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.


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.


Nelson Who?


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.

The truth isn’t always black and white


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 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.