Tag Archives: South Africa

For the Joy of Reading: It’s Me, Marah

For those of us who were there on the day, it was an iconic moment.   It is something that we will never forget.   Indeed, songs have been written about it.   It has entered into the folklore of Glasgow.   Tour guides show people where it happened.   On 9th October 1993, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of 9 cities and boroughs in the UK.   It was pouring with rain.   Marah Louw came onto the stage to sing, and Mandela got up and danced with her.   It was the day Mandela danced in the Square.   It was part of his welcome to Glasgow.   It was extraordinary.   It will never be forgotten.   It was the day that Marah Louw entered into the world’s consciousness.   So who is she?  That is what this book is about.

This is the life story of a remarkable woman.   Growing up black and a woman in apartheid South Africa was a double disadvantage, and it took considerable courage to take on the apartheid state.   Marah chose to do this by making a career for herself as a singer, actor and entertainer, and by challenging the laws that attempted to deny her the career path that she had chosen.   She also challenged the apartheid state at the very heart of its ideology by marrying and living with a white, Scottish man inside the country.

As if all this was not enough to deal with, there is a mystery surrounding her birth, which her family are very unwilling to deal with.   This is a theme that haunts the book from the opening to the closing pages.   Marah puts this down to her family abiding by African custom, which is true but it is not just an African custom.   I can assure her of this.   My mother had the same experience and we are a Welsh family.   The common factor, I think, is the Methodist tradition, but I have no evidence for that.

There is much in this book that is a revelation, even to those of us who are well versed in the horror of apartheid.   It is the telling details about the petty spite that hit home the most.   There is one story about how it was assumed that Marah had to be the maid because she was black and she answered her own door.   By that stage, the Group Areas Act had been abolished and she was living with Bill in a comfortable area.   Marah opens the door and is asked to fetch “the madam”.   When the visitor found out that the “madam” was black, she ran away.   And then there are the insults – calling her a “kaffir”.  [It has always struck me that “Kaffir” is an Arabic word, and was probably introduced to South Africa by Moslem slaves from what is now Indonesia.   It is certainly not a Dutch word.   This is perhaps one of the ironies of history].

As this book reveals, Marah has not had the easiest of lives.   Her personal life has been fraught with difficulties and tragedies, as well as with joy and hope and success.   The point is that she has overcome it all.   She has survived divorce, betrayal, shipwreck (literally) and she has had her triumphs.   She was a friend of the great singer Miriam Makeba.    She has performed on stages across the world.   She has sung at Presidential inaugurations, and she has danced with Nelson Mandela.

This book is a celebration of life.   It tells how she has sweetened the waters of our lives.   It tells the wonderful story of the woman who took Glasgow by storm the day that Mandela danced in the square.

Lucky Ranku

Lucky Ranku was an extraordinary man who had two great passions in his life.   The first was his love of music, and the second was his hatred of apartheid in his homeland of South Africa.   Lucky used his extraordinary talent as a musician to rally people in the battle against apartheid.   In exile in the UK, he, along with Julian Bahula, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, Marah Louw and a host of others, introduced audiences to the sheer joy and exhilaration of kwaito, of township jazz and of South African music.

It did not matter to Lucky what the size of the audience was, whether it was in a small club somewhere in London or in front of 70,000 people at Wembley Stadium.   Lucky always made himself available in the cause of destroying apartheid, and of liberating his people from its tyranny.   This was something that he was absolutely passionate about.   It was something to which he committed his talent and his life.   For Lucky, this was not a sacrifice.   It was simply something that he had to do.   And he did it with great aplomb.   Anyone who heard him play was truly lucky.   This was especially the case when he was playing with his great friend Julian Bahula.

My best memory of Lucky however came after the end of apartheid.   1997 was the 30th anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko, and Action for Southern Africa’s south-east region decided to organise a commemorative concert at the Union Chapel in Islington.   Lucky was one of the first people to come on board, helping to organise the music for the evening.   Others followed his example.   Felix Cross organised a choir to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika” to open the event.   Donald and Wendy Woods gave us a photograph of Steve Biko for the front page of the concert programme.   So many people helped.    But it is true to say that without Lucky there would have been no music, and without music there would have been no concert.

