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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I was Not Always Like This

I put on my SANDF vest with pride as I prepare for the race. The thick red, maroon and navy stripes against a white background announce that I am part of the formidable team of military personnel. The slightly protruding belly underneath my vest is acceptable for a man of my age.

Living in Pretoria taught me to make very wise choices. I chose to run for the military club not because I ever harboured any ambitions of becoming a soldier, but for my street credibility. I live in what used to be an apartheid military area and every third house or so is still occupied by someone linked to the army. No bugler will risk venturing into a house whose occupant keeps an R5 rifle under his pillow. The soldiers are my friends. I have become one of them.

It’s a marathon – 42.2km distance in total. We start the race, the majority of us running quite slowly, but some are slower than others. There’s a woman wearing a blue doek with a matching long skirt. I’m almost convinced that she was on her way to church when she found herself in the middle of the running crowd, except that the blue rugby socks that she’s wearing won’t be appropriate at any church. If she’s a runner, she’s definitely one of the slowest, I conclude.

I see a pair of Rastafarians. They are both very tall with long silver-grey dreadlocks. They are both wearing long coats and tracksuit pants. They run in a slow rhythmic pace so much that it seems like they are just skanking to the sounds of Bob Marley. I whizz past and they remain a distant memory.

Seeing SANDF emblazoned across my chest and back, everybody seems convinced that I am a soldier. For this I command a certain level of respect, and there are some expectations as well. A young man comments that as a soldier I’m used to climbing mountains. These are small things, I tell him. At 17km I run into Bhut’ Eric. I know him. When I was a midget in higher primary school he was running. I’m close to retirement now and he’s still running. I notice that what used to be black beard looks more like a broom littered with grey ashes.

We get to a water point at 18km and he takes a water sachet and gives it to me. I decline because I’ve got my own. He asks me to open it for him. It dawns on me that with zero dental formula he can’t bite on the plastic tube. I duly bite for him, water sprinkles out and I hand it over to him.

At 25km I decide to make a clear distinction between old sticks and my fresh pair of legs. He bids me farewell as I accelerate. At 31km my legs start cramping. I walk for two minutes after the 33km water point. The legs cramp again when I try to run. I start calculating the remaining distance before I get to the finish line. I look over my shoulder and see a woman pushing a child in a pram. The little rascal giggles incessantly.

Still huffing and puffing, I walk, spit and occasionally run. At 35km a group of old men with heavy Afrikaans accents advances. One barks at me, “C’mon soldier. Run, soldier!” I look at him. He’s a very tall man with a bushy moustache and hairy arms and legs.

“I’m trying,” I respond.

“Where arrr the otherrrs?”

“Ahead,” I’m not in a mood to explain that I am not a soldier and I wasn’t training with ‘the others’ as he seems to assume.
“When I was a ma-jo-rrr there, YOU wouldn’t be doing this! You’ll run with the others in front!”

“I know, major. I wasn’t always like this.” He continues with his race and as soon as he disappears from view, I walk again.
Bhut’ Eric catches up with me at 37km. I tell him to go I’ll catch up again. The pair of Rastafarians keep on skanking past at 39km. At the 41km point the blue woman glides past in the same old pace. The finish line keeps moving further away. The last hundred meters if particularly long. I cross over the finish line and collapse.

My homeboy and former running mate, Bra T, finds me lying under a shade still struggling to catch my breath. He offers to rub my legs, but I decline because I want to get home, take a shower and then get the rub. He asks how long it took me to finish the race, and I tell him. He shakes his head with disappointment. But it’s good enough to qualify for comrades, I tell him.

He appoints himself as my trainer. I tell him I can’t keep up with a strict training programme anymore. What with my family, fulltime job, my reading and writing? Best runners know how to make time for training, he says. I tell him that I’m not what I used to be. You still have the potential to be the best, he assures me. I have no energy to argue, so I give him my mobile number and leave. He shouts once more that he’ll make sure that I return to proper training.

I am woken by my phone. I fumble and get hold of it and answer. The voice on the other side says, “You are not at training yet?”
“Who’s this?” I ask.

“It’s Teabag. Get up and go for training!” Training? I look at the time. It’s 4:35am.

“Bra T, I can’t run. I only went to bed at 3:30 this morning. I was writing.”

“Man, are you a runner or not?”

“Bra T,” I say. “You know I was not always like this.” He hangs up. I fall asleep.

The Flying Horse

When I went to the University of Fort Hare twenty years ago, I was torn between doing sport or literature. You see, both presented prospects of being popular among the girls. I was still in a desperate quest to be noticed by girls.

I had a certain measure of success in sport during my school days. I did karate from age nine and I had been the captain of my soccer team from age sixteen. It was probably in running that I boasted the most significant successes, having represented the Eastern Province twice in cross-country championships in 1993 and 1994 respectively.

In literature, well, I had written a few poems—poems of a romantic kind. The problem was that I had not met a girl good enough to deserve them. And there was also this chronic fear for girls that troubled me. I think someone invented a word for it— Caligynephobia.

Running was seasonal as a result the popularity of runners at school often fizzled out after the Easter holidays. So literature won, but I kept my poetry to myself. I didn’t want too much destruction on my first year of university. I did not participate in any sport other than playing for my village soccer team on weekends.

