Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Press Watch

This week was an interesting one for those of us who watch the press.

In the UK, the Leveson Inquiry took evidence on how invasive journalists hacked people’s phones, read people’s emails and put notes into their children’s schoolbags. The tabloids complain that their freedom of expression is on the rack, but the evidence given all week shows that they routinely ignored, undermined or rode roughshod over their targets’ freedoms.

The Leveson Inquiry will eventually protect people, both celebrity and ordinary, from excessive press invasion.

In South Africa, the government put the Protection of State Information Bill before Parliament and it was voted through by 229 votes, with two abstentions and 107 votes against. The Bill contains a clause which will allow any organ of state down to the smallest municipality to declare any document as secret and prosecute whistleblowers with jail terms of up to 25 years. There is no public interest defence. The Bill still has two more levels to go through before it becomes law, and the opposition, the media, civil society and statespeople like Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer and Mamphele Ramphele are declaring it a blow against press freedom.

The Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary whip, Lindiwe Mazibuko, made a key speech against the bill on Thursday, saying to the MPs in the house,”You’ll tell your children that you fought for freedom, but will you also tell them you helped destroy it?”

The Secrecy Bill will protect government from the press, and allow corruption to go unreported.


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In Memory of Herbert James Downs

Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday. His grand-daughter, K, asked me to repost a post I wrote three years ago about his death and what that meant for me.  In memory of her wonderful grandfather, I give you Cold Comfort:

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In March 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, has his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


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Writing Distractions

Just so you know what’s keeping me out of the cellar:

1. The World Cup

I used to pooh-pooh soccer, now I’m obsessed. I think it’s less to do with the game itself and more to do with the fact that it’s taking place in my homeland. South Africa is proving itself to be a great host and not only is the World Cup running smoothly and well, but tourists are having a fabulous time. Our team may not have been the best, but South Africa is a world champion host country. Here’s Shari Cohen of the Huffington Post on what the World Cup has meant to her. It made this expat wipe away a tear of pride. Also, I’m loving the sound of vuvuzelas in the Burg. A little bit of Africa floating to me on the night air.

2. Work

I have a great part-time position as an in-house journalist for the next three months. I am really looking forward to being in the working world again.

3. Marketing

The time to start marketing Balthasar’s Gift, a 75,000 word murder mystery set in South Africa at the height of AIDS denialism, is upon me. I am researching agents, writing query letters and synopses and thinking about the  best way to sell my book.

4. Summer

We are going to the pool a lot. It is a mere five minutes’ walk from our house, so we are there as often as possible. I have two-and-a-half swimmers, so the experience is more relaxing than it used to be. I can now read my book and do some lengths if I want to.

5. Parties

Loads of parties! Summer parties, farewell parties, got-a-degree parties, soccer parties, work parties. We are up for a party chez Otter, we love a bit of music and dancing and chatting to people we know and don’t know.

Hope summer is turning out just as lovely for you. Here’s the World Cup Waka Waka to put you in the mood:


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Journey’s End

So I’m back from my journey. We took a 12-hour drive to the Dordogne Valley for a week’s glamping at the unequivocally fabulous Camping les Ormes. This is a camping site that actually lives up to its website – it is that beautiful. While strong design values don’t make an iota of difference to my kids’ holiday, or for that matter, my husband’s, they do to mine. I loved sleeping in a tent with a chandelier and an antique piano, having crystal tea light holders and fresh roses on the white kitchen table. Pictures and a full report to follow.

However, we came home to the news that France is the world’s most expensive destination. So we may not be going back for a while.

Today is South Africa’s big day, and we are off shortly to celebrate the start of the World Cup with all the South Africans who live in Germany. Since there are only 14 of us, some Germans have also been invited and we are looking forward to teaching them how to blow the vuvuzela. Though I hold with good design values, I may break from those for today and wear my green Bafana Bafana t-shirt. Because, the boys, you know, we want them to win.

I watched some of the concert last night and cried in the dark in front of the telly. The atmosphere was amazing, the musicians outstanding and I felt proud, patriotic and very far away. Still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.

My novel is progressing well. I am close to the finish line of draft four and have promised myself and my husband to start approaching agents by July at the latest. I wrote a car chase scene last night that included references to BMW model numbers and felt like James Bond, just for the day.

This was our family theme song for the holiday. Yes, we do allow our children to sing songs about ‘blowing the bad guys away’. We also let them play ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’ on their recorders.

Hooray for Barbara Kingsolver winning the Orange Prize! I ordered The Lacuna from my DH who flew in from London last night, and as I wiped my tears and read the first pages at midnight, I discovered that Kingsolver has stolen a phrase of mine. Goddammit, don’t these published authors have any respect for great unpublished? It’s a phrase I’m proud of, that my beta readers have all circled and given me a gold star for. Now I have to decide whether to get rid of it, or let it slip in there.

Which is all grist to the finishing mill, so I’ll bid you another farewell. See you at the end of Draft Four!