Tantra by the tree

On a Thursday morning in Rooibok, 150 pre-adolescent children lie belly-flat in the cobra position, raising dust beneath a big old tree. Their instructor, wearing a bright red FREE YOUR SOUL t-shirt and a goofy glazed smile, counts to eight in his head and laughs out aloud.

Eyes open wide as the crisp morning air shovels up snotty nostrils. The children hold their breath like jazz trumpeteers, arch their backs, creak their necks and blow out those little kid blues. In the background, behind a mountain of thick winter scrub, bushfires burn bright in the bellies of the cobra.

Cheueu Primary School in Rooibok is is not the wealthiest school in South Africa. It consists of three crumbling concrete bulidings, with rusted tin rooves and no grass on the lawn. The vegetable garden is barren, the windows smashed and the fences are falling down. Three hundred learners are still away at initiation school, bound to graduate in the coming week and return with secret tales and permanent scars. Outside the gate, a handful of slackers mill about, screaming for a ride, running late for the first bell.

Short Break arrives, and an old lady hands out oranges. Juice drips down chins, while one kid plays soccer with his piece until a teacher barks and the kid tucks the bruised fruit in his pocket.

The staffroom is basic; a desk, a bench seat, a photo copier and reams of butcher’s paper marked with scribbled timetables and teacher id’s. A crumpled note reads ‘Small minds talk about people, medium minds talk about events, big minds talk about ideas.’

The Deputy Principal, Mr R.R, shakes my hand and fingers his well-trimmed moustache. “You are here to commensurate us with your experience, Thomas. Education is about people, and you are our friend.”

My brief is for Physical Education and English. I have no way to prove my qualifications, but nobody seems to mind. Can I start immediately? I’d first made contact with the school back in May, but the nationwide teacher strike left it closed for three months. I’d rather not teach English without any preparations, I tell Mr R.R., but I would love to teach yoga.

Mary*, a friendly young teacher with a tennis ball haircut, and dressed neatly in a plaid skirt, asks if I am a Jehovah’s Witness. I shake my head, no way, but then remember my t-shirt and my yoga, and think that maybe I am whipping up a quiet frenzy, proseltysing, a do-gooder mhlungu barging in with big ideas and little time.

No time to dwell on my motives though. The students are packed in the classroom tighter than day-old pap. The Foundation Learners – Grade One Two Three – slide around their sandy classroom floor, moving desks, chairs and unzipped bags spilling pencils and uneaten oranges in the dust. Half the kids wear shoes, a quarter jump up and down swapping partners in the ten minute grace period between setting up and getting started, between schedule and unannounced mhlungu visitor with a spiritual agenda and no lesson plan.

The kids in the back can’t see me, can’t hear me, so I push a table against the blackboard and sit cross-legged on its rickety feet. We start with an arm-to-leg asana and the children scruff and squirm and bow as one. We move through a range of postures, til our noses are free from grotty earth, and we breath like the day we were born.

The kids pair up, and massage each other’s hands. Nobody is saying much, just eyes down or closed, rubbing the natural oils into their palms, getting to know that kid they never spoke to, getting to know themselves.

I set the alarm on my mobile. Two minutes of silence, eyes closed, legs crossed. Some Grade Threes prefer the African way, with legs folded to one side. No problem, we are all heading in the same direction. 3, 2, 1, ssshhh. Then nothing. Unlike adults, they have little to unlearn. Everything they need, they know, they pretty much already have.

The village of Rooibok in Bushbuckridge is like so many communities in rural South Africa. No red tape, no ticker tape; if you’re in, you’re in, and you’re welcome. “You can see our school is very poor,” says Mr. R.R. “We have asked the government for more support, but we are still waiting.”

The next day, we meet the students by the tree. The Grade Ones in the front row creep closer to the instructor’s rug and giggle dare each other to peek. The Grade Twos spread themselves wide in the bird posture, tippy-toeing to the termite mound. The Grade Threes, way bad in the back, are stern-faced and stubborn, but dance the classical kaoshiki with grace til their face muscles relax and they burst into Grade One rapture.

The homeroom teachers wobble their bodies into shape, and drift happily away from lesson plans. They have diagrams in the pockets and vow to practise every day.

The class ends with a 7000-year-old yogic warrior dance. Traditionally, it’s performed holding a live snake in one hand and a sword in the other. But these Tantric pre-teens need only swing their legs back and forth like psychedelic can-can girls, shouting kick, kick, kick, kick. The pace quickens until a hundred brave hearts beat a thousand times over, and there is nothing in the head but a hole full of happy. The fires blaze unchecked. It’s a beautiful morning in Rooibok.


