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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Henk Rossouw Henk Rossouw is the 2005 Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and the 2005/6 Sauvé Scholar at McGill University, Montreal. He was the Africa correspondent for a weekly Washington DC newspaper, The Chronicle of Higher Education, for four years and a stringer for Newsweek International. He graduated from Wits University's School of Journalism.
Bongani Madondo Bongani Madondo

· The Steve Biko Journalism Fellow: 1999
· Arts and Culture Journalist of the Year: 2003
· Vodacom Features Writer of the Year (Gauteng): 2004
· Finalist: Mondi Magazine Features and Profile Writing: 2005

Henk Rossouw in conversation with Bongani Madondo

    Henk Rossouw: Bongani, in asking you to participate in this, I wrote to you:
    As you can tell from my interview, I talk a lot about the influence of jazz and Drum on reportage, as it was these kind of prose rhythms that got me writing in the first place and yet, despite the fact that I like reading Kerouac and Matshikiza, I can't write that way myself.
    You replied - and this is exactly why I wanted to talk to you - like this:
    Forget Kerouac and Matshikiza: create your own songs. Even if fashioned out of layers and crumbs of the giants, it's fine. Much as I love some conservatives, bohos, hippies, hipsters, 1970s protest and early 90s hip-hop Journalisms, I do not spend sleepless nights trying to be anyone but the best Bongani that I can be. Sure my blood veins are about to burst with the amount of James Baldwin prose I smoke, Mailer's analytical eye, Ayi Kwei's call to arms, Afrocentricist meditations and of course Greg Tate / Baraka funk / blues inkings, as well as Bruce Chatwin and Rushdie (the essayist and not the novelist), cometh the 125th hour, I can only be me: a boy from Hammanskraal with a nose pasted to the international winds.

  1. I spent half of this year reporting in Hammanskraal and I'm beginning to have some idea what it really means to be from this place. As one of the most distinctive voices in South African writing today, whose prose commands regular (and a great deal of) space in this country's biggest newspaper, can you chart out exactly how "a boy from Hammanskraal" came to this point in his life? For me, writing was a way to get out of Milnerton - where Wouter Basson grew up - and cross over into another South Africa. My origins seldom feature in my writing, though of course I can't escape it, even if I am writing about places as far away as Uganda, Liberia, Rwanda. For you, though (I'm guessing here), Hammanskraal is part of your voice, your identity as a writer. I'm thinking, in particular, of your piece on Uncle Fanie and Carlton's passion for Converse sneakers. (I must say, section 15 of Temba remains the fashion capital of this country.) Essentially, I'm asking you to trawl your earliest memories: How did you become a writer and why?

    Mathibestad? I know that place quite well. Damn well. I was born in Temba, Jubilee Hospital, one winter evening in 1970.

    Though it might have been peripheral to my beautiful mother, Nomvula, I think when she first conceived me, The Beatles were in the middle of their bitter separation, The Rolling Stones about to take off in a big way, Jimi was about to die, and of course both Curtis Mayfield and Gill Scott-Heron held the black world in soul thralls, spitting and preaching the revolution.

    In Hammanskraal, the band The Makhonatsotlhe, featuring the funkmonster and women magnate Max Mankwane, was blowing potboilers at the local Hammanskraal Police Training Academy's Ballroom chambers and the football team Mighty Gunners had big Scara manning the entire back five alone. At the time, my mom fell for the charms of a jazz loving moTswana dude who, believe you me, I have not ever laid my peepers on. And if I did, it is quite possible that I have chosen to forget the moment.

    Mama would go on to give birth to five more, a beautiful rowdy bunch, which, if you want to know the whole truth, quite disintegrated twenty years later after mom's death.

    One, Walter, is in prison, serving life at 23. The other, also quite familiar with jail, is courageously studying law and wants to become a VIP bodyguard. The other opted out of the Wits medical degree course after what he claims are white professors' intransigence, for they would not allow him into third year after he had performed under par in his second year, thus banning him from the medical sciences. I love him to bits, but I also know that his attempts at becoming the first medical doctor coming out of our village cost me a hefty R120 000 for the four years he spent there.

    Mduduzi is now aiming to become an accountant, hence his new university course at Unisa. The remaining two, girls, well I don't know much about them. But they are my sisters all the same, I love them still!

