Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today, Nelson Mandela walked free. I was twenty-one, and had lived my entire life under a repressive regime that legally sanctioned the artificial separation of blacks and whites, and the oppression of the former. It is hard to describe how we felt on 11 February 1990. Weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were shaking off a blanket that settled over us all, shutting out the light.

As Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, South Africa walked from night into day. We looked at each other and saw not blacks and whites, but people. He represented the hope of a whole nation that finally we could look into each others’ eyes and see our common humanity.

The day was one of jubilation and joyous disbelief. We literally couldn’t believe what we were seeing. There he was! On a hot February afternoon, literally walking out of jail, and the government that we despised had allowed it. After so many years of oppression, the facade of apartheid, the edifice, was crumbling. Like Berliners knocking down the Wall the previous year, we South Africans felt as if we were making and watching history. We were part of one of the century’s miracles. We looked at each other, and wept.

Madiba is a great hero. He went into jail a freedom fighter and emerged, 27 years later, as a statesman who spoke peace and reconciliation, ready to lead his country into the future. And we followed.

Here’s his first interview with the world’s press:


This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:


I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


RIP Miriam Makeba

South African singer Miriam Makeba – the nightingale of Africa – died yesterday at a clinic in Italy, only hours after performing in her last concert. She was 76.

According to The Independent, she suffered a heart attack after a 30-minute performance against organised crime. Makeba was an outspoken critic against apartheid, and was involuntarily exiled for 30 years when the Nationalist government revoked her passport.

“One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing,” Foreign Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said in a statement.

“Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”

Here is Mama Makeba singing Soweto Blues, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela:


Women, AIDS and Poverty

I am writing a novel about AIDS in South Africa. God knows if it will ever sell, because it’s very depressing, but it’s also about love, hope and ridiculous self-belief so maybe there’s a small chance. The thing that angers me most about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa is that it affects the poorest, the most vulnerable, the least educated and of this group, the largest proportion is women. It’s as if for them, apartheid is happening all over again, but it’s an apartheid of rich versus poor, of haves versus have-nots, of those with sexual power and those without.

So, to mark this year’s Blog Action Day – which has poverty as its main theme – I want to talk about the place where poverty collides with gender inequality, and how both affect the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. When Thabo Mbeki became South Africa’s ex-president a few weeks ago, the one thing that stood out for me in the reams of press copy I read was this:

First his culpability in the death of hundreds of thousands of ­people in South Africa with HIV/Aids cannot be underestimated and its impact will be felt for generations. Death certification by Stats SA shows more than 1,5-million deaths in the ages 0-49 and more than two million new infections during his rule. The long-overdue roll-out of a comprehensive antiretroviral programme, compounded by state-sponsored pseudo-science, has left 524 000 people desperately in need of the life-saving treatment unable to access it. As a direct result life expectancy has dropped every year Mbeki has been in office.

(Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), writing in the M&G, 27 September. Whole article here.)

That’s 1,5 million people – children and their young, economically active parents – who are now dead. That’s another two million who have become infected, of whom a quarter cannot access the life-enhancing drugs. Of these people most were, and are, poor. What a legacy, Mr Mbeki. According to the TAC’s website, most of the people who are infected live in informal settlements. There are more women infected than men, and most of those infected are black South Africans.

As part of my research for my novel, I have read a book by Edwin Cameron, a judge who sits on South Africa’s Supreme Court and who is living with HIV. Called Witness to AIDS, the book is part autobiography, part analysis and it is gripping. In it he describes the guilt he feels in being able to afford, just barely, the anti-retroviral treatment he needs to stay alive when so many millions in the country were being denied access. Cameron also bravely decided to go public with his HIV status in 1999, in order to begin to counteract the negative stereotypes of people with AIDS. He says:

The external manifestations of stigma are horrific enough. At Christmastime 1998, a 36-year-old South African woman, Gugu Dlamini, was stoned and stabbed to death. The horror of her death has never been fully investigated, because her murderers were never held to account. The prosecution brought charges, but dropped them for lack of evidence. What is clear is that shortly before her death Gugu told Zulu-language radio listeners that she was living with HIV. Three weeks later, members of her own neighbourhood rounded on her. Her attackers accused her of shaming her community by announcing her HIV status … Three months after Gugu died I decided to announce publically that I was living with HIV.

One of the main topics in Witness to AIDS, and of vital importance to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the TAC is access to drugs. There are two types of patients in South Africa: those who are privately insured and who acquire their drugs from dispensing doctors or pharmacies, and those who use the public health system. Here they can expect long queues and inconsistent service. Also, they have to get there. If you are poor and sick with AIDS and live in a rural village, you still need to find someone to help get you to the clinic in order to get your drugs. Poverty impedes people from getting treatment.

So, how do AIDS/HIV and poverty affect women specifically?

  1. Women and girls will be expected to give up their jobs and schooling to tend the sick, thus fuelling a cycle of poverty.
  2. The poorest households are mostly female-headed. Very often grandmothers, having nursed and buried their children, are left to raise their grandchildren, many of whom are also ill.
  3. There are also orphan-headed households, where the oldest child or oldest girl, takes care of the younger children.
  4. Society and customs do not allow women to abstain from sex or insist on condom use, so they are at heightened risk of infection.
  5. Women and girls in poverty are often forced to sell sex to survive, which opens them up to more risk of infection.
  6. Fear of abuse, or community retribution, discourage women from getting tested and seeking treatment.
  7. Lack of respect, and the custom of seeing women as commodities, means they are at risk of sexual abuse, rape and thus infection.

According to a paper by the HIV and Development Programme on poverty and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV epidemic has its origins in African poverty and unless and until poverty is reduced there will be little progress either with reducing transmission of the virus or an enhanced capacity to cope with its socio-economic consequences (my emphasis).

And the that question remains, for those who care, is what to do? There are many small ways to help make a difference:

1. Donate to Oxfam or another reputable NGO.

2. Join the Stop AIDS in Children campaign (see my side-bar).

3. Join a global volunteer programme.

4. Volunteer your professional services (I edit for an NGO in South Africa, and am about to start doing the same for one in Kenya).

5. Become a fan of The Girl Effect and spread the word that girls are the future.

6. Help a family affected by AIDS. PACSA is an NGO in the heart of the South African AIDS epidemic. I can put you in touch with the director, Danielle Gennrich. Through her, I am sending money to the widow and children of Tony Shelembe, an AIDS worker who died last year.

Edited to add: Following the wonderful example of LadyFi, I will make a donation for every comment on this post today to Global Giving’s project to Fight HIV/AIDS and build lives in South Africa. Why don’t you go and have a look at the amazing work they are doing?


More on Privilege

A few days ago I did the Privilege meme, devised by PhD students at Illinois State University as way to get people thinking and talking about privilege as a way to think and talk about class. The model is US-centric, which I found doing it, as a couple of questions weren’t relevant to me or the education system I came from. I did it out of interest anyway, but came away with a sense of unease that it hadn’t begun to reflect the privileges I grew up with in apartheid South Africa. Mandarine noticed this and commented:

This is sobering indeed. Especially when I consider that I used to believe South African whites were all spoilt kids, but that I score much higher (25/34) than you (18/34) on this ‘test’.

Actually Mandarine, white South Africans were all spoilt kids. I’ve devised some additional questions to the meme, which do reveal the level of our privilege.

Bold the true statements. You can explain further if you wish.

1. You had live-in domestic help when growing up.
Until my parents were divorced and then we had a domestic worker who came Monday to Friday. She bussed into the city from an outlying township.
2. That help was expected to clean house and take care of small children simultaneously.
Absolutely. I was strapped on the back of my nanny while she swept and cleaned.
3. You had two domestic workers: someone to clean the house and someone whose sole responsibility was child-care.
4. There was additional part-time domestic help in your home: someone to assist with domestic chores such as ironing or someone to garden.
Yes, a gardener came a couple of days a week.
5. You were not expected to take responsibility for any domestic chores.
I learnt how to cook and how to operate a washing machine at university. I was not expected to do any chores at home, though I did help my mother clear the dishes in the evenings when our domestic worker had gone home.
6. Your schooling received more government funding than the schooling of others.
7. Your tertiary education received more government funding than the schooling of others.
8. The training of your teachers and professors received more government funding than the teacher training of others.
9. Your schools had better facilities than the schools of others.
10. You lived in suburbs with running water, electricity, large houses and big gardens; suburbs where others were forbidden by law from living.
11. On leaving school or university, you were more likely to be hired for the job of your choice than others.
12. You presumed you would enter a profession on leaving university; blue-collar work was never an option for you.
I began working in 1992, and in 1994 the new government started its affirmative action programme for people who were previously disadvantaged. Had I stayed in South Africa, I would probably have had to work for myself or start my own company as most of my friends have done. Luckily, their privileged education means they have the tools and the wherewithal to do this.
13. You or your parents did not have to travel long distances to work because your suburb was near the city centre.
14. You did not have to travel long distances to school because there were many schools in your suburb.
15. You routinely went on holiday to the beach or the game reserve.
16. Your parents or friends’ parents routinely had overseas holidays.

In apartheid South Africa, privilege was bound up less with class than with race. It’s become more class-related now, as a black professional middle-class that enjoys many of the above privileges grows. However, as a product of apartheid, I have to acknowledge that I was unfairly privileged above others on the superficial basis of my skin.



While sick, I’ve caught up on my reading, including two memoirs that are very different from each other. Both try to tease out the past, but one takes a journalistic approach and aims for veracity, while the other floats in and out of what I guess is creative non-fiction territory. In her foreword to The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories about her family and herself, Alice Munro says:

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.

Her book is divided in two parts: one dealing with her Scottish ancestors and why they might have come to Canada, and the other with her own childhood and girlhood in Fifties Ontario. In the final section of the book, Messenger, she visits countryside near Chicago as an adult to seek out the cemeteries where family members who did not settle in Canada are buried. So she looks at her family’s past, her past and her present.

The book is beautiful; lively with attractive prose and depictions of settler life. I particularly enjoyed the part that dealt with the family’s sojourn on board ship – how fears of the youngest child’s being tossed overboard meant that they had to “tether” him at night (I think I would have done the same), the imagined relationship between an elderly and self-indulgent father-in-law and his matter-of-fact and acerbic daughter-in-law, hints of a love affair, dances and sightings of whales. While not wealthy or able to secure upper deck berths, the family are luckier than most and survive the journey intact and and well. It is only once they hit the shores of their new land, that their tragedies and dramas – possibly imagined by Munro, possibly not – unfold.

I also loved the section dealing with Munro’s childhood and girlhood in backwoods Ontario. The imagined and the real were threaded together imperceptibly, but I still desperately wanted to know which bits were fiction and which were true. While I enjoyed what she was doing, there was a part of me wanting clarification. She provides that in the foreword, saying that some characters “did things they did not do in reality”:

They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

Perhaps it is the journalist in me that wants to separate out fiction and non-fiction, or I must read more creative non-fiction and learn to go with the flow. As Munro asserts, they are just stories. Let me say, they are lovely stories, full of candid humour and insights into the oddness of the human condition. I’ve never read any Alice Munro short stories, but I guess they are full of the same.

I have also just finished reading another memoir, the craply titled Ja No, Man, by a young Canadian ex-South African called Richard Poplak. I sighed a little when I picked this book up. You know how movies set in the Eighties always have the same signifiers: someone playing with a Rubix Cube, people wearing day-glo clothing while Flock of Seagulls plays in the background? This book is covered with the same signifiers that shout Eighties South Africa to me, and its tag is A memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia … and Apartheid. I thought it was going to be superficial, mindless and vaguely celebratory of what was really a horrible time to live in South Africa.

I’m glad to report that it isn’t. Poplak’s book is darkly funny, disturbing, and very well researched. He backs up his memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the Seventies and Eighties with acid offensives against the Apartheid state. He presents the eerie strangeness of being a child who only knows black people as servants, the indignities of Veldskool where he learnt about the immiment Communist threat and how to fold a flag, and the barbaric discipline of South African schools, where he was regularly sent for “six of the best”.

Poplak’s family left South Africa only a few weeks before Nelson Mandela was freed, so his book does not contain any reference to the miracle of the Rainbow Nation. While this might have eased his vituperative edge, it also means that the memoir is very specifically of its time and of its place. There is no sentiment, no schmaltz; Poplak addresses those two decades starkly. He makes no apology for not including black experience in the book – this is his experience and he presents it frankly, sometimes so frankly that I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition.

