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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The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

3rd Space

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts.
ICA | Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Institute for Creative Arts and Black Academic Caucus “seize the decolonial nettle.”

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.

The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

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Negative Spaces

A visit to a deconstruction site.


Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016. [PDF]

Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.

But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.

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Nuclear Summer

A walk through South Africa’s nuclear pasts and futures.


Power Trip: Where will Zuma’s nuclear dreams take us?
Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.

Recently I took part in a “walking residency”, making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics – 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.

We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams… [Continue reading]

[PDF / Print layout 1/2] | [3]

Sources and further reading…

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A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.


Solitary but sociable, easeful but dangerous, gloriously escapist but inescapably political – a swimmer’s progress is full of paradoxes…

Openings columnFinancial Times, 8 January, 2016.

Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16

Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.

A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.

Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water?

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The Art of Fear

A novelistic re-imagining of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.


Review of Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Financial Times, 15 January 2016.

On January 28 1936, Pravda carried the most chilling music review of the 20th century. “Muddle Instead of Music” was an unsigned editorial but many suspected that Stalin himself had penned it: only a dictator could get away with so many grammatical errors. Two days earlier he had walked out of an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, leaving its composer Dmitri Shostakovich white with fear. Until then, the work had been acclaimed worldwide, but now the 29-year-old’s success was turned against him: “Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?” An opportunity for clear, realistic art that could uplift the people had been squandered by this straying into dissonance, cacophony and “formalism”: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” [Continue reading…]

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