ruth miller – it is better to be together (1965)

It is better to be
Together. Tossed together
In a white wave, than to see
The ocean like an eagle.

It is better to lie
In the stormy seething
Than to judge the weather
In an eagle’s eye.

Cold is the bird
Who flies too far
In the clear vision
Which saints and eagles share:
Their faraway eyes are bitter
With darkened prayer.

O, it is better to try
WIth the white wave, together
To overturn the sky.

It is better to be together.


From Floating Island, 1965.

Ruth Miller was a South African poet, born in 1919 in Uitenhage. She grew up in the northern Transvaal and spent her adult life in Johannesburg, working as a school secretary and later an English teacher. The accidental home death by electrocution of her son, aged 14, clouded the last six months of her life; she produced nothing for some time, and subsequently wrote some of her finest work. She died of cancer in 1969. More HERE.

tune me what? – getting over sugarman (2016)

If you’re interested in the history of the musical struggle against apartheid in South Africa, this is a worthwhile listen:

Did the Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman make things up and distort facts to the point where international audiences got a false impression of the South African music scene? Did they make Rodriguez an undeserving hero at the cost of local South African musicians? With their special guest, music sociologist Michael Drewett, Brett & Leon reveal the scandalous truth about Malik Bendjelloul’s ‘fake-umentary’.

Featured in this episode of Tune Me What? are:

  • Roger Lucey
  • National Wake
  • David Kramer
  • Edi Niederlander
  • Kalahari Surfers
  • Juluka
  • James Phillips
  • Mzwakhe Mbuli
  • Jennifer Ferguson
  • Bright Blue
  • Just Jinger

saturday, 1 september 1984

Pick an old photograph of you. Go back and look what was happening in the world around the time it was taken.

Me, Heather, my dad Ray, and Paul. Waterfall, Natal. First day of spring, 1984.

1 September 1984
It was a Saturday. The US president was Ronald Reagan. The UK Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher. In that week of September people in US were listening to “What’s Love Got To Do With It” by Tina Turner. In the UK “Careless Whisper” by George Michael was in the top 5 hits. Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman, was one of the most viewed movies released in 1984 while First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer was one of the best selling books. (From HERE).

In South Africa, on 3 September 1984, the day the new constitution creating the tri-cameral parliament became effective, and the day upon which the first executive state president took the oath of office, the Vaal exploded and unrest and rioting spread countrywide. Read more HERE.

From SA History Online:

12 July, A car bomb explosion in Durban, Natal, kills five and injures twenty-six.

13 July, The last all white Parliament ends its last session in Cape Town.

16 July, Supreme Court Act No 2: Provided for the separation of the Ciskei judiciary from South Africa. Commenced: 16 July 1984

27 July, Republic of Ciskei Constitution Amendment Act No 10: Removed the post of VicePresident. Commenced: 27 July 1984

30 July, Campaigning for the new tricameral Parliament begins.

30 July, South Africa has held up supplies of British weapons to Lesotho and the UK has complained several times about the delays, officials said today. South Africa has decided to close its Consulate in Wellington instead of waiting for New Zealand’s new Government to carry out its pledge to shut down, New Zealand’s Prime Minister David Lange said.

August, Elections for Coloured and Indian Chambers of Parliament.

August, Boycotts and demonstrations in schools affected about 7% of the school population. In August demonstrations affected 800 000 school children.

7 August-9 August, Conference of Arab Solidarity with the Struggle for Liberation in Southern Africa, organised by the Special Committee against Apartheid, in cooperation with the League of Arab States.

8 August, The government is to grant self government to KaNgwane. This is seen as confirmation that it has finally abandoned its land deal with Swaziland, of which KaNgwane was to have been a part.

14 August, Lesotho rejects South Africa’s proposal for a draft security treaty.

16 August, An explosion, believed to have been caused by a bomb, ripped through police offices near Johannesburg today, a police spokesman said.

17 August, The UN Security Council rejected and declared null and void the new racist constitution of South Africa. It urged governments and organisations not to accord recognition to the “elections“ under that constitution. (Resolution 554)

22 August, Elections to the House of Representatives among the Coloured community show overwhelming support for the Labour Party. Official results record only a 30.9 per cent turn out and protests and boycotts are followed by 152 arrests.

28 August, Elections to the House of Delegates among the Indian community are marked by a low poll, protests, boycotts and active opposition by the UDF. Results show eighteen seats for the National Peoples Party (NPP), seventeen for Solidarity, one for the Progressive Independent Party (PIP), four for independents.

30 August, Prime Minister Botha declares that the government does not see the low turnout at the poils as invalidating the revised constitution.

31 August, KaNgwane proclaimed a self governing territory.

31 August, South Africa declared the black homeland of KaNgwane on the Swaziland border a self governing territory. The Swazi Council of Chiefs of South Africa, which backs a controversial plan to incorporate KaNgwane into Swaziland, warned of possible bloodshed in the territory if it is granted independence.

September, Mr P.W. Botha was elected the first executive state president in September. 1984-1986.