Maputo to Macaneta

Tomas is a twenty-something oil painter who sells Pollock-style dollops for seven hundred US. For a photo and a giggle, he stands at the entrance to the co-op, Nucleo de Arte, on Avenida Argenia, and fake chats a ten-foot scrap-iron buffalo.

“Fucking no revolution here. Corruption, no revolution, fucking no Mozambique.”

Tomas is handsome in his big wide grin, white v-neck t-shirt and Tommy Hilfiger cap. “Nao fala Ingles,” he smiles, as we point to a pretty pastel. “Nao fala Portuguese,” we reply, travelling too light to buy.

At the Continental Café – a faded Deco prince with high ceilings, mirrored pillars and sweet floured pastries – a bank man named Fernando offers to drive us to the Galleria Naçional. But we first must wait for his Sunday car-washers (two million meticals a month) to finish buffing his Range Rover. The Galleria Naçional is a mix of quiet, colourful abstractions and hyper-coloured horror. Subtle dabs of artistic restraint sit beside giant canvas devil heads and impish cartoon whores. Somewhere between tradition and torture, we get an appetite.

At a tapas joint on a corner of Almeida and what could be Sesame Street – with the grocery store, the zebra crossings, the all-day sun and kid-safe marrabenta breaks – the waitress dances to African RnB Singer of the Year, Lizha Smith, while we order patatas bravas and Super Bock and fizzy vinho verde.

After lunch, pickled in post-consumptive guilt, we meet Dino at the traffic lights on Avenida Ho Chi Minh. His mini-sculptured street scenes made from coloured bits of wood are spread thick along a blanket. We buy a mercado de peixe and a chunky wooden rooster then catch a taxi on Avenida Fidel Castro past the Robert Mugabe Plaza and the residence of Mrs Machel-Mandela, and back to the Holiday Inn.

The difference between four-star and five is somewhere on the stove. At the much-vaunted and visited Polana Hotel, the jazz band plays low and slow, and dancing seems too rude on lobster so sweet you want to swim with its claw-fingered cousins. On our last day we eat at the Costa Do Sol. For half the price and twice the rice, multilingual diplomats smash king prawns and Dois M, unbutton chino trousers, and wear bibs to catch the juice.



Every day, the man with no legs waits beneath a tree. He scurries out from the thicket, arms and crutches, and begs, desculpe, for a few spare meticals. You think to yourself, “oh the landmines, oh the landmines”, until Benny, your driver, says the man was run over by a train.

In this tiny Mozambican village, 35km north of Maputo, no one has change for a fifty rand note. Who are you to inflate the price of charity, you ask yourself, as you enter another village, and another line of kids hold out their hands and smile, “sweeties, sweeties”, then run away laughing or sticking up their fingers, happy or sad as usual.

The grey sand track is soft and deep now, and Benny lets the steering wheel spin back and forth in his hands in fistfuls of video game gumption. Kingfishers and cormorants flitter over cassava fields. A banana plantation ripens in the soft winter sun, and the maize looks ready to be plucked. Three fat bulls stand tied to wooden posts, and kids chase their ugly goat mothers.

A bright red wagon cart, with azulejos flowers painted on its side, sits beside a slab-of-concrete primary school and a village made of reeds. The national flag of yellow, green, red, a farm tool, a book and an AK-47, flutters gently from a tree. Pretty Latino-Indian-Arab-African girls smile and wave as they dry out fish, and my mum and dad wave back, beaming.


I recently took my parents to Mozambique. Nothing happened that wasn’t planned, but nothing was expected. They flew from Melbourne to my home in Hoedspruit, via Kuala Lumpur and Johannesburg, and we bussed together to the border. Our driver, Gerry, was a yellow-haired helicopter pilot who relocated game. On the drive, we ate cashew nuts and frozen grapes, and listened to the radio change tune from gritty township kwaito to sea-sprayed marrabenta.

At the border, there was the usual tourist shuffle, a few sketchy moneylenders tipping up the temple, and a delightful lack of direction. A framed photograph of President Armando Guebuza sat next to sign reading nao fumer por favor, while the young customs man in semi-socialist fatigues stamped a cigar in his mouth and my passport.

