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Posts tagged ‘South Africa’

Troubled Waters

In April last year I went to a public meeting convened by the NGO Equal Education in Cape Town’s best bookshop, the Book Lounge. I have been to dozens of launches and readings and comic book swaps at the Book Lounge, but none of them was as packed as this. There were people squeezed on the floor in between chairs; the crowd was four-people deep in standing room-only areas; people on the pavement outside listened in through the open doors. I climbed up part of a bookshelf to see what was going on. It was so hot and damp with more than a hundred bodies crammed tightly together, that it felt that the shop had developed its own tropical ecosystem.

It says a great deal about the state of South Africa’s education system that a panel discussion about schools in the Eastern Cape – one of the country’s least effectively run provinces – could draw such a large and enthusiastic crowd. Equal Education had recently sent a group of South African luminaries – including constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos, writers Zakes Mda and Njabulo Ndbele, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, and activists Elinor Sisulu and Sindiwe Magona – on a Solidarity Visit to draw attention to the appalling state of school infrastructure.

They described collapsing mudwalled classrooms; inadequate supplies of books and stationery; children without desks; and, most memorably, the disgusting state of school toilets. Children complained of contracting diseases from filthy, broken latrines, and many of them chose rather not to use them at all – either risking their health or relieving themselves in the veldt. It was the toilets that seemed to many to sum up the Department of Basic Education’s lack of respect for the children it is supposed to educate.

It’s been difficult not to think about the Solidarity Visit and its report fairly recently. Last week, a little boy was killed when he fell into a pit toilet at a primary school in Chebeng, a village in Limpopo Province. Referring to a 2011 survey, Equal Education noted:

Of the 24 793 public ordinary schools, 11 450 schools are still using pit latrine toilets and 2 402 schools have no water supply, while a further 2 611 schools have an unreliable water supply.

This death coincided with a series of protests in the Madibeng municipality in the North West, over water shortages, which led to the deaths of three protestors. After an outcry over both alleged police brutality, as well as revelations as to the mismanagement of the municipality, the mayor resigned and water was restored. Residents say, though, that the water remains too dirty to use.

These protests are nothing new. Residents of this and other municipalities in the North West have been demanding a clean, reliable water supply – and it’s worth emphasising that they’re billed for water regardless of whether it flows or not – since at least 2011. As even ANC stalwart Trevor Manuel has admitted, the problem in Madibeng is that a dysfunctional, corrupt local government cannot provide basic services. In 2010, the municipality was placed under administration:

In June 2011, newspapers exposed the fact that the new executive mayor was renting a BMW at the cost of R2,025 per day. In April last year, it was reported that R1 billion of assets, supposedly owned by the municipality, were missing.

The violence of these protests has drawn attention to crises not only in policing (and it would seem that some of the police who were present at the Marikana massacre were at Madibeng too), but also in the regular provision of clean water to South Africans. As both Eyewitness News and an Africa Check have demonstrated, the Department of Water and Environment Affairs’ claim that 94% of South Africans have access to safe drinking water doesn’t, well, hold any water. A 2011 general household survey published by Statistics South Africa reports that:

89.5% of South African households had access to piped water. Breaking that number down, 43.3% had piped water in their homes, 28.6% had access to water in their yards, 2.7% had the use of a neighbour’s tap and 14.9% had to make use of communal taps.

Moreover, South Africans have reported declining satisfaction with the quality of water provided, complaining that in some municipalities it is not clean enough to drink and cook with.


A protestor holds aloft a copy of the constitution. Taken at the Right2Know campaign’s march to Parliament, October 2010.

It is not difficult to understand why communities living in rural areas and informal settlements – those usually with the least access to basic services – protest poor and irregular water supplies with such anger. Usually described as ‘service delivery protests,’ demonstrations over poor municipal governance have, over the past few years, become ever more frequent and violent. But they are more than protests over bad service delivery.

The idea of water as a public good dates from around the mid-nineteenth century, when local governments became interested in ensuring clean water supplies as a way of combating the spread of disease. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world which enshrines the right to access clean, safe water in its constitution. Citizenship is, then, closely connected to being able to fill a pot with clean water from a kitchen tap; to take a shower in a bathroom; and to flush a porcelain toilet. In a country where access to water was, under apartheid, determined by a racist urban planning system, these current service delivery protests are a revolt around the denial of citizenship.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Things that happened in Joburg this week

What happened in Johannesburg – city of prophets and miracles – this week.

A man tried to buy an overpriced rocket launcher in the CBD.


Sanral, which administers the unpopular e-tolls system on the city’s highways, received envelopes containing white powder. The building was evacuated twice.