September – 24 January 1986, From 1 September 1984 to 24 January 1986, 955 people were killed in political violence incidents, 3 658 injured. 25 members of the security forces were killed and 834 injured. There were 3 400 incidents of violence in the Western Cape.

2 September-3 September, The revised Constitution comes into effect.

3 September, As South Africa’s new Constitution was inaugurated at least 26 people died in riots and police counterattacks in black townships, according to press and news agency reports. Reuter reported that the military has been brought in to guard Government buildings in Sharpeville and other black townships.

3 September, 175 people were killed in political violence incidents. On September 3 violence erupted in the Vaal Triangle, within a few days 31 people were killed.

5 September, P.W. Botha is unanimously elected to the post of Executive President by an Electoral College composed of the majority parties in each house fifty NP members of the white House of Assembly, twentyfive Labour Party members of the Coloured House of Representatives, and thirteen National People’s Party members of the Indian House of Delegates.

10 September, Fresh detention orders were issued for seven opponents of the South African Government freed by a court on Friday. The seven, including Archie Gumede, President of the two million strong anti apartheid United Democratic Front, had been held without charge since just before the controversial elections to a new Parliament in August.

11 September, Following unrest and rioting in the townships, the Minister of Law and Order prohibits all meetings of more than two persons, discussing politics or which is in protest against or in support or in memorium of anything, until 30 September 1984. The ban extends to certain areas in all four provinces, but is most comprehensive in the Transvaal.

12 September, South African riot police used tear gas and whips in Soweto as unrest continued and a sweeping ban on meetings critical of the Government came into effect. Opposition leaders criticised the ban, saying that the Government appeared to be overreacting to the unrest, in which about 40 people had died in the past fortnight.

13 September, Six political refugees, including the President of the United Democratic Front (UDF) seek refuge in the British consulate in Durban, and ask the British government to intervene on their behalf.

13 September, Six South African dissidents hunted by police in a big security clampdown today entered the British Consulate in Durban, British officials said. Police had been trying to rearrest the six, leaders of the United Democratic Front and the natal Indian Congress, following their release from detention last Friday on the orders of a judge. Major military manoeuvres were conducted by the South African Defence Force in its biggest exercise since World War II, which, the Times contends in a separate article, will surely be interpreted by the neighbouring States as a show of hostile preparedness. The exercise seemed to illustrate the successes and the failures of South Africa’s efforts to circumvent the international arms embargo imposed in 1977, the paper adds, noting that Western military specialists were impressed by the manoeuvres.

14 September, The inauguration of the new President, P.W. Botha, takes place. Under the revised Constitution, the post of President combines the ceremonial duties of Head of State with the executive functions of Prime Minister. Mr. Botha is also chairman of the Cabinet, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and controls the National Intelligence Service which includes the Secretariat of the State Security Council.

Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, gives an assurance that the six refugees will not be required to leave the consulate against their will, but also states that Britain will not become involved in negotiations between the fugitives and the South African government.

15 September, Members of a new Cabinet responsible for general affairs of government and three Ministers’ Councils are appointed and sworn in on 17 September 1984.
The leader of the Labour Party, the Reverend H.J. (Allan) Hendrikse and A. Rajbansi of the NPP are appointed to the Cabinet as Chairmen of the Ministers’ Councils, but neither is given a ministerial portfolio.

17 September, Over the weekend, South Africa’s new President, Pieter W. Botha, announced the appointment of a Cabinet which, for the first time in South Africa’s history, includes non-whites.
The two non-white Cabinet members, the Reverend Allan Hendrickse, leader of the Labour Party, and Amichand Rajbansi, whose National People’s Party is drawn from the Indian community, were sworn into office in Cape Town, along with the other members of the new 19 man Cabinet for General Affairs, which is otherwise all white.

18 September, South Africa’s black gold miners today called off their first legal strike, which lasted just one day but, according to mine owners, saw 250 workers injured during police action against pickets.

19 September, Riot police firing birdshot, tear gas and rubber bullets clashed with 8,000 striking gold miners, killing seven and injuring 89, police said today.

24 September, Minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘Pik’ Botha, announces that in retaliation for the British government’s refusal to give up the six men, the government will not return to Britain four South Africans due to face charges of having contravened British customs and excise regulations, and believed to be employed by ARMSCOR.

25 September, South Africa and the UK faced what could be their worst diplomatic crisis for several years because of tension over six dissidents hiding from police in the British Consulate in Durban. Pretoria said last night that in retaliation for London’s refusal to evict the fugitives it would not send four South African back to Britain to stand trial on charges of illegal export of arms.

26 September, Five of the political detainees are released and on the same day the banning order on Dr. Beyers Naudé is lifted.
Schools reopen, but 93,000 pupils continue to boycott classes.

28 September, South Africa was told by IAEA to open all nuclear plants to international inspection or face sanctions by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The resolution was passed by 57 votes to 10, with 23 abstentions. The US and other Western nations opposed it. The resolution was tabled by Morocco on behalf of African States.

2 October, The death toll in rioting and clashes with police has risen to over sixty.

2 October, The Government took into custody the leader of South Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid group and held him under security law. The arrest came as four blacks were killed in a day of unrest in black townships raising to at least 61 the number of people killed in the past month in ethnic violence and 130,000 black students boycotted classes.


