(Alternative title: Making Lasting Memories at the Expense of Others).

This riff is based on a famous advertisement that won many awards in South Africa in the 1970s. The extracts in quotes are from 491 Days – Prisoner 1323/69 Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. In the light of Nelson Mandela’s death I hope this will serve to jostle and prod the minds and souls of those who say “it is over, let’s move on”. Nelson Mandela moved on..not only physically but spiritually but how far have those of us who are who we are because of braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet really excavated who we are inside? 

South Africa, what’s your favourite meal?


“Monday: Breakfast – Uncooked porridge, black coffee; Lunch – Porridge and Sugar beans; Supper – dry uncooked mealies and phuzamandla.” WM



“Arriving in the morning, we would fetch our picks, shovels and hammers and wheelbarrows from a zinc shed at the top of the quarry. Then we would assemble along the quarry face, usually in groups of three or four. Warders with automatic weapons stood on raised platforms watching us.” NM



“June and July were the bleakest months on Robben Island. Winter was in the air, and the rains were just beginning. It never seemed to go above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the sun. I shivered in my light khaki shirt. It was then that I understood the cliché of feeling the cold in one’s bones”. NM

And what’s your greatest car South Africa?


Time slows down in prison; the days seem endless. NM

Let’s see that’s braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet?


Well you sure sound like South Africa to me!

We are!

We were awakened at 5.30 each morning by the night warder, who clanged a brass bell at the head of our corridor and yelled ‘Word wakker! Staan op!’ (Wake up! Get Up!)”NM

We love braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

You know, that’s so good I think you had better tell me again!

Braaivleis, rubgy, sunny skies and Chevrolet

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

In case you are wondering, this message is brought to you by braaivleis, ruby, sunny skies and South Africa’s greatest car!

They go together in the good old RSA

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

Makes sense to me!

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet

That’s right!

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed….The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. NM



Hamba Kahle Madiba

Hamba Kahle Madiba

There is no doubt about the sincerity of his grief as President Jacob Zuma announced the death of Nelson Mandela to the nation on Thursday night with the words, “fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed”.

Dressed in a sombre black suit and reading a speech in his characteristically staccato cadence, Zuma was visibly emotional. But for me, in light of several weeks’ worth of a disturbing news cycle in relation to the Public Protectors’ report on Nkandla as well as President Zuma’s security cluster’s attempts at “covering” for Number 1 – it seemed a pity that it was Zuma who officially broke the sad news to the nation and the world.

As the democratically elected leader of South Africa we respect the office of the president. Whether No 1 respects it as much as we do is another question.

While some of us may hope to achieve greatness from standing in near proximity to or in the shade of those who are truly great, in that moment, in paying tribute to a global icon who has come to represent decency, accountability, respect and humility, President Zuma began to look decidedly smaller and smaller.

While the ANC can rightfully claim that Nelson Mandela was shaped by and belongs to the party, Mandela’s influence and example eventually rippled out far beyond the confines of narrow party political politics and ideologies. The unprecedented show of global mourning is evidence of the moral cachet Nelson Mandela brought to the world. In New York, Paris, Nairobi, and elsewhere in the world the South African flag has come to symbolise Mandela. The Eifel Tower was lit up in its colours as was Times Square.

But President Zuma and the ANC he currently represents should be wary in future of latching onto Brand Mandela to maximize currency in the upcoming elections. While it may seem like a very good idea to harness all the Mandela positives it might, in the long run, come to highlight all Zuma’s negatives.

A quote by Groucho Marx has been banging around in my head all the months that I have been immersed in the series of scandals surrounding President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, Msholozi, Number 1…

It goes like this “Who you gonna believe? Me or your eyes?”

Nelson Mandela was the living embodiment of his values and ethics. He walked the walk. While many at this time will resort to empty rhetoric and the shallow clatter of platitudes, in the end, they will be judged by what they do rather than what they say.

Brand Mandela is good for South Africa. Brand Mandela is good for ordinary South Africans because now, without the traction of his physical presence, we must look inside for the treasures he has left us and we must live these out in our life.

But whether Brand Mandela is good for the current ANC is another matter entirely.