    They - my family - are all in Hammanskraal [70 k's north of Pretoria, just off the N1 highway] in a village called Majaneng, formerly known as Kekanastad, a derivative of the Matebele-a-Kekana Chieftain Royalty, which, the village elders say, originally came from Buckimburg in the then Northern Province. As is, they are a sorry residue of their once gallant and Afro-imperial proud self ... a people that owned land stretching from Majaneng, Leboneng - where I grew up - Bosplaas, Marokolong, Skampaneng, and five more huge villages. Basically an area ten times as big as Alexandra. I am not a royalist per se, but I find it quite sad that ex-Bop's President Mangope, Sol Kerzner's Carousel, and white industrialists stole 90 percent of the Kekana people's land.

    And for some strange reason, I always felt that God and the weather have a tendency to desert a starving and hopeless people right in the middle of their man-made sorrows and political rape.

    But there you are, that's the background. Other than that, I have no emotional ties to Majaneng/Kekanastad, for I grew up in a semi-village, freehold place called Leboneng ("the place of light") which was quite dark for most of our formative years there. For some reason, Leboneng has a special, if awkward, place in my heart.

    Need I add: Mama was a rolling stone ... We moved almost ten times in and around Hammanskraal and its grid of adjoining villages. So we rolled with Mama as she moved from this mud mansion to this shack, from this two-room to this six-room, from this dad to that dad, alone, beautiful, disintegrating, with her obsessive belief in the bible - the white man's bible.

    We rolled with her as she worked at this Baas Attie Le Roux, to that Baas Marais van Rensburg, all, dare I say, very loving, caring employers who made a habit of bringing Mama from Renstown to wherever we were staying, for tea and cookies and to give us all hugs and goodies. And it was not goodies that endeared them to us. It was their human spirit, hence I was never ever, even in my teenagehood, embarrassed that Mama worked in the "kitchens" - a domestic worker. I know it is supposed to be uncool for today's generation, but it was never ever an issue for us, never. She did work in the firms, Babelegi, but went back to Le Roux. She felt more content working for Le Roux than handling machinery and being a nice factory floor spy for the firm's black supervisor who had eyes for her. So there.

    Leboneng. It was where I first went to church, the rickety tin/wood combo structure which was built right in the yard of my grandfather's place where my mom and fifteen other families also lived and paid a minimal lodging fee. But because we were some sort of blood family, we lived inside grandad's majestic double-storey, which had a large piano and lots of books, bibles and newspaper clippings.

    That's where I got the nickname Oupa - I was named after the grandad who owned three Sophiatown-style cars, Chryslers and one Buick. Not only was he a priest and an intellectual, but also a community worker who had constructed alone, with his bare hands, a corrogated bridge- 30 metres breadth and 15 metres width - in a place where Leboneng and Babelegi threatened to kiss but for the furious river cutting a chasm between the strange lovers.

    Now that I am an adult, I ask myself why the bloody hell did those workers not tell their factory bosses of this man and his deeds, for were it not for his efforts they would not have made it to work in time.

    Does it matter now?

    Anyway, from the age of six to perhaps thirteen, I would accompany him every Friday afternoon to the bridge where he would repair, paint and generally maintain it, while I was watching over a collection tin, into which passersby would volunteer a shilling, a bob or a brownie, as paper rands were known around my block.

    Yo! That's pretty much how my grandad lived. Worked hard, preached hard and read hard. And he was triple hard on his family and those who lived under him. We were all in awe and feared him big-time. But I was quite close to him, so I guess he was hardest on me, for he loved me so much that he wanted to replicate himself in me, especially since he did not have a biological son of his own.

    Two events will remain forever etched in my soul about my grandad and Leboneng. One spring day in 1977, a newspaper called The Weekend Post carried a big feature story on him, his heroic deeds with the bridge, his self-built coffin, his self-built double-storey mansion, his cars, erudition and all … Ahhh, to say we were all proud of him is an understatement. The village's feedback was like an inferno, and, of course I felt like it all rubbed off on me!

    Two: In 1977-78 there was a huge flood storm, our little Katrina, wherein the main river and dam in Bon Accord, 35 or so k's south of Hammanskraal, burst wide open as a result of some relentless rainstorms and such. The overspill flattened the Tshwane River's banks, flattening whole tin-house communities, and threatening brick-house structures, cars, animals, men, children, women … nothing could move, and all cried in unison.