“bared life” – looking at stereographs of south african miners produced in the early 1900s (rosemary lombard, 2014)

This is a research paper I wrote in 2014 for “The Public Life of the Image”, an MPhil course offered through the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

“[T]he striking mine workers at Marikana have become spectacularised. It is a stark reminder that the mine worker, a modern subject of capitalism, in these parts of the world is also the product of a colonial encounter.”

— Suren Pillay (2014)

“We need to understand how photography works within everyday life in advanced industrial societies: the problem is one of materialist cultural history rather than art history.”

— Allan Sekula (2003)


I pick up the odd wood and metal contraption. This is a stereoscope, I am told. It feels old, in the sense that there is a certain worn patina about it, and a non-utilitarian elegance to the turned wood and decoration, though not as if it were an expensive piece – just as if it came from an era where there was time for embellishment. It feels cheaply put together, mass-produced and flimsy as opposed to delicate, the engraving detail of the tinny sheet metal rather rough, the fit of the one piece as it glides through the other somewhat rickety in my hands.

stereoscope 02

stereoscope 01

From two elevations, a stereoscope almost identical to the one I used. Various kinds were devised in the 19th century. The particular hand-held variety, of oak, tin, glass and velvet depicted here dates back to 1901, Based on a design by the inventor Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is perhaps the most readily available and simplest model.

I reach for the pile of faded stereographs; flipping through them slowly. There are 24, picked up in an antique shop in an arcade off Cape Town’s Long Street together with the viewing device. A stereograph is composed of two photographs of the same subject taken from slightly different angles. When placed in the stereoscope’s wire holder, and viewed through the eyeholes, an illusion of perspective and depth is achieved as the two images appear to combine through a trick of parallax.

Susan Sontag remarks that “[p]hotographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”2. And Allan Sekula calls the photograph an “incomplete utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context determined”3. In what follows, while unable to offer definitive conclusions, I will look more closely at 2 out of these 24 pictures and, through a contextual discussion, attempt to unpack a few aspects of the complex relationships of photography with its subjects and also with public circulation.

Each thick, oblong card with its rounded, scuffed edges discoloured by age has two seemingly identical images on it, side by side, and is embossed with the name of what I guess must have been the photographer or printing studio’s name in gold down the margin: “RAYMOND NEILSON, BOX 145, JOHANNESBURG”. The images depict miners underground. Some are very faded, to the extent that the figures in them appear featureless and ghostly. There is virtually no annotation on most of the photos. On just a few of them, spidery white handwriting on the photo itself, as if scratched into the negative before it was printed, announces the name of the machinery or activity in the picture and the name of the mine: “Crown Mines”.

I pick up the first card, slot it into the stereoscope, and peer through the device. On the left of the two images, the writing announces: “Ingersoll hammer drill cutting box hole. C215. Crown Mines.”

Photo 1: Stereographic image of miners in Crown Mines around the turn of the twentieth century.

Photo 1: Stereographic image of miners in Crown Mines around the turn of the twentieth century.

I slide the holder backwards and forwards along the wooden shaft to focus. I’m seeing two images, nothing remarkable, until suddenly, at a precise point on the axis, the images coalesce into one, three-dimensional. The experience is that of a gestalt switch, the optical illusion uncanny. I blink hard. It’s still there. It feels magical, as if the figures in the photos are stepping right out of the card towards me. Their eyes stare into mine through over a century of time, gleaming white out of dirty, sweaty faces.

Startlingly tangible, here stand two young white men in a mine shaft, scarcely out of their teens, leaning against rock, each with a hand on a hip and a jauntily cocked hat. They are very young… yet very old too, I immediately think: definitely dead now; and perhaps dead soon after the picture was taken, living at risk, killed in a rock fall or in World War One. A pang of indefinable emotion hits. I am amazed at how powerfully this image has flooded my imagination. Even with the difficult viewing process, the effect is astonishing.

I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s contention that all photographs are memento mori: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”5.

I also notice that the trick of parallax (and concurrently, the evocativeness) works most pronouncedly on the figures in the foreground, probably due to the camera angle and vanishing points of the perspective. Behind the two white youngsters, almost fading into the darkness, is a black man, holding up a drill over all of their heads that seems to penetrate the tunnel of rock in which they are suspended.

He appears to have moved during the shot as his face is blurred. This could also be due to the low light in the shaft. Though he is looking straight at me, I can’t connect with him like I do with the figures in front. He is very much in the background, a presence without substance. The way the photo was set up and taken has placed him in that position, and this viewpoint is indelible, no matter how hard I try to look past it.

Photo 2: Stereographic image of Johannesburg miners around the turn of the twentieth century.

Photo 2: Stereographic image of Johannesburg miners around the turn of the twentieth century.

There is no writing on this one except for what seems to be a reference number: “C269”. The figure in the foreground is a black man, miming work with a mallet and chisel against the rock face, though clearly standing very still for the shot, as he is perfectly in focus, his sceptical gaze on us, a sharp shadow thrown on the rock behind him. This is no ordinary lamp light: it seems clear that these pictures have been professionally illumined by the photographer, perhaps using magnesium flares, because these shots definitely predate flash photography.

