artist or perhaps, it was an artistic choice in the composition of the novel itself.

Stylistically, the novel is great and the narrative voice is captivating. It is unfortunate that we never get to know why our narrator left South Africa in 1998. It would’ve been ideal to learn the source of the character’s desperation to get into America during that transitional era of his home country. One only gets a sense of skeletons lurking in the shadows. Every sap and sod who finds themselves at The Alibi seems to drag a few of these skeletons to dissolve them in a drink or two, or more, while something sinister encroaches on the bar and DeKalb Avenue’s way of life.

In conclusion, perhaps, one could say that the book is about an imagined community among strangers. More precisely, The Alibi Club is a support group of people who leaned against each other for support during a tumultuous time in the history of America and the world.

 Originally appeared in Cape Times*

Art review: Khaya Witbooi x State of the nation

‘What transpired in Parliament reflects the kind of state we’re in,” says artist Khaya Witbooi about the debacle that was this year’s state of the nation address. We’re chatting in front of his piece ‘Cellphone Jamming (live at parliament)’ at Worldart Gallery in Cape Town.

“That cellphone jamming is something you did not expect to happen. That was the true state of the nation,” he concludes.

Witbooi’s work employs images borrowed from pop culture, art history, advertising and other forms of mass media. At first glance, one is reminded of the work of English painter and collage artist Richard Hamilton.

Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup cans also put in an appearance.

This familiarity with the masters of pop art from Europe and the US is shown deliberately. “I appreciate Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein,” Witbooi says as we sit on a white plinth inside the gallery’s white cube, contemplating the work on show. “It has helped me look at the language of things in my immediate environment to communicate my particular condition.”

The images become a wallpaper accumulation of the artist’s environment, with its attendant politics and power dynamics. Sheep wool ( a metaphor for political party loyalists, I presume) and the Cecil John Rhodes statue, cellphones and guitars, Chappies wrappers and graffiti art are perfectly stenciled to give an effect of layer upon layer of narrative and counter-narrative, of method and madness on a single canvas.

“We don’t spend enough time resolving one issue before the next,” he says about his approach to composition. “So the layering of the piece is constructed from that point of view.”

When he speaks about the recent xenophobic attacks, wrinkles of worry knit together on his forehead as he looks at the president before us, smiling gleefully while plucking the strings of a cellphone, which has been transmorphed into a guitar. After all, our president has quite a taste for the theatrical, the musical, since the pre- Polokwane days of ‘Mshini Wami’..

“These are indicators that something is wrong with our country and ourselves, and needs to be addressed, immediately,” Witbooi says of what transpired in parliament and the mangled efforts to dismiss its gravitas.

We live in colourful times and pop art is a universal language; as such, when you look at Witbooi’s work, you are dealing with a deployment of the lingua franca of cultures, predominantly disseminated in stencil. “I look forward to making mistakes in my work,” Witbooi says, “so that I can perfect those mistakes and they don’t seem out of place, but rather a part of the piece. And I reproduce them again and again.”

Another poignant piece in his new body of work is a print titled Remember Marikana (edition 4/10).

“People who die from the repressive violence of state become martyrs, which is why I use the SAPS shield as a halo around Mambush’s head. It symbolises that what happened on that fateful day [Marikana Massacre] was de facto a transfer of power from the state to the people. Now, there is another centre of power, which is outside the confines of government. Mambush will never be forgotten – thanks to the state.”

We speak about another painting, titled Che Makeba, which is about our freedom struggle and the music that was its soundtrack. We speak about Lucky Star pilchards and Lion matches, and other household goods that framed our upbringing during apartheid.

“My work doesn’t attempt to answer all the national concerns. What I wish to articulate is my point of view, from where I am located within this madness – also, to entrench my dignity and integrity, as a black man. As such, I like my work to be energetic as a way of articulating my stand in this fight for survival.”

 Originally appeared in City Press – 7 June 2015*

A Short Essay: The experience of black bodies in Cape Town’s lily white spaces

One morning, we wake up feeling fat. To be sure, we’d felt fat for a while but on this particular morning, it was exacerbated by the fact that our flat overlooks an official state estate that houses one of our reasonably fat ministers.

I’ve heard people say it’s the education minister’s residence and, you know what? It’s not called “ministerial gravy” for nothing.

At all times, a posse of police officers is to be found at the entrance. They are as fat as we feel and just as lazy. With their frames squeezed tightly into their blue uniforms and their blue caps concealing their eyes, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were guarding the house of a modern Al Capone.

Sunday morning squeezes through a dense mass of leaves and flecks of sunlight.

A piebald cat leaps into view and perches on the wall where the electric fence of our gated apartment block separates us from the minister’s house, and the minister’s electric fence barricades her from the rest of the street.

Cats roam freely in our block the way dogs do in Gugulethu, where my girlfriend’s family lives. But the similarities between Gugulethu and Vredehoek end there. If in Gugs a cacophony of cars and children and music and chatter punctuates the existence of its inhabitants, Vredehoek is the absolute opposite.

Our street, on the contrary, is quiet save for the rustling of leaves and the singing of the mild, dry easterly Cape Doctor.

Slowly, we climb out of bed and put on our gym clothes. We make our way up Gorge Road, past the park where bergies’ rags hang out to dry on branches. Further and further up the foot of Table Mountain we climb, as slowly as our bodies allow.

