Quiet hero blessed with gift for storytelling

Peter Esterhuysen was born with cystic fibrosis and was not expected to see his 20th birthday. Instead he lived to become the oldest person with severe cystic fibrosis in South Africa, fighting a determined and ingenious war with the debilitating condition.

He was a quiet hero blessed with a gift for storytelling. He created wonderful educational comics, TV/film scripts, school textbooks, plays and much, much more. As a literacy activist and teacher, Esterhuysen’s passion and vision were to create a popular culture of reading for pleasure and knowledge for ordinary South Afri-cans, using the medium of comics.

Together with Neil Napper he founded the StoryTeller Group for this purpose. He pioneered in situ workshops with his target audience where he listened to hundreds of anecdotes and conflicting voices. Working against the legacy of monolithic and monologic apartheid policies, he believed that if stories contained multiple voices and views, they created dialogue and spaces for discussion. Fundamental to the methods he developed was a deep respect for his reader.

StoryTeller’s first publication was River of our Dreams (1990), a comic on environmental health. StoryTeller had a strong commitment to multilingualism at a time when very few publishers had thought about it. There followed many highly successful comics, including Heart to Heart, which explored gender, power and sexuality in a rural setting, and Love and Aids, one of the first HIV/Aids education publications.

After Spider’s Place, a multimedia project on Science Education with Handspring Puppet Company, Esterhuysen was invited to the famous Muppet studios in New York.

Deep Cuts (1993) was a groundbreaking adaptation to comic of short stories by three South African writers: Can Themba, Bessie Head and Alex la Guma.

Esterhuysen’s emphasis on dialogue extended to his work in TV and he was influential in developing South African “edutainment”. A key contribution was his ability to map compelling stories and vivid character journeys, against social and political complexities, across a whole television series. He wrote for Soul City, Gazlam and Yizo Yizo series I and II. He anchored the writing team and, while others focused on depicting the grit and violence of township life, he maintained the human depth and complexity of the characters.

Yizo Yizo won multiple awards both locally and internationally, including the Japan and Geneva prizes for best TV drama. Esterhuysen was not properly credited for his contribution, and although deeply hurt, he never became negative but always looked ahead, developing the next project. In 2002 he co-wrote a feature film with Tebogo Mahlatsi called Scar, the story of two friends affected by hostel violence. The script was selected for the Sundance Writers Laboratory in Utah, which he was too ill to attend.

Esterhuysen was his own multidisciplinary healer, combining conventional medicine and alternative therapies to great effect. He was an expert on cystic fibrosis, way ahead of his doctors, whom he generally guided. He did not consider himself a victim, but chose to live life to the full. Inconceivably, in his late thirties he was diagnosed with another genetic disease, a familial leukaemia. His courage was astonishing.

The one single word that describes Esterhuysen is “humanity”: only this can embrace his many qualities and convey the depth to which he possessed them. He had “guts”, he was a fighter who never allowed his illness to set limits on his zest for life, to impinge on his dignity or to interfere in his relations with others. People were the centre of his life and he had the talent of being able to connect with anyone. He was wise, generous, tender and mischievous and his gentle wit taught us all to laugh at ourselves. He died on April 9 and will be missed by his wife, sister, parents and friends.—Barak Morgan

Peter Jonathan Esterhuysen, born 1963, died April 9 2004

A memorial evening to celebrate Peter Esterhuysen’s life will take place on Sunday May 9 at the Horror CafÃ

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