Catching a ride

Launched in 2000 in South Africa, the Taxi Art Series is working towards the twin goals of extending the profile of contemporary South African artists and, at the same time, establishing a teaching resource archive and educational materials. The series covers artists who have produced a substantial body of art but who have had no monograph published on their work.

The series title couldn’t be more apt for the Taxi Art book on Kagiso Pat Mautloa. It takes us on a journey of street-level encounters in Johannesburg, and there’s no better way to learn about a city than to experience it with a local inhabitant. From the age of two, Mautloa has walked these streets. He knows the details and essences that capture this South African urban environment with its multi-layered meanings and transitory beauties: the fraying of dusty hessian, the sudden harshness of sunlight or momentary tenderness of a dawn mist over corrugated iron, the density of blue-black shadows in narrow streets, rusted red metal on housing, the ragged punctures of street braziers, the way orange yellows to bronze, paper twists in the wind and reflections flash on broken glass, the dark eyes, acres of wire, cracked skin.

Mautloa’s roving eye has seized on a wide range of styles and media to render his city’s life, combining ethics and aesthetics to interpret the environment. The book’s numerous high-quality full-colour reproductions cover the artist’s output from his beginnings in 1978 up to 2003. A beautifully sensitive self-portrait (1979) in ink and conté pencil on paper provides evidence of early talent, and shows the conventional starting point from which the artist launched himself into a personal exploration of mixed-media assemblage and installation that so aptly evoke this urban reality. Mautloa’s work is particularly significant for the way it uses texture to awaken the viewer to myriad sensations and the harsh facts they imply. Collecting discarded fragments of the city’s surfaces and working on them and with them until they signify his concept, Mautloa shows us the underlying realities of the lives of his neighbours, co-workers, passers-by, the community of black urban dwellers. Among the outstanding works is Sleeping Quarters (c. 1995), a strong humanitarian statement that employs minimal materials to maximum effect. It viscerally and conceptually captures the imagination, leaving its impression and lasting resonance deep in the subconscious. Progress Wall (1995), a triptych in wood, metal and paint, and Cityscape (2003), mixed media on canvas, stir both the senses and the mind. They place the viewer in touch, almost literally, with poverty and simultaneously open our eyes to intense elemental African beauty. Through its focused abstraction and concentrated depiction of the environment, Mautloa’s work speaks of the human body and marks out the human presence in the landscape with its long history of struggle. The experience is specific and local, rooted in the South African reality.

“The artist’s roving eye has seized on a wide range of styles and media to render his city’s life, combining ethics and aesthetics to interpret the environment”

The author of the accompanying text, Andries Walter Oliphant, is an expert guide, explaining the route taken, slowing to introduce relevant context, negotiating turnings, pointing out fragments and references, and alerting the reader to subtle signs otherwise difficult to decipher. The individual works are lucidly discussed, giving in-depth explanations of significant details that broaden and enrich the viewing experience. There is the inevitable tendency to relate developments to the West, with little mention of influential African contemporaries such as Antonio Olé, but Oliphant adeptly combines biographical information, socio-political and historical context, and aesthetic analysis. The text offers a substantial, comprehensively considered account of Mautloa’s vision and work, opening avenues for further reflection.

In contrast, the Taxi ride in search of Deborah Bell is intentionally erratic. Pippa Stein, the main author, explains that the book is an introduction to the artist’s work and is structured around a variety of texts to indicate diverse approaches. Alongside the introductory essay, there are writings by the artist, a poem, a discussion between three critics, contributions by artists who have collaborated with Bell, and comments from viewers and patrons.

In both her art and her writing, Deborah Bell’s interpretations are expressed through the realms of myth, the emotions and the spiritual. Referring to European myth and drawing strongly from sources such as Max Beckman and Goya, the artist’s early (1980s) drawings and paintings explore female roles and perspectives, particularly with regard to relationships and sexuality. This thematic field is expanded to encompass white society in South Africa in several series of complex multi-layered etchings, such as Hogarth in Johannesburg (1987) and Little Morals (1991), and edgy animated films made in collaboration with William Kentridge and Robert Hodgins. During the same period, the late 80s and 90s, Bell began to move in a quite different direction. Although produced at the same time, this work is utterly distinct in its use of African iconography, drawn from, and closely based on, the historical art forms of a variety of African cultures. This work led towards her Unearthed series (2001), a group of beautiful life-sized, richly embellished terracotta figures that resemble pieces from the African galleries of a museum. Equally powerful are her Mangbetu-inspired Crying Pots (1998), which she explains are intended to link the grief exposed in the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings to ancient African sorrows. These works raise numerous questions, and although some issues are briefly touched on in the critics’ conversation, they are not developed. The separation of the two strands of Bell’s work – which appears to divide the European and modern from the ancient and African – and the absence of white African history in the latter work, need analysis not offered in the text. Pippa Stein declares the book’s intention to be open-ended but I find myself agreeing with two viewers who comment that: ‘the artist seems to have something hidden inside her, something she cannot let out’. The book is certainly an invitation to further debate.