    Rescue helicopters grrrroooomed and buzzed above, rope rescuing the weak, the quick, the fat and the fortunate. One woman almost brought the 'copter down. Ma Machachamisa was as big as Sandton Towers - or perhaps let me not degrade the now dearly departed. But her story became legend.

    The floods remained for a week and the area - Leboneng was hardest hit of all the villages - was never the same again. That, too, left an impression about human endurance, love, madness and other larger than life actions I was not able to comprehend at that age. Now I do. And now I consider myself lucky.

    I will leave it at that, Henk. Perhaps, one day, I will take a stab at biography - been resisting the temptations for too long: one, because it would out-drown Angela's Ashes with sorrow, but two, convention has it that biography is for super-achievers, the older the better, the sleazier, all the more exciting. Who knows, though?

    Why did I become a writer, you asked.

    Writing per se was not a creative vocation I wanted to make a living out of, for neither I nor anybody in my childhood had the slightest idea that you could actually make a living from such a natural thing … writing. But newspapers and magazines especially held a powerful fascination and allure for me from a very young age.

    I really think it began with that Weekend Post thing. The sub-conscious layers of our brains have a powerful gift of storing things for years, I suppose. But that was when I was seven.

    I am sure I rode in and out of the magazine dream for several years, but the actual call for me to make a decision was in my teenagehood, three grades before matric. I knew I could not postpone it anymore. Children from poor families did not have the luxury of idle minds. Either you became a policeman, nurse, teacher or a local government clerk - that is if you were lucky, or your grandfather was a buddy with the clergy or the government types at the Commissioner's office.

    Being Zulu in a Tswana-governed area, I also knew better than not to hedge my ambitions way beyond my station in life. But I am also a dreamer - have always been from a young age. As a teen I slept, walked and envisioned my life as a CNN war correspondent. That was soon after CNN was introduced on the South African television channels. It was fresh, out of this world, unbelievable, the soundbites as charming as the soundbites I grew up hearing in a gazillion American films, dodging school even to go and watch at a local cinema.

    Also, at sixteen I was already part of the local community's political structures, mainly influenced and fed to read, live and swear by black consciousness literature. Hence in addition to being a war correspondent, I dreamt of becoming a lawyer, so I could fight for millions of black folks being sentenced to prison in the then PW Botha's State of Emergency. Lawyer, and a correspondent: the pot had started boiling. On the side, I had started writing lots of bad, quite "propaGhandist" poetry, as well as love verses.

    Writing and reading were almost natural. I don't know how I thought I would become a lawyer, because I really hate talking.

    So, sis Nomvula (my mom) and I would write each other letters even when we were living under the same roof. Notes, full letters etc, mostly to communicate about things the youngsters and others were not supposed to hear about. I was always looking forward to reading her notes and fire something back in the course of things.

    By seventeen - that was in my matric year - I had amassed almost twenty boxes full of books, journals, magazines and comics, which I had really begun reading at six when I was pushing time with my grandad.

    Let me clarify: unlike my older and younger brothers, Dumisane, Tshepo and Walter, I never attended a crèche. Don't know why - my mom just did not send me. Could be that she was in economic dire straits round about my turn, I don't know. But I also grew up feeling - the feeling that never left me - that she cared more for my older brother, since he was her firstborn, and the younger ones, since they demanded more time.

    So, I had been collecting all this material (why did we call literature "material"? I don't know) from She, Tessa, Swart Luiperd, Beau Brummel and Kid Colt comic books, to Bona, Pace, Africa Today, Rand Daily Mail and later Tribute magazine, but also the extensive set of James Hadley Chase, and 80 percent of all Mills and Boon paperbacks coming out then.

    It was clear I was not going to be either a lawyer or CNN's or even Radio Setswana's local correspondent. But I had my books: politics, romance, Africana, and lots of LPs and tapes. The world belonged to me. And all those smart young fellas who came to rent a book for 20 cents from me. In matric I wrote an essay and announced to all and sundry that I was going to become a writer.

    They laughed at me, those who did standard 7 with me. "Mistress Swanepoel" anointed me the best English speaker after I had read ten Enid Blytons and the Gangs of Six. I knew too well that I really lived in my head, far away from Hammanskraal.