On Athletics Day in 1995, I watched from the stand as athletes strutted across the field with their legs glistening with over-applied Rubbing Stuff. Some even had bandages where they were not injured. There was one particular athlete named Tony, who ran 5000m, 3000m and 1400m consecutively and won all of them quite comfortably.

I found myself saying, “I’ll beat all these people next year.”

“What?” responded my friend and homeboy, Kaizer, who did not know much about my running.

“I said,” I reiterated in a deliberate and consciously emphatic tone. “I’ll beat all of these runners next year.” What followed was uproarious laughter from my friends who thought a few more screws had gone loose in my head. Between the guffaws, Kaizer said, “Horses will grow wings and fly!”

A year passed and my poetry had not impressed anyone so I had no choice but to start training for the 1500m race. Crowds started gathering by the poolside adjacent to the stadium whenever I was training in the track field. The sight of a black man furiously chasing the wind was quite amusing. Word went round that there was a new top runner in town.

I was with my cousin Vuyo, when we bumped into Tony a week before the Athletics Day. He asked Tony if I could run at all. Tony said something to the effect that I was the only one who could give him competition on campus. My cousin was astonished. I went to bed smiling.

On the day of the athletics, I sat in the stands watching, again. The 5000m race started and finished, but Tony was not there. The 3000 also took place, but Tony was not there either. About 40 minutes before the start of the 1500m race, I got up to do warm-up.
My friend Kaizer refused to look after my clothes. His argument was simple — he didn’t want to associate with the disgraced guy. He said I couldn’t make a fool of myself in the track field and come back to get my tracksuits from him. I left my clothes unattended and went behind the stadium where I had intensive warm up for about 30 minutes.

I came back to the track field a few minutes before the race, with rivers of perspiration running down my face. There was a raucous cheering from the stand and, as I turned to acknowledge the warm reception, I saw Tony donning a new kit and strutting across the field coming to the start—the same way I saw him doing the previous year.

Like the star that he was, he shook hands to acknowledge other athletics, starting with me. When a fan shouted that they had been waiting for him to do his magic, he said, “Don’t look at me alone, watch this man as well (pointing at me).”

The gun starter went off and I bolted out of the start line like a bullet. There was laughter and jeering from the crowd. I knew what they found so amusing. We had some clowns called “pace-setters” who would start a race with the serious runners, run a few metres very fast and collapse on the side.

I took the second lap with the same pace. There was less laughter. And then silence. The silence was soon followed by loud cheers and I knew that they realised that I was no pace-setter. I was on the third lap when I heard a familiar voice saying “The time, chase the time, my brother.” When I looked my suspicions were confirmed. It was Tony.

I increased the pace as I started the last lap, opened my strides and swung my arms in a comfortable cadence when I was 140m away from finish, and sprinted when I was 60m away until I crossed the finish line. I had trained the course and the technique. I clocked 3:41 for the distance, a time that could have booked me a place in the Olympics on a different day.

The joyous singing, chanting and ululation were accompanied by a clinking sound. And it happened to me. Finally. Girls were dangling their room keys, inviting me to come over. I was a hero. One girl called Zukiswa, whose room I had visited before, was brave enough to come to me and say, “You are a flying horse.”

“I wish it was your roommate saying that,” I said inside.

A Season of Poetry in Politics

Last year I undertook to prove that the comedian was a threat to the poet. This was after I had been to several corporate functions where comedians such as Trevor Noah, Eugene Khoza and Loyiso Gola, were hired to regale audiences. These comedians are even infiltrating the literary space now, performing at occasions such as the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

I have since come to the realisation that the comedian is no threat to the poet, the politician is.

There will be poetry galore when the ANC opens nominations ahead of the Mangaung conference in a couple of days. Statements made during tumultuous political moments are often emotive and deeply metaphoric. These statements are usually made impulsively — neither pre-digested nor thoroughly contemplated. The spontaneity of such statements is what makes them profoundly poetic.

One of the generic features of poetry is that the words embody meanings beyond their literal sense. In South Africa politicians unleash copious amounts of such verses especially during the time of elections, and they seem unaware of the depth of the statements that they make most of the time. This is what I call Poetry in Politics.

One of the notable poetic moments was when President Jacob Zuma, after being acquitted of corruption charges, told his supporters that there’s no point of wasting energy beating “a dead snake.” That dead snake was supposedly his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whom he had defeated in Polokwane. Zuma was probably not thinking that the bone of a dead snake can remain venomous, as we witnessed the loud cheers with which Mbeki was received at the centenary celebrations in Mangaung on 8 January this year.

As the leadership of the ruling party cut the cake celebrating the centenary, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was tasked with the responsibility of toasting to the life of the oldest liberation movement in Africa. It was here that Motlanthe, known for his immaculate demeanour, made what turned out to be one of the major blunders in his political career. He turned to the crowds and shouted, “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne, and of course they do so on your behalf through their lips.” He further instructed those who did not have glasses to raise their fists!

In South African politics there can be no poetry without Julius Malema, described by Lindiwe Mazibuko of the Democratic Alliance as a “Frankenstein monster.” Malema was elected as the president of the ANC Youth League amidst a bum-parade in Mangaung in April 2008. Shortly after his controversial election, Malema called for Mbeki’s head and publically declared that he would “kill for Zuma.” Needless to say he never killed anyone, at least not as far as I know, but his words reverberated across South Africa and throughout the world.

Malema soon became a force to be reckoned with in the political arena because of his erratic statements. Several times he was voted as newsmaker of the year, and made friends and foes along the way. It was he who once said, “In politics there are no permanent friends or enemies.” And so, one wonders if Malema would one day be a bed-mate of the person he described as the “ugly woman in a blue dress who dances like a monkey.”

The “monkey” metaphor was also used by former police chief, General Bheki Cele, when he said about the murder of Annie Dewani, “A monkey came all the way from London to have his wife murdered here.” Another high profile case that is worth a mention is the Bulelani Ngcuka spy trial. During cross-examination, Kessie Naidu asked Mac Maharaj, “Why is getting an answer from you like extracting teeth?” To which Maharaj replied, “During my life I have been used to people doing that without anaesthetic.”

Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition, once took on Malema, calling him an “inkwenkwe,” an uncircumcised boy. Such a label is highly offensive in Xhosa culture, a language that Zille was speaking at the time. Malema retorted rather nonchalantly, “I do not understand why racist Helen Zille tells people about our secrets because if she says I am an inkwenkwe, surely she cannot talk about something she has not seen before.”

But the “Frankeinstein monster” had to bounds, something that landed him in front of the ANC’s Disciplinary Committee. Thousands of his supporters protested and vandalised shops and other establishments in downtown Johannesburg where the hearing was held. Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the ANC, who in my view should be crowned the Poet Laureate of Poetry in Politics, chastised: “When you open the window to bring in fresh air, and mosquitos also come in, you take responsibility for both the fresh air and the mosquitos.”

Counting on the role that he and the youth league played in the ascendance of Zuma to presidency, Malema was quite confident that the ANC would be lenient. He argued that the ANC is not a pig. It doesn’t eat its own children. Lo and behold, the axe fell on Malema’s neck in November 2011, and Mantashe gloated, “the ANC is like an elephant, it is big but when it moves, it can move very fast” and crush everything on its way.

Halfway through the year hundreds of learners in Limpopo province still did not have textbooks, but one man drove all the way from Limpopo to deface a painting that exposed another man’s genitals at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. As if that’s not enough, Senzeni Zokwana, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), threatened a men-only march, where they would march naked to protest Brett Murray’s offensive painting at the Goodman Gallery. In the end we were deprived of the bum and belly parade!

Intense political atmospheres often induce the best of verse. And perhaps the reason why the politician prevails over both the poet and the comedian during contentious political moments is because the politician possesses all these qualities. In such a situation the politician becomes fodder for both the poet and the comedian. Let the nominations begin and let poetry overflow from the mouths of the politicians!

African Delights

African DelightsThese wide-ranging stories take us from Sophiatown in the Drum era to the rural Eastern Cape to the luxury Jozi homes of present-day tenderpreneurs. By turns poignant, raunchy, philosophical and funny, they cast a wry and astute eye on universal human questions and conundrums presented by our particular historical moment.

Andries W. Oliphant, Academic and former Editor of Staffrider, remarks, “Written fluently and deftly, they are laced with wit, humour and satire; testimony to an incisive, thoughtful and refined literary talent.”

About Siphiwo Mahala

Siphiwo Mahala is the author of When A Man Cries (2007), a novel which he translated into isiXhosa as Yakhal’ Indoda (2010). His short stories appear in numerous literary journals and magazines locally and internationally. He holds a Masters degree in African Literature from Wits University. He is the Head of Books and Publishing at the national Department of Arts and Culture.