Towards the end of the book, he says:

It is a strange thing to be severed from the community of man – to be an island – as we were in South Africa. Isolation, both cultural and geographic, causes a certain kind of backwardness. The pastiche you create of the world, assembled from snippets of popular culture, hearsay, half-true news, and folkloric assumptions, is a patchwork quilt. Adrift, you create a world that only nominally hints at civilization. We were a quasi-democratic quasi-dictatorship, with a culture as anemic and as weirdly translucent as those deep-sea species of fish seen on the Discovery Channel. The flag Oom Piet raised with such reverence, the national anthems we sung with such forced gusto at assemblies – these were dead symbols for a dead country.

Richard Poplak and I and many millions of others are the products of Apartheid, and this dead culture. Thank goodness it is dead, and a new South Africa is rising from the ashes, but many are still paying the price of that cold grey time.

Poplak’s approach is very different from that of Munro. He says in his author’s note that it is both an act of memory and a work of journalism – if he remembered a certain tree as a jacaranda, he went back and checked that it was a jacaranda. He changes the names of teachers, certain schools and schoolfriends, and also clearly states that there are no composite characters, fictional places or made-up situations. His book is rigorous and factual, while Munro’s is swirling and exploratory.

It was an interesting experience reading these two different approaches to the memoir, neither better than the other, back-to-back. I would really appreciate any tips on good creative non-fiction, as it’s clearly a genre I want to explore more.


A Grand Old Lady

*Update! Hear a wonderful hour-long Woman’s Hour programme dedicated to Helen Suzman here. Not so unsung after all! (I have to admit I wept buckets. What a woman.)*

South Africa’s veteran parliamentarian, Helen Suzman, who was main voice of the opposition United Party (UP), and later the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), in the apartheid parliament for over thirty years, celebrates her 90th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Helen! You are an unsung South African hero.

Suzman served in parliament from 1953 to 1989 – an astonishing 37 years. From 1961 to 1974, she was the only member of the PFP in parliament. Her courage in doing so was immense. The Nationalist government was a group of highly conservative politicians desperate to prove that their hideous apartheid agenda was a moral and Christian stance, entirely necessary to protect the country from “terrorists” and “Communists”, when actually it was an excuse for them to plunder the country, oppress the majority of the population and engage in border wars with the country’s neighbours. Imagine their rage at having to face Helen Suzman, a liberal, and infinitely worse, a woman, who dared to stand up and tell them they were spouting immoral, cruel and dangerous babble. How she must have got up their noses!

In the online newspaper Suzman says

“In parliament they would hate my views but they could never deny them because I had been to prisons, I had been to resettlement areas, I had been to removal areas. So they could talk to me all about the wonderful new South Africa and I knew what apartheid was actually doing.”

Suzman also goes on to say that stories of white liberal resistance to apartheid are being left out of current retellings of the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. At the time white liberals had a choice, either to opt out of the system altogether since it senselessly only catered for a tiny minority and join the ANC to fight underground, or try to change things from within. Suzman took the latter route, and thank God she did. Had she not, there would not have been one single voice of reason in that vile parliament of fools, no-one speaking up day after day for year upon year against the madness they were perpetrating.

In the Seventies, my parents campaigned for Suzman’s party. It was the best they felt they could do. I remember asking my teacher in Standard One (third grade) who she was going to vote for in the upcoming election and her telling me that we didn’t talk politics at school. I was surprised, because in my home all talk was of the election and the campaign and our candidate, and I couldn’t understand that it could be a no-go area. Anyway, compared to people who left South Africa and joined the underground or fought in pockets of resistance inside the country, working for the PFP was not a huge sacrifice. But it was something, and they did it, and I’m proud of them for it.

What’s interesting is that all the PFP’s principles – freedom of speech, the rule of law, freedom of association, no illegal detention and banning – are espoused in South Africa’s constitution today. They are the principles of the ANC and the new opposition, the liberal Democratic Alliance, which happens also to headed by a woman – Helen Zille, who is the mayor of Cape Town. However back in the bad old days to even suggest that you supported freedom of speech made you a communist and a lefty and an all-round bad egg. These were things of which Helen Suzman was not scared of being accused. She had her principles and she made them abundantly clear.

Happy Birthday to the grand old lady of South African politics. You gave us hope in those dark days when we thought there was no hope at all.