Lucky helped us to organise an extraordinary evening, as he had done so many times.   Music played a huge role in organising the opposition to apartheid worldwide.   It was people like Lucky and his friends who made their music available in the battle against the evil of apartheid.

I am very proud to be able to pay tribute to an extraordinary musician, an extraordinary man.   I am so grateful that I had the privilege of knowing him.

For the Joy of Reading: Who Killed Piet Barol?

Richard Mason is an extraordinary writer.   For anyone who has read his previous books that will not come as a surprise.   This book is special.   It has come from deep within the heart of his South African soul.   It is set in the rural heartland of the Eastern Cape, the land that produced Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and so many others who gave themselves to the struggle from freedom.

You can learn about the history of Piet Barol in “History of a Pleasure Seeker” which will tell you about this life before he took ship for Cape Town, meeting his wife and some of the more peripheral characters of this story on the boat.   It is not necessary to read this book to understand “Who KIlled Piet Barol?”   I would recommend it because the exuberance of the writing is a sheer pleasure.   But it is not necessary.   All you need to know is contained within the story.   Piet Barol is a furniture-maker setting off into the Eastern Cape forests in search of mahogany and other woods for a commission from a Randlord.   You also do not need to know anything before reading this about South African history, because everything that you do need to know is contained within the story.

From the 1820s onwards, the Xhosa-speaking people of the Eastern Cape faced the aggression of the European colonialists, who seized their land and drove them back.   In their desperation, they listened to a young prophetess, Nongqawuse, called upon her people to kill their cattle so that the ancestors would drive the colonialists from the land.   Some leaders, not many, refused to do this.   The bedrock of this story is that an unnamed Great Founder took his people into the depths of the Gwadana forest with their cattle to escape the madness that had been unleashed by the Xhosa in their desperation.   The cattle-killing which led to the final defeat of the Xhosa took place less than 40n years before the setting of this story.

The Gwadana Forest is one of the main characters in the book.   It is a real place.   It is situated not that far from where I lived in Hobeni when I was volunteering for the Donald Woods Foundation.   I never went there, mainly because the Cwebe Forest and the estuary of the Mbanyana River were closer, but also because it has a reputation for being dangerous, haunted, a place of ill-omen.   And you do not have to be superstitious to be wary of a place where they may still be leopards and pythons.   100 years ago, when this story is set, there were leopards and pythons.

Piet Barol goes to Gwadana because he wants its wood.   He persuades Luvo and Ntsina to take him there.   Luvo agrees because he wants to raise the money to join the ANC delegation going to London to protest the ratification of the 1913 Native Land Act by the British Parliament.   He does not know that the delegation has already gone to London and been unsuccessful.   Ntsina simply wants to go home, to get away from the mines.   Luvo is a Christian, schooled by missionaries.   Ntsina follows the traditional beliefs of his forebears, including his grandmother Nosakhe, who is the village sangoma., which the whites (mlungu) translated into English as witch doctor, giving no respect to Xhosa spirituality whatsoever.

Richard Mason does not present Xhosa life as some kind of idyll before the meeting with white men.   He is well aware that we will find some customs horrific, and he does not shy away from that.   He also does not shy away from showing men like Frank Albemarle as brutal, racist and deeply afraid.

All this gives you an idea of the South African history around which the story is crafted, of that time when the land was seized from the majority so that the men were forced to work in the gold and diamond mines, and the women were driven into domestic service.   It tells you about the roots of apartheid.

What is does not tell you is about the care with which the story is constructed.   Nor does it give any indication of the lyrical power that Richard Mason brings to his narration.   This man cannot write an ugly sentence.   This man allows empathy and understanding for characters who are repulsive.   There is a deep humanity here, of the kind that you can find in Tolstoy.   It has the passion about his country that you find in Nadine Gordimer, or in writers such as Mandla Langa.

I am very proud to know Richard Mason and to have done what I could, as a librarian, to encourage his talent, and to bring him to the attention of the reading public.   This book proves that I was right.   It is extraordinary.   It is a book that you should read.