On Sunday two people dressed as cows cycled down Emmarentia Avenue.


A community newspaper reports that two men have claimed an empty coffin found abandoned in Linden. They say they plan to use it as a TV stand.


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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Christmas in a Camp

Earlier this year I went to the launch of Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History at the Book Lounge in central Cape Town. The result of years of hard work in archives scattered around South Africa and Europe, this book has become – and will remain for some time – the standard history of the camps established for Boer and black civilians during the South African War (1899-1902).

Instead of the usual collection of hipsters in search of free food, academics in need of free wine, and people from the publishing world, this was attended by a largely elderly, white and Afrikaans audience. (I was easily the youngest person there. I am 31.) When Elizabeth and Albert Grundlingh, who hosted the event, opened the floor to questions, she received question after question about why she does not describe the deaths of so many Boer women and children in the camps as genocide.

There were 14,154 officially recorded deaths in the camps for black civilians, but it is likely that the number was closer to 20,000. Estimates of deaths in Boer camps range from 25,000 to 34,000. In these camps, 81 per cent of deaths were children. Despite these incredibly high numbers, as Van Heyningen explained, the camps were not part of a deliberate British policy to exterminate the Boer population. (In contrast, for example, to the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa between 1905 and 1906.)

The tragedy of the camps was that people died as a result of chaotic and negligent mismanagement and poor provisioning. Inmates arrived usually in poor health, and were victims of the epidemics of measles and typhoid, for instance, which swept the camps. In fact – and this is one of the most important arguments in Van Heyningen’s scholarship on the camps – the British saw them as a means of transforming the white populations of the two Boer Republics into the future subjects of a united South Africa firmly under British rule.


This interpretation of the camps almost caused a riot in the Book Lounge. I was almost, but not entirely, surprised. Firstly, because it underscored – again – the gulf between debates among guild historians and the reading public. And, secondly, because Boer suffering in the concentration camps was one of the most powerful strands within a historiography constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to bolster Afrikaner nationalism.

The point is not to deny that people – both black and white – suffered both physically and psychologically in the camps, but, rather, to argue that camps deserve more detailed and nuanced study as a result of the fact that British authorities saw them as being crucial to the making of a modern South Africa. Hospitals and schools, in particular, were used to pull Boer families into what Alfred, Lord Milner, and other officials believed to be the light of British rationality, order, and civilisation.

Which brings me to Christmas parties. In December 1901, around a year after the first camps for civilians were established and when mortality rates had begun to stabilise and decline in response to a raft of reforms, camp superintendents were ordered, and were provided with the means, to organise treats and celebrations for the inmates of the Boer camps. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, at the Belfast Camp, women in sewing circles and schoolchildren were encouraged to make ‘toys and useful articles’ for presents. On the 25th:

the tree was erected in a large room, and, after partaking of refreshments, the little ones were filed through the room containing the Tree and each drew a number from a bag on entering and received small garment or toy – and on leaving each got in addition a bag containing cake, sweets and dates.

At the Heidelberg Camp, ‘all children in the Camp under the age of 12’ were given ‘1 small jam-tart, 1 parcel sweets dates and biscuits.’ There were sports days with prizes, and lots and lots to eat – in contrast to the usually monotonous rations of camp living. The Irene Camp’s Christmas picnic – held for the schoolchildren – was particularly lavish:

On the day fixed, that is Friday the 20th December, all the Teachers and all the children assembled on the School grounds at 5.30 in the morning and the roll was called, when 900 answered their names. All the wagons in Camp has been requisitioned and every available ox, mule and donkey was inspanned and these wagons with their respective teams conveyed all the School children with their Teachers to the spot where several large Store tents had been pitched the day before, and where 100 men and women helpers were waiting in readiness at the 6 large Army Camp boilers and various numbers of large pots and kettles etc. to do the necessary waiting and cooking. A huge supply of bread and cakes had been baked… An ox had been killed by me the day before and the whole of it was cooked during the day on the spot. The children were served three meals during the day, exclusive of sweets and fruit and coffee, tea etc. and enjoyed themselves by playing games of all kinds and competitive sports amongst themselves.

In other camps, there were full Christmas dinners, with roast chicken, plum puddings, and fruit.

So how to interpret these Christmas parties? All superintendents reported (unsurprisingly) that children appreciated the parties and presents, and games and sports days were well attended. It also appears that some officials went out of their way to provide dinners and picnics which inmates would enjoy and remember. But interpreting these Christmas parties as a moment of happy wartime friendship across enemy lines – as a kind of South African version of the 1914 Christmas truce – would be glib. Although not denying the genuine altruism of some superintendents, these Christmas parties had a series of political and cultural functions.