To date the Taxi Art Series comprises ten monographs, and with a publishing programme of two or three books a year we have much to look forward to. The other eight artists represented are Jo Ratcliffe, Samson Mudzunga, Jeremy Wafer, Santu Mofokeng, Lien Botha, David Koloane, Noria Mabasa and Steven Cohen. Each book provides material that is not otherwise available, a generous amount of high-quality reproductions in full colour, the artist’s CV and references to relevant publications, and the flexible approach to structure and content allows the author and artist to fashion a vehicle that suits the individual involved. The inclusion of black commentators in the monograph on Deborah Bell is particularly welcome and hopefully more extensive in the other and future books in the series.

A most important feature of the series is that each book is accompanied by an Educational Supplement (unfortunately not included for review) designed to make the artist’s work accessible to teachers and students of art and art history both in South Africa and beyond. The translation of the text (or an abbreviated version) into French and Dutch is advantageous for the European audience, however, keeping in mind the local students and the fundamental need to develop useable teaching materials, translation into local African languages – in particular the mother tongue of the artist – would greatly facilitate wider use and readership. Co-sponsored by the French Institute of South Africa, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Pro-Helvetia, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the National Arts Council of South Africa and the David Krut Arts Resource, the Taxi Art Series is an important initiative for art making and art teaching in Africa. The next vital step is for other countries on the continent – each of which has a wealth of art and artists – to establish similar art publishing projects to record and disseminate local cultural creation and strengthen local debate.

Tell the truth, laughing

Niq Mhlongo’s character Dingz in Dog Eat Dog is semi (very) autobiographical, and you can imagine him doing exactly what Niq did to get his book published. He took his diaries and transformed them into a novel and then just took a train down to Cape Town to go and get it published. Very matter of fact, but still an adventure. Niq summed it up – he was bored, lonely, broke, even alienated, and a little desperate. Here comes the writing bug – when you are forced to translate your diaries into fiction because there is not much else to do, the life you were leading that made the diaries has stopped for a while, now there is nothing for it but to derive a story from the diaries you derived from your life.

To jump in, one of Niq’s favourite books is Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger (click here to read an extract and buy it) and the writer/book division becomes thin once again as he describes how he likes that Dambudzo is an Oxford drop-out turned hobo whose novel has become a prescribed book. He likes people that aren’t too pristine or perfect or rounded, so his characters too are sometimes as mean or nasty as the story itself, which is told almost as a series of anecdotes or snapshots of contemporary urban life. But there is essentially nothing too terrible there, they play pranks and make fun and make the best out of a raw deal in a dog eat dog world.

There is flippancy about things like Aids and sexually transmitted diseases and love and drinking throughout. It is good to laugh about those things and absolutely about time too, but Niq manages to balance it out well with scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, and show more about the character’s internal life than he would ever reveal to his friends at the bar, where they seem to be for a good third of the novel. Suddenly Dingz remembers his father dying, in a quick breather in the middle of one of his escapades – and describes holding his hand while he tries to speak in a few short, gentle sentences that will probably stick with you for a long time.

“Niq likes the idea that the role of the writer is to observe and reflect on society, hence his story is made up of other stories overheard in the loo, on the bus, on the street, through cubicles”

So there is lots of tenderness, when Dingz decides in the middle of the night he misses his girlfriend, and walks across to her house to fetch her and bring her back to sleep with him under the dining room table, sure that no-one will notice them as his brothers get up before it is light, to go to work. By the time he has paid off the little sister she is meant to be looking after, and the friends he passes on the street that will rob him if he doesn’t give them money, it was a pretty expensive trip. But worth it. The book ends with him and his friends in the bar again, his new girlfriend “not used to them”, sitting and eating chips quietly, reminding you that while not much has changed in their lot, there is growth and movement, and that the love they all have goes a little deeper than just drinking-buddy level. But he avoids making it sound as soppy as that, by sticking to simply describing the scene, describing their interaction beautifully.

