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Sustenance in the Days of Miracle and Wonder



Sustenance in the Days of Miracle and Wonder

In all the uncertainty of the Struggle years there was one thing you could be sure of: if you were at a journos’ party in the Eighties, your host would have made lasagne and salad.

Saturday night and the record player comes out, one of those newfangled ones in a teal case with a sound just as tinny as the originals they are endeavouring to emulate from the Seventies and Eighties. Very authentic then. We put on Graceland and the front room is transformed into a Struggle era party circa 1986. It’s winter and journos with badges pinned to their coats and snow washed jeans are swaying to Bright Blue’s Weeping.

Your host, most likely a crime reporter in an oversize jacket over a T-shirt, a news photographer wearing a khaki fishing waistcoat with too many pockets, or a down table sub in a threadbare green jersey he’d worn for 20 years since it was handed down to him, had toiled all afternoon making a giant lasagne, and had managed to throw together a salad, strewing some pea shoots and lentils on top because it made him feel cool. Someone wearing dungarees and a bandana had brought a bakkie of “cookies” they’d made at home, and you knew what they were. 

No matter whose party it was or how many people were there, there were always some you’d never seen before; no one seemed to know who they were. Someone would whisper that so-and-so looked like a spy and be guarded about what they said in front of them. You checked them out all skeef like, but there was no gabardine suit and as far as you could make out their bowtie wasn’t really a camera. Meanwhile they were probably just a friend of a friend of a friend or somebody passing by the house who thought, hey, that looks cool and I’ve got nothing better to do. Who knew, at those parties, who was with whom.

Images of the Eighties fly through your mind as you change the track. Lasers in the jungle, Casspirs in the streets, a shattering of shop windows, the bomb in the baby carriage… She’s a rich girl, she don’t try to hide it, diamonds on the soles of her shoes… he’s a poor boy, empty as a pocket, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose, sing ta-na-na… 

Those were the days of miracle and wonder and the long distance call that might be tapped, the days of cops you called pigs and protests on Greenmarket Square that you could look down on from the fourth storey newsroom windows of Newspaper House; days when the country’s arts community showed up to play their part in the fight against apartheid; days of agitprop theatre and art installations with a Struggle message. 

At every party, ours were invariably our own sort – journos – hanging out together at one or another’s house on a Saturday night, drinking Castles and Lions and two-litre chunky bottles of Valley Dry White or, if the budget was even tighter, Roma White, the cause of every Saturday hangover after an evening of drinking at the Press Club, as we all called our after work haunt, the Café Royal in Church Street. We’d have ordered big plates of calamari or steak Chasseur – a centuries-old sauce of tomatoes, onions, wine, brandy and herbs – to sustain our endless chatter in those after-work hours.

You can imagine how much there was to talk about: whether a newsroom reporter, subeditor, sports writer, or arts writer as I was, the issues of the day were all around you for every working hour. You had colleagues who had been in the back of police vans, spent time in detention, covered the Trojan Horse massacre and other atrocities; it was a time when newspaper people were working to cover the Struggle in defiance of more than 100 security laws through successive States of Emergency bestowed on the people by PW Botha.

Even if, on the arts side of things, the drama of our days happened mostly on stage or in art exhibitions, the Struggle was palpable all around you; you felt immersed in it, as if we were all on stage in this giant production that stretched from coast to coast and north to south; even if we were bit players, we were still there. Witnesses to Casspirs and purple spray; The Arch wearing his cassock and smile when you spotted him in the precinct of St George’s Cathedral up the road from our offices, where we parked our car while at work; thumping Struggle rallies on Greenmarket Square, inevitably dispersed by tear gas, sometimes water cannon.

And here’s Tony Weaver right now, the Struggle journo who drove a grannymobile, pinging on a DM WhatsApp group, colleagues again after all these decades; and here’s Janet Heard who’s one of our managing editors, who I met when she was a kid and her dad Tony Heard was my first and esteemed editor. And my mind flips to parties at the Heard house, reached by a funicular, and at news editor and later assistant editor Wessel de Kock’s house not far away and more lasagne and avocado mousse, to cheese and (cheap) wine parties at sundry colleagues’ digs, parties in Athlone and someone else’s party in Obs. Always a party in Obs, several times a year; it mattered not whose house or party it was, and someone in braids mellow-dancing in the front room and somebody shy suddenly invigorated by a cookie they ate and all of a sudden they’re the life of the party and stomping around the room.

