Charlotte's Web

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My Literary Hero

I had a brief interview recently with Maxi magazine about my literary hero, Eleanor Catton:


Here’s a loose translation:

My literary hero is the Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton. As a writer I admire her lively, original use of language, her playfulness, lack of fear and willingness to experiment. As a reader, I love getting lost in the worlds she creates. As an introduction to Catton, I’d recommend The Rehearsal, a moving novel about a sex scandal at a school.

(Charlotte Otter, 44, lived in South Africa for a long time. Her page-turning debut Balthasar’s Gift tells the story of a journalist on the chase of an evil case of corruption.)


RIP, Helen Suzman

Fearless South African patriot, Helen Suzman, has died at the age of 91. See the BBC report here. This is the tribute I wrote in November 2007 when she turned 90.

According to the New York Times, Suzman’s vigorous campaigning against apartheid “drew wide acknowledgment from academic institutions. Harvard, Columbia and Brandeis were among 26 South African and overseas universities that awarded her honorary doctorates. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame of the British Empire — the female equivalent of a knighthood in 1989. In 1997, Mr. Mandela bestowed on her one of South Africa’s highest civilian honors — the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold).”

Go well, Helen. You gave us hope in the dark days when we thought there was no hope at all.


RIP, Tony Shelembe (A 30th Story of AIDS)

Today I am honoured to have my first-ever guest post. Please meet my new-found friend Daniela Gennrich. Daniela worked closely with Tony Shelembe, and nursed him at her home along with his fiance, Pretty, during his last hours. In this article, which was published on Saturday, 1 December in The Natal Witness, Daniela interviews people who knew Tony well, including his mother, his fiance and his daughter.

A True South African Hero
by Daniela Gennrich

The sister at the local clinic looks up wearily, and surveys the queue snaking out of the main door onto the road. It’s going to be another long day…

“Next…” A young man approaches. “Sawubona Sister”.
Yebo Boetie. What’s the problem?”

The somewhat sickly looking man explains that he has a persistent headache, and his abdomen is distended, or swollen. The sister puts on her stethoscope and listens briefly to his chest, takes his pulse and blood pressure, and sends him off with a small plastic packet with the word ‘Painadol’ written on it.

“OK – Next…”

A tired, careless moment, a missed opportunity to diagnose a life-threatening condition…

Just over a month later, Tony Shelembe became one of the death statistics for November 2007, one of the perhaps 1800 who will have died before the month is out.

But who was this man?

As I sat in his house the other day surrounded by his family and friends, the rain pelting down on the corrugated iron roof, I noticed a faded photo of a 14-year-old Tony, and asked people what they remembered about him. This is some of what I heard.

A grandson:
“I cannot eat when I think of my little grandson. Who is going to take of care of me when I am sick? Who is going to look after the cows and the goats for me? I should have gone before you. Who is going to bury me now?”

A son:
“I am Tony’s mother. Tony was very helpful, at home and in the community. He loved his children very much, they were very important to him, but all children were important to him. This is a very great loss. Everyone will miss him.”

“He was not talkative and didn’t fight. He loved to braai meat outside on a Sunday. He was often making jokes. One day when he was 14 and I still had a car, he just took it and drove away. But he was humble and just said ‘I am sorry, dad’. He could not resist driving!”

A brother:
“He was always there for me when we were growing up.”

A father:
“My dad was so kind. He did all the things I wanted. The best part was when he used to take us kids to go swim in the river. He bought me a bike for Christmas.”

An athlete and a role model:
“My dad was a marathon runner. He got three Comrades medals, and eight others for running. He won three gold medals for his soccer team.”

A community leader:
“He was a good leader. I always remember Tony with his smile. I remember the work he has done with us in the community since 2000. I remember when the committee was divided, and some wanted to follow Sthembile and others wanted to follow Prudence. And Tony said “No, this thing is too big, we have to continue the work, however scary it is”. And we have continued to work until now. The stigma is less, and more people come forward for help. Tony left us in the middle, but we know that God is there…”

“He was like a son to me, chatting about his future and where he wanted to go. He wanted to be an NGO director and quietly went about making it happen. Working day to day to make a difference, it was never about the money or the status, always about how things would change.”

A caregiver:
“He was not like other men. He helped orphans talk about their sadness, helped gogos looking after their grandchildren. How many men have that gift to give children?” (A community member)

“Tony used to come straight away when we called for help. He used to drive us to hospital when we were sick. But he was not like a taxi driver. He used to talk to us to help us not to be afraid.” (A gogo in the community)

“He helped me to take my medication correctly – what will I do now?” (Young woman in the community)

A friend:
“I remember his dedication. His respect for the young and the old, his smile, his tiny body, his funny caps and his good heart.”