Michael Lapsley: Redeeming the Past

When you lose both hands, an eye, and part of your ability to hear in a letter bomb attack by an agent of the apartheid state, it would be reasonable to assume that you would find it difficult to forgive the people who were responsible for the attack.

Michael Lapsley did not respond in that way.   This is what makes him both remarkable and at the same time deeply human.   To understand what happened, it is necessary to know his story, and that is what this book sets out to do.

He was born in New Zealand, and at a very young age he realised that he had a vocation for the priesthood.   At 17, he went to an Anglican Seminary in Australia and it was there that he was ordained and became a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission   His order sent him to South Africa in 1973, when he was only 24 years of age.   This was the furthest he had ever been from his native New Zealand, and he knew that it was going to be a challenging experience.   What he did not know was how challenging it would be.

[I am of the same age as Michael Lapsley.   At 24 I was actively involved in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, but I was safe.   Events were to show that he was not.   He soon became a target of the apartheid state.]

Michael Lapsley soon found himself involved in two kinds of conflict.   There was the conflict with the apartheid state, which his conscience demanded of him more or less as soon as he set foot in the country.   Then there was the conflict with the members of his own order who wished that he would keep quiet   The only thing that I can find to be said in their defence was that coming into conflict with the apartheid state meant that he was not safe.   The truth is probably closer to their finding his commitment to principle embarrassing.   This was no different to the way in which other Anglican clergy in South Africa were treated if they opposed apartheid.   Trevor Huddleston was called home by his order because Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was embarrassed by his open opposition to the National Party government.

Michael soon found himself forced out of South Africa by the government, and he continued his ministry in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe.   It was in Lesotho that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and so attracted the absolute loathing of the apartheid state.   It was this that made him a target.

The ANC was unbanned in February 1990.   The bomb attack on Michael Lapsley took place in April 1990.   It was one of the first signs that the apartheid regime did not intend to go quietly and, in the subsequent four years of negotiations, something like 10,000 people were killed.

For Michael Lapsley this was a new beginning.   He had to learn how to live without his hands.   We take them for granted when we do simple things like go to the toilet, wash, eat, write, shake hands.   All this had to be learned again.   And for a priest there is the whole process of celebrating the Eucharist – making the sign of the cross, elevating the host and distributing the wafers – without hands.   There was the interminable surgery, the physiotherapy, the adapting to life.   It was the discovery of simple things like door handles could be opened but doorknobs could not.

But most of all there was the way in which Michael Lapsley chose to deal with the psychological damage.   He chose not to hate.    He chose to forgive.   Most of the book is about that process of forgiveness, and especially about his new ministry of the healing of memories.   He now spends his life bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk through their brokenness, and to recognise that they are all damaged.   He uses the visibility of his own brokenness to facilitate the process, whether it is in Southern Africa, Rwanda, Latin America or, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.   In  all these places his compassion has made a considerable difference.

Michael Lapsley does however recognise his own needs and limitations.   Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order, who probably ordered Michael Lapsley’s bombing and the murders of many others, has had a Road to Damascus experience.   He now recognises that what the apartheid state did to preserve its power was wrong, and has apologised for that.   But he is claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what was happening on his watch, and that he was not responsible for it.   [It could be argued that not being in control of his own department means that he was responsible].   Michael Lapsley wants people like this to go much further than they have and to face up to the consequences of what they ordered or let happen.

What we have in this book is an astonishing account of what one person can do if that person sets his or her mind to it.   He says that he is not a saint.   He says that he is very human.   But he has taken the option of not taking the path of hatred.   He has recognised that hatred does not hurt anyone other than himself.   He is trying, through his work at the Centre for the Healing of Memories, to get people to make themselves better, to heal themselves of whatever trauma they have been through.

He is a remarkable man.   His is an astonishing story.   This is a necessary book.


Letter from Hobeni, 11th December 2014


Mandela in George Square, 9th October 1003

In my previous letters, I have tried to avoid making statements about party politics in South Africa.   But when the President of the country says publicly that the ANC, the governing party, is “in trouble”, it does seem that the issue is unavoidable.   I have only one problem.   It is very difficult, in a remote rural area like Hobeni, to keep a track on what exactly is going on.

