Letter from Hobeni, 23rd October 2014

Xhosa men's danceXhosa women dancing

I have just had a very pleasant surprise.   I was sitting in the library with the doors open, forging through a pile of papers, when I heard a familiar voice saying “David?   David from London?    David from the Anti-Apartheid Movement?   What are you doing here?   Do you remember me?   I am Skin”.

The last time I saw Skin Sipoko was in Edinburgh in 2004 at the “10th anniversary of Freedom” festival.   And before that it was in a coach of ANC volunteers being taken to Wembley for the 1990 Mandela Concert.   Skin was at that time working with Dali Tambo in Arekopaneng, the ANC cultural unit.   He is now one of the drama tutors here at the Donald Woods Foundation in Hobeni.

He told me that he wanted his class to see “Cry Freedom” because it was important for them to understand who Donald Woods was and what he did in the struggle against apartheid.   But, Skin said, he did not know where he could get a DVD of the film.   I replied “We have three copies here, and we have a TV in the library”.

So we arranged for his class to come and see the film, and we gave an impromptu talk about the role of solidarity in the liberation struggle.   The film was longer than I remembered, which is odd because I watched it on the plane journey from Amsterdam to Nairobi on my way to South Africa, and that was only at the end of July.

But what is more important is that there is a group of young people who now know why Donald Woods is important, and they now know that he came from this village in the Transkei, that he was born in the house at the centre of the Donald Woods Foundation, and that he grew up speaking Xhosa and English.   And they know about his friendship with Steve Biko, and that when Biko was murdered it was Donald Woods who campaigned to expose what had happened.   And that he was banned, his family was attacked and that they were forced to flee the country to exile in London.

And now they will be able to tell their friends the story.   And young people here in Hobeni, in the Transkei, in the Eastern Cape will come to understand why the Donald Woods Foundation is here, and why it is working in this area.   And so the ripples of solidarity will spread as we stand side by side throughout our lives.

And all because I met an old comrade from Arekopaneng


Letter from Hobeni, 18th October 2014

Indian Ocean again

It is said that a nation that does not understand its history is doomed to repeat it.   In South Africa, or at least around Hobeni, part of this nation does not know its history, let alone understand it.

One person expressed astonishment that people are not allowed to buy tracts of land in Bomvanaland, which is the part of the Transkei where Hobeni is.   This person went on to add that it has always been the case, and is nothing to do with apartheid or colonialism. Well, yes and no.   Before the white settlers arrived in this area after 1820, the Bomvana, like all the Xhosa speaking peoples, did not have a concept of individual ownership, because the concept of Ubuntu concentrated everything into the hands of the community.   There is a Xhosa phrase which translates roughly as “I am who I am because I am part of a community”.   The British, finding the Bomvana harder to conquer than anyone else, conceded community land ownership as part of the settlement and that is still in place today.   Perhaps we should learn something from the Bomvana about the importance of community, instead of worshipping individualism.

Someone else, who is too young to remember apartheid, said “There is no work here.   Why don’t people up sticks and go to the city and find a job?”   So I had, patiently, to explain the effects of the pass laws and the Group Areas Act.   People did exactly what he was suggesting and they were arrested, imprisoned and returned to their Bantustan.   Whole communities were forcibly removed from areas designated “for whites only” and taken to places like Dimbaza, where no preparations had been made, where there was no clean water and where the children died of typhus and cholera in their hundreds.   You pass by Dimbaza on the way from East London to Hobeni.   Moreover, in the cities, there was no housing provision for people seeking work, which explains the growth of the informal settlements.

The most disturbing conversations, however, are with people who think that reimposing the death penalty is the solution to crime.   There is no understanding of the revulsion at this idea that some people feel because of the judicial murders under apartheid of people like Solomon Mahlangu, Benjamin Moloise, Clarence Payi and countless others.   There is no point in arguing that some of the most violent societies in the world have the death penalty and some of the least violent do not.   So when dealing with one particularly rabid white advocate of the death penalty, I said “So, you agree with Winnie Mandela”.   This presented him with a dilemma.   He either had to revise his opinion of the death penalty or he would find himself in agreement with Winnie.