The canopy of trees provides ample shade from the biting sun. “This is where Azure must’ve climbed,” my girlfriend says. “Ah-zoo-ray”. He is the 13-year-old street kid protagonist in K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel, Thirteen Cents. While the book deals with the underworld and ravages of poverty in Cape Town, this picturesque trail is also reflected on Cape Town Tourism leaflets.

Relative privilege makes for an exceptional life in Cape Town. Where we are standing, the mountain looms large up ahead with behind us the sprawling city suburbs and the city; further down, the harbour and the sea. You’d be forgiven if you thought this is all there is to this magnificent-looking city.

Hugged by the bosom of the mountain and the forest, we take a rest. A black man and his two daughters fish for tadpoles in a shallow pool. The father is patient with his daughters and shows them how to catch the slippery offspring. “No, dad, you do it,” says the youngest. She’s up to her knees in the murky water.

In a way, the view offers us a slice of the dream of the rainbow nation: a smidgen of the new black elite enjoying the bitter fruits of freedom in a world that, not so long ago, was the exclusive territory of whites. On our ascent up Table Mountain, the father and his two daughters are the only black people we see, just as we are the only black people in our electric-fenced apartment block.

An elderly couple with English accents descends from above us. Aloof, the granny slips on a boulder. Her husband jumps to grab her. The two of them cascade down the boulder in the gushing stream from the mini waterfall ahead and plunge into a pool just next to us. “White people,” my girlfriend says as I try to fish them out.

“We’re fine, we’re fine,” the man says as they laugh and play in the water. We ask about an alternative trail down the slope and they point us in the direction.

“Is it not interesting that they know more about this mountain, about this country, than we do?” my girlfriend asks contemptuously.

“It’s because they took all the land and stuffed us in townships and bantustans all those years ago, with Bantu education,” I say. “We’re still in the townships eking out a living from the scraps and leftovers of this city,” she says.

“With a fancy CA qualification I’m still the girl from Gugs. Even at work. They still want to send me on errands like a maid. That’s the only way they know how to relate to me.”

Right there, the thin veneer of exceptionalism peels off and we realise that as much as a lot has changed for a few of us, we’re still in the same position as before.

Except now we experience the misfortune of the pigment of our skin in larger waists and beautifully lit restaurants and quiet streets, on Weylandts furniture and in open-plan offices, hoping that some day, one day, things will truly change and we won’t be so uncomfortably self-conscious in the country of our birth.

This short essay first appeared in City Press*

Book review: The Reactive x Masande Ntshanga

American poet and author, Langston Hughes, once wrote: “[O]ne definition of a great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”.

This is what preoccupied me as I read through the pages of Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, The Reactive. Set in Cape Town in the early 2000s, the story is delivered in the first person by Lindanathi, the principal protagonist, who has injected himself with the HI-virus.

In rhythmic prose and with striking lyricism, Ntshanga whisks us into the world of Lindanathi and his two accomplices – Ruan and Cecelia – where drugs, legal and illegal, subsume the three characters’ lives. The three friends maintain their drug habit by selling Lindanathi’s ARVs to the – presumably – startling number of people who are infected with HIV with no foreseeable rehabilitation. The novel plays out during the tragic farce of AIDS denialism by the then government of President Thabo Mbeki which provides a background that makes for pungent socio-political commentary on the anatomy of the post-apartheid state.

However, the writer does not labour this fact. Death’s presence lingers almost negligibly in the text as it does in life, for one must get on with the business of living if one is to get anything done before “he takes his death.”

In the book, Lindanathi occupies a space that has come to define the emergent post-apartheid black middle class youth. Model C schooling, with its accompanying cultural capital and advantages, allows its graduates – of which Lindanathi is one – to traverse the cultural landscape with terrible ease, comfortable in the leafy southern suburbs of Cape Town and the devastating poverty of Du Noon, where the protagonist’s uncle lives in a container with his second wife.

The narrative swings seamlessly from traditional storytelling to that of the modernist tradition of stream-of-conscious as demonstrated by writers such as William Faulkner and the enfant terrible of Zimbabwean late 70s – 80s literary scene – Dambuzo Marechera.

In Masande Ntshanga one finds an erudite writer of exceptional talent, a critical new voice in the contemporary post-apartheid literary scene. His 2013 short story “Space” earned him the Pen International/New Voices Award. In a recent interview, the author brushes off the suggestion that the book is autobiographical, positing instead that “if it’s autobiographical, it’s autobiographical as a chronicle of my thinking, of how my opinions of things have changed and shifted.”

Ardent readers of South African fiction will remember Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow – a novel which also deals with mortality and HIV among its troubling themes. Ntshanga, in his debut offering, joins the tradition of young writers, such as Mpe and K Sello Duiker whose works, principally, dealt with what it means to be young in a country waking up from an apartheid hangover, desperate to re-imagine itself through its fiction.

Lindanathi, to be sure, is the product of his country and in this text, Ntshanga not only reproduces his subjectivity, but does so with disquieting distance; a listlessness which is telling, perhaps, since the country at the time (and even now) treated its youth with apparent disdain, if not resentment. During the Mbeki years and now – with the flagrant corruption of the State in its current form – startling statistics of youth unemployment are attended with the least urgency.

The State, it seems, continues to deny the youth a lifeline. And sooner, than later, the youth will have to react.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.