    I did everything after matric, everything! Went to a teacher's college, dropped out after Mama's and older brother's death, worked as a kitchen boy at a Chinese 5-star restaurant in Carousel, washed white folks' cars in Sunnyside, sold paperbags, apples, nail clippers and what have you, worked in a pie confectionery, and also joined the SADF after Mandela's release, hoping I might get a chance to go to the border, skip, join the ANC and coming back a hero.

    Truth is, I joined the then Walmanstaal regiment because my family needed a single crumb of bread to share and all those who had joined the army in my village were able to care for their families.

    It was strange and too regimented for me. On one of our weekend visits home - that is after a month there, drinking tea out of huge, shiny jam-tin-like mugs and being fed a huge quarter loaf of bread with apricot jam, something we were not fed at home - I decided fuck, not going back there. Why should I be in the army? Yes, yes, I know why, but why care, this was a boer army, and me, Azapo boy in it? So I skipped and ran away to my aunt in Vosloorus.

    Coming back, I raised money and started a business wherein I stocked the in-style Pepe denim jeans and belts, to raise money for my block party street DJ gigs that I used to organise with a friend, Danny-boy Moatshe, a fellow jazz lover, black consciousness believer, fashion lover, and dreamer.

    That, on its own, wrapped and sealed it for us: we soon became household names in the 'hood. Even though we never openly acknowledged it to each other, we both knew we looked the other way when a couple of size 28 or 30 ladies' denims were not accounted for. And even today some still refer to me as "Oupa wa Di Bokathi" (Oupa the denim man).

    I was then 21. Four years of non-academic engagement, years most of my friends were taught in universities en masse. The denim/music/liquor business made so much money I was able not only to pay for my siblings' education, but also to take care of my granny and pay for my first two years in varsity, where I studied a variety of subjects to second level.

    I dropped out after two years, owing the university, and totally annoyed by the regular strikes we engaged in week in week out. Fokof, I thought. Time to decamp to Johannesburg, train as a hairdresser and dream of meeting my hair hero Alex Molokoane, who by then Tribute, my then favourite magazine, had profiled and projected as the be-all of black success.

    Hillbrow opened my eyes and other parts of my soul. I stayed with a friend who had talked me out of my hair dreams, recruiting me to help him pack boxes in a small travel map distributor in Shewell Street, where sleaziest Hillbrow kissed horny, dirty and deranged Doornfontein.

    It is there that I met Saul Molobi, the then deputy editor of Learn and Teach magazine, who had heard about me seven years earlier from his brother, with whom I went to school. Molobi loved my politics, my taste in and knowledge of music, way of dress and how, according to him, I did not feel like a Hammanskraal boy.

    He soon took me under his wing, introduced me to Tom Wolfe and Gonzo Thompson's shenanigans with Hell's Angels, New Journalism, 1950s Drum writers, Tolstoy, Dickens, Count Pushkin, and Modikwe Dikobe's Marabi Dance, and just about trained me.

    Time and again, he would wake up with the idea that I needed to trace some obscure model in the streets of Berea, or do a story about how couples first met. Such stories. I envied him to bits, what with the cover stories he wrote about Market Theatre actors, Arrested Development, U2 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo CD reviews which he kept to himself while sending me down the city streets looking for some obscure stories. He would send me from his offices next to the Van Der Bijl Bus Rank, where Gandhi Square is today, to the SABC where I was supposed to interview the goddess of radio, Nomshado Twala, without even a taxi fare. I would foot it. How many kilometres? Please don't ask.

    The publication stayed true to its moniker Learn and Teach. Indeed, it was! And that's where I gathered courage to send handwritten "stories" about Hillbrow's gutters, fires and older women whom I thought I was falling in love with, to City Press and Sowetan.

    The rest is history: I worked for Learn and Teach for three months before they closed down IGM publications, had my first feature piece on women and jazz published in a feminist magazine, Speak, had a big story published in City Press on the then Miss South Africa, Jackie Mofokeng, and her beau, Paul Phume (who had been my high school senior back in Hammanskraal), and then crawled my way into the mainstream papers.

    I could not type, but for some strange reason I landed a voluntary job (well, I hustled them) at the ANC's newspaper Mayibuye, where I put my interest in politics and music to better use. Got chunks of space and gave them lots of culture pieces which for some reason they thought were works of a seasoned hack.