“Het tannie nie asseblief vir my ‘n sigaret nie?” (Have you got a cigarette for me aunty?)

He’s about 20, hair a knotted, blond heap piled on his head. He’s wearing several layers of clothing. The elastic waistband of a track suit visible underneath a too large pair of pinstriped, threadbare suit pants. A tattered hoodie over a tissue-thin, green T-shirt. A paper painter’s mask dangles from his neck like a piece of street jewellery. On his head he is wearing a plastic shopping bag, which he removes respectfully (like a gentleman from another age wearing a Homburg or a Fedora) when he asks for the cigarette.

“Wat is jou naam?” (What is your name?)

“Adri Marthinus tannie.”

“En hoekom is jy op straat?” (And why are you on the street?)

“Toe ek klaar gemaak het met skool, daar op De Grendel, het ek huistoe gegaan maar my ma was nie daar nie…Nou soek ek werk of enige iets.” (When I finished school at De Grendel I went home and my mother wasn’t there anymore. Now I am looking for work or anything.)

He has blue eyes. The gaze of someone troubled but not out of reach.

“En waar slaap jy?” (And where do you sleep?)

“Partykeer by die Haven en as dit vol is in ‘n alleyway in die stad. Ek slaap ook op die berg. Mens kan die bobbejane sien klim daar, regtig tannie.) (At the Haven sometimes, but when it is full in an alley way in town. I also sleep on the mountain. You can see baboons climbing sometimes, really aunty)

“Het jy ander probleme?” (Do you have other problems?)

“Nee tannie, ek het nog nooit ‘n meisie gehad nie so ek kannie se ek het ander probleme nie. Ek soek net werk.” (No aunty, I haven’t had a girlfriend so I can’t say I have other problems. I only want work)

He’s not pleading or hustling. Just telling the story as it is.

I wish I could take him home, fix it all. I have just spent R400 cutting my hair. It seems obscene. I wish I had a magic wand or could tap into the Lottery website and manufacture a winning ticket for him. But I can’t. All I can offer is some conversation and R50.

And Adri Marthinus shuffles off. Grateful for so little.

I grew up in a suburb of Pretoria that had been settled by immigrants. We had two shops down the road, one owned by a Greek family and the other by a Portuguese. My mother was Portuguese so we spent a fair amount of time in both shops. She had befriended the owners and they became part of our lives.

When I moved to Newlands in the early 2000s I was thrilled to find a family-owned cafe, The Avenue Cafe, just a few hundred metres from my home. The shop has been owned and run by the Bahatkar family since 1939. I’m in the process of talking to the delightful Mushtaq about the history of the shop and his family. He runs the cafe with his brother, Abbas.

Ever since I moved to Newlands, I have tried to “catch out” both brothers, asking for items that they could not possibly stock. “Safety glasses?..Sure back right hand corner.”, “Paraffin? How much you want?”, “A broomstick? Sure, just have a look at the back”, “Red thread, over there next to the shampoos”. My children love the cafe, it is filled with unexpected treasures and the most astounding array of sweets.

Of course there is also The Avenue Cafe’s famous biltongs and droewors as well as the samoosas…It is a privilege to have the shop in a suburb mostly dominated by up-your-arse fashion stores and upmarket, over-designed eateries and coffee shops. Besides, Mr Bahatkar lets me “buy on the book” when I don’t have money with me. Here are a few photographs I took just for fun. A much more in-depth story will follow…shortly, sometime soon, when we get to it Enjoy….

Avenue Cafe 12Avenue Cafe 5Avenue Cafe 8Avenue Cafe 10Avenue Cafe 16Avenue Cafe 1Avenue Cafe 6Avenue Cafe 11DSC_0742Avenue Cafe 4


News just in today via CEO, Chris Hlekane, is that the Post Office is ditching “snail mail”, which surprisingly apparently still accounts for 71 percent of its revenue!

Well, hello and welcome to the 21st Century!

The Post Office is very Rip van Winklely that way. I mean it has taken it 20 years to wake up to the fact that when it comes to communications, the rest of the world has gone electronic and virtual. Whether it will be able to play catch-up at this late stage is another question entirely.