I did not win the argument, but it was wonderful watching the shock on his face as the implications sank in.   I managed not to laugh out loud!

Letter from Hobeni, 12th Oct. 2014

David Kenvyn in the library

I have had my first visitor to the library.   A sunbird flew into the building.   It has a curved beak for extracting insects from trees, and its plumage is black with an orange crest, and dashes of orange under its wings.   It looks like the sun setting in an African night sky.   I opened a window, and coaxed it out.

It is not going to be so easy for people to visit the library.   Hobeni is an area that can best be described as “infrastructure-challenged”.   The road from Hobeni, via Elliotdale, to Mthatha, the nearest town of any size, is only partially tarred.   For the most part it is a dirt road with potholes to rival craters on the moon.   There is a bus service.   I know this because I have seen the occasional bus.   There is a bus station at Mqanduli, but that is a two hour drive from Hobeni.   The frequency of buses is more than somewhat erratic.   The usual mode of transport is to rely upon lifts or, more often, to walk.   Occasionally, you see people riding Nguni ponies or donkeys like a scene from another age.   The Donald Woods Foundation solves this problem by arranging transport for its staff to and from work, and we have weekly shopping expeditions to Elliotdale.

I have not seen women carrying water in pitchers on their heads.   But access to water is clearly an issue.   At the Donald Woods Foundation we rely on water tanks for our supplies.   Showers have to be time-limited (3-5 minutes) to make sure that we are not squandering our water supply.   Rain is a blessing because the water tanks fill up.   Fortunately, rain is quite frequent here and quite often at night, which means that the tanks have filled up again by morning.   There is also the added advantage that we have slept through it.   And the thunderstorms when they come are spectacular, with bolts of lightning pirouetting through the night sky.

The electricity supply is generally good, although it has gone off four or five times since I have been here, and all you can do is wait to be reconnected, which does not usually take a very long time.   Email access is good, but access to other sections of the internet can be problematic and without apparent rhyme or reason.   What works one day may not work the next.

Not that I want to give the impression that life at Hobeni is Spartan.   I can sit on the patio having breakfast in the sunshine.   I have discovered Xhosa speckled bread (maize bread with raisins) which is so remarkably similar to Bara Brith, Welsh speckled bread (wheat bread with raisins) that I suspect the influence of missionaries.   After all, the music for Nkosi Sikelel’I Afrika is an African version of the Welsh hymn tune Aberystwyth.   So you can think of me sitting here at breakfast in the sunshine, eating speckled bread and listening to the sunbirds sing.

Michael Wolfers

Michael Wolfers (1938-2014) was a journalist and lecturer who developed a deep knowledge and understanding for Lusophone and Francophone Africa.   As a student at Oxford University, he became friends with, and subsequently the biographer of, Thomas Hodgkin and it was this friendship that helped to alter the course of his life.   He developed a passionate commitment to the liberation of Africa from colonialism and its off-shoot, apartheid, and became involved with Frelimo, MPLA and PAIGC in their struggle to free their countries – Mozambique, Angola and Guine-Bissau, respectively – from Portuguese fascist and colonial rule.   The overthrow of the fascist government of Marcelo Caetano by a military coup, led by General Spinola, was very much caused by the unwinnable nature of these colonial wars.

When Angola became independent in 1975, Michael was one of the two British journalists, the other being Jane Bergerol, who reported from Luanda.   The MPLA government was immediately attacked from Zaire in the north and by a South African army invasion from apartheid-occupied Namibia in the south.   It was during this period that the Callaghan Government in the UK facilitated the recruitment of mercenaries to fight in Angola against the MPLA, and the offices of the Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola and Guine (CFMAG) in London were bombed.   The arrival of Cuban troops in Angola turned the tide of war on favour of the MPLA.   Michael and Jane produced a book, “Angola on the Frontline” giving a detailed report of the war, and especially exposing the intervention by the apartheid army in the war.