To the man with the chisel’s left stands a white man, face dark with dirt. He is holding a lamp in one hand, and his other grasps a support pile which bisects the shaft and also the photo. Tight-jawed, he stares beyond us, his eyes preoccupied, glazed over. Behind the two men in the foreground, there are more men – parts of two, perhaps three workers can be seen, one a black man crouched down at the rock face behind the man with the chisel.

What strikes me most trenchantly about this picture — the punctum, after Barthes7 — is the man with the chisel’s bare feet. He is at work in an extremely hazardous environment without shoes. Looking at all the photographs, every white worker is wearing boots, but there are several pictures where it is visible that many of the black workers are barefoot.

This is shocking visual evidence of an exploitative industry which does not take its workers’ safety seriously: these men are placed at incredible risk without the provision of adequate protective attire: none have hard protection for their heads, and black workers are without shoes. Men not deemed worthy of protection are, by inference, expendable. From these photos, one surmises that black lives are more dispensable than white.

I am really curious to find out more about these pictures. Perhaps the visual evidence here is echoed in literature? Perhaps they can tell us things the literature does not?

Who were these people posing? There is nothing on the back of the photos. No captions, no dates. Who was the photographer? For what purpose were these pictures being taken? The lack of answers to these most mundane of questions lends the photos an uncanny, almost spectral quality.

Continue reading

leigh-ann naidoo – hallucinations (17 august 2016)

leigh-ann naidoo

Photo: Paul Botes, M&G

“Quite simply – and this is what I wish to discuss tonight in relation to the question of rage and violence – we are living in different times. Or at least, our time is disjointed, out of sync, plagued by a generational fault line that scrambles historicity.

“The spectre of revolution, of radical change, is in young peoples’ minds and politics, and it is almost nowhere in the politics of the anti-apartheid generation. In fact, even as they criticised young people just five years earlier for being apathetic and depoliticized, they have now thought student activists misguided, uninformed, and mad.

“You would think that it might be possible to resolve this difference in time by means of a careful reading of what is called the ‘objective conditions for revolution’: are we in fact in a time in which revolution is immanent? No matter the subjective experience of time – there must be a way of determining who has the better bearing on history, who can tell the time. What time is it? Yet to tell the time is a complex matter in this society.

“We are, to some degree, post-apartheid, but in many ways not at all. We are living in a democracy that is at the same time violently, pathologically unequal. Protest action against the government – huge amounts of it, what in most other places would signal the beginning of radical change – often flips into a clamour for favour from that very government. Our vacillations, contradictions and anachronisms are indication that what time it is, is open to interpretation.

“I want to argue that the comrades I have worked with in the student movement are not so much mad as they are time-travellers. Or rather, that their particular, beautiful madness is to have recognised and exploited the ambivalence of our historical moment to push into the future. They have been working on the project of historical dissonance, of clarifying the untenable status quo of the present by forcing an awareness of a time when things are not this way. They have seen things many have yet to see. They have been experimenting with hallucinating a new time…”

Read the rest of this paper, delivered at the 13th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University in Johannesburg last night.

keeping time at uct, 2 august 2016

This coming Tuesday, find out more about the extraordinary archive of photographs and live recordings made by Ian Bruce Huntley in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 2013 I was involved in putting this archive of recordings online, which you can explore HERE.keeping time event

Keeping Time: Ian Bruce Huntley’s South African jazz archive
by Jonathan Eato

Ian Bruce Huntley is not a name that you’ll find readily in the burgeoning annals of South African jazz. Unless, that is, you talk to the dwindling generation of jazz musicians who were working in South Africa in the mid-1960s. Tete Mbambisa remembers Huntley as the man who ‘recorded our gold’, and this Huntley did through a series of remarkable photographic images and live audio recordings. Having privately preserved these records for over forty years, throughout the state repression of grand-apartheid and into the democratic era, they have recently been made available for the first time.

This talk will consider how, in the face of increasing political oppression, Huntley’s archive documented a community of vernacular intellectuals exploring and developing ideas in counterpoint to much commercially available South African jazz post-‘Pondo Blues’.

For more info:

tel: 021 650 2888

Facebook event HERE.

ameera conrad – on exhaustion over a lack of understanding

ameeraI am tired
God Almighty, I am tired
of being told that we need to move on,
that we need to forget,
that we need to put the past behind us,
that Apartheid is over.

They don’t understand.
We never will.
Our bodies are monuments of centuries of torture,
these exist in us
we live it every day.
We built this country
whips at our backs –
The Man holding the whip did not build –
we built.

Apartheid is not over.
No magic TRC wand can bippity-boppity-boo! it away.
Our glass carriage is still a pumpkin,
pulled by rats.
A polite revolution over tea and crumpets, good Sir,
‘twas the order of the day.

When could we mourn?
When could we cry?
When could we scream
for our loved ones lost
our chances trampled on?