For years I have wondered, as I have queued at various PO branches collecting my Amazon packages, just when the listless staff would finally wake up and realise that outside, to borrow a line from the Aladdin anthem, was “a whole new world/a new fantastic point of view”…

My local PO is like a portal into another time zone. Stepping across its threshold is the equivalent of being sucked through a wormhole and into some sort of purgatory where fellow travellers appear to be heavily tranquilised. Like that scene in the madhouse in Midnight Express.

Clients inch forward while PO staff – who take tea breaks on a remarkably punctual rotational schedule  – move in slo-mo as if someone has accidentally pressed a sticky button on the remote and now we can’t turn it off.

Tellers needing to make the long and difficult journey to the storeroom at the back to retrieve a parcel, move as if trapped in treacle. In fact, I am convinced some of them use the opportunity to have a quick smoke, as there is the distinct smell of stale tobacco in the building.

I have a love-hate relationship with snail mail. I am of a generation that still enjoys hearing the plop of tangible physical matter in my post box (as long as it is not a bill). I do, of course, also enjoy the ping of a new email reaching my inbox but there is something so much more personalized and old-worldy about an addressed, stamped envelope.

For years my father led me to believe that very small people lived in red post boxes and whenever we posted a letter he urged me to “make sure the little man grabs it” when I slipped it down the chute.

I tried it on my daughter last week when we had occasion to post something to the City Council. I could tell she didn’t believe me but she did hesitate for a moment as she popped the letter into the box. It is the idea of it I suppose.

“Did you feel someone take it?” I asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my 21st Century child replied.

If there is one thing I won’t miss about the loss of snail mail it is the familiar stop-start buzz of my local postman’s scooter. My dogs hate him, as do all the dogs in the neighbourhood. He seems thick-skinned enough not to take it personally though.

Our postman, lets call him Albert, has been a regular on the route in my neighbourhood for several years now. One summer’s day, after hearing the familiar whine of his scooter, I trundled out to collect my mail.

Albert was particularly perky this afternoon. He removed his helmet and arranged himself like a casual Italian playboy on his scooter.

“You’ve got a great figure, you should wear hot pants,” he offered over the picket fence.

I felt like an extra in the opening scene of a B-grade porn movie but his suggestion was so preposterous and his demeanour so comical that I burst out laughing.

Albert, I do suspect, would be a postman who would love to ring twice, if I had such a bell to ring.

He has been helpful though. Finding me tinkering around under the bonnet of my car one afternoon he inquired as to what it was I was doing.

“Won’t start I replied. I’m not sure if it’s the starter motor or the battery at this point,” I replied.

“Turn her over let me hear,” said Albert still perched on his bike and cocking his head like an expert.

The car gave a click and then a listless whine.

“Battery, definitely battery. Go and buy a new one and put it in yourself. I’m telling you. I fix cars at home and it’s the battery.”

He was right and did save me the expense of having the car towed off somewhere to be diagnosed and repaired.

The imminent demise of something we take for granted often triggers momentary nostalgia. The end of snail mail made me lament, momentarily, the obvious extinction of the postage stamp.

Not that I have paid much attention to stamps. I lost interest after we issued the Mandela one in 1994 and very little else of interest afterwards.

As I child I did enjoy adding to my stamp collection which was quite considerable. I have no idea how I managed to procure stamps from Malawi or China, as there was no reason for me to be communicating by mail with anyone in those countries.

My father collected stamps and First Day covers. I would often find little squares of cut out envelopes floating in a dish as he soaked off stamps before drying them and placing them, with a special tweezers, in the transparent pockets in his stamp album.

If I have to be honest, my inspiration for collecting stamps was principally to find the illusive and valuable Penny Black, first issued in the UK in 1840 and said to be worth a fortune. Once I found it, I reckoned, I would be rich enough to flee Pretoria and head off elsewhere on my own.

I did manage to collect loads of beautiful stamps in the process and would find myself pouring over them with a magnifying glass. Since their invention in 1837, postage stamps provided fantastic and relatively cheap global marketing opportunities for countries.