Funded handsomely by the British administration, the parties were an attempt to foster goodwill: to demonstrate to Boer civilians that the camps were being run in their best interests by a benevolent administration. They were also intended to show to an international media – and newspapers did report on the parties – that the camps for Boers had improved since the outcry abroad earlier that year over the high mortality rates.

Perhaps more subtly, these parties also introduced Boer civilians to a tradition which officials believed to be entirely British: to a Christmas with a tree, a roast dinner, plum puddings, and games. Ironically, though, the Christmas traditions replicated in the camps had been invented as recently as the 1840s. Decorated Christmas trees, crackers, and cards had all become popular during the middle of the century, helped along by the increasing buying power of the British middle classes. Carol singing was revived; the Christmas dinner as we know it today emerged in this period. Although some of these rituals were already present in the British religious calendar – gift giving, for instance – they were moved closer to Christmas, and were augmented with borrowed traditions, most notably the tree, from Germany. Christmas was associated with the Victorian cult of domesticity: it was the moment of the year which celebrated the closeness of the family.

This supremely invented tradition was introduced to the camps for Boer civilians as one strategy – among many – for remaking them British. There were no such parties in camps for black civilians – or, at least, there are no records of them. Most of the reports on these camps were destroyed shortly after the war, but it is probable that British authorities balked at the thought of spending more money on black camps, which were already run on the cheap. Their inmates were made to grow their own food, for instance. Whereas Boer children were sent to school, to be educated to be future subjects of the British Empire, black children were to be taught how to work – and performed manual labour alongside their parents, while some were hired out as domestic servants in towns and cities. In this way, Christmas parties assisted in the moulding of white, imperial identities.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


On late Thursday afternoon I drove through pouring rain to Wits University’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela. The rain fell in sheets across the road and hailstones pinged off my car’s bonnet. When I arrived on campus, I had to navigate paths and walkways which had become ankle-deep, swiftly running streams. I had to wring the water out of the pair of ballet flats I was wearing.

The storm was not particularly unusual for early December. Johannesburg receives most of its annual rainfall during the summer, transforming the city’s dusty, brown winter ugliness into a riot of purple and green leaves and flowers in October and November. But in some ways this week’s rain has been remarkable.

On Tuesday, it rained steadily for almost twenty-four hours. This would be entirely normal in Cape Town in the depths of winter, but is almost unheard-of in a Johannesburg nearing midsummer. While some suggested that the heavens were weeping for Madiba, others, like Cyril Ramaphosa at the official memorial service in Soweto, argued that the rain signalled the afterlife’s preparation for Mandela’s arrival. As a shop assistant at my local Pick ‘n Pay remarked, if this was true, then we should expect floods on Sunday.

The rain was not the only unplanned, ungovernable feature of Tuesday’s service: chaotic public transport; world leaders taking selfies at inappropriate moments; a bizarre, and apparently criminal, sign language interpreter; and an audience who booed the State President. As Ramaphosa and, later, Archbishop Tutu tried to threaten and cajole the audience into silence, the pouring, soaking rain seemed to re-emphasise the futility of their efforts: as they could not stop the clouds, so they could not stop the South Africans assembled in FNB stadium.

Tributes at Mandela's home in Houghton.

Tributes at Mandela’s home in Houghton.

Several writers have pointed out that the official events organised to mourn Mandela’s death have been at odds to the ways in which South Africans have been celebrating his life. The long speeches and tedium of Tuesday’s events contrasted with the singing and dancing at Mandela’s homes in Houghton and Soweto. The time allowed to celebrities – like Bono – to mourn at Mandela’s coffin as he lay in state at the Union Buildings was deeply resented by the many thousands who were denied access because of overcrowding.

Although delayed by the storm, the Wits memorial managed a balance of song and joy, of commemoration, and pointed discussion of how Mandela’s own commitment to public service – his decision not to run for a second term as president – contrasts with the venal, corrupt behaviour of many present office bearers in his own party. Its centrepiece was a conversation between Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke. It was a reminder of the degree of the suffering that these – and many others – endured during the struggle.

Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke.

Ahmed Kathrada, George Bizos, and Dikgang Moseneke.

It demonstrated that the official memorialising of Mandela has profoundly missed the point: that the best way of paying tribute to Mandela and his generation is to work hard at making South Africa more free. And to think more carefully about what it means to be free. Lira, who performed at the end of the service, put this particularly eloquently: ‘My generation was taught to survive the struggle,’ she said. ‘But we were not taught to be free. We had to work that out for ourselves.’