There is the issue of the relationship between COSATU and its largest trade union affiliate, NUMSA.   There is the issue of the relationship of COSATU to its two partners in the Congress Alliance, the ANC and the SACP.    There is the issue of corruption in government, which has been raised with me, in one way or another, by everyone I have met.   There is an issue around the behaviour of members of the Parliament.   Jeremy Cronin has gone to the heart of the matter by saying that the real issue revolves around attitudes to the scale and pace of economic transformation in South Africa.

He has written a lengthy article in response to a speech by Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of COSATU.   I do not have the space even to attempt to summarise what they have said.   But Cronin has raised an issue that is central to the work of a solidarity movement: the issue of improving people’s lives.

We cannot intervene in the internal disputes of COSATU or the South African Parliament, nor should we attempt to do so.   We do not approve of corruption anywhere, but it is up to the South African authorities to tackle that issue.   In my view, we British would be better employed dealing with the corruption endemic in our own political system – so deeply embedded that we regard it as normal – rather than denouncing corruption elsewhere.

We, as a solidarity movement, are working to deliver a better life for all the people in South Africa and its neighbours.   We, as a solidarity movement, should concentrate our efforts where we can be effective.   This does not mean that we should not speak up when we know that something is wrong, and that we should not work to right injustices.   Of course, we should.   It is why we campaign for democracy in Swaziland.   It is why we have raised issues about elections in Zimbabwe.   It is why we are campaigning for justice for miners who are dying from silicosis.   Righting injustice is in our DNA.   ACTSA is, after all, the successor organisation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Our job, in part, is, as Desmond Tutu put it, to speak truth to power.   But our job is also to do things that are practical, and to help the peoples of Southern Africa transform and improve their lives.

Let it be our legacy to Mandela that we can truly say that we have tried to do these things.

Letter from Hobeni, 26th November 2014


Mandela's cell, Robben Island

David Kenvyn in the library

I have been able to do some catching up with my reading recently.   There are two new books by old friends that I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone who is interested in South Africa, and especially in the period leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela.

The first is a novel by Mandla Langa called “The Texture of Shadows”.   It is the story of how a unit of the People’s Army infiltrates South Africa, is betrayed and of the disasters that follow.   The story is told as a report to the President by Chaplain Nerissa Rodriques, an intelligence officer of that army.  The second book, called “Insurgent Diplomat” is the story of the negotiations as seen through the eyes of one of the participants, Aziz Pahad, who was a key player in the events at that time.   For anyone who wishes to have an understanding of the demise of apartheid, these books are essential reading.

There are other books that I still have to read.   “External Mission” by Stephen Ellis is about the ANC in exile.   As someone who worked as a volunteer in the ANC Offices in London, I want to read this book.   Ruth Carneson, who was one of the ANC exiles in the UK and whose family were at the heart of the struggle, has just brought out her autobiography “Girl on the Edge”.   Stephanie Kemp, another of the exiles, is also about to publish her autobiography, and Denis Goldberg, who was tried alongside Mandela, is bringing his book “The Mission” up to date.

There is clearly going to be a lot to read and a lot to learn over the next few months, and I am looking forward to enjoying this challenge.

But that would not be possible if my parents and teachers had not made sure that I could read.   For that, children need to have access to books.   The Donald Woods Foundation (www.donaldwoodsfoundation.org), in Hobeni, has just put out an appeal for books.   I hope that people in South Africa will be incredibly generous, and that includes publishers and bookshops.   In the UK, Community HEART (www.community-heart.org.uk), set up by Denis Goldberg, has been running a book appeal for nearly 20 years, and circa 3,000,000 books have been sent to schools and libraries in South Africa.   More books are needed to help meet the demand so that children can learn to read.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation (www.nelsonmandela.org) is setting up pop-up libraries (think, mobile library) across the whole of South Africa.   But to do this they need books.   So send books via Community HEART or send money to buy books to any of the above.

Remember how we used to send Nelson Mandela Christmas cards when he was on Robben Island.   Send the children of South Africa a Christmas present, and help to teach them how to read