The choice of subject also often revealed a country’s national character with the US, Britain, China and Russia often featuring gorgeously kitsch portraits of leaders. Then there was the commemoration of “achievements”, the first exploration of space, sporting achievements or the construction of remarkable structures.

I can’t see snail mail becoming completely extinct. There are still too many people in South Africa who do not have access to the Internet and instant electronic communication. But will our stamps be worth collecting and preserving?

Perhaps we will see some sort of hipster or steam punk revival in philately as postage stamps become increasingly rare and collectible.

Stamps could still provide a platform for counties to celebrate cultural, scientific, artistic and natural uniqueness.

Stamps are to communications what candles are to lighting a room. We might not need them right now, but one day, when there’s some sort of global traffic jam on the Internet, we might just have to start licking and sticking again.

Hark! I hear Albert outside…Must rush.


The desk has outlived my father.

Until we discussed its surrender we had never thought of it in those terms.

But in his 86th year, his winter, as he began instinctively to slough off the material possessions accumulated over a lifetime, we found we needed to talk about “the desk”.

The desk is solid, squat, made of teak and with four deep drawers, an ample cavity on the left and a corresponding lockable one on the right. The grain is smooth, soft to the touch, like cold silk.

The point about a piece of furniture made of good wood, I learned from my father, is not to just to look and use it unthinkingly but to feel it, run your fingers or palm along its surfaces and contours.

Until we had the talk, it was just a desk, his desk, a piece in my childhood interior landscape and one of many of my father’s distinctive accoutrements. Like the shaving brush, tub of cream and razor carefully stacked on the bathroom windowsill, the row of neat suits with a baffling array of pockets in his cupboard and the rack of low-key ties arranged on the inside of the door.

These were things that were not part of the general household. They were all imbued (to me at least) with a mysterious and compelling masculinity. Back then I had never met a woman who had a desk of her own.

The desk was the place my father often sat when he was at home. Was this his way of claiming his role as a working man, a provider, as someone not entirely part of the domestic tides and currents of the household? Perhaps.

It was here, behind this gorgeous slab of wood, that he “worked”, whatever that meant. The desk was also the repository of a collection of gadgets and other necessary “men’s” things – a compass, some dice, tiny screwdrivers, a paper punch, a staple remover and a personalized rubber stamp with our home address. I’ve left many of these items intact in their original boxes or small containers and I can still now reach in for something and turn it over in my hand.

The desk moved with us from home to home. Eventually, when he lived alone after my mother died, my father shifted it into his spare room. The top was always protected by a blotting pad on which he scribbled an assortment of emergency numbers should he die in his bed in his sleep (which is how he would have preferred it).

But he didn’t.

Die in his sleep that is.

Instead he grew old and frail, incapable of doing what he had always done for himself without help. He could no longer live alone. And no matter how much I cajoled, he would not move in with me.

And so his life, in the end, was reduced to one room with a bed, a bedside table, a shelf of books, a table with family portraits, an easy chair and a television set.

The desk, as well as a few other beloved items of wooden furniture he had bought over the years, made their way in a furniture truck to my home.

The desk found a new corner in my office making the entire space immediately seem more grown up, “professional”.

At first I could not sit and work at it. It still felt out of bounds. It was his still HIS desk.

I tentatively placed a few items on its polished top. A beautiful carved wooden bust of a woman, two small, forlorn-looking wooden Schnauzer dogs that serve as bookends and that my father had owned since childhood.

Eventually we spoke of my ambivalence about using the desk.

“The desk dad. Wouldn’t you like it here?” I asked him.

“There’s no room.”

“But it’s yours.”

“I haven’t used it for years. (pause) Do you use it?“


“Then it is yours now.”

After permission had been granted I found that I felt less hesitant about sitting at it, gradually filling some of the other drawers with my own treasures.

A few months after my father had died, I walked past my office on the way in from a long day at another office outside the home and that I use for more collective writing.

It was twilight and there, hunched over it, was my youngest daughter (who is seven) doing her homework. She was startled at first. My desk, like my dad’s was, is sometimes off limits.

“I was missing you so I came to sit here,” she said.

His winter, my autumn, her spring.