After the book was published, Michael went to work for Radio Mozambique, where he was based for several years, working alongside people like Ruth First, Polly Gaster, Carlos Cardoso and Paul Fauvet.   From there he went on to work at the University of Juba in the Sudan, and after that to work in Ghana.

None of this, however, gives a full impression of the man.  He had a wide knowledge of literature, was good company and an excellent raconteur.   His range of stories about the politics and politicians of Africa was unrivalled.   This, of course, was because he knew many of these politicians personally, being friends with people like Samora Machel of Mozambique, Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso.

He will be much missed.

Letter from Hobeni, 5th October 2014

David Kenvyn in the library

I have just been interviewed by the Daily Dispatch.   I suppose that it should have been obvious that Donald Woods’ old newspaper would be interested in what I am doing here at Hobeni.   But it still came as something of a surprise to me.   They wanted to know two things.   First, why me?   And secondly, what had I found that was really interesting.

The first was easy to answer.     Dillon Woods, Donald and Wendy’s son, was looking for a librarian who had been involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and who was available to come out here to Hobeni, and I fitted the bill.   When he phoned me last November, it took me all of two seconds to agree.   I knew that this was an opportunity not to be refused because the work would be a fascinating insight into how one person helped to take forward the campaign against apartheid.  What I had not realised was the extent of the information that will be made available to researchers as the documents become publicly available, especially online.

And this leads directly to the answer to that second question.   The books show the range of Donald’s interests, not just in the history and politics of South Africa, but also his love for chess and cricket.   Many of the books are signed by people like Breyten Breytenbach, Mamphela Ramphele, Christopher Hope and Peter Hain, but also there are signed autobiographies, with personalised notes, from Ian Botham and David Gower.   There are of course copies of books signed by Donald’s friend, Alan Paton.   But the most significant is a copy of “A Humanist in Africa” signed by Kenneth Kaunda, with a note telling Donald of the esteem in which he is held and urging him to continue his campaign against apartheid.   It is dated 5th January 1978, so it was a gift to Donald when he arrived in Zambia following his flight, with his family, from South Africa following the murder of Steve Biko, and his own banning by the apartheid government.

The documents, however, tell a much more fascinating story.   Donald’s travel itineraries on his frequent trips to the USA, especially after the launch of “Cry Freedom”, are exhausting to read.   Linked together with the letters of thanks from various organisations, they reveal that Donald was indefatigable in his campaign for sanctions against apartheid.   It is interesting that South African journalists were determinedly telling their readers that “Cry Freedom” was having no impact.   The evidence is to the contrary.   Quite clearly, Donald helped to set in train in the USA a campaign for sanctions that was extremely damaging for the apartheid regime.   The most significant proof of this is the letter from Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, saying that he had just signed a sanctions bill into State law.

So I was able to give all this information to the Daily Dispatch.   The interview took over an hour on the telephone, and I sent them a picture of me in the library holding up a poster for “Cry Freedom”.   The article is due to be published on Saturday, and I hope it will make people proud of one of their own local heroes.   They should be very proud indeed

Letter from Hobeni, 27th September 2014

A view of the garden at HobeniIndian Ocean again

Wednesday 24th September was celebrated in South Africa as National Heritage Day.    According to the South African Commission on Human Rights it is a day to celebrate because people have the right to live their culture, practice their religion and speak their own language enshrined in the Constitution of the country, and they have had these rights for the last twenty years.