I think it was partly this tension between differing definitions of freedom – which understand Mandela and his legacy in occasionally divergent ways – which contributed to the standoff between citizenry and state on Tuesday. Thinking about this past week, I realise that my most significant moments of reflection on, and commemoration of, Mandela’s legacy have been far away from official acts of remembrance: with throngs of people outside his Houghton home; lighting prayer lanterns with friends in Melville, late at night and after a long dinner; at tea with colleagues to celebrate the end of the year; listening to three struggle heroes discuss the future of the country.



These acts made sense to my understanding of what it means to be free in post-apartheid South Africa. That nearly twenty years after the transition to democracy, we’re still arguing and debating what it is to be free – and any attempt to silence this is like trying to stop the rain.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Ice Cream in Mandela Square

This morning I went to re-register in time for next year’s elections. My voting station is at the Ridge School, an elite primary school for boys perched at the top of the startlingly rich suburb of Westcliff. It is one of the oldest parts of Johannesburg, with its Arts and Crafts mansions and streets lined with old, well-established trees. It is where industrialists, whose fortunes were made on the mines, settled to live in the comfort that a city with cheap land and even cheaper labour could provide.

In some ways, it feels that Westcliff has changed very little since the early twentieth century. There were two black domestic workers, in uniforms and aprons, waiting to check if they were registered to vote. And there was a huddle of affluent white people gathered around the stall operated by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was nowhere to be seen.

Old is a relative term, though, and particularly for Johannesburg, a city founded only in the mid-1880s. For all that its northern suburbs give the appearance of static, solid, prosperity, it is a city which continues to evolve at a frantic pace: it grows, is torn down and rebuilt, has been run down, and is being gentrified. In fact, the urban forest of Joburg’s affluent areas is a pointed example of the constructedness of this city: planted to provide timber to the city’s mines, the canopy of green and purple which covers old Johannesburg in the summer has created a new ecosystem, replacing the original grassland of the Highveld.

A while ago, some lovely friends took me to dinner and pudding in two parts of the city which also show particularly well how South Africa’s shifting demographics – its growing middle class, in particular – are helping to change the city.

One of the oddest spaces to contemplate this transformation is Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb in the north of the city which has, since the 1990s and especially after the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved there in 2000, become an alternative city centre to the old CBD. The middle of Sandton is dominated by shiny corporate headquarters and a collection of high-end shopping malls – one of which is Nelson Mandela Square. Known until 2004 as Sandton Square, the mall was renamed after the installation of a massive, six-metre statue of Nelson Mandela.

The statue – which is slightly out of proportion – is to one side of the piazza at the centre of the mall, and overlooks a fountain. To its left and right are restaurants, some of them branches of popular, but pricier, franchises. We had excellent ice creams at an Italian place, and watched as tourists posed in front of Madiba, and took photographs of the water feature.

Mandela Square – and, indeed, Sandton – is often held up as an example of the crass materialism which has accompanied – and has been produced by – South Africa’s transition to democracy after 1994. Uncomfortably, and ridiculously, it links a depoliticised Mandela – Madiba-as-friendly-giant – to a celebration of post-apartheid consumerism. It is true that Sandton is, to some extent, an unpleasant example of the city-as-anodyne shopping mall. Architecturally, Mandela Square – and Sandton City, and the Sandton Convention Centre, and Michelangelo Towers, and the Da Vinci Hotel – could be just about anywhere, and that, really, is part of the point.

My friends and I began our evening, though, at a wonderful, and in some ways equally incongruous, Thai restaurant in Edenvale, a suburb on the border of Johannesburg and the East Rand. It is one of a collection of towns and settlements established to the east of Joburg as result of mining (for gold and coal) and manufacturing. Recently, though, its low property prices and new malls have drawn the city’s new middle classes. It is, in some ways, the epitome of big city suburbia. And yet, down a not-particularly-lovely street, is a place which serves delicious Thai food.

In some ways, the South African taste for Thai has been driven by the fact that Thailand is one of the few countries to which South Africans may travel without visas, and, even with the current weakness of the Rand, remains relatively inexpensive. Thai restaurants – some of them part of the Wang Thai chain – have popped up in middle-class suburbs, alongside pubs and steak ranches.