Niq likes the idea that the role of the writer is to observe and reflect on society, hence his story is made up of other stories overheard in the loo, on the bus, on the street, through cubicles, discussed around tables, the constant circulation of beliefs about and perceptions of South Africa. There are moments of real emotional power intermingled with darkly humorous escapades involving sadistic teachers and opportunistic taxi drivers. These are all familiar South African situations in a book that is a long way from flawless, but who cares, it should get a chance at going global as a riotous blast of reality. Maybe this is why it won’t be. It is far removed from the novels picked up by the now defunct Heinemann African Writer’s Series, for example. It is a potential trendsetter and literary equivalent of some of South Africa’s great semi-educational TV for teenagers, but it is also a lot more than that. The characters are complicated, Dingz is a genuine, often unlikeable anti-hero. There is a great feel for context and scene, Niq also mentions loving Marechera’s ability to describe space, something he aspires to be able to do even better as he writes more.

Niq also loves Ben Okri but thinks that “writing beyond yourself” is not the way for him – he believes in experiencing or at least knowing what you write about, for him it is the township reality in a completely unglamourised, unromanticised way. There is no sentimentalizing of their lives or personalities – Dingz is a complicated and not completely likeable boy, pretty deceitful and angry and funny and drunken, but recognizable. He also deliberately sets up most of the interaction through conversation, conversation that often gets steadily drunker and drunker, to give himself the room to talk about whatever he wants to talk about. This is a really accessible piece of writing, perfect for young adults. One review said that they would recommend it be a senior school textbook if it wasn’t for the swearing.

What Niq Has on his Bedside Table. Angela’s Ashes and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Both funny, one an observational account of extreme poverty, the other about how to ostracise yourself. The perfect combination for the writer who created Dingz, bouncing around broke and tirelessly annoying authority figures, from university vice-chancellors to aunts to the police.

His next book is a work on HIV/Aids – something funny and honest and loveable. He mentioned this nervously, there is a lot of pressure for the second novel. But he is on the right track, maybe we can get a South African version of the urban writer telling the tales of the dark underbelly of society with a wry grin and a worldview going beyond worries about whether it is a hopeful story, or an uplifting reshaping of reality. It is what it is, it is life, and life has a lot of death and drinking and ambiguity and young people being loud. And, at the end of the day, if you don’t like what you’re reading, as Niq says, you can say: “Oh that’s not the author, that’s just a drunken fool.”

Getting to know you, Africa Borwa

Ten years of democracy in South Africa is a common theme that runs through several monographs from inside and outside South Africa published this year. 2004 marks a decade of majority rule in South Africa and is therefore symbolically significant, in many ways, for both the country and the continent. For South Africans of all races the states of internal peace and democratic governance over the past decade, as opposed to the doomsday scenarios predicted before 1994, are worth celebrating. For Africa, South Africa represents a political, economic, and cultural experiment whose success, it is hoped, will ignite and sustain an African renaissance that many of the continent’s past and present political leaders have proclaimed and hoped for since the early 1960s.

Funso Afolayan’s book, Culture and Customs of South Africa, is an important contribution to what one could call ‘knowing Africa’. As part of the series ‘Culture and Customs of Africa’ that seeks to provide a quick reference to the cultures and customs of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, this book is an invaluable shortened contemporary biography of South Africa (other books in the series include Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya).

Culture and Customs of South Africa begins with a historical ‘Chronology of South Africa’. It is estimated that about 1-3 million years ago southern Africa was in the early Stone Age and that around AD 300, iron-using Bantu-speaking mixed farmers began to move into South Africa. The arrival of Portuguese explorers at Cape Town led by Bartholomew Dias seems to be the first recorded presence of Europeans on South African soil. However, it is the Dutch, working for the “Dutch East India Company under the command of Jan van Riebeeck”, who first settled in the Cape when they “obtained land from the Khoikhoi.”

