A few days ago I published my first online book review for the blog of bookshop Hemingways of Hermanus (a literary ‘attraction’ in Hermanus, South Africa). You will see it below the photo gallery. The same review on the FB-page Read any good books lately experienced an overwhelming number of responses.
Although this blog is first and foremost dedicated to photography of the world around me (wherever I am) I now make an exception in writing about the personal background that made me write this review.
Many things have changed in South Africa, for the good and the bad. But changing the mindset of people ….. ? When we emigrated from The Netherlands to South Africa in April 2000 one of our new neighbours (German born) in the Klaas Voogds Valley near Robertson said to us: “I’ve been living here for 30 years now and nothing has changed”. This turned out to be an essential truth. On the surface of the society we experienced in the past 15 years that many houses have been build for the “previously disadvantaged” part of the society; tourist influx increased significantly and so on. Still there is segregation, with whites, coloured and black Living Apart Together in different urban areas; a kind of LAT-relation thus with the majority of white still needing cheap labour for gardening and other domestic work and coloured and black people still depending on some income. With many good exceptions within the farming community we also experienced and saw farmworkers pulled on a rope behind a ‘bakkie’ (pick-up truck); beaten up by their employers and paid in ‘dop’ (alcoholic drinks). These problems are not solved overnight and we are not here to change the world but for tourists to South Africa it would be good to be aware of this underlying unrest. We do not blame ‘apartheid’ or ‘Afrikaners’ for this; history proofs different (one should for example know that the British introduced segregation of cultures and races and during the Boer War over 40,000 people -black, coloured and white- died in British concentration camps); although ‘Apartheid’ was based on religious fanaticism of some powerful Afrikaners. What we stand for is mutual respect and equality and that is, looking back, not easy with the majority of people being humiliated for centuries. In Robertson (a wine producing area with, according to a social worker, 70% of the ‘thoroughbred’ Robertsonners of all walks of life born with a Phetal Alcohol Syndrome) it took us 2 years before the first staff member could look us straight in the eye and dared to take own initiative. I must add to this that after our move to Stanford we also discovered another more open minded South African approach between cultures. But still; Cape Town is a wonderful city but one with most of the population living in shacks …. and as everywhere in South Africa; these neighbourhoods are ignored by the ‘Happy Few’.
It’s a grim picture I sketch here but let’s face reality. It’s real but who sees it? Or wants to see it? This week the president held his annual State of the Nation. It was like a soap opera with almost one third of the parliament leaving (some forcefully removed by armed security) after disruption by one of the parties. Real democracy is far to seek in this country (even people who say they are democrats don’t know how to practice this) and yet, with all this turbulence, we love this country with its stunning vistas and many wonderful and colourful people; great story-tellers, poets, artisans and artists, etc..
I might sound idealistic but sometimes I wonder how people of different backgrounds can achieve a better mutual understanding. Oh … I can tell you what a learning curve one undergoes by living in a shack for some days without electricity and sanitation in the bushes plus one tap cold water for a few hundred people. And than all those privileged people (me included 😉 ) complaining about load shedding. For many (virtually all) ‘lucky’ people it would be an eye-opener to undergo the ‘shack experience’ in an informal settlement without much or no money in the pocket. I could be a good first step to a better mutual understanding within this fascinating multi-cultural country. And it’s far cheaper than meditating in a decorated and candle-lighted pig stable at a so called ‘retreat centre’ in McGregor … (really; some do believe in that.. 😀 ).
Why am I writing this? When I wrote the brief review of ‘The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena’ these thoughts crossed my mind.
First a few pictures of ‘township life’: (early morning teeth brushing at the communal tap; spaza shop, and overview informal settlement ‘Hopland’ in Stanford with Simba still brushing his teeth 😉 )
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena
I guess that most people have never heard or even read, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena of South African author Elsa Joubert. And yet ‘Poppie’ was voted one of the Top 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. The book was also awarded with the Winifred Holtby Prize by the British Royal Society of Literature.
What’s a special about this book? Or, even better; what is so special about the ‘Afrikaner’ South African author?
The first book of Joubert that came under my eyes was Isobelle’s Journey which is an unique account of the lives of an ordinary South African (Afrikaans) family against the backdrop of a century of national and international upheaval. Reading this book I noticed that Joubert does not only have the ability to creep into the skin of her characters but also let the readers experience the personages from deep within. What an achievement, I thought and truly enjoyed my first encounter with the work of Elsa Joubert. I read books of many known and lesser known South African writers such as Brink, Van Heerden, Niekerk and Leipold but never underwent such an engagement with the personages. I bet that Joubert must have been photographing with the same early 20th century cameras as Frikkie, one of the personages; just to get the feeling.
But than ‘Poppie’ (English translation from Afrikaans published in 1980 by Jonathan Ball Publishers; ISBN 0340 25047 x). It took Joubert several years after her first meeting with Poppie (fictional name). Poppie a ‘black’ IsiXhosa woman went to Joubert for help and advise after the Cape Town riots had broken into the heart of her family. From listening to Poppie and years of research and questioning, the novel slowly got shape.
The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena is a story of a family over three generations and of one woman’s struggle to keep it together during the turbulent years of separation and Apartheid.
Joubert keeps politics as much as possible outside this story but wrote a story celebrating the human capacity to survive a repressive system. For a writer with a deep Afrikaner background, grown up under ‘Afrikanerdom’ and Dutch Reformed Church dogmas, it is remarkable how Joubert’s ability to become one with her characters also involved people from other South African cultures that were regarded as ‘lesser humans’ and, by a minority of Afrikaners, still are. With ‘Poppie’ Joubert succeeded, during apartheid years, in writing a story about true humanity, about a woman with one foot in modern Western life and the other still deeply rooted in tribal cultures.