The desk has outlived my father. It will outlive me. That is all I need to understand.

That, and the fact that every woman needs a desk of her own.


In the days and weeks before my father, Georg, died at the age of 87 two years ago on June 7, I listened constantly to the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.

Daily, driving the 25km to and from his deathbed vigil, it was the simplicity and transcendence of Pärt’s music, and particularly the sparse and mournful, Spiegel im Spiegel, that contained and comforted the searing grief.

I have been listening to Pärt again these past few days as Nelson Mandela, my second father, my liberator, the man who restored to us, South Africans, our dignity and humanity, lingers in a hospital in Pretoria in that “middle place”, the space between life and death.

“It’s Time To Let Him Go”, read the headline in last week’s Sunday Times above a portrait so characteristic of Mandela as we have come to know and love him.  In the photograph he is smiling, that generous wide smile, and waving as if saying goodbye.

Are we ready?

Are we ready for a South Africa without the physical presence of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Dalibhunga, Madiba, Tata?

I search for an answer in Spiegel im Spiegel. The simplicity of the piece, composed for a single piano and violin with the endless repetition of small notes, reflected back and forth, back and forth, creating, like a mirror, an infinity of images.

And this, for me, perfectly captures the essence of Mandela and what he will always be – a prism, a mirror and a reflection.

It is an essence that is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness as South Africans, even now as we still struggle “to become”.

For those of us who lived through and survived apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had always been the man who wasn’t there.

Banished to Robben Island in the winter of 1964, Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in this isolated prison, both physically and politically cauterised from South African society.

The presence of absence.

As time and life wore on, we all knew he was there, only 9km from the centre of Cape Town. Now prisoner 46664, confined to a five-metre square cell, forced into hard labour breaking stones in a quarry, Mandela embarked on his own now well-documented long personal and political Via Dolorosa.

But like illusionists, the apartheid government attempted to render Mandela (as well as almost all of his fellow comrades, including his dear friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, who had fled into exile) “invisible” and “disappeared”.

They removed all tangible traces of him from the physical landscape.

In South Africa it was a criminal offence to quote or publish the words of Mandela, his jailed comrades or any “banned” anti-apartheid activist operating inside the country. We risked imprisonment for the mere possession of an image of Mandela in whatever form.

But the less we saw or heard of Nelson Mandela, the more the man and the ideals he stood for grew. While we could only whisper his name and imagine what he looked like, outside the country’s borders, in Europe, in Africa, the US and most corners of the world, Mandela soon became the world’s most famous political prisoner.

The presence of absence.

I was 27 in 1988, the first time I saw a photograph of Mandela that was not blacked out or censored. I had left South Africa for London and still recall the overwhelming feeling of standing in a bookshop and seeing, for the first time, the face of the man the world wanted set free. The man we wanted set free.

When he stepped out of Victor Verster prison in February 1990 as a 72-year-old man, it was the first time millions of South Africans inside the country had seen Mandela or heard him speak in almost a quarter of a century.

It is almost impossible now to imagine, as images of Nelson Mandela are ubiquitous. There are streets named after him, statues in squares, he features on aprons, on table coasters, stamps, carpets and even on our money (Randelas as we call the new notes).

And today his is an image infused with so much deeper meaning and significance, transcending the politics of the ANC and representing universal qualities of what it means to be human; to forgive, to reconcile, to care, to speak out, to be kind, to be tolerant, to be wise, to be selfless, to honour dignity and to recognise yourself in your fellow human being.

Mandela left us for a second time when he stepped down in 1999 after one term as the first democratically-elected president of South Africa. While he initially continued to play a role in public life, eventually he withdrew almost completely.

In the meantime, we are getting on with the messy business of democracy. Mandela and his comrades opened the door and now we are on our way just as he is on his way.

But we will always return, as do the notes in Spiegel im Spiegel, to endless repetition, a reflecting back and forth, back and forth, producing, as does a mirror an infinity of reflections and possibilities about ourselves as human beings, as South Africans and our future as a country.

We are ready to let go because in his final absence, Nelson Mandela will forever be present.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,035 other followers

%d bloggers like this: