Recording a petulant soul
Ronnie Govender’s autobiography shows he is a triple-threat man—in sports, the theatre and literature. Anton Krueger applauds this self-portrait of an artist as a shaker and stirrer
For someone so famous, Ronnie Govender actually has not written all that much. What he has produced, however, has invariably been highly acclaimed.
The Lahnee’s Pleasure was the longest-running show in South Africa in the 1970s; his collection of short stories, At the Edge and Cato Manor and Other Stories, won him a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and his only novel, Song of the Atman, was shortlisted for both the EU Literary Award and another Commonwealth prize.
In the Manure: Memories and Reflections (David Philip) provides a much-needed addition to South African literature with its account of a long and productive life lived to the full.
It contains a wealth of history, digging up whole strata of unmined records, involving, for example, its author’s relentless contribution to non-racialised sports in South Africa.
Many black sportsmen refused to play in segregated events and tried to found rival bodies, often at the cost of their careers. I had not realised how much Govender took part in these processes as a writer, editor and administrator. He was also a crucial figure in the cultural boycott. The biography also offers a much-needed historical overview of Indians in South Africa, providing an insight into the different trajectories of race and religion informing a community that can often appear fairly homogenous from the outside.
Yet the book’s strengths—in providing detailed summarising overviews—can also be seen at times as one of its weaknesses, in that it seems to be telling the story of a people rather than a person.
Although much of the book revives the names and activities of institutions often forgotten by the media today, at times it is difficult to connect with the narrative on a more personal level. In the absence of an engagement with a recognisable group of characters and a sustaining thematic thread, the experiential, more emotional life of the subject of the biography can remain a little vague.
The build-up towards Govender’s literary life takes too long. Only about two-thirds of the way in does one finally arrive at that part of his life which is of most interest—the reason for having picked up the book in the first place.
Only then does one come to the radical vision introduced to South African theatre by the visit of Krishna Shah and the founding of the Durban Academy of Theatre Arts. Here the writing really comes alive as Govender begins to pour his prodigious energies into a passion for theatre.
The theatre finally provides a coherent focus for his many diverse interests. It becomes the perfect vehicle for his querulous nature.
Ronnie Govender has been known to shoot from the hip and his no-nonsense style is evident in the writing here. He is quite upfront about his temper, which often gets him into trouble (or, as the title has it, lands him “in the manure”).
Sometimes his anger arises from his uncompromising principles, at other times it seems to have more to do with his generally belligerent personality.
Whatever the case may be, it has certainly led to a colourful life.