Devastated

On  Wednesday 7 June, 2017, Knysna went up in flames.

I first found out about it here in New York when I woke up to Facebook posts, pictures and videos from friends mentioning fires around our home town.

One friend had posted a report from the local municipality that detailed multiple fires, but they were in areas I’m not all that familiar with, or don’t know at all. Hooggekraal. Springveld. De Hoop. Fires high up in the mountains and in plantations. Fires far from home.

But further up my Facebook feed, friends in Knysna were starting to panic. Back roads were being closed. Houses on the outskirts of town were being evacuated.

At 9am EST I spoke to my mother, who confirmed the fires were spreading but reassured me their neighbourhood of upper Old Place was out of harm’s way.

“There aren’t that many trees around here,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you at least pack a suitcase so you’re ready in case something happens?” I said. “With things like your passports and IDs.”
Ag, there’s no need for that,” she said.

She sent me a few pictures she’d taken of the smoke-filled sky, some from the middle of town, some from the balcony of our family home, overlooking the lagoon. Curious-onlooker pictures.

It looked bad, but still distant.

But the panic on my Facebook feed spread as fast as the fire. Posts became more frantic as the local authorities closed the N2 on both sides of town, isolating the residents within. Videos showed lines of cars trying to get out against a backdrop of flames and smoke. Friends who, like me, are thousands of miles from home in places like London and Washington and California started begging for information about families they couldn’t get hold of.

fire

I called my mother again. This time, she said my father had connected the hose pipe, “just in case.” The fire wasn’t near them yet, but gale-force winds meant it was out of control and helicopters were unable to take off to help.

At 2.35pm EST, I got the news that my parents, too, had been evacuated. On their way out, I found out later, they had grabbed my father’s medication, a few sets of underwear and Tess, the cat. Remembering my advice, my mother grabbed their passports too.

For the longest hour, I couldn’t get hold of my mother after her cell phone battery died. The last message I got through to her was “Keep dad’s phone on!” The last message I got back was “We left it behind.”

I had never felt more helpless, or further away from home.

In the end, my parents were lucky. Their home survived, despite two houses burning to the ground just a street or two away.

But so many others were less fortunate.

Hundreds of people in and around Knysna have lost their homes, their businesses, their farms. Five people lost their lives.

That number will no doubt go up, as the losses in Knysna’s townships haven’t been accounted for yet. My mother says at least 80 homes burnt down in one township, some of them shacks, some of them brand new RDP houses built as part of the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme.

My heart breaks for everyone in Knysna who’s lost everything, and for everyone in the towns further along the coast as the fire continues to spread.

But in the aftermath of this horrific disaster, love, kindness and generosity are spreading too. From all over South Africa, people are coming to Knysna to bring food, clothes, supplies and support. Locals are opening their homes to strangers. Volunteers are going round rescuing pets that got separated from their owners.

Knysna’s spirit continues to burn bright.

Click here for information on how to contribute to the Knysna relief effort.

 

Waiting

“How did if affect you, having your mother do that work in the townships back then?”

The question came from a social worker at my book launch in Knysna last year.

I laughed it off. “It didn’t affect me at all,” I said. “Except maybe that my mom often worked late, and there were many afternoons that I waited for her outside the library after it had closed. So now I’m paranoid about being late for anything, because I know what it”s like to be the one waiting.”

Recently, the same question came up again. I was out with an old friend: an ex-investigative journalist who’d discovered therapy – a dangerous combination when you”re on the receiving end of his probing questions.

I gave him a similar answer to the one I’d given that social worker, adding that even if my mother hadn’t been around much when I was little, my dad always was.

My friend didn’t buy it.

“There’s no way you weren’t affected,” he said.

I ignored him, and the conversation moved on to work; life in New York; the usual. And then somehow we landed on the topic of me and my ex-husband, and the marriage that was no more.

I told him about an incident years before, when my husband didn’t come home from a night out with friends. He’d texted me at midnight to say he was on his way, but when I woke up at 4am, he still wasn’t there. His phone went straight to voicemail and I didn’t hear from him for another five hours.

He was fine, of course (the clue being in ‘ex-husband’, not ‘late husband’). He’d had a few more drinks after the midnight text, and spent the night at a friend’s house rather than drunkenly manoeuvring his way home on a night bus.

But for those five hours between 4am and 9am, I was convinced that he was dead, imagining him being mugged and stabbed and bleeding to death on a dark street somewhere in South London.

By the time I got to work, my brain had processed the information, got over it, and gone to a strange, calm place where I was considering when to phone his parents, what to say to them when I did; even how to get into to his bank account to pay his half of our rent.

By the time he finally called, I was googling “stabbing South London” to verify my conviction.

“The thing is,” I said to my friend, “It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he hadn’t texted me to say he was on his way.” I could feel myself getting worked up. “Because he knew that’s a thing in my family.”

My friend looked triumphant as memories long forgotten came back to me all at once, falling into place like Tetris blocks. I’m five years old, sitting on my haunches in the corridor above our dining room, peering through the wooden slats at my dad below. He’s on phone, calling the police, the hospital and eventually the morgue. All because my mother wasn’t back from the townships at the time she’d said she’d be.

When I saw my brothers last Christmas, I told them this story.

Being older than me, their memories were even more vivid. “Do you remember you and me, standing in the kitchen crying?” asked Rudolph. I genuinely didn’t.

“Ons het gedink Ma was dood,” he said. We thought Mom was dead. And the whole time, our father was on the phone, making those calls. Call after call after call.