    This is where I got to publish the first ever - anywhere - review of "Finding Oneself", the then unknown young jazz genius Moses Molelekwa's debut masterpiece. At 23, 24, and untrained, with no varsity degree, I was gaining confidence. Show me any sullen and sulking young man or woman with several bylines - even then they were few and far between - in papers like City Press and Mayibuye, and I will show you a twerp.

    In my head I was happening. Mixing with household black journalists like ZB Molefe, Len Kalane, Charles Mogale, Khulu Sibiya, Sandile Memela - who was something of a roaring steam train then - and lots of others. The pay was best left unspoken of, that is if ever I got it (R250 after tax on how many stories?), the newsroom respect quite reserved only for the pros, black arrogance at an all-time high, and the pressure to produce - or fokof - quite unnatural. Sometimes - too often - I would sleep at the office, either because I was too afraid of walking back to Hillbrow at 12 midnight, or perhaps because I had read a tad too much of my then journalistic hero, Nat Nakasa's, Johannesburg.

    One thing led to another: a year or two working as a news and community news reporter, I managed to take time off to study for an Arts Management Diploma at Wits Business and Public Development School. Looking back, it was extremely hard, but I needed "papers" to bulldoze my way back into journalism, which, I realised, relied on old-style hacks who did not have any academic training.

    It would take me two years to go back into the trade, but I was determined. Often, I get emails and calls from students from as far as Stanford in the USA, Rhodes in Grahamstown and Wits asking me where I studied my journalism Masters. But for the love of God, their eyes are only restricted from popping out when I tell them that I only hijacked an Arts Diploma from Wits Public Development School, and that I never ever studied journalism.

    They seem to be more comforted later when I tell them I later studied Advanced News and Features Writing with the Commonwealth Journalism Programme until I reached the very senior "Training the Trainer's Course" at the Institute for Advancement of Journalism, where I later taught Arts reporting. They seem to be impressed by those and I play to their silly notions of life.

    At heart, I want to believe that I am a self-made journalist, but that wouldn't be totally honest either.

    It is key, and actually factually accurate, that I should declare that were it not for the tough love, mentoring, exposure and access (mostly to whites-only parties in the white suburbs where I would be the second of only two black faces around, forced to stomach questions like, "Now my dahleeng, where do I know ya from? What in this God's world are you doing fer a leevin'?") offered to me by those senior, arrogant and show-off black journalists, I would not have been blessed with the inside nooks of this godforsaken trade known as journalism.

    I need not spell it out to you that journalism, lots of news reporting, feature writing, showbiz reporting, arts reporting and arts critiquing columns I began writing in my third year in the belly of this beast, and the love to affect and contribute, and the personal ego intended, at heart, to change the world, led me to believe that I could be a writer.

    A dream the Hammanskraal boy is still trying to put into practice, long after those early sleepwalking dreams in foggy Majaneng.

    With luck - some smitten publishers are working on it - a collection of the saner aspects of my writing will soon descend on bookstore shelves, followed by (God and ancestors allowing) a coffee table book I have been working on for some time.

    And no, I am not keen on novels. Realism is too strange and challenging for me to dream and engage with.

  2. More and more, I'm realising, Hammanskraal is a deep reservoir of stories, like any place where the pain and joy run deep. The months I spent in Hammanskraal I was either crying or laughing - the folk there have the wickedest sense of humour. Like the mama in the helicopter. And your grandfather and the bridge, man. I love that bridge and what it stood for. You've got to write the memoir. Please.

    Next question: I understand what it's like to be a self-made writer. Well, as you say, not self-made - other writers took me under their wing - but without going to university. I just never got there either and I have a degree now only because I conned Wits to let me into their journalism school.

    Your life captures so much of what Nadine Gordimer calls "living through the transition". Growing up "rural" in a place that isn't really rural because it's a fake homeland, where Mangope could order the death of the donkeys because they dented his cavalcade, finally heading to Hillbrow, soaking up the city, working your way up, painfully and slowly, through the sharpness and verve of your words, into the wildest, juiciest feature-writing gig in all of Afrique du Sud ... Where can I buy the soundtrack to your life?!

    When I read through all your pieces, I feel like I'm reading history in the making, the way we now read the Drum guys to understand the 50s. I can't think of another journalist who writes like you and yet - here's the question - in what way is your voice collective? As somebody shaped by the old order, who can reminisce about where we come from, and yet determine the new, helping us to figure out where this crazy culture of ours is going, how does what you have to say speak to your place and time? Who are we now?