Some of the select other significant historical moments in South Africa’s history included in this section are: the nine Xhosa-White Frontier Wars” between 1779 and 1780; the British seizure of the Cape from the Dutch in 1795; in 1838 the Zulu King, Dingane, orders the massacre of Piet Retief’s voortrekker party, Zulu army defeated by an Afrikaner commando at the Battle of Blood River; gold mining begins on the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg founded in 1886; the Anglo-Boer war 1899-1902; South African Native National Conference, the predecessor of the African National Congress (ANC) founded in 1912; in 1927 the Immorality Act prohibiting sexual relations between whites and others promulgated; 1948, the Afrikaner National Party (NP) wins elections and begins to implement the apartheid policy; in 1960 police kill 67 anti-pass demonstrators at Sharpeville; in 1966 Hendrik F. Verwored, the prime minister is stabbed to death in the House of Assembly; in 1976-77 protests against compulsory learning of Afrikaans by school children in Soweto spreads throughout the country leading to the death of nearly 600 people; Steve Biko dies, after being arrested and tortured by the police, in 1977; pass law repealed in 1986; 1989 Botha is replaced by F.W. de Klerk in 1989, who releases Mandela and other political prisoners between 1990-91 during which the government also unbans several opposition groups and political parties; led by Nelson Mandela, the ANC wins non-racial elections in 1994 after which Mandela forms a government of national unity.

These are some of the historical events in the life of South Africa that Afolayan has elected to highlight in this book. These events provide a basis for anyone interested in the political, economic, cultural, social, ethnic and racial realities in and make-up of contemporary South Africa. These events, most of which are of a political nature, remind us that a significant element in the study of South Africa is the role played by its colonial history, which is probably unlike that of any other country in Africa. South Africa is really a mosaic of people of all races and ethnicities, cultures, customs, traditions and religious beliefs and histories. The writing of its history – whether cultural, political or social – is therefore a daunting task. As Afolayan points out in the preface to the book, “South Africa is, in many ways, Africa’s oldest and newest nation”.

Here Afolayan is referring to the political moment in 1910 when the Union of South Africa was formed and direct British influence over the country ceased, although the independence achieved at the time applied more to the whites than to blacks who continued to be subject to white rule. It is inevitable, therefore, that the political has such an influence over any study that seeks to investigate or record the “culture and customs” of South Africa. For instance, the racial categories of White, Coloured, Indian and Black that were used by the apartheid regime to determine the social, economic, political and cultural statuses of individuals in South Africa subsequently influenced the form and content of the customs and cultures of those racial groups.

However, despite or even because of the segregationists policies of the apartheid system, South Africa became one of the most multi-racial and multi-cultural societies in the world. Even at the most critical and repressive moments of white rule in South Africa, the crossing of racial boundaries and the mixing of cultures happened, leading, in many cases, to very hybrid and creolised cultures and customs. It is this ‘mix of South Africa’ that makes it complex and difficult to represent in a book of about 300 pages.

Yet Afolayan manages to pack as much information as possible on several features of the country within the limited space. For instance, covering 470,000 square miles, South Africa is the most industrialised country in Africa and has taken a leading role among the industrialising countries of the global south. The latest census figures show that the country has a population of about 45 million people.

Afolayan acknowledges both the economic and political significance of the country, not only in Southern Africa but also on the rest of the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. In a sense, South Africa has become a source of inspiration for economic growth, political renewal and cultural renaissance of Africa.

The country has 11 official languages. The Bantu speakers, including the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho, among others form the largest linguistic category, which spills over into the neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. The Coloureds were originally identified as the descendants of the immigrant Malay population, the Khoisan and the Europeans in Cape Town but the term presently refers to offspring of mixed marriages, for instance between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Indians, or Indians and Blacks. Other racial and ethnic groups include descendants of Indian labourers, Asian labourers, the Chinese and recently – post 1994 – a host of people from the all over the world – mainly Eastern Europeans and Africans seeking economic opportunities and political asylum.

South Africa’s history and political economy is so complex that the 30 pages that Afolayan allocates to the two subjects do not do it justice. However, suffice to say here that Afolayan highlights some significant archeological and historical facts in this section. Pre-colonial South Africa is mainly identified with the Khoikhoi, who practised hunting and gathering of wild fruits and tubers. Whites settled in the Cape for the first time in 1652, which formed the basis of white settlement both in the Cape and the interior of the country.

Afolayan notes that the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867 and gold at the Witwatersrand in 1886 were instrumental in consolidating the interests of the British imperialists in the colony. Some other political moments in the past that subsequently shaped South Africa’s future include the activism of Robert Sobukwe and Mahatma Gandhi, the incarceration and death of Steve Biko, and the jailing of Nelson Mandela. All these individuals, in one way or the other, were opposed to the ideologies, politics and practice of white supremacy in South Africa.

In terms of religion, Afolayan notes the multiplicity of religious beliefs that include Judaism, Christianity and its many variants, Islam, Hinduism, African animism, and a host of other practices that relate to the spiritual beliefs of the different African communities. Many South African communities still practice old customs and residual traditions including male circumcision, payment of bride-price (lobola), or visits to traditional medicinemen and medicinewomen to consult ancestral spirits. Some of these practices point to the ‘transitional’ nature of the African society which, although aspiring towards modernity, still retain those cultural and religious beliefs and practices from the past that have shaped the form and structure of their communities.

South Africa’s architectural heritage is also closely related to the ethnic and racial mix in the country. Afolayan identifies the following: the Khoisan, Bantu, Cape Dutch, and the Synthetic forms that borrow from several other traditions. For cuisine and dressing, Afolayan describes the country as a “crossroad of many culinary traditions, dressing styles, and customs”. The section on ‘Gender Roles, Marriage and Family’ emphasises the African philosophy surrounding these socio-cultural institutions and practices almost to the exclusion of modern trends in a country which is one of the most liberal in the world in the way it defines gender, sex and marriage.

He notes the significance of sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket as forms of national recreation. There is no doubt about the country’s abundant output in the performing arts and cinema. Several musical genres are found across the country ranging from jazz and reggae to isicatamiya, marabi and kwela. Among world reknown South African musicians are Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Brenda Fassie. South Africa’s theatre and cinema are quite robust, having produced plays and films that meet world quality standards.

In the field of literature South Africa has two Nobel Prize laureates, namely Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J.M. Coetzee (2003). South Africa’s media is one of the most free and vibrant on the continent. Some of its newspapers, particularly The Mail and Guardian, can aptly be described as government watchdogs, a term that cannot easily be applied elsewhere on the continent.

As a text that depends on knowledge scrapped from archeology, anthropology, history, geography, economics, literature, sociology, politics and many other disciplines, this is not a specialist’s book. It is also a book that does not pretend to offer an intensive and extensive or detailed view of South Africa’s “Culture and Customs.” Instead, it is a birds-eye view of one of the most promising places on earth for the realisation of the ideals of multi-culturalism and non-racialism. As the blurb indicates, this book “expands our knowledge of South africa beyond the headlines”. The book is also written in a very accessible style, devoid of the specialist language.

This book is a recommended reference text for the anthropology/cultural studies/history/politics class and the general reader interested in having a quick glimpse of cultures and customs found in contemporary South Africa. In a country whose history was distorted for several decades, South Africans will also find this book a worthy addition to other texts – such as the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa – that have sought to capture a representative history of the country.

The book is divided into ten chapters, a glossary, a bibliographical essay and an index. The chapters are: 1) Land and People; 2) History and Political Economy; 3) Religion and World View; 4) Literature; 5) The Media; 6) Art and Architecture; 7) Cuisine and Traditional Dress; 8) Gender Roles, Marriage, and Family; 9) Social Customs and Lifestyle; 10) Performing Arts and Cinema. The notes at the end of each chapter provide additional information, most significantly extra reference material. The Glossary contains South African-specific words used in the book and their English translations. The Bibliographical Essay details further reading material on each of the chapters.

Moving mountains

The seeds of this book were sown at a dinner party between the American author and a long-time ago neighbour from East London in South Africa, while discussing mutual friends and acquaintances who were involved in the struggle against apartheid.

East London and the Eastern Cape area was significant in many ways during those years: it was the home of Steve Biko and the birthplace of the Black Consciousness Movement, which ultimately led to uprisings, like the Soweto uprising and the student riots, that marked the 70s and 1980s. It is also the home of the Daily Dispatch newspaper which was edited by the late Donald Woods, a great friend of Biko’s. Woods eventually had to leave the country after perpetual harassment by the security forces.

The author of this book, Hutmacher MacLean, is an American journalist who was employed at the Dispatch during some of the most turbulent years in the history of the newspaper, and of South Africa itself. During this time she became interested in the role of women fighting for freedom in South Africa, but her and her photographer husband had to return to the United States during the years of political instability. She returned in 1998, and resumed the work she had started in the 1972.

Strike a Woman Strike a Rock is a powerful collection of narratives: life stories, love stories and death stories, of the women who, often quietly and behind the scenes, actively made a stand against the apartheid state. She takes the title for the book from the slogan, Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, adopted by the ANC Women’s League when they marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against changes to the law which would force black women to carry passes. National Women’s Day is celebrated every August 9 in South Africa.

“We really went in this white, middle-class mode which these cops used to hate … white and middle-aged like their mothers”

The profiles in Strike a Woman include well known names such as Trudy Thomas, who is an Aids activist and former Eastern Cape Health Minister, and Patricia de Lille, Independent Democrat party leader and long-time political stalwart. It also includes less well-known names, who nonetheless all played primary roles in the struggle against apartheid, against all the odds.

The bravery of these women is evident in their tales: they took on the system, the prejudices of South African society and the security forces, often tangling with dangerous people and situations – what makes it so real though, is that they were often oblivious to their perilous actions.

Judy Chalmers, a long-time Black Sash member and MP, speaks of being arrested multiple times for going into townships without the required permits. Amused, she recalls asking the police who would fetch the children from school if the women were detained for too long.

“We really went into this white, middle-class mode which these cops used to hate,” she says. “And their phone might not be working and we’d say ‘Well? When are we going to phone then? What are we going to do about our children?’ … And there was a part of them that identified with that. … This was probably also why the Black Sash wasn’t banned – because we were white, middle-class and very often, middle-aged like their mothers.”

She goes on to say how the policemen would say “Mrs Chalmers, we’ve got such a file on you.” And Chalmers would reply: “Good, hang on to it.”

Val Viljoen, also an East London resident, Black Sash member and MP, echoes Chalmers’s sentiments. Hutmacher MacLean asks her if she ever feared police reprisals for actions during the struggle.

She replies in the negative, but then adds: “Actually, I think we were incredibly naïve. We were white middle-class women, and we’d grown up in a society where you were privileged and you thought privilege gave you protection. We didn’t think what we were doing was dangerous… the more the security police tried to hassle us in various ways – the midnight phone calls, the letting down of your tyres at meetings …. [the more we thought] Oh. Isn’t that marvellous? We must be quite relevant. If they’re this worried about us, we must be doing something right.”

But while the threats to the Sash members may have been “minimal” on the surface, beneath there were sinister forces at work to stop the anti-apartheid movement. Returning from a meeting late one night with her activist sister and mother of seven, Molly Blackburn, Chalmers was involved in a head-on car accident in which her sister was killed. Investigations later led to the conclusion that the accident, with the other car, had been no accident, although even when this was investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission many years later, evidence could not prove the case either way.

But while the Black Sash survived, and became the one of the few unbanned activist opposition organisations, black activists operating under other banners were not as fortunate. MP Ivy Gcina tells of being beaten almost to death by the Security Branch – to her ultimate chagrin, by a black member of the force – for refusing to admit that she had helped get ANC youngsters in and out of the country.

She was put in solitary confinement for more than four months, imprisoned for years on no particular charge, during which time she was not allowed to see her husband, and had her home ransacked and destroyed countless times by the police. She also lost children in the struggle, a fact which any mother would find almost impossible to bear. And she was one of millions of people who endured similar hardships.

Every single one of these women made an enormous impact on the history of the country, whether through Black Sash work, through underground organisations, political parties, welfare work, educational lobbying or voter education.

Afrikaans author, Elsa Joubert, touched many lives with her book, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, based on the life history of a Xhosa woman who worked for her [The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena is one of Africa’s 100 Best Books – click here to read an extract]. Impeccably researched, the reaction to the book, from the most unlikely and conservative corners, was overwhelming. In a poignant and powerful moment, Joubert recalls a professor from Pretoria calling her to say that after reading the book “it was as if the population of the country had doubled”.

The most striking impression when reading the stories that these remarkable women have to tell is the lack of bitterness and anger emanating from them. They don’t see themselves as martyrs, and don’t see that what they did was remarkable. When the author asks Ivy Gcina why she didn’t give up, she says: “It is because, firstly, from childhood we knew the constitution of the ANC. This country belongs to everyone. That was great and we grew up with the spirit … so to be afraid… I will not achieve anything. If I am not afraid, I will achieve something. If I die, my blood will water the tree of freedom for everyone. This was just on my mind.”

Hutmacher MacLean has done an admirable job in collecting these snapshots of South Africa’s history and so accurately describing the world in which they existed.

If there is to be one criticism of the book, it is in the detail: spelling place names incorrectly (Eastern Cape town “Peddy” instead of “Peddie”, “Deveraux Avenue” instead of “Devereaux”), referring to Elsa Joubert as “Afrikan’s author” instead of “Afrikaans author”, and misspelling Afrikaans words like “klap” as “clap”. For a South African familiar with the territory, so to speak, this is deeply irritating and leaves one feeling the book would have benefited from a good local editor.

However, the content is gripping, and leaves one in awe of the power of the women interviewed, and their unfailing courageousness during a dark time in South Africa’s history.