Please Mastah Baas Meneer,
Gee my ‘n kans om te huil
vir my ma
en my pa
en my susters
en broers
gee my ‘n kans om te huil.

Let me stand up for myself
and for those who stood before me.
Let me march for myself
and for those who marched before me.
Let me call out AMANDLA
and raise my fist
and let me cry
after hundreds of years
let me cry.

— Ameera Conrad
4th Year
B.A. Theatre and Performance at UCT

Please visit Ameera’s blog, HERE.

still so far to go, south africa

mandela fist

Yesterday, on the day those in control would later turn Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s life support system off, allowing him his final, politically expedient release after months held captive in a purportedly vegetative state, I was driving with my niece Juliette in KwaZulu-Natal, behind a white woman in a bakkie. The passenger seat of the vehicle was empty. In the open back, bumping around in the drizzling rain, sat a black woman in a blue maid’s uniform trimmed, profound irony, with ribbon in the rainbow hued design of the “new” South African flag.

Utterly disgusted, Juliette and I wanted to yell out something as we drove past, something to say that we saw, we recognised, we hated the thoughtless inhumanity of the woman in the driver’s seat, and that we saw, we recognised, we hated that this was a microcosm of the sickness persisting in the world all around us every day… but something in the grim, faraway expression on the face of the woman in the back made us realise that anything we said, however well-intentioned, would only compound her humiliation. Even the clouds were spitting on her.

South Africa still has so far to go before there can be any exaltation about transformation here. Sadly, far too little in the material circumstances of the majority of South Africans has changed since 1994, and for this reason the triumphant official narrative we are bombarded with today, as the media orchestrate the nation’s performance of grief for Mandela’s passing, rings hollow. Despite the man’s humility and admission of his own fallibility, South Africans have fashioned of him a myth, a brand, a magical fetish that distracts from the truth that we are ALL responsible for changing the way we live in this country, this world… and that we will need to do more, much more, before we can talk about freedom from oppression.

My friend Andre Goodrich posted a similar anecdote on Facebook this morning, and I would like to share what he wrote and echo his exhortation:

“From my office window, I can see a young white foreman, a child really, sit watching black men at work. I see this when I look up from marking first year exam essays on the political economy of race and class in South Africa. Alongside the stack of exam papers is a sheet of paper a garden worker used to explain to me how he sees the word ‘location’ as related to the Tswana word for cattle kraal. Between these, the excitement I felt in the 90s for the massive change promised by Mandela’s release from prison feels false and jaded.

I am saddened by Mandela’s death, but I am angered by his leaving such a sense of transformation amid such an absence of it. I encourage you to be angry too, and to hold us all to a better standard than what we have settled for.”

Lala ngoxolo, Madiba. A luta continua.

lesego rampolokeng with the kalahari surfers – end beginnings

“Liars rule the world…”

“Treason” and “End Beginnings” — tracks from the album End Beginnings (Shifty, 1991). This is the sound of South Africa in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Of course, I never got to hear this until years later.
Music: Warrick Sony
Words and voice: Lesego Rampolokeng

Download this album HERE.

end beginnings


This celebration of 80s South African pulp photo comic culture was made by Lloyd Ross and Robbie Thorpe in the late 1990s.

And here’s a piece on the subject written by DR Walker:

In 1980, like so many other white males, I was dragged kicking and screaming into that institution we would come to know as the SADF. The culture shock was enormous, legions of brown clad eenvormigge troepies all marching to the tune of the National party. After almost a year of rondfok and “training” I eventually ended up in the “Operational Area” or “The Border” as it was so commonly known.

Diversions were few and far between; drinking, talking kak, getting messed around, an occasional incursion by Swapo, and reading whatever came to hand. Newspapers were great but they reminded us of home too much so we avoided them. Paperbacks we never saw or they were invariably bad cowboy novels. Our all time favourite though were those beloved and much maligned “Photo Picture Libraries” or, as we so fondly knew them: “P*** Boekies”. These trashy produced pieces of literature fascinated us because you did not need an imagination, and if you did not understand the text you could always look at the pictures. They were better than a comic and were made in South Africa too.

Of course we all had our favourites, there was “Tessa”, a platinum blonde who strutted around in a bikini all day, running through the jungles of urban South Africa while clad in her cossie and high heels. Clashing with sinister suit and shade wearing individuals who were clearly “the bad guys” Naturally she always came out on top, the hair on that blonde head not even disturbed. As far as we were concerned she was akin to a Goddess and she would have been mobbed had she ever come to the border. With hindsight, those same bad guys looked very much like the guys who appeared before the Truth Commission and spilt so much dirty laundry. Maybe Tessa knew something we did not?

Remember “Swart Luiperd, Wit Tier, Kaptein Duiwel, Grensvegter” and all that ilk? They were out in the bushes clutching their wooden machine guns, (this is a rifle, this is a gun, this is for shooting, this is for fun), killing off naughty cigar smoking Cuban clones who held the proverbial dishevelled damsel in distress captive after her convoy/aircraft/helicopter/hospital was invaded/crashed/broke down (delete whichever is not applicable). By our reckoning we were not needed on the border, those three guys would solve all the problems and we could go home to start our long delayed civvy existence. Now that I think of it, just maybe they were really out there doing dirty deeds while we were being fed propaganda about how good the SADF and SAP were. Go on reading HERE.