Rising above the noise and bustle of Johannesburg – and with a clear view of the Sandton skyscrapers – Westcliff, secure in its incredible wealth, seems to be immune from the change happening around it. But Westcliff is as entangled in Johannesburg’s making as are Sandton and Edenvale: it was shaped and produced by the mineral revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. It was modelled on similar, upper middle-class suburbs in Britain. It is as much a construct as Sandton and Edenvale.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Chop Suey in Barberton

A few weeks ago I was accepted on a writing retreat held periodically at Pullen Farm, a facility owned by Wits University about five hours’ drive northeast of Johannesburg. One afternoon we made the short journey to Barberton, a small town whose chief attraction is that there was a short-lived gold rush there more than a century ago.

Like other countries with vast, sparsely populated interiors – I think of Australia and the US – South Africa does weird towns very well. I’d visited Barberton once before, on an epic family road trip in the late-1990s, and we’ve all since remembered it as epitomising rural South African strangeness.  In some ways we’d been primed to look out for the odd, having seen a newspaper headline which screamed ‘Vampire Mermaid Strikes Again!’ in nearby White River. (It’s the ‘again’ which I find so intriguing.)

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what made Barberton so strange: the quiet, deserted town centre in the middle of the day; the old-fashioned shops selling unusual combinations of things (kitchen utensils with shoes, for instance); or the unfriendly townspeople.  It has some magnificent, deserted, Victorian buildings, which sit side-by-side with Art Deco and 1970s brutalist municipal offices.

Now, Barberton has a new shopping centre which seems to be pulling people away from the rather dilapidated main road. But there is still a general dealer there that buys everything ‘from teaspoons to your mother-in-law.’ I found a copy of Die Volkome Huwelik (The Complete Marriage), the Dutch Reformed Church-endorsed sex manual of the 1970s, for R5 at a junk shop also selling mannequins, a till, and a couple of washing machines.

A Barberton junk shop.

A Barberton junk shop.

Barberton seems to be trying harder to make something of its brief moment of international significance in the 1880s, with a collection of museums relating to the gold rush. We had lunch at the Phoenix Hotel, established in 1886 to provide accommodation to visiting mine magnates and better-off prospectors hoping to find their fortunes in the newly discovered gold deposits near the town. With the opening up of richer gold seams on the Witwatersrand, these wealthy investors packed up and moved to Johannesburg.

It is now a Chinese restaurant and sushi bar. The menu – which is extensive, and split between the staples of mid-market South African dining and some ‘Chinese’ dishes and sushi – provides diners with a handy guide to using chopsticks. There are lanterns and banners with shiny lettering draped around the restaurant, which was mainly empty.


I had vegetables and stir-fired noodles, and others had Szechuan beef, prawns with rice, spring rolls, and sushi. I’ve certainly eaten more interesting Chinese food elsewhere, but this certainly counts as one of the most unexpected Chinese meals I’ve ever had.

In some ways, though, the presence of a Chinese restaurant – and one run by a Chinese family – in Barberton should not be at all surprising. In the light of China’s growing investment in Africa, recent immigrants from China have settled across the country, mostly opening small businesses. Along with the inevitable Pep Stores, Sasko bread truck, and branch of Absa bank, the Chinese shop is becoming a feature of rural towns and villages.


Johannesburg now has two Chinatowns. There has been a small Chinese-South African population, based mainly in the country’s larger cities, since at least the nineteenth century. Between 1904 and 1907, around 63,000 Chinese indentured labourers were brought to the Witwatersrand to work on the mines, but the vast majority of these men returned home afterwards.  Under apartheid, there was an influx of people from Taiwan after it was recognised by the National Party over mainland China.

In 2008 the Chinese Association of South Africa succeeded in compelling the government to reclassify Chinese South Africans as ‘black’ so that they, too, can benefit from post-apartheid black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies. This was in recognition of the fact that Chinese people also were discriminated against on the grounds of their race before 1994.


There are around 200,000 Chinese people living in South Africa at the moment. The increase in this small population – since the early 2000s, around 24,000 Chinese have settled in South Africa (and I’m not absolutely certain of that figure) – has given rise to warnings of a ‘yellow peril’. Chinese people have been victims of xenophobic attacks, and last year the investigative magazine Noseweek published a disgraceful article alleging that, among other things, Chinese shopkeepers deliberately drive South African businesses into the ground.

This suspicion of recent Chinese immigrants would be interesting were it not quite so old. Similar allegations were levelled against the Chinese in early twentieth-century California and New York, for instance, and particularly on the grounds that Chinese refused, apparently, to integrate socially and culturally.

Ironically, though, the food served so successfully by Chinese cooks to Californian gold diggers or New York construction workers was a kind of hybrid of Chinese – and given the heavily regionalised nature of China’s cooking, there isn’t really a single ‘Chinese’ cuisine – and American cooking. Chop suey and other dishes were invented to use ingredients Chinese chefs could find in the US, as well as to appeal to American tastes.

