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