Book details

Mistaken Identity

I’m writing a movie script. It’s a police drama—South African style. I don’t know what it’s called yet, but I know it’s gonna be a blockbuster. Some may wonder what business I have writing about police activities. Wait a minute and you’ll see that I have very vivid memories of dealing with the police from a very early age.
Like any child growing up in a township in the 1980’s, any business involving police never augured well with me. My first encounter with the police was back in 1983. I was young, very young but the memory of that encounter still lingers on my mind like a hideous nightmare. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was lying on the bed with my father. My father was one of the most fantastic storytellers that I have ever known. But this day his storytelling was interrupted by a knock at the door. If you lived in South Africa in the eighties you would know “the police knock”. It was unique. You would never mistake it for anything. In fact, it was less a knock than the thumping on the door! It reverberated like a thunderstorm in our two-roomed house.
Instinctively, I jumped to open the door. I removed the metal latch and the door swung open. I was engulfed with a shade of blue. There in front of me was an enormous white man in a blue police uniform. I had seen him before. Everyone in the township knew him. Older boys used to run for cover at the sight of his yellow police van which spotted a BDK registration. It didn’t matter that they were not involved in any unlawful activities. Their sin was being young men in a disorderly state.
I had never seen the horrendous policeman so close. He was right in front of me. In my father’s house. In our home. I still do not understand how he managed to walk through the door because the man seemed bigger and taller than the door.
“Ngubani lowo?” my father shouted from the other room asking who it was. The white man went past me.
“Heyi, yiz’ apha wena!” He had called on my father in a very demeaning manner. “Heyi” is very offensive and was viewed as a derogatory word to use among our people. If you wanted to pick a fight, you would start by saying, “Heyi, where are you going?” and your potential victim would respond by saying I am not “heyi” to you. An argument would erupt. And then blows would be exchanged.
But now the policeman was referring to my father as “heyi” and my father complied with his orders. My father had spent that very afternoon regaling me with heroic stories of him and his three brothers. That no one could defeat them in stick-fighting. From the Great Fish River, across the Tyhume River and throughout the entire region of the AmaTola Mountains, the brothers were respected warriors. No one could beat them, he had told me. The evidence was the scars that criss-crossed his forehead.
My father had been called outside by the policeman. His manhood was diminishing right in front of the nosy onlookers. He didn’t have his stick with him. The policeman had his gun with him. My father was there talking to the enormous policeman. And I heard my mother’s voice. My mother, the soft-spoken Christian woman, sounded different. She was shouting. I never heard her shout before. But that day she was shouting. Shouting at the white policeman. I was proud of my mother.
The door opened gently. It was my father with my mother on tow.
“What are they saying, dad?” I asked.
“They say I stole a car.” He duly explained.
“When?” I am not sure whether I was asking when he stole the car or when the police say he had stolen it.
“But we’ve been here all day.” I said obviously perplexed.
“That’s what I’ve been telling them. But they found the car outside our gate.”
“What colour is it?” I asked getting curious.
“It’s red.”
A red car outside my home. How I wished the car could be given to my father if it was lost. He would learn how to drive it and would surely take good care of it. I had picked up a stray puppy and grew very fond of it. I named him Chomie because he became my friend. The same could happen to the car if it was lost. It’s no big deal, I concluded.
The door swung open again. It was the stout policeman. “Yiz’ apha!” he had said and my father didn’t move an inch. I looked at my father and his face contorted in a defiant grimace. The policeman pointed at me with his fat white index finger.
“Heyi, ndithetha nawe.” He said, making it clear that he was calling me and not my father. I noticed for the first time that he had grey eyes. I never knew that white people had grey eyes. May be with those grey eyes he couldn’t tell that I was a child, I said to myself inwardly.
“Heyi, ngumntwana lo.” I felt so proud when my father said “heyi” to the dreaded policeman, telling him that I was only a child. The policeman fixed his gaze at me and, in the same way my father had done earlier, I got up and went outside with the policeman.
“Who stole that car, is it your father?” He asked in Xhosa. I looked towards the direction he was pointing to and there were many cars. I tried to respond but my throat was dry and nothing audible came out of my mouth. He repeated the same words. I swallowed saliva and gave it a try one more time. I heard my hoarse and shaky voice saying, “I don’t know.” As soon as those words came out of my mouth I felt a warm liquid trickling down my cheeks.
“Listen boetie, did your father steal that car?” The rhino in front of me persisted. He spoke slowly through clenched teeth putting emphasis on each syllable. He touched the bulge on his waist like a cowboy getting ready for a gunfight. My favourite TV dramas at the time included Magnum P.I., The “A” Team and Knight Rider, and from these films I knew very well what police kept on their waists. The thought of violent death visited my young mind for the first time. My mother screamed that the policeman was about to kill me. My father shouted that the white pig dared to touch his son. I wet my khaki shorts.
Until that day, I always looked up to my father. I knew my father was invincible. But at that moment I wondered what my father could do against such an enormous white man. My father was a small man and his homemade rusty bayonet did not stand a chance against the white man’s gun. Numerous guns. I had never seen so many cars around my home before. They were driven by the police. And police had guns.
“You are not taking my son anywhere,” my father kept shouting at the white man. “You rather kill me,” he offered himself as a sacrifice. The enormous white man