Having become increasingly accustomed to the more sophisticated Chinese food now fairly easily available outside of China, the menu at the Phoenix Hotel, along with the dragons and fans of the décor, felt strangely retro. It listed the amalgam, ‘Western-Chinese’ dishes – including chop suey – which can be found just about wherever Chinese cooks have set up shop.

Sitting in this small, depressed mining town – there is still a gold mine and a prison, but unemployment is very high – despite the incongruity of eating Chinese food in the Phoenix Hotel, I was struck by the continuities of this situation. The family running the restaurant are part of yet another wave of immigrants – following on from the prospectors and diggers of the late nineteenth century – drawn to a country which seems to offer them a better chance, and certainly more political freedom, than does their homeland. And they continue to serve a cuisine which attempts to be both exotically enticing and comfortably familiar to their customers.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

[Exit, pursued by a warthog.]

Kindly readers! I shall be away for a week or so, finishing a manuscript at Pullen Farm in the lowveld. I believe there may be warthogs. I have packed, of course, a copy of C. Louis Leipoldt’s Bushveld Doctor. And a lot of mosquito repellent.

In the meanwhile, I leave you:

This piece I wrote for Africa is a Country about Johannesburg’s newest museum in Fietas.

This photograph of street food in Fordsburg:


This new video from the Lumineers:

And these links:

Be back soon xx

On Books

I am interested in the histories and (possible) futures of books and reading. In lieu of a post this week – I’m knee-deep in manuscript at the moment – here are two recent posts on print cultures in South Africa:

On the Matter of Books

The Futures of Books

Detail from William Kentridge, 'Universal Archive (Nine Typewriters'

Detail from William Kentridge, ‘Universal Archive (Nine Typewriters)’

Whose Heritage, Again

Today is Heritage Day and I tried to visit a museum. The museum was closed, so I took photographs of its façade and the surrounding suburb instead. Or, rather, the museum was open, but not to members of the public. Its opening ceremony was limited to members of the community and officials from the Department of Arts and Culture.

At the Fietas Museum.

At the Fietas Museum.

I’ll return at some stage in the future, but I think that this museum in Fietas – a working-class suburb near the Johannesburg CBD – says a great deal about the complicated ways in which South Africans are reflecting on their past.

The Fietas Museum

The front of the Fietas Museum.

I have very mixed feelings about Heritage Day. A lot of the debate about this public holiday on social media and local radio stations circles around – although never really articulates – its most problematic and unresolved feature: ‘heritage’ is a construct. Put simply, heritage is constituted of whatever parts of our past we choose to remember.

Partly because it is so difficult to define what exactly a South African heritage is, there have been various attempts to recast this holiday in ways which make it easier and less controversial to celebrate. The campaign to reinvent Heritage Day as a depoliticised National Braai Day emphasises most South Africans’ shared enthusiasm for barbecue.

In Fietas/Pageview/Vrededorp.

In Fietas/Pageview/Vrededorp.

On the other end of the scale, the recent launch of Freedom Fridays by LeadSA – a fairly socially conservative campaign led by media outlets to encourage South Africans to be better citizens (whatever they may mean by that) – and the Department of Arts and Culture exhorts South Africans to wear something every Friday that symbolises their love for the country.

Both Braai Day and Freedom Day are problematic. Whatever the good intentions of its founders, Braai Day transforms Heritage Day into yet another opportunity for supermarkets to make quite a lot of money (in much the same way that Women’s Day has become another version of Mothers’ Day). And Freedom Friday promotes an unthinking patriotism which ignores South Africa’s far-from-uncomplicated political and social trajectory post-1994. The fact that it was launched six months before a general election can’t be harmful either.

Indeed, both elide South Africa’s deeply conflicted past: for all their enthusiasm for ‘heritage’, there’s very little history in how these two initiatives explore and redefine what it is to be South African.

One of the remaining shops in Fietas.

One of the remaining shops in Fietas.

What discomforts me about Heritage Day is that it attempts to use South Africa’s past in much the same way as did the National Party during apartheid. In fact, Heritage Day is a renamed Shaka Day (instituted to pay homage to Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the most significant leader of the Zulu kingdom) which was co-opted by the apartheid state in an effort to invent a separate, distinct heritage for each of the race groups into which South Africans were divided.

Buying food in Fietas.

Buying food in Fietas.

