Letters to the Editor: June 10

Our readers share their thoughts on Anton Harber’s book Diepsloot, Albertina Sisulu and more.

A Group Areas Act for writers?
I could hardly believe what I was reading in Andile Mngxitama’s review of Anton Harber’s book Diepsloot (Friday, June 3 to 9). Are we really still being subjected to that tired old lament about white writers appropriating the black experience? What a narrow-minded and intolerant view of both scholarship and journalism.

I would have thought that by now South Africans would have moved beyond the ghettoisation of subject matter and the exclusive appropriation of aspects of our history by certain sectors of society. Surely the responsibility of writers and journalists is to engage with the human condition in all its diversity?

No one would deny that an individual who has personally gone through a particular experience is uniquely placed to write about that experience, but that does not exclude others from also analysing that experience and bringing to bear their own understanding and perceptions — this can only enrich the analysis of that experience and enhance the understanding of the reader.

Excluding individuals from writing about an issue, on the grounds that they have not personally experienced it, is a truly alarming point of view, one bordering on censorship. What next? Male writers can’t write about discrimination against women, straight journalists can’t write about homophobia, and thin people can’t write about obesity? Or is it just the black experience that is off limits to white writers? I suspect the latter, given Mngxitama’s emotive accusations of white arrogance, paternalism and (the worst sin of all) liberalism.

The views expressed in the review reek of arrogance and intolerance. South African writers and journalists should not be frightened off any subject, as there is absolutely no topic that we should not be free to explore. Self-appointed gatekeepers such as Mngxitama who attempt to ringfence certain topics should simply be ignored. As South Africans, we should vigorously oppose any attempt to carve out no-go areas in any field of research, journalism or fiction. Let’s write what we like and publish what we like — we don’t need political approval from anyone, least of all those seeking to tether us to what they consider to be our respective group areas. — Farieda Khan, Cape Town

The two pieces about Diepsloot were the best of all accounts: those that impel you to buy and read the book. (Friday, June 3 2011).

One reviewer trashed the book because the author is white. He did not write that Diepsloot was “an example of aesthetically atrocious white non-fiction”, but he left me pondering what such a judgment could possibly mean. The other journalist trashed the book because Harber’s interviewees did not appear to have read it. I was intrigued. So I broke all my rules and purchased the book at Exclusive Books, the only vendor at the King Shaka International Airport.

I had been warned to expect pedestrian prose but I was not put off, given that one reviewer’s benchmark was “the cutting-edge narrative power of Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart“. (Here is one writer who successfully defied the rule that white non-fiction writers should not “transgress into the black condition”.)

Harber’s book can be read in several ways. I did not read it as the presumptuous effort of a white author to explain a Black Reality (which is unknowable to anyone who is not a Real Black). I also did not read it as an effort to speak on behalf of Diepslooters, an effort requiring their verification. There is, however, a lot in the book about black reality (misinterpreted, quite possibly) and a lot of direct quotes from people who live in the area, including fascinating English translations of local rap songs.

This is not a township with a struggle history. The Diepsloot settlement came into being after 1994. Harber uses Diepsloot to ask how and why the “national democratic revolution” has been let down since the ANC took power.

His answers are nuanced and thought-provoking. Harber writes engagingly and he tries to make sense of what he observes (which is not an error of which one could possibly accuse Rian Malan). — Martin Nicol, Cape Town

The humility of a great leader
It was, I think, 1985, and Albertina Sisulu had been charged with high treason as part of a group of United Democratic Front leaders due to be tried in Pietermaritzburg.

She was already facing a jail term for furthering the aims of the ANC but was waiting for the outcome of an appeal against it. She was the co-president of the UDF, the wife of imprisoned ANC leader Walter Sisulu, the mother of leading journalist and editor Zwelakhe, already a struggle icon and the mother of Max and Lindiwe, both of whom I knew were rising stars in the ANC’s exile structures. I was deeply intimidated at the prospect of meeting her.

I was working for the defence team in the Pietermaritzburg treason trial, and one of my tasks was to consult the accused and prepare detailed biographies for use in developing a defence strategy. Consultations with some of the accused had taken days and I had ended up with pages and pages of notes recording their long involvement in anti-apartheid struggles and organisations.

Consulting MaSisulu was very different. She arrived having prepared a two-page summary of her life. It concluded, if I remember correctly, with the sentence: “That is all.” Such modesty, such reluctance to present herself as a leader, as an important person! I had to tease out more detail and could see how reluctant she was to talk about herself, to promote herself in any way. Yet this was, I now know, one of the ANC’s underground internal leaders, as well as being a high-profile and celebrated anti-apartheid activist for decades.

A few years later, in 1989, I was fortunate to be one of the first granted an interview with Walter Sisulu on his release from prison. I travelled to the Sisulu’s Orlando West home, feeling overwhelmed at the idea of meeting him.

Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, also just released, was with Walter in the small front room of the Sisulu home. Walter was wearing slippers and immediately offered to make tea when I arrived. “No,” insisted Albertina, giving him a hug, “I’ll do it,” and went to the kitchen to boil the water. She was carrying the tea tray when she returned, put it down, and took Walter’s hand.

Again, I wondered at the inherent modesty, lack of pretension, and total absence of self-importance of these symbols of all that was best and noble in the struggle against apartheid and injustice. And I mourn their passing. — Glenn Moss

Zapiro didn’t steal from me
A recent letter (May 20 to 26) credits me with an idea subsequently used in a Zapiro cartoon. Let me set the record straight.

In the early 1970s, the Wits Student editorial board was a collective. People such as Mark Douglas-Home, Steven Friedman, Geoffrey Norman, Mark Wolff, Derek Louw and myself borrowed freely from each other, with no thought of copyright or plagiarism. We also “ripped off” graphics and slogans from the international student press, on the general assumption that we were all acting in a common cause and that others, like us, would not mind.

It was acknowledged among us that the exact words for the front-page lampoon: “Excuse me, are you the Prime Minister?” were Wolff’s. Douglas-Home took the blame and was deported for his pains. I, thanks to a series of other graphics, came to be associated with it. After years of trying to put the record straight, it became too tiresome to keep doing so.

I did, at one stage, threaten to sue Zapiro for calling me a “cartoonist” in a paper he wrote, but the matter was amicably resolved when he told me to “bugger off”. — Franco Frescura, Durban

Before you eat that fish —
I was distressed to read in the restaurant review in Friday (June 3 to 9) that the restaurant in question — Japa in Rivonia Village Shopping Centre — serves “delicious, albeit endangered rock cod” from Mozambique. When I checked the status of rock cod on the Southern Africa Sustainable Seafood Initiative (Sassi) list, four species came up as either “orange” or “red”.

Consumers are an important last line of defence for our depleted oceans, so perhaps you could remind diners of a useful service offered by Sassi. All you need to do is SMS the name of a particular species of fish to its hotline (0794 9987 95) to find out whether you can enjoy your sushi in good conscience. The number does work — I’ve used it successfully on several occasions. They also have a mobi site at www.wwfsassi.mobi. — Andrea Weiss, Cape Town

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