in front of me had bended to my height. I could smell his warm whiff. He was talking but I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I was crying. And he beckoned me to go back to the house. My wet shorts were stuck to my skin as I walked. My father was there talking to the policeman. I wondered if the policeman was going to take my father’s life as my father had offered. I didn’t want to loose my father.
After what seemed like eternity, both my parents came back with undisguised fury across their faces. My mother was grumbling about disrespectful white men. My father couldn’t believe that they would accuse him of being a car thief whereas he could not drive even a tractor. I wished my father had a car. Red car, red car, how I long for you.
“Mom.” I called out to my mother.
“Yes, my dear little boy.” She had said in English and forced a smile as she turned to look at me. The phrase was from a nursery rhyme she had coined me: “Oh my dear little baby; Oh my dear little boy.” I would giggle and kick the air as she held me above her head and repeated the words. Those were just about the only familiar English words to me even though I didn’t know what they meant at the time.
“I hate white people.” As soon as I said those words she took a glance at my father. I also looked at my father. He took the blanket and covered his face. My mother drank water from a jug and hummed her favourite church hymn. I was disappointed that my comment was not received with any adulation.
There was another knock at the door. Gentler this time. It was another white man. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt. He had hair on his arms. He had a star outside his left chest-pocket. He had nicely trimmed black hair. He was clean shaven. He was handsome. If he was in a movie, he would definitely be a starring. Handsome people don’t deserve to be thugs!
He spoke in a language that I couldn’t understand. My father responded without getting up. The white man said something to my mother too. My mother responded in a strange language. White people’s language, I assumed. The white man turned to me. He pulled my cheek gently with his two fingers and said a familiar sound. The same sound that my mother would make when she saw a cute baby. He made a gesture like a good bye. I lifted my right hand and waved at the handsome white man. He was smiling as he opened the door to leave. That was the last I saw him. And the last time I saw a white man in our house that day.
My mother screamed that the bread she was baking had burned. She switched off the primus stove. And only then was I conscious of the smell and the smoke that filled the house. I took off the wet khaki shorts and got into bed next to my father. I asked what the friendly conversation was all about and my mother told me that the white man that came last was a traffic officer. He had seen and chased the thief all the way from Port Elizabeth but he got away. He knew what the culprit looked like. And that it wasn’t my father.
But my movie is not about this traumatic experience from the bad old days of the 1980’s. It’s about today’s incidents. And I want it to feature prominent individuals. I want my starring to be our King of Police. I like the guy. I believe he possesses features of a movie star. He is one of very few politicians who do not have a round belly. He is tall, dark and handsome. His bald hair, toned body and stylishly trimmed beard all remind me of the hunky Keenen Ivory Wayans from the 1994 action comedy, A Low Down Dirty Shame.
Mine won’t follow the clichéd motif of a cop who’s been expelled from the force and comes back to investigate the case without the permission of his bosses; takes risks and cracks the case, something that will earn him praise. I think that kind of plot is archaic now.
There are more interesting police stories in South Africa today. Not long ago, Traffic Officers embarked on a strike and there was a looming threat that they would exchange fire with the members of our Police Service. I wasn’t sure which officers mattered most to society. Shortly after this strange incident, the soldiers marched to the State President’s office, The Union Buildings. I feared for my life as the police dispersed them with rubber bullets and humiliated members of our national defense force. The soldiers promised to hit back. I’m grateful sanity prevailed.
And as we speak, the former top cop is in the dock over his dealings with some drug lords. There’s a subplot of the death of a mining magnate. The dead man is implicated as a sponsor of some young lions—our future leaders. Come on, that should be the juiciest one especially when the man who replaces the top cop wears cowboy hats! My cast is increasing. This is all material for a blockbuster. But that is a script for another day.
My current movie stars only one man. Our King of Police as a no-nonsense cop who goes to the heart of the matter. The tagline of the film would be “He is armed. He shoots to kill!” and Mandoza’s Nkalakatha will be the sound track. I want my starring to be more like a thug with a police badge. He will be motivated by the desire to prevent and combat crime, by all means. I haven’t decided on my setting yet, but it must be a slum where crime is more prevalent. There will be a gun-totting gang that is terrorizing the community. And the King of Police will go there to find the kingpin.
You see, bravery is one of the main characteristics of a starring. He must go where no one else would dare set a foot. He must be armed with two firearms. One on his hip and the other secretly strapped to his ankle. After shooting down all the kingpin’s henchmen, he will chase his main opponent who will keep disappearing between the shacks. They will exchange fire until he runs out of live ammunition. He will then pull out his spare firearm and shoot the fleeing gangster in the head. He will go to the dead body to say words of triumph like, “Tell all other dead thugs there’s a new cop in town!”
But when he gets to the spot where the lifeless body lies, he realises that the gang leader had escaped. The dead body is not the gangster. It is the body of a three year old boy with a deep wound in his forehead. The boy was playing with his friends when he was mistaken for a criminal. The dead boy is the King of Police’s son. The King of Police’s only son looses his life because of mistaken identity. I wish I could write this as a movie script. But this melodrama is unfolding in our day and era.