Over the weekend I visited another apartheid-era attempt to construct a discrete ethnic identity, and partly in the service of segregated city planning: the Oriental Plaza. Based in Fordsburg – a predominantly Indian suburb – the Plaza was created by the state in the mid-1970s as a kind of shopping mall for Indian traders. As the Plaza’s domes, décor, and palm trees suggest, it was designed with a kind of stereotyped Arab bazaar in mind – its architecture owes more to The Thief of Baghdad than to any knowledge of Middle Eastern or south Asian architecture.

Many of the shop owners were there because they had been forced out of various Johannesburg suburbs. One of these was Fietas – consisting of Pageview and Vrededorp – an inner-city area of Johannesburg which had been settled by Indians since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Fourteenth Avenue – where the Fietas Museum is now situated – was the area’s main shopping street, and was dominated by Indian-owned shops. In 1968, Vrededorp was rezoned as ‘white’ under the Group Areas Act, and in 1975, Indian shop owners were given notice that they had to leave – and many of them to the Oriental Plaza.


The Plaza was an attempt to contain Indian traders within a part of the city designated as ‘Indian’, and in a space which evoked a particular interpretation of their ‘Indian-ness’. My point here is not to criticise the shopkeepers and shoppers who chose – and still choose – to work and shop there. But, rather, to make the point that Johannesburg’s landscape is constituted of various attempts to define people’s heritage for them.

In the Oriental Plaza.

In the Oriental Plaza.

It’s for this reason that I find the Fietas museum so interesting: I hope that it will retrieve the profoundly traumatic history of the destruction of the suburb: of the people forced to move, of the lives and livelihoods destroyed, and of the homes and businesses bulldozed in an effort to make Fietas ‘white’.

In fact, I hope it will begin to answer a question that Teju Cole posed last week at a talk at the Troyeville Hotel. Referring to the ways in which we write about cities, he asked:

Cities are built on people’s bones. How, then, do we tell stories about cities so that those who have died, do not die a double death through forgetting? Below us, on street corners, are people’s dreams.

The problem with any attempt to define a specific South African heritage is that it tends to be a triumphalist retelling of the country’s past. It has, then, the potential to ignore ordinary struggles and ordinary lived realities: the lives of people who just got by under extraordinarily difficult conditions.

We need to tell those stories too.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Truth and Vegetarianism

Despite not being at all religious, I seem to have spent quite a lot of time reading and writing about very religious people. I wrote my PhD – which I’m turning into a book at the moment – on Dutch Reformed evangelicals and their interest in childhood in the late-nineteenth-century Cape Colony. Want to know about the surprisingly complicated theological battles that raged, viciously, between warring factions of Dutch Reformed ministers in the 1850s and 1860s? Then I’m your woman.

One of the most interesting diaries I came across during my research was written by Caroline Molteno (1853-1937), the daughter of the Cape Colony’s first Prime Minister. (The Cape was granted responsible government in 1872, and John Molteno served as Prime Minister until 1878). Caroline was not a member of the DRC, but her journals written during her early- and mid-teens opened up the world of white, middle-class girls and young women in Cape Town in the 1860s and 1870s.

Caroline’s diary was useful because she was deeply conventional. She worked hard at school, left when it was socially appropriate to do so (shortly before her seventeenth birthday), travelled to Europe with her father, and attended the round of balls, parties, teas, and cricket matches which helped her to find an eligible husband. She married Charles Murray – the future president of the South African Medical Association – in 1876, and they had eight children. She devoted herself to her family and good works.

Caroline wanted desperately to fit in to white, middle-class Capetonian society. Her older sister Betty (1852-1927), though, did not. Betty was as prolific a diary- and letter-writer, but fought against the life path that her sisters followed, apparently, so meekly. (Alongside Caroline there was another sister, Maria, and seven brothers, three of whom followed their father into politics.)

Betty refused to leave school, choosing to board at their girls’ institution in the city centre, rather than returning to the Molteno home in the leafy, prosperous suburb of Claremont. She trained as a teacher and, after some opposition from her family, travelled to Britain, where she studied at Newnham College, Cambridge. On her return to South Africa she met her partner Alice Greene (a relative of the better known Graham Greene), and the two spent a long, shared life in teaching – they worked at Collegiate School in Port Elizabeth – and activism. They were friends with Olive Schreiner, knew Emily Hobhouse, and were close associates of Gandhi.

These two peripatetic feminists – they returned, eventually, to the UK and are buried side-by-side in Cornwall – were also members of the Theosophical Society. Founded in New York in 1875 by the Russian-born spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, Theosophy was, in many ways, part of the broader Victorian interest in the occult. But its interests extended beyond séances and efforts to contact the other side. Mark Bevir explains:

The theosophists adopted three basic aims: to promote the brotherhood of man, to investigate the hidden powers of life and matter, and to encourage the study of comparative religion.