    And another question: What is your best piece of writing and why? Tell me why it pleases you.

    (And what is your typing speed? 200 words per minute?)

    Being a writer, or even an opinionated writer, is not the same as being clever, despite popular perception. So I don't know how my voice is collective. But I am very aware that it is part of "the collective" - the black/African spirits and old icons, the working class collective that knows and has lived through pain in its entirety, yet not numb enough not to feel it any more. A collective driven to and away from pain all the time. An angry collective, so angry that it often feels like without it - anger - we have no reason to exist.

    And that is a con, 'cause we are children of the sun. Africans are supposed to be bright and sunny. I do not, though, think I represent the collective. I think I am a literary splinter spark out of that collective.

    I think carrying the collective is anathema to art and throttles the spirit. No writer should "represent", but always "re-present" a new and outside way for all of those inside the collective.

    I see myself as the black (in its Black Consciousness sense) outsider. Meaning an insider exiled to the outside, from which I can peer back into the inside. I do not want to be bogged down by the collective, for I carry the collective within me.

    But also, Henk, the concept of double consciousness applies quite acutely to my life. I will never deny that I have cottoned on - in a deeper intellectual, social and cultural manner - to the Western world.

    The sort of books I read, the sort of education I received at school, the sort of etiquette that a so-called "different darkie" is supposed to possess, and some of the music (even though most is black/African derived, such as U2's Joshua Tree, Clapton and Cream, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Springsteen, Kerkorrel's "Mozambique", Ry Cooder's slide beauties, etc).

    So, yeah, I live in and am dictated to by the very alien and alienating white cultural and professional mores, in such a powerful manner that I have come to resent that which shapes and feeds my everyday practical (and not spiritual or soulful) life. It is double bind. One that is a blessing and a curse at the same time. A blessing in that, true to fact, black folks in Africa (or south of it) are unique. They have multiple consciousnesses, all bottled and freed from a single physical entity: the blood and flesh being. It allows us to feel way beyond the individual.

    And that is the key, in that it centres the individual more stubbornly within the collective. It allows us to be part of the collective, but choose not to be whenever we feel like it. For black people nothing is a matter of choice: it is all about dedication, or commitment.

    If we commit, we excel, if we do not, disaster strikes. We do not have that much in the way of choices. It's about what we have to do.

    I think Afrikaners - we are talking writers here - also have some sort of double consciousness, as well as Jews in South Africa and in New York (or anywhere in the West). They - Afrikaners - are both "white" and still not part of the urban monetary/intellectual/cultural mainstream.

    Somehow, Africans can relate to that. I mean, an African writer can relate to that, for we too, have all sorts of bloods, myths, exposures, ways of dreaming which are quite different from the ways we are shaped to live.

    It sounds resentful, on paper, but quite rich, in terms of experience.

    The pain we live within and yet can never be numb enough not to feel it when it strikes.

    It's like communities living in volcanic areas. The volcano becomes part of their dreams and shapes their psyches. But when the earth erupts, they and their children will never be exempt just because they are children of the boiling earth. Does it makes sense?

    "Who are we now?" you asked.

    I really don't know, Henk, because there might not be a "we", you see. I think there's no "we", really. As in rainbow or multiracial reality. I think that's a mirage. And yet, an ideal worth striving for. Or perhaps give up on it, and wait for the time the masses revolt against all of us: middle-class blacks, unyielding and power-hungry white middle folks, racist working-class whites, and all those perceived - rightly or wrongly - to be "on the other side" of the starving black masses.

    And another question you asked: "What is your best piece of writing and why? Tell me why it pleases you."

    Again, I really don't know which of my pieces rates as the best. I do not know, really. I've just realised quite recently - possibly sparked by a publisher keen to publish my writings: essays, criticism, journalism narratives, features, profiles etc - that the sort of writing I am involved in here at the Sunday Times is culturally quite different from my City Press, Sunday World and some of my Mail & Guardian work. It is also markedly different from my online black consciousness rantings published in But also, it is different from my extinct online essay column I used to write, called The Empire Strikes Black, which was, mainly, about this radical voice hitting back at his perceived brothers and political comrades from BC to Charterists. It was intentionally un-PC and yet informed by the spirit of political activism. My writing - as with other writers, I suppose - differs and is subject to moods, rather than present feelings at that particular moment. I am aware that people know and dig the juicy features and profile writer as well as a chronicler of black culture icons, but know little of or are deeply troubled by my political, satirical work and other genres I involve myself with - especially online. It's all part of my soul, though.