Neighbourhood Watch

Spring has come. The citrus season is over. There are no more lemons to talk about with Oupa. For after almost a year in this neighbourhood he remains the only neighbour I know and get along with. My good neighbour still can’t speak a single word of English. Given the deficiency of my Afrikaans, I have to think about each conversation in advance.

One Saturday morning he catches me picking up some dirt in the yard and he says something to the effect that this should be my “sport”. Cleaning? My Sport? I wonder if he is commenting on my impairment as a gardener. I’m not lazy I just don’t have time to work in the garden. It’s not an attractive hobby anyway. Grass is growing up the wall, dry leaves are scattered all over the yard and the clearly neglected lawn has been thirsting for water throughout winter. My braaing stand is standing in a corner full of ashes since the last time we had a braai way before we were hit by the recession. I am well aware of the fact that my yard is not the tidiest but I don’t need an old man to remind me about this.

But he belongs to another generation and I don’t wanna disrespect elders, especially a neighbour. And the only one I know nogal. Besides, given our linguistic barriers, disagreeing with him might prove difficult as I hadn’t prepared for it in advance. “Yes, this should be my sport,” I repeat his words, for that’s the routine of our conversations. He continues with the conversation but I miss a lot of what he is saying because his dog is barking. I’m irritated by the dog because this moment is not only important for me to get to know my neighbour better but also to increase my Afrikaans vocabulary. He catches my eye staring at the dog and feels obliged to explain that the dog is new. His pug (which I also didn’t like very much) had died recently. In addition to the dog, Oupa has three big cats that I suspect are close cousins to leopards. You’ll understand what I mean when you see those massive animals.

And now we talk about cats and dogs; dogs and cats all the time. No more lemons! My sober mind tells me that the animal conversations are more sustainable than lemons. Actually, I don’t know why I didn’t think about them in the first place because I wrote good compositions of “My Hond” and “My Kat” at school. These lessons would for once in my life come in handy. I know my Afrikaans compositions were good because I memorised everything that our teacher taught us (which in turn, she probably read during her school days).

The animal conversation network is increasing rapidly. Just a few days ago I was walking to the shop and speaking on the phone. Suddenly a car makes a screeching stop right in front of me. I lift up my head and realise that I walked in front of the car as it was approaching the driveway. I apologise profusely. I’m not the one for fights, not especially with neighbours. In fact, I subscribe to the Michael Jackson philosophy (bless his departed soul) that “I’m a lover not a fighter.” The old man behind the wheel gestures at me and I take that as a warning.

This is a military area. In the past the area was meant exclusively for military officers and most of my neighbours served in the army at some point. I mean truly military men and not those guys you saw struggling to climb over the Union Buildings fence a few weeks ago. If a soldier wags a finger at you and brings his car to a screeching halt you are bound to tremble. At least I did.

I end my call unceremoniously as the driver gets out of the car. I’m about to apologise for walking on his driveway when the man hastily gets out of the car. I notice that there is something peculiar about his walk. He must have lost his leg in the army, I make a mental note. With a big smile across his wrinkled face, he stretches a hand to greet me. I am relieved that this is a friendly encounter and I happily shake hands with him. He introduces himself as…well, I’ll just call him Mr S. Now I’m happy about two things. I am not just getting to know another neighbour but this one can speak English too. That’s a bonus!

In a telling way, Mr S asks if that is my house. I respond in the affirmative and tell him how happy I am to finally meet him. In a deep Afrikaans accent he says, “Nee, I see you and your
wife drive in and out all the time. Even at night sometimes.” So he’s been watching our moves, I say to myself. “But you guys are so quiet.”
“Are we?” I say listlessly still amazed that he’s been keeping an eye.
“But that’s a good thing,” he adds. I’m pleased that we have a good record so far, but he is oblivious of the fact that soon we will be bringing the house down. We’ll be hosting a surprise party for a friend of ours in about two weeks. It is our responsibility as young people to bring life to the neighbourhood.
“I like this area.” I try to change the topic.
“Yah, it’s a good area—quiet and safe. But you must get a dog.” He warns.
“What for? This is probably the safest area in town.” I say because I know the area is relatively safe but it will be interesting to hear from a legendary resident. No one will ever mess with a neighbourhood where there’s an R4 rifle in almost every second household. ADT has no business in our neighbourhood. We are our own Armed Response. Okay, that’s just me threatening criminals who may be visiting this blog!
“No, it’s important to have a dog. There’s crime here. The dog will bark when
somebody tries to break into your house.” He justifies his point.
“But have you ever experienced crime here?” I’ve been curious to know because in my reasoning only a foolish thief with a death wish would try to steal from a military village.
“Oh, yes. We found our old dog floating in the swimming pool. Somebody must
have poisoned it.” He says trying to convince himself.
So, his crime testimony is the death of a dog which he suspects must have been poisoned and thrown into a swimming pool. Suffice it to say nothing was stolen!

A few days later my skorokoro coughed a few times and collapsed. After several attempts trying to resuscitate it I had to face the reality that it’s dead. Counting the years that I’ve been driving it without changing anything (other than tyres, oil and fuel), I know it needs a new battery. After buying the battery now the challenge is to remove the old one. I battle with it for several hours and decide to call on my good neighbour, Mr S. He’s a driving instructor and should know a thing or two about cars.

Mr S comes immediately and I introduce him to my co-worker who’s a friend visiting from the Eastern Cape. ‘Oh, I’ve seen you before. That was you the other night coming from the
shop with bread.” He says with a smile and my friend agrees. They go on about the happenings of that night which I was not privy to. Apparently it was quite late and my friend had to buy bread from the 24 hour garage nearby. Mr S, who by now is clearly the self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, followed the strange man and asked him where he lived. My friend had to prove that he was resident there by opening the gate with a remote control.

The happenings of that late night encounter having been clarified, I want to seize this opportunity and get to know the old man better. I’ve been dying to ask Mr S about his life in the army. In fact, I concluded from the first day that he lost his leg in the Second World War. I wanted to hide myself when he objected, saying it was actually a car accident. That’s why he decided to open a driving school so that he can teach people how to drive properly and minimise accidents on the road. I couldn’t agree more. He goes further to tell me that he is selling his daughter’s motorbike. Reason. He hates motorbikes. That makes two of us, I say.