So for all its interest in belief and the unseen, Theosophy encourages greater contact and understanding between people of all faiths. Its maxim, ‘There is no religion higher than truth,’ captures, I think, the path it walks between the spiritual and the temporal.

The Melbourne Theosophical Society.

The Melbourne Theosophical Society.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theosophy was attractive to a disparate group of nineteenth-century radicals, the best-known being Rudolf Steiner and Annie Besant, both of whom held prominent positions within the organisation. Besant led Theosophy after Blavatsky’s death in 1891. In fact, Besant is a prime example of how, as Sheila Rowbotham writes in her biography of Edward Carpenter, ‘left politics and lifestyle were inclined to fuse.’ These ‘alternate lifers – socialists, anarchists, Theosophists, vegetarians’ – clustered together, joining one another’s societies and supporting one another’s causes.

Besant, like GB Shaw, was a member of the Vegetarian Society and a suffragette. Leah Leneman has written about the surprisingly high numbers of vegetarians in the British women’s suffrage movement. She argues that feminists’ interest in vegetarianism stemmed partly from their opposition to animal cruelty and vivisection, but was also the product of the Theosophical Society’s influence over so many late-Victorian women. Theosophy’s willingness to countenance sexual equality and to allow women to occupy important positions within the movement, made it attractive to educated, politically left-leaning women.

Although vegetarianism is not a prerequisite for membership of the Theosophical Society, it certainly promotes vegetarianism – and this is partly a result of Blavatsky’s interest in Hinduism. Indeed, one particularly prominent member of the London Vegetarian Society was Gandhi, who joined while a student in the UK between 1888 and 1891. He also became interested in Theosophy. Stephen Hay explains:

After a year or so in London the young Hindu made the acquaintance of a number of Europeans deeply interested in the culture of ancient India. The first two were members of the newly founded Theosophical Society… [and they] took Gandhi to meet Madame Blatavsky and her recent convert from atheism, Annie Besant. He subsequently read Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy which ‘stimulated in me the desire to read a book on Hinduism and disabused me of the notion fostered by the [Christian] missionaries … that Hinduisim was rife with superstition.’

These British theosophists and members of the Vegetarian Society were, through their interest in Indian society and religion, early supporters of Indian nationalism. Besant had a long and complicated relationship with this movement: she founded the Indian Home Rule League in 1916 and was a member of the Indian National Congress.

What she and her fellow vegetarians and theosophists opened up to Gandhi and other western-educated Indians was a new way of understanding India: one that embraced Hinduism as a sophisticated set of beliefs, and which celebrated India’s rich and ancient history.

As Theosophy drew on a range of belief systems, it spread outwards from the United States and Britain. Theosophical Societies were established in South African cities too. As far as I can see, there were branches in Cape Town, Pretoria, and Johannesburg by the early years of the twentieth century – and they are still in existence.

Betty Molteno and Alice Greene – feminists, vegetarians, political radicals – were early South African Theosophists too. When Gandhi lived in South Africa (1893-1914), he seems to have been involved in the Johannesburg Lodge’s activities, reading occasionally from the Bhagavad Gita – a text which he had first read in translation while in England.

Theosophical Society, Cape Town.

The Cape Town Theosophical Society.

Theosophy helped, then, to reframe Gandhi’s understanding of India – not as a place needing reform from civilised foreigners, but, rather, as a nation which could draw on its own histories and traditions. (Of course, this new idea of India was as heavily constructed as that taught to Gandhi and other western-educated Indians.) Vegetarianism did something similar: associated with self-control, purity, and a profoundly ethical relationship with the world, vegetarianism became symbolic of Gandhi’s own form of political struggle and vision for a free India.

What understanding the origins of the vegetarian movement and other, related organisations – like Theosophy – demonstrates, is that choices around what we eat have long been political: they are connected with the ways in which we choose to think about and wield power.


Mark Bevir, ‘Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress,’ International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 7, nos. 1-3 (2003), pp. 99-115.

Stephen Hay, ‘The Making of a Late-Victorian Hindu: MK Gandhi in London, 1888-1891,’ Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 1 (Sept. 1989), pp. 75-98.

Baruch Hirson, The Cape Town Intellectuals: Ruth Schechter and her Circle, 1907-1934 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001).

Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013).

Leah Leneman, ‘The Awakened Instinct: Vegetarianism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain,’ Women’s History Review, vol. 6, no. 2 (1997), pp. 271-287.

Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life f Liberty and Love (London: Verso, [2008] 2009).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.