    What piece does it for me? Look, I believe the minute a writer begins to like and love, be content with his work, that minute he dies as an artist. I'm never satisfied with my work, never! I'm quite bitchy towards my work and bitchy towards those who think they can come from the outside and tell me about what makes me me! I don't know who I am … trying to move there, as a writer … so how can somebody outside my soul know? There are pieces I loved doing though, and pieces I have realised have gripped a whole mass variety of readers in deeper, funnier, more powerful, emotional ways (and that is not in order of their significance):

    a. "Looking For Mbuyiswa Makhubu's spirit in Soweto". It's a biographical/political critique feature on the whereabouts of the unforgotten June 16 hero, the boy carrying the bloodied Hector Petersen. Published by Durban's Daily News's Op-ed section in 1999.
    b. "Brenda's (Pop Queen) 40th Birthday and still kicking". (Lifestyle 2003, November. (Winner of the Vodacom Features Journalism of the Year 2004.)
    c. "Why Schuster's Natives Zoo sucks": Criticism/review turned into a feature essay. Sunday World 2003.
    d. "He lived his life, like a candle in the wind: the earth of kwaito star, Makhendlas". 2000, Mail & Guardian's Friday/Arts section.
    d. (i) "Blues for a Hip-Queen: Brenda's dead, Long Live the Queen": Marie Claire Magazine, Sept 2004. (Finalist in the Mondi Magazine Profile Awards, 2005.)
    (ii) "Don King in Soweto: On the trail of Boxing's don": Sunday Times Lifestyle, July 2004.
    e. "Searching for the Spirit of The Blues King: Life and Times of Johny Dyani." Sunday Times Lifestyle, December 2004.
    That's what people remember.

    Personally, I think the piece on Tupac Shakur in which I juxtaposed the life of the hip-hop icon and my jailed brother, Walter - who happened to be a HU-U-U-GE fan of 'Pac - would've been much spoken about had it been published in the US media.

    Also, a piece I did on "Eminem: White Trash or Icon?" would have hit the cultural crit headlines had it been published in Rolling Stone, New York Times, Vibe, XXL, or even The Atlantic Journal or any American or Canadian print publication.

    But Henk, hear it from me: I no longer enjoy cultural criticism. It has won me journalistic awards and fattened my head. And besides, I believe editors and readers just don't get it. In those moments that happen to make sense, the whole thing leaves both the writer and the reader with a huge "So what?" question hanging on our tongues.

    The modern, pop-loving, mainstream world despises cultural criticism. I love it, but I think it is quite a limited genre for me to operate solely in.

    I want to be (and to some extent, and for some time now, the Sunday Times Lifestyle section has allowed me to be) a story-teller. Utilising my love for and grounding in essay/critique, getting into narrative, biographical profiles. Sometimes they do not have to be profiles, but "searches for some lost spirit" that grip me. A spirit of somebody I felt has not been properly contextualised. So, I look for that which makes those "icons" human: flaws, desires, achievements, pain, beliefs and beauty. Out of that I try to reconstruct souls of men and women who have impacted, or missed impacting on, greater humanity.

    I want to be a story-teller, not a critic. And that's the road ahead for me. In those moments in which I would be called upon to combine the two, well, so be it.

    I have seen filmmakers such as the documentary makers Nick Broomfield and Raol Peck, and docudrama directors such as Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Spike Lee, Lee Tahamori (Once Were Warriors) and John Singleton, achieve [not achieving] with film what I aspire to in narrative journalism: the polemicist as an around-the-fireplace storyteller. That is my dream - to tell stories influenced by the motion picture genre and, perhaps, ultimately to become a filmmaker.

    That is the damn price to pay and the prize to snatch.

    "And what is your typing speed? 200 words per minute?" you asked.

    I am the slooooowest writer out there. Sickeningly so. I even thought I was dyslexic. I type slowly, rewrite the copy a hundred times. Sleep on copy for weeks, deadlines passing. Can't really knock it out until I feel it.

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LitNet: 08 November 2005

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