They seem fun but any accident in a motorbike is a serious one. Even if you were riding at 60Km p/h when you fall it is your body that goes to the ground. But Mr S has a long history with motorbikes. First, his son drove one and he would be out late at night clubbing his youth away while the father stays awake worried. The young man would arrive at ungodly hours and the little machine would wake the whole neighbourhood with its loud engine.

The second testimony is about his daughter and her motorbike-riding boyfriend. Apparently this young man, who was supposed to be taking her out, didn’t know much about his father-in-law. And guess what mode of transport he used. A motorbike. How can he ever think of making the daughter of Mr S ride a motorbike? Over my dead body, Mr S tells me that’s what he said. They must either take a bus or the young man must borrow a car from his parents. I wonder if that was going to be the first time that the couple rode the roaring machine together.

As fate would have it, or rather, as Mr S had warned, soon there was a dead body. And it was not Mr S’s. The young man met a fatal accident while riding his motorbike. And fortunately for Mr S his daughter was not there with the boyfriend. In a typical storytelling formular, Mr S concludes by telling the moral of the story—the daughter later came back to him and said, “Daddy, you
were right. You saved my life.”
“I told you, this thing is dangerous.” Says Mr S, clearly pleased with himself.

So Mr S does not only provide free neighbourhood watch. He is watching his family as well. And perhaps to him the whole neighbourhood is family. Welcome to my neighbourhood!

Meet the Neighbours

I lead a boring life. I neither smoke nor drink and I’m always immersed in books. I was lucky to meet a companion with similar habits. Now we are a combination of a boring husband and a boring wife. The two of us are not the most sociable couple.

In the past three years we’ve changed residence twice and meeting new neighbours has been such a mission. Our rural background forbids us from staying in flats and townhouses. We can’t imagine our children growing up independently without the influence of unruly city brats from neighbouring flats. The cheap exotic houses become our obvious choice for a home.

The importance of having a good relationship with the neighbours cannot be overemphasised. Wine or beer of any kind plays a pivotal role in sowing the seeds of good neighbourliness. The fist place we bought a house in was a new development area and I was the first individual to be resident there. My family was to join me later as my wife was busy sending applications left right and centre trying to secure a job, any job, in Gauteng Province. With time I saw more houses with curtains, a sure sign that there were new neighbours around.

At the time I used to leave the house at 5AM and return in the evening at about 19h30. I didn’t even have a TV set so my neighbours wouldn’t even notice when I’m home in the evening. Of course, at the time I used to indulge on take-aways so I hardly spent time in the kitchen—not that I am not gifted in that department. I just love my Steers burger, that’s all. I was working on my novel at the time so neighbours would barely catch a glimpse of me on weekends either.

I met my Venda speaking neighbours well after a year. It turned out that they only came home on weekends as both the husband and wife worked in North West province. I promised to look after the house during the week and they promised to do the same when I leave for Eastern cape during December holidays. I planned to visit them on the day of the over-glorified Soweto derby and my first disappointment was that while I favoured Chiefs, my good neighbour was a staunch Pirates fan. Anyone would know that rivalry is imminent in such a situation.

I sat there while chiefs walloped Pirates and I had to limit my excitement, lest I upset my newly acquired friend. I have heard stories of people that get killed over soccer arguments and I didn’t want to be a statistic. Things were made even more awkward when he offered me beer and I refused. I almost vomited when his wife offered me their traditional delicacy called something like Mopane worms, which to me looked like larva. Now, my biology studies told me that larva develops into a fly and eating that is no different to eating maggots.

We left this area and moved into what practically is an old village for white Afrikaners. I didn’t pick this up in good time because the gentleman from whom we bought the house was relatively young and spoke English well. I even developed a good relationship with him especially because we are both Blue Bulls fans. I realised later that befriending him won’t be very helpful because he won’t be here when we reside in the house anyway.

Now, unlike my previous residence, in a retirement village neighbours are always watching your moves like hawks. They know what time you left home, what time you came back, who visited you, and they see you when you throw a chocolate wrapping paper carelessly. Basically, it is more like your house is under surveillance. This should guarantee relative safety but one gets suspicious when you don’t share a common background with the neighbours especially in Pretoria where there’s a history of racially based violence.

So I try to brake the ice, I had nothing to loose after all. I extend my hand over the fence to introduce myself. The old man next door responds in Afrikaans and stretches his arm to greet. Well, I love people who love their languages, so I continue with the conversation in English. I did this before, I had a 30 minute conversation with a guy who spoke Afrikaans while I spoke English. I understood what he said in Afrikaans but could not respond in the language and the same applied to him. I tried my luck with my new neighbour but he told me straight that he cannot understand English.

Now, I did Afrikaans at school but we all regarded is as the language of the oppressor as a result we were quite hostile to it. We learned it only for the purposes of passing exams and we were not very enthusiastic to learn to speak the language. With my neighbour speaking Afrikaans only it meant I was the only one in my family who could have an inkling of what they are saying. My wife is from the former Transkei Bantustan and never did Afrikaans at school. When I converse with the neighbours I speak on behalf of my linguistically challenged family.