Suddenly it all made sense; not just my reaction that night in London when my husband didn’t come home, but also the incredibly tangible fear that had set in from the moment we’d got married: that he would die. Because in my mind, modelled on my parents’ example, that was what marriage was: the constant fear of one of you dying; a fear that, at a time when my mother was going into a conflict zone during riots and unrest, was all too real.

Having realised this, I don’t exactly know what to do with the information.

But if I ever overreact when you don’t turn up after you’d said you were on your way, I hope you understand.

Nelson Who?

issue-29-ijusi-garth-walker

In 2014, I was invited to contribute an essay to a special Mandela issue of the fantastic South African design magazine, ijusi. It was to be featured, along with back issues of ijusi, in the exhibition Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).

The brief was to write an “alternative essay on Madiba – even if negative of controversial”; not the “‘he gave meaning to my life’ or ‘the greatest human who ever lived’ bunkum.”

The assignment terrified me, not only because of the sense of responsibility to pay a fitting tribute to, quite frankly, the greatest human who ever lived, but because I didn’t have a Mandela story to tell.

So that’s what I wrote about.

Garth Walker, the man behind the magazine and an old friend from my days at Ogilvy & Mather in Durban, had this to say about my essay:

“Fuck me. Nice. A story about nothing, that’s about something.”

You can read that story here.

Owéna and Theron: putting faces to the (let’s face it, rather strange) names

A friend who’s just finished reading For the People got in touch to say that my mother “sounds like one helluva lady”.

That, indeed, she is.

But it also reminded me that many of you who are reading the book won’t know what she looks like. So here, to put some faces to the names, is a picture of her and my dad, taken last year at the East Head Cafe with the Knysna lagoon in the background.

Names are a bit of a theme in the book, and I loved finding out the meanings behind some of the African names that I’d grown up hearing: names like Vulindlela (Voo-lin-DLE-la, meaning ‘open the road’) and Thembalethu (Tem-ba-LEH-too, meaning ‘our trust’).

My parents’ own names are quite unusual too, even by South African standards. My mother, Owéna (Oh-WEE-na) was expected to be a boy – in which case she would’ve been christened Henry Owen, after her British-born grandfather. When she turned out to be a girl, her parents simply changed it to Henryetta Owéna (to her chagrin in later years). My father, on the other hand, goes by his middle name of Theron (Te-RON), which was his mother’s maiden name – and is now a pretty well-known surname thanks to a certain Charlize.

Any family ties to Charlize are, however, sadly unverified.

Ma en Pa

Link

Interview in the Knysna-Plett Herald

The Knysna-Plett Herald, Knysna’s local newspaper, holds a very special place in my heart. When I was growing up, my brothers and I featured in it every so often; my brothers usually for sport, me usually for piano or cello exam results. My camera-shy mother featured occasionally too, as part of her fundraising efforts for the Knysna Child and Family Welfare Society and later Epilepsy South Africa.

Years later when I was doing my research, the Herald became a valuable source of information about Knysna’s apartheid past. Articles and readers’ letters about the national referendum of 1983, which saw coloured and Indian people gain seats in a new ‘tricameral’ parliament – but black people still denied a voice – gave me amazing insight into Knysna’s reaction to those controversial changes. Another article showing my mother accepting a minibus donated by national newspaper Rapport really brought to life the story she’d told me about how she bugged the Rapport people until she got the much-needed vehicle to transport the townships kids to school. And a front-page feature titled ‘Black Pawns in Shock Move’ documented in vivid detail the appalling conditions in the temporary township of Bongani, which some of Knysna’s black people were moved to when their squatter camp got demolished to make way for a wider highway.

So I’m very proud to be featured in the Knysna-Plett Herald today, interviewed by Anoeschka Von Meck.

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 00.26.38

The truth isn’t always black and white

apartheid-signs

When I went back to South Africa to work on this book, I set out to find the truth. And to do that, I knew I had to hear all sides of the story.

So I spoke to the ANC powers that be, and the apartheid powers that had been. I spoke to a man whose job it had been to catch black people without the necessary paperwork to live in Knysna, and the women who’d lived in fear of their husbands being caught. I spoke to a mother whose child had been shot dead by the police, and a policeman who’d been there on the night.

One man told me he’d been tortured by the police while in custody. Knysna being such a small town, it wasn’t hard to track down the policeman in question. But when I spoke to him, I heard a very different story.

What soon became clear was that the truth is a very subjective concept.

I shared some of the more conflicting stories with a friend.

‘Who do I believe?’ I asked him.

‘They’re all telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘The truth that they remember.

‘The truth that makes them most right.’

Memories

Today I’ve been trawling through hours of video footage of interviews and dozens of photographs that will become the trailer for my book.

The photos brought back many memories from when I was little. Most of them were taken in the 1980s by my mother, who used them for slide shows (using an old-school slide carousel) to help her make a case for funding for better facilities in the squatter camps. And by ‘facilities’ I mean things a simple as a single water tap to serve an entire community, who had no running water, electricity or sewage facilities at the time.

Here are a few of those pictures…

A typical scene from Knysna's squatter camps in the 1980s. Sadly, there are still some homes that look like these.

A typical scene from Knysna’s squatter camps in the 1980s. Sadly, there are still some houses that look like these.

Driving into one of the squatter camps in the Child Welfare 'bakkie' (pickup), with the Knysna Lagoon and the 'white' town in the distance.

Driving into one of the squatter camps in the Child Welfare ‘bakkie’ (pickup), with the Knysna Lagoon and the ‘white’ town in the distance.

Children playing at one of the creches my mother started with her colleague Paula Whitney.

Children playing at one of the creches my mother started with her colleague Paula Whitney.