In our front room in Cradock, I take Graceland off and find my Voëlvry album and Johannes Kerkorrel is at the piano giving his heart to Hillbrow. Johannes Kerkorrel who had been Ralph Rabie, and one of us, a reporter. And whose heart was too big to be squashed into a newsroom so broke out and created music and made an impact. And wrote … oumans sit by die straatkafees, en kyk al die mense loop heen en weer, die boemelaars raas by die Wimpy bar, en Fontana is oop tot laat in die aand… 

Ralph Rabe, who finally chose to leave us. Johannes Kerkorrel, the man who died of apartheid. Of whom his friends Valiant Swart and Koos (Andre le Toit) Kombuis sang years later, in Kleinmond Koebaai: wie wil jy naby aan jou hê, by wie wil jy vir oulaas lê, by wie gooi jy jou laaste draai, Kleinmond koebaai… still the most poignant song I know, achingly beautiful, yet hard to listen to without tearing up. Valiant missed being part of the Voëlvry movement as such, having met Kerkorrel and Kombuis only in 1988.

With hindsight, Valiant became the true troubadour of the era with his gentle delivery and I picture him on a beach at Swakopmund with a fire going for a kreef braai and picking up his guitar and singing this while waiting for the coals to be ready…

While Valiant soothes aching minds I cast mine back to Kerkorrel, back in Hillbrow again, he’s alive and he’s walking into Fontana and ordering a half chicken and chips, and can’t you just taste that Fontana chicken, right there, right then, in my Karoo, only last week. I also memory-taste the late night supper I used to buy in 1980 when I’d get off the train at Mowbray after a night of clubbing and buy a rotisserie chicken from a café in the nearby street, and devour the whole thing before going to bed, wondering what the decade ahead held in store for us as dreams claimed me.

I put Graceland back on because I feel like dancing, and it’s You Can Call Me Al and the third verse has me imagining it’s about himself, about Paul Simon wrenching himself from New York and landing in a strange world, maybe it’s the Third World; maybe it’s his first time around, doesn’t speak the language, he holds no currency; he is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound, the sound, cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages; he looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture… the American songwriter adrift in Africa somewhere, and I’m wondering if he bought street food, munched a steak roll from a shisa nyama, and did he have chutney on it or tomato sauce he called ketchup before he went and found Ray Phiri and made Graceland.

Any time there’s Paul Simon and Graceland in the room, Niccy is in the room too, in our minds at least; especially at this time of year because it was on 11 January 1992 that he left us and it’s unfathomable that in less than a year it will be 30 years; it feels so, so recent, but loss of someone you love with your heart and soul is like that.

Before it happened, we had bought family tickets to Simon’s Graceland concert at the old Green Point Stadium. Once the dust and grief had settled on us, never to be lifted entirely, we asked one another the question: do we go, give the tickets away, what do we do. We had decided that life must go on, that we must pick up our grief and carry it with us, always, so we decided the remaining four of us would go. The concert is searingly set in my mind even now, I can hear the horns section, trumpeting, magnificent, with the sunset sky over Signal Hill beyond, and us huddled in a rowdy, vibrant mob of exhilarated people, with them but somehow separate, stifling sadness, fighting the choking up, saying to each other it’s for Nic, he would have loved this, he would have… he’d been in the throng at the Grand Parade in Cape Town when Mandela gave his freedom speech, he’d been a young fighter in the UCT newspaper trenches against apartheid, in that tiny glimpse of adulthood he’d been allowed, at just 19 and no more.

And Niccy suddenly wasn’t there 29 years ago and he’s not here now, and Johannes Kerkorrel and an obscene number of apartheid’s victims are not with us now, not living through this strange new struggle, one against an invisible enemy who could be anywhere, you never know where it might grab you and end you. 

The most ironic memory of that time, always, for me, was the moment on the very Saturday of Nic’s death when I looked at the leg of lamb forgotten on the kitchen table, through my tears, and said, what the hell do I do with that. It had come out of the freezer in the innocence of morning. And his mother, barely hours after hearing the most devastating news of any parent’s life, said, cook it. Because in grief, just as in joy, there is the need for food and for sustenance. So I roasted the forgotten leg of lamb and we consumed it in our despairing depths, trying not to notice that there was more to go round than there would have been.

And there, over there, where the moonlight is sleeping on the midnight lake, is Joseph Shabalala, and he’s also left us to make the Crossing to where ancestors wait with watchful patience. All of us, somehow homeless, even in our homes, in times that are taking too many from us. Many dead, tonight it could be you. Hang in there, comrades. Be safe, always. DM/TGIFood


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  • A gem of a story Tony. How you’ve captured those newsroom days. Nostalgia. Humour. Lasagna. And then Niccy… Can’t conceive of it being 30 years. That he would have been 49. To lose a son — every parent’s worst nightmare. So good that special people stay alive for us, with us, in memory.

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