Sea Power

From Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, and back again…

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A genre-busting book, Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard does a rare thing: it is non-fiction that breaks the mould of works that look in on the continent from the outside. It shows the ancient and complex connections that exist within and beyond African borders in emotional, historical, cultural and metaphysical ways that others shirk from. (Billy Kahora)

With photographs by David Southwood | Memory Card Sea Power.

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Where? What? Why?

Not sure about J. M. Coetzee’s Schooldays.screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-36-42-pm

New Statesman | 5 October 2016 | PDF.

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The Institute for the Less Good Idea

Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.


Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016.
Photographs by Zanele Muholi | [PDF].

My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:

I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.


When William Kentridge arrives in one of the big world capitals these days, he arrives in force. In 2010 he took Manhattan, with a retrospective at MoMA and a staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. Since then: Berlin, Beijing, Rio, Oaxaca, Mumbai, Milan, Moscow (to name just a few). Earlier this year, a 550-metre long frieze of enormous figures stencilled along the Tiber’s embankment in Rome – his largest public artwork to date. And now London: a major exhibition titled Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery that opens later this month, and will coincide with a production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at English National Opera in November.

Compatriots, fellow Johannesburgers – we have watched with pleasure and perhaps pleasant surprise at just how big WK has made it in the art world. The surprise comes partly from how he has managed to be become genuinely global by remaining unashamedly local. Dürer, Hogarth and Daumier; the whole intellectual apparatus of the Enlightenment; the art of the Russian Revolution and other failed utopias of the 20th century; far-reaching mediations into the nature of space and time – all of the above have been filtered through the singularity of his Jo’burg. Or even more specifically, the three-kilometre radius that comprises Kentridge’s home, the schools he went to, the university of Witwatersrand where he took a degree in politics and African Studies, the Market Gallery where he first started exhibiting in the late 1970s, the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, for which he wrote, acted and directed. As part of a multi-racial community of artists trying to find a way of working through the worst days of the Nationalist regime, Kentridge has spoken of the challenge of addressing “the immovable rock of apartheid” without being limited or fixated by it. To escape the rock, he wrote in 1990, was the great challenge for the artist in those days, for “the rock is possessive, and inimical to good work”: “you cannot face the rock head-on; the rock always wins”. Continue reading

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Half-lives, Half-truths

Svetlana Alexievich and the nuclear imagination.


Reflecting on Voices from Chernobyl for the South Africa PEN essay series.
18 August 2016.

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.)
I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point… [Read more]

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Kingdom of Rain

An interview with Rustum Kozain.

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The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals…

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80.

RK […] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.

HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness…

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1 

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?

Gilles Deleuze

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Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

Lits of Betrayal

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies

‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

The TRC’s purpose was not to dispense justice but rather, as its grandiose name suggests, to extract from its witnesses a collective historical truth with which to reconcile a divided country. But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?

Philip Gourevitch, Review of Patrick Flanery’s Absolution
New Yorker 30 April 2012.


While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words. Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror (2011) meditates on the collapse of the African Resistance Movement after one of its key members betrayed his closest friends in the mid-1960s. Jacob Dlamini’s Askari (2014) explores ‘The Strange Saga of Mr X1’, a man who defected from the ANC’s armed struggle to become one of the most notorious collaborators with apartheid’s deaths squads. The co-authored work There Was this Goat (2009) addresses itself to an ostensibly ‘strange’ or ill-fitting TRC testimony by Notrose Nobomvu Konile, the mother of a young man betrayed and killed by apartheid operatives as one of the Gugulethu Seven in 1986. Each of these texts is about an historical act of betrayal; but at the same time their ambitious and experimental ways of telling risk other forms of unstable, contentious or ‘disloyal’ disclosure in the public sphere. As such, I argue for an idea of the literary as a work of betrayal in multiple senses: one which allows us to glimpse what the act of assembling and responding to cultural texts might involuntarily reveal about the post-apartheid settlement in a larger sense: its conditions of rhetorical possibility, its cultural strictures and the contours of increasingly fragile expressive spaces.

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Xolobeni and the Violence of ‘Development’

Screening and panel discussion hosted by Environmental Humanities South.
Poster - Xolobeni
For over a decade, members of the Amadiba community in Xolobeni have expressed their opposition to mining titanium on the sand dunes of Pondoland, on the Wild Coast of South Africa. This community is also opposing the extension on the N2 toll highway that will be required to transport the minerals from this remote rural area.

In screening ‘The Shore Break’ documentary, we hope to open a conversation about how to think beyond the language of ‘development’, with its many binaries and trade-offs. How to listen to those affected? How to engage without imposing? How to imbue political voice? How to overcome the binary language of development discourse, which is framed as for or against, either/or, mining versus ecotourism?

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