This is, of course, a great opportunity to learn about and to celebrate the diverse cultures that make up South Africa.   There is much that should be celebrated.   People, for instance,  wore their traditional clothes.   I have to admit that In Hobeni that made very little difference at all because people wear their traditional dress as a matter of course. At the Trevor Huddleston Centre in Sophiatown they celebrated with music – what else?   After all, it was Trevor Huddleston who acquired Hugh Masekela’s first trumpet and Jonas Gwangwa’s first trombone.    Jonas Gwangwa apparently wanted a clarinet but did not know what the instrument was called, and so he asked for a trombone.   And Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa used their music to help to liberate their country. At the Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in East London, not that far from Hobeni, they celebrated with a party, cooking traditional foods such as umngqoshu, made from white maize and sugar beans, and amasi, which is fermented milk similar to yoghurt.   Both are delicious.

But there is much in the various cultures that make up South Africa that has to be guarded against.   For some reason the students at Stellenbosch University, once the heart of Afrikanerdom, thought that it was appropriate to dress up like Al Jolson, or the Black and White Minstrels.   This was apparently a tribute to the Carnival in Cape Town that used to be called “The Coon Carnival” in the days of apartheid.   Unsurprisingly, there has been widespread condemnation of their insensitivity and stupidity.

It strikes me that two of the most important things in South African culture that should be condemned are illustrated by the Oscar Pistorius case.   The first is that this is a society where it is not thought dangerous to be armed to the teeth, even with unlicensed, and thus illegal, firearms.   The second is that violence against women is accepted as the norm.   This is illustrated by the “16 days of action on violence against women”.   For 16 days, there is very little violence against women, but on day 17, that violence soars.   Both of these are clearly not acceptable. These cultural attitudes have to be challenged and, more importantly, they have to be changed.   We need to work closely with civil society organisations, like Masimanyane, that are taking the lead on these campaigns.   We need to help them secure the changes that they are arguing for.   We need to help them make sure that in South Africa there is a better life for all.

David Kenvyn

PS   What did we do in Hobeni?   Nothing.   We have the builders in.

Letter from Hobeni, 22nd Sept. 2014

Indian Ocean at Mbanyana

One of the great things about internet access is that you can take part in campaigns, such as the current one about the Exhibit B event at the Barbican, from a great distance.   For those of you who do not know, Exhibit B is a conceptual art event – the concept being that black actors should be kept semi-naked, in a confined space and chained, rather like what the apartheid police did to Steve Biko as they were brutally murdering him.   Brett Bailey, a white South African artist, argues that his purpose is to make people confront racism.   Others say that it objectifies and demeans black people.   It has certainly stirred a debate, if not necessarily in the ways that the artist intended.

My experience of the last two months is that white racism in South Africa has to be challenged.   From what I have seen, voyeuristic interpretations of black people within a racist society are definitely not the way in which it should be done.   The first thing that is obvious about mixing with the white community in Hobeni is that they are deeply grieved.   They feel that they are misunderstood, and that they were forced into compromise 20 years ago by international pressure (sanctions did work) by people who did not understand their situation.

One indication of this was someone singing “Asimbonanga”, a tribute to Mandela which was sung at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey.   I said “Oh, Johnny Clegg’s Savuka” and got the immediate response “A song of the enemy and it still is”.   I froze, and really did not know what to say.

But even worse was in the local bar.   A toddler was playing on the floor and someone said “That kid’s got a touch of the tar brush”.   I had not heard that phrase since I was a teenager in Ilford 50 years or so ago and to be specific the phrase I heard then was “a dash of the yid and a touch of the tar brush”.   I had to explain to an American researcher what it meant.   It was the phrase that persuaded me to join the Redbridge Community Relations Council and to help to set up the Redbridge Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (RCARAF).

On this occasion, the problem was easy to solve.   I played with the child.   I pulled faces at her and she laughed, and then she pulled faces at me.   And soon the whole bar was laughing at the two of us pulling faces at each other, and somehow her colour was no longer an issue, except in the mind of the racist who had raised the matter in the first place.   Well, I am sure that it was, but hopefully the people in the bar had learnt that this was a child, and that children should be enjoyed.   This is how you challenge racism.   Not by setting up constructs of exploitation, but simply by rejoicing in our common humanity.   I am so happy that I was able to do something so simple