Somehow I manage to string together a few Afrikaans words and my Afrikaner neighbours turn out to be the nicest neighbours we have ever had. They have a lemon tree and one day I asked for lemons because I could see them falling off from the trees. They brought me a sack and a few days later I thank them for the lemons. They say they can give me more. With my lack of Afrikaans vocabulary, our conversations are punctuated with lemons and now we get a sack of lemons from the neighbours every two weeks.

I call my neighbours Oupa and Ouma. They are probably in their late eighties and I must say they continue to impress me. They probably know the formula of my conversations. When I see Oupa I ask, “Waar is Ouma?” and vice versa. So this day Oupa tells me that Ouma went to a hair salon, and I wonder why would a woman of her age bother doing her hair. She is under no obligation to impress the guy. He can’t divorce her now. He needs her company as much as she needs his.

My second shock came a week ago on Saturday 1 August, probably the coldest day this winter in Gauteng. Wind was whistling outside my window and I remained in bed contemplating fetching the book that I was reading from the car. After several hours I had to brave the cold. I couldn’t believe when I saw Oupa struggling to shield a bunch of floors against the strong wind. The man had braved the cold just to buy flowers for his eighty something year old wife.

I imagine that this couple probably has shielded their relationship from many storms over the years. I thought that may be I can learn a thing or two about life from the old couple. I see compassion in their eyes. And that is all the more reason to believe in love.

To be continued…

Teko Modise the Great Footballer and Poor Actor

I wonder if Teko Modise’s poor showing at the Confederations Cup has anything to do with the pathetic adverts that he had to do for the various brands. Teko is a great footballer and I love him for that, but my goodness, he’s such a lousy actor. Think of the Coca-Cola advert where he just shouts “Higher, ladies, higher!”, and may be the MacDonald’s one where he plays around with a ball and spots a potential player-escort in the process.

But one that I find extremely absurd is the Samsung advert. Here comes Teko Modise, the great South African Footballer out of what appears to be his private jet. Oh please, how many PSL players own private jets at the moment? In any case, here he comes out of the plane and takes his sunglasses off. Now, I have my cheap sunglasses and I’ve been in a plane before. Isn’t it most likely that you would put the sunglasses on when you get out of the plane instead of the other way round?

As Teko gets out of his jet he is surrounded by a bunch of guys in dark suits and sunglasses. Are they supposed to be bodyguards? Now, how many public figures in South Africa outside the political arena have bodyguards? You’d even find politicians such as Bantu Holomisa walking around without any bodyguards at times.

The great Teko gets out of the plane in this outlandish airport and a string of long cars are awaiting him. As his entourage drives out of the airport he notices this sad African boy who was hoping to get the much sort after autograph from him and, I suppose, Teko orders the entourage to stop. He gets out of his limousine and takes out his Samsung mobile phone. He uses his phone to take a photo with the now clearly ecstatic boy and leaves the phone with him. Teko doesn’t even bother to take his sim-card where he supposedly stores contacts for his loved ones.

Now I’m beginning to wonder if so much patronization of an individual didn’t get to his head in the field of play. The guy is still young and there’s a great promise in his legs. May be instead of letting his legs speak for him, he spent too much time thinking about how best he can meet the expectations of the fans, international scouts and the sponsors from the various brands that he’s been advertising.

Vikas Swarup at DAC Book Club

The much anticipated second public lecture hosted by the DAC Book Club was delivered by Vikas Swarup on Friday 12 June at the National Library, Pretoria. Over two hundred individuals braved the breezy evening to listen the outgoing Deputy High Commissioner of India talk about his widely acclaimed novel, Q&A, which was turned into the blockbuster movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

Swarup proved more than just a diplomat and a writer, but an eloquent public speaker as well. He kept the audiences captivated as he related his experience of having written the international bestselling novel and the subsequent adaptation into the multi-award winning movie. Q&A took two months to write in 2003 and even before its publication in 2005, the author received an offer for a movie deal in 2004. In addition to several awards, the book has been translated into 42 languages worldwide.

During the discussion that ensued, the participants wanted to know how it felt to give somebody else the responsibility of turning his book into a movie. Some clearly felt that the movie did not do justice to the novel. In a nonchalant but profound manner, Swarup likened this process to giving away your daughter for marriage. In this case, the movie becomes “your son-in-law and you never speak badly about your in-laws in public.” However, Swarup was consulted every step of the way and he advised on certain aspects of the movie and he is happy with the final product and its success.

Swarup also tried a hand in poetry after a brilliant performance by the much admired Masoja Msiza. In a hilarious manner, Swarup recited his instantly formed “poem” about how Msiza was “stealing his thunder”. On a more serious note, Swarup congratulated Msiza and acknowledged that South Africa had abundance of talent. He encouraged the culture of reading, which is essential for anyone harbouring ambitions of becoming a writer. These words echoed Ms Rachel More, the Deputy National Librarian’s statement that, “if library is the hospital of the mind, all of us would not mind being patients.”

Vikas Swarup at DAC Book Club

The much anticipated second public lecture hosted by the DAC Book Club was delivered by Vikas Swarup on Friday 12 June at the National Library, Pretoria. Over two hundred individuals braved the breezy evening to listen the outgoing Deputy High Commissioner of India talk about his widely acclaimed novel, Q