For a critical history of South African pulp comics, read Sean O’Toole’s 2012 Mail & Guardian piece.

whispers in the deep

Matt Temple, of the excellent African music blog Electric Jive, has just uploaded another fascinating compilation of rare and historical sounds. This time the focus is on music and censorship in South Africa, and tracks span the period from 1960 to 1994. Accompanying the download link is an essay by Peter M Stewart, written in 2003, when this compilation was originally made, which provides some context for listening.

whispers in the deep

“Given the recent Secrecy Bill passed by the South African Parliament it’s worth reflecting on music that caught the attention of the censors during the previous dark period of Apartheid… this is a compilation I put together for private distribution in August 2003, almost 10 years ago. It fits the Bill!

Whispers in the Deep collects a number of anthems, agit-pop songs, and propaganda pieces. Many of the tracks were intended as direct responses to the South African social order as it was prior to 1994. The other tracks might as well have been. Nevermind the revolution, nothing was televised in South Africa prior to 1976.

Whispers in the Deep also documents some of the ways in which access to popular music was restricted in South Africa – the obstacles that prevented persons resident in South Africa from listening to songs, hearing them broadcast, or seeing them performed. It explores the cultural boycott, censorship by the state in South Africa, and various manifestations of the ‘climate of censorship’.”

Read more and download it HERE.

my first mixtape

Something I wrote in 2004 (You can listen to the mixtape here as you read.)

I remember being happy and carefree until about the year I turned 10. That was the year everyone around me became aware of something called “coolness”. It seemed you had to do certain things a certain way to be deemed “cool”. It didn’t make much sense to me. I collected stamps and pressed indigenous flowers. The other girls were really into pastel writing paper (blank). I was in the school choir. I had takkies instead of hockey boots (I hated hockey; why waste my parents’ money?).  I read voraciously — National Geographics, Rumer Godden, Lucy Maud Montgomery. There was always a queue to read the next Sweet Valley High that I never joined.

While others were playing handstands and kissing catchers, I liked to walk further out, past the squeals, put my sandwich out on the grass, lie down and wait for a yellow-billed kite to spy it. I loved to feel the wind from its wings as it swooped down right over me from way up high… in the next second, bird and morsel would be gone; a tiny shadow, a cry far, far out of reach.

Almost all my time inside and outside school was spent dreaming up elaborate, exotic worlds and cobbling approximations of them together from whatever was at hand: cardboard, tablecloths, our little red wagon, press-ganged siblings, pets. Some games took weeks. Gypsy caravans morphed into Voortrekker laagers morphed into hunter-gatherers in the Drakensberg morphed into refugee camps morphed into townships morphed into castles under siege.  Ways of being that were other than mine held endless fascination for me; every scenario a mystery I longed to inhabit. Engrossed with historical detail, with exact measurements, with flavours and textures and smells, I would be nowhere but there in my head – not exactly germane to making flesh-and-blood friends. Maybe worst of all, though, when the teacher asked questions in class and I was actually paying attention, I would put up my hand and answer, or even disagree with her.

I found out that my differences did not endear me to others, did not interest them. In fact, the things that made me different made me actively UNcool. At first I didn’t really care, but then it started to hurt. I was frozen out, systematically. The nastiest kids used to make me cry. They would pass notes warning their cronies not to borrow my scissors because I had “AIDS”. This was 1987. We didn’t really know what it was, only that it was worse than leprosy… and the lepers we’d heard about at Sunday School were pretty abhorrent.

One day I punched a boy called Stuart Urquhart when he had kicked my school bag, put Prestik in my hair and called me “ginger”, “fatty” and “freckles” one too many times. So what, I had freckles (show me a redhead who doesn’t… I quite liked mine, and I always liked my hair), but “fatty” I couldn’t accept. (It stuck regardless though. Around 16 I was weighing all my food to make sure I knew how many kilojoules I was swallowing.) Stuart came off with a respectably-sized purple and yellow bruise. The teacher made me stay in at big break and beat chalkboard dusters while Stuart got on with “getting off” with girls behind the change rooms on the far side of the field, where the myopic staff member on duty couldn’t make out that there were boys on the girls’ side. It was a Belle & Sebastian song just waiting to happen.

(This is a Youtube playlist I made to go with this piece.)

Fast forward to a year or two later, when I discovered The Smiths, the Pixies, U2 and the House of Love through a mix tape copied for me by the Std 7 boy I (and everyone else, it seemed) had a devastating crush on. He saved my life. Inadvertently, of course. He was the minister’s son, a gymnast with beautiful arms. Sitting outside, vestigial and bored at the Std 5 leavers’ disco, I imagined those taut biceps encircling my pubescent torso, crushing my stonies to him, exquisite pain as we slow-danced to Richard Marx, eternal reverie in the fuggy November night…

“Whatever it takes, or how my heart breaks, I will be right here waiting for you.”

When, oh when, would a boy sing that to me? (Note to younger self: “Don’t hold your breath, girlie.”) Only one boy had ever been sweet (or brave?) enough to ask me to dance at the handful of parties to which I was invited. The time he did, it wasn’t a slow song. He wasn’t that sweet (or brave?). His name was Francis and he flapped his elbows like a chicken. I was staying outside. I hadn’t developed a sense of irony yet.

“Close your eyes, gimme your hand, darlin'” … “Lay a whisper on my pillow” … “Huh-ush, hush, keep it down now, voices carry…”

Back then, those numbers induced in me a wild yearning for a reason to empathise with the girls from my Pop Shop tapes, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that things were not moving in that direction. That was before I discovered The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Tears for Fears. What? Bands who were singing about how I really felt, instead of what I would never be?! Singing, in fact, about the precise feeling of inadequacy that perfect pop had provoked in me! They left me standing alone with a smirk, instead of the sigh of an outcast. The relief I felt was immediate.

“Sheila take a, Sheila take a bow/ Boot the grime of this world in the crotch, dear/ Throw your homework onto the fire/ Go out and find the one you love”

I wished I’d brought my rollerskates that night. I wanted to glide away down the smooth, concrete walkways, eerie dark tunnels ringing silently with the monitors’ “No running on the corridors!” refrain, the illicit rumble of my wheels propelling me far from all the clammy paired-off hands and Bon Jovi… I slipped out across the moonlit playing fields, the dew muddying both pairs of roll-down lumo-pink and white nylon socks I was wearing, my black takkies squeaking with every step. Grasping the perimeter fence, I pressed my face against the diamond mesh until it patterned my cheeks, and the dog barking at me from across the road forced the preternatural image that had projected itself into the sky — the minister’s son, away at boarding school in ‘Maritzburg, straw boater cocked rakishly — to dissipate.

The crush passed, though not until after I had wasted more than a year of stupefying Fridays at youth group watching the blonde chicks compete for his attention. I never tried. I had learned that tragedy was also cool. And anyway, Morrissey said I was the one for him (fatty). Who needed 15-year-old zitfarms when you had Morrissey’s alabaster chest and bruised daffodils, and Robert Smith’s bleeding mouth? So hot. So beyond sex. So beyond my stupid suburban world.

I ditched the stamps and started collecting Melody Makers & NMEs with religious fervour. Plastered my room with Joy Division, Bowie, Bauhaus, Jim Morrison, Sinead o’ Connor, Jesus & Mary Chain posters. Cultivated a floppy fringe and faraway eyes. Whined for Docs. A couple of years on my mom would be despairing at the puddles of black kohl staining my pillow. Every day, regardless of Natal’s weather, I wore the darkest parts of my school uniform: the navy jersey and dark stockings. Every day, I packed the same cabbage salad in my lunchbox, skimping on the mayo, trying to suppress my burgeoning curves, to look tortured, sick, blank, cold, mechanical, monosyllabic. Like I was inside.

The new wave music in my head deflected everything irrelevant. And everything felt irrelevant. I could identify with nothing around me. With no one — certainly not white South Africa in 1993! The violence. The confusion. The fear. The news explained nothing. I could taste the lies.

“Ich möchte ein Eisbär sein/ Im kalten Polar/ Dann müßte ich nicht mehr schrei’n/ Alles wär’ so klar.”

“All we ever wanted was everything/ All we ever got was cold/ Get up, eat jelly, Sandwich bars and barbed wire/ Squash every week into a day.”

“I could turn and walk away, or I could fire the gun/ Staring at the sky, staring at the sun/ Whatever I do, it amounts to the same: Absolutely nothing/ I’m alive/ I’m dead/ I am the stranger/ Killing an Arab.”

“Me… I disconnect from you…”

“I belong to the blank generation, and I can take or leave it each time.”

“I see liberals; I am just a fashion accessory… La tristessa durera, scream to a si-i-igh, to a si-i-igh…”

“Rock ‘n’ roll is our epiphany: culture, alienation, boredom and despair,” the Manic Street Preachers howled. I was in love with fragile, callow Richey Manic, with the leather, leopard print and makeup. We scrawled copycat slogans on our Std 9 history teacher’s blackboard before class. Mr Mundell was a Springbok walker (yes, a competitive WALKER) with a tight arse and vindictive streak a mile wide towards any “non-athlete”, his term for anyone who preferred house plays to hayfever. We spent our time in his classes on Bismarck and the Cold War and Botha VS Smuts writing rainbow pages in advance for “forgetting” our P.E. kits. Notice I say “we”, for by then the other angry girls in dark stockings had deigned to notice me. They were rebels. They’d nicked the template from their elder sisters who’d been in London.

Penny and Olwen were in love with their horses, and also with Dave Gahan and Brett Anderson. They had tails: long, snarled strands of hair that they had to keep rolled up and clipped under the other short hair to avoid being bust. When they got bored with those, they got undercuts. Anything to cause shit, to push the limits, to be different. I didn’t really get the point of that at high school. I had my mom do me a tight plait down my back most days. I made her do it over if it wasn’t perfect.

I tagged along with them, mostly for the music I could sponge off their connections. Penny had given me the Stone Roses record her sister bought her in London, for example. She’d scorned it cos it was “too pop”. She couldn’t see that part of its brilliance lay in the way the shambling prettiness cloaked the meticulous cruelty beneath:

“You’ve been bought and paid/ You’re a whore and a slave/ Your dark star holy shrine/ Come taste the end, you’re mine/ Here he comes/ Got no questions, got no love/ I’m throwing stones at you man/ I want you black and blue and/ I’m gonna make you bleed/ Gonna bring you down to your knees/ Bye bye badman/ Ooh, bye bye/ I’ve got a bad intention/ I intend to/ Knock you down/ These stones I throw/ Oh these French kisses/ Are the only way I’ve found…”

Swigging vodka and crème soda out of a juice bottle under the stands on Sports Day, keeping cave while they smoked, I couldn’t quite buy in to group rebellion. Drinking was fun. Cigarettes were siff. Dagga was a chance I was nervous of taking. I heard rumours that it could make you schizo. I already doubted my sanity too often. Also, I was pretty sure dagga definitely killed brain cells, and, well, I was coming top in the standard, and my parents expected me to continue doing so… My parents were the only people in the world I knew really did love me. Didn’t mean we liked each other much but I felt like I shouldn’t fuck that up…

Rewind a couple of years again: “You can all just kiss off into the air/ behind my back I can see them stare/ They’ll hurt me bad, but I won’t mind/ They’ll hurt me bad, they do it all the time, yeah, yeah, they do it all the time…”

The Violent Femmes! Never had I heard anything like them! Pasty, whiny smalltown nerds. They wrote lonely, ugly songs, about masturbation and Jesus and killing your daughters and wanting to fuck black girls. They broke the rules in a way I could dig. They broke them because they had to. But what really got me was the rock ‘n’ roll. Deadpan-venomous-breakneck-shake-a-chicken-rock’n’roll, baybeh. The fattest, twangiest bass… and a marimba! I wanted to be defiled! I hadn’t felt like dancing this much since I was about 9 or 10 and Dad used to stick on the Beatles’ Red Album for us when it was raining and we couldn’t play outside.

It was in a marquee on the beach at Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape that I noticed the first boy I would ever kiss watching me, kinda slo-mo headbanging to “American Music”. I remember he seemed passably cute. He lurched over, wordlessly, and pulled me close. Dizzy from my Cure-style flailings and a couple of Hunter’s Golds, I collapsed on top of him on a hay bale and his tongue found mouth. It busied itself deep in my nonplussed oral cavity for a while. It was all a bit too gross to feel like the miracle I had anticipated for years, but boy was I stoked. My necklace popped undone. Tiny, cold beads rolled down between my breasts, between my shoulder blades, adding to the strange, electric shivers as the foreign hand inched up, up under my Rattle & Hum t-shirt, fumbling round to the front. I think he pulled away because he had to burp.

His plaque was flavoured with curdled Black Label and zol, and the rest of him with that purple Ego deodorant – what was it called? Bahama Mist? Afterwards, back from my holiday, I would go into Spar with my mom, loiter around the mens’ toiletries while she was in another aisle, spray Bahama Mist nonchalantly into the lid, take a hit of sweaty rapture on my isle of romance, over and over again.

I don’t recall a word he said. I forgot his name years ago. But his friend’s, who had set about ravishing my younger sister in similar fashion, is indelibly etched in my mind. It was Geoff. You see, for weeks afterwards she and I chanted the Pixies’ refrain, “Jefrey-with-one-ef-Jefrey”, when alluding to the escapade in front of Mom and Dad. We were convinced if they found out what naughty things we’d got up to right under their noses, we’d NEVER be allowed to go to parties unchaperoned again.

Jef was a surfer, a boarder at a boys’ high school in King William’s Town. Suave. Told us he had a mattress in the back of his bakkie. (HIS bakkie? How old were they??) We shat ourselves. When they staggered off to find more dop, we skedaddled home to my grandparents’ house via the most brightly lit street. Out of breath with giggles, we picked the straw from our tresses, only a little more relieved than regretful that we had been sensible. Ooh, but hadn’t they given us their phone numbers?! When we dialled them from a tickiebox next day we got the out-of-order tone. And making a getaway the night before, I had forgotten to retrieve my beloved velvet hat from whence it had tumbled as I fell into first base. The first brutal abandonment, and there’d be too many down the years to keep count.

“A sad fact widely known/ The most impassioned song to a lonely soul/ Is so easily outgrown/ But don’t forget the songs that made you smile/ And the songs that made you cry/ As you lay in awe on your bedroom floor/ And said ‘Oh! Oh! Smother me, Mother…’/ Yes, you’re older now and you’re a clever swine/ But they were the only ones who ever stood by you…/ I’m here with the cause; I’m holding the torch/ In the corner of your room, can you hear me? And when you’re dancing, and laughing, and finally living/ Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.”

I do, Steven Patrick, you whiny old git, every now and then I really do. And you can consider this one such paean of my gratitude to your ilk. (2004)