“He was many things in one. He was there for everyone, mothers, children, friends. Whatever he put his mind to, it became possible. Even though things were a struggle he never accepted failure and always found a way forward. He never lost hope.”

“He was not afraid to confront you when things went wrong, to honestly work things out.”

A lover and a husband-to-be:
“I fell in love with Tony on the 9th August 2004, when we were both doing home based care training in Howick. One day he took me to uMngeni River and he told me he wanted to marry me. I did not agree. He begged me until I finally agreed. He has just finished paying my mother lobola (bride price) for me. We have started wedding preparations. Next month we were going to collect our rings at the jewellery shop, and we were paying off a bedroom suite.

Then he got sick. But he never gave up hope. I remember one day when he was very sick, he tried to get up and go to work. He loved his job.

He also loved talking with me about our future and our babies. I miss his smile. When he called my name, he said ‘love’. Everywhere I go he still goes with me. I wish someone could bring him back to me.”

His vision for his community?
I remember he said: “ This community is going to have a vibrant economy and there will be no more unemployment. And most of all, there will be no HIV stigma and we will be free. If I die, please don’t let anyone say it was nthakathi (witchcraft). Tell them I was just sick.”

The Hilton Valley Committee chair has committed to continue working to fulfil his vision. Even though they have very little funding, they have vision and they have hope.

So, who was this man, passed over so easily by the Health System?

The answer is best summed up in the words of his daughter Luyanda, as I was bringing her back from shopping yesterday, when she saw Tony’s cousin in the distance: “Look, look! Daddy IS here! … Oh no, sorry – I forgot ….”

Tony’s memorial service was today. My mother baked scones and with Daniela, collected Tony’s family and drove them to the community hall where the service took place. She said many people spoke, and she was deeply moved by the beautiful singing of African hymns, where one voice begins and then others join in in parallel harmonies. She met all the people who loved Tony and who mourn him so deeply.

My Toni was also relieved to hear that Tony’s community are going to try to help Sambeka, who lives 10 kilometres away and who was one of the many people with AIDS that Tony was helping. Community members will drive her to the clinic so that she and her baby son get the treatment they so desperately need.

I am gaining faith in the amazing networks built by ordinary people who find the compassion in their hearts to help each other. But it is nevertheless a tragedy that such a wonderful man had to die because the health system was too overwhelmed, overworked and weak to save his life.


Today, Our Tears Flow

In my Sunday post, A 29th Story of AIDS, I wrote about a young man, Tony Shelembe, who was the last person still working for the nearly defunct uMngeni AIDS Centre (uMAC)*. His particular mission was to counsel children bereaved by AIDS, but he also assisted sick people by driving them to clinics and acquiring the documentation they needed in order to get ARVs. He was a gentle, humble man whose first thought was always of the children. Tony died last night of TB of the liver.

Tony was on ARVs, but his TB was not diagnosed until last week, when it was too late. In a visit to hospital two weeks ago, his stomach was drained of liquid but no-one ran the tests to check for TB. Had they done so, there might have been time to get him on the right medication and save his life. My mother’s neighbour, who nursed Tony alongside his fiancé, Pretty, said no painkillers were able to alleviate his pain. Towards the end, they managed to get a prescription for morphine, which helped him. He had a two-hour sleep, and died shortly after waking up.

Tony Shelembe’s death was tragic, and unnecessary. He, of all people, was doing everything in his power to combat AIDS and its terrible ramifications for individuals and society. Today, we mourn a true South African hero.

We cry for Tony’s family, Pretty and their 10-year-old daughter.
We cry for the uMngeni AIDS Centre.
We cry for Sambeka, so recently a recipient of Tony’s warmth and help.
We cry for all the other people living with AIDS who relied on Tony.
We cry for all the people who will now say, “Look at Tony. ARVs didn’t save him. Why should I bother?”
We cry for the children whose parents have died who no longer have Tony’s visits to look forward to.
We cry for hospitals that don’t test people for TB because they look like just another walking skeleton.
We cry for a government that doesn’t appear to care.
We cry for a health minister who says eat beetroot and garlic.
We cry for all the people who turn their backs on this terrible crisis as a means to protect themselves when they could just help one person.

To those South Africans, I say please open your hearts. Please just help one person.

* Special thanks to all those who have offered to donate money to help Sambeka and the uMAC. If anyone else would like to make a donation, I can send you the email address of Dan le Cordeur, a Catholic priest who works with people with AIDS and volunteers for uMAC.


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.