Gerry skirted us through post-(war)-modern slums filled with airplane scrap, Cuban cars and billboards shouting Diz Ola! He bribed the highway clear and soon we arrived at a little ferry port, greeted by kids selling sunglasses and Art Deco prints of elephants. A square cement pontoon with an engine underneath made 100-metre round trips to an estuary island (MT10), stacked with tractors, cars, pigs and people. A horn blew and left us behind. Gerry shouted in Tsonga at the under-age hawkers, and bartered for buckets of crabs.

As the sun turned a bend, we hurried down our gins, squashed into a speedboat and headed up river. We passed a couple fishing in a rowboat, a husband and wife – he rippling with muscle, she sharp in the eyes. They’d been on the water for eleven days, sleeping with crocodiles and hippos, and fighting fish eagles off their catch. A fire spat up on a reed plate between their legs, where they fried barracuda for the rainy days.

We docked at the lodge in the last of the light, and stepped onto a small sand beach.
Not a light, not a sound. That night Mum ate crab curry, while Dad tinkered with his Blackberry. We were long out of range, but Dad was adamant his carrier had arranged for it to work. By eight, the old man was pacing in the dark, and by nine the novelty wore off our faces.

For the next two days it rained, and we slept and ate and shared family stories. On the third day, the rain broke, so we took the speedboat through the heads to Macaneta, a day-trippers hotspot from where the Maputo skyline flickers in the morning haze. Here the river meets the sea and, ten kilometres from shore, a wooden sailboat floated unmanned. To the right, a young boy walked on the ocean. The water parted where he stepped, and his toes sprinkled sand and sea.

We leapt from the boat and flickered giddy on the sandbank. On the Indian Ocean floor, rising high above my ankles, laid a perfect pansy shell. I picked up the shell and dried it on my leg. In its centre was a perfectly serrated orange square. Nigh to the right, I heard a woman sing in Tsonga. Stepping further out to sea, three more women pilfered clams from the seabed. They wore bright blue headscarves and fluorescent painted skirts. One woman called to the young boy for a lift back to shore. He opened up his sails and motioned her across. “The tide is changing,” she said, her friends waddling in the waves.

The sun set purple in the shell in my hands.

Psycho Safari


The idea behind most horror films is simple: if it can be imagined, it can be real. For many white South Africans at the fall of Apartheid, the fear of being ‘run into the sea’ by crowds of vengeful blacks felt far less far-fetched than the plot of your average slasher flick.

In 1994, the foreign news media poured into this South Africa to witness a predicted massacre. It never happened, of course – the journalists packed up and left for Rwanda – but like all great horror films, that’s beside the point. The only thing that matters is that it could happen. And maybe it’s yet to come.

Like a grandfather who refuses to go to sleep, Nelson Mandela sits up late watching his children bicker. But what happens when the old man passes on? Nothing, most likely, but imagine what could happen?

Throughout the twentieth century, horror films prospered at times of paranoia and social unease. The 50’s and 60’s Cold War fever, and the ensuing push to outer space, sparked movies about building-sized extra-terrestrials and scientists gone mad. Soon enough, the dead walked the earth and Armageddon was nigh. The 1970’s brought a shift in values, as horror took its pants off, and Vietnam’s demons could be found living in your basement.

In the 80’s, people got bored with the all-consuming lives, and the baddies were forced to enter your dreams, your workplace, or your holiday spot to jolt you back to life. By the 90’s, fear had turned psychological. Less was more, and less tickets were sold. Getting scared was getting harder to do. In the 21st century, horror got ironic. We walked away untouched, and laughed at the silly remakes.


Let’s make a horror film.

Imagine a secret sect of Afrikaaner militants detonating a bizarre, mutative chemical weapon on an unsuspecting government. The bloody coup leads to chaos. Imagine middle-class black South Africans exacting a hideous revenge on the white population. Then don’t think if, but how? How would they orchestrate it? Who would lead the charge? And then most important of all, in what ways would people die?

Famine and pestilence are too epic in scope to really scare a popcorn crowd. They are more like gradual conditions than ready-made chills. Likewise nothing can be more frightening than the reality of war – anything you add to the script will only be drowned out by the noise. But animals, on the other hand, are born to kill. And Africa is full of killer animals. Honey badgers than castrate grown buffalo, frenzied zebra and ferocious giraffe. Caracals that can leap twenty feet into the air, and hyena to clean up your bones.

So take one terrified family – one white, one black – and one small town, near a wildlife park, in the middle of nowhere. From outside their isolated physical paradise, news seeps in that their country has gone mad. Hungry, disfugured animals are closing in. Neighbouring countries are invading en masse. The skies are filled with planes carrying to safety those who can afford to leave. It’s the middle of summer, and a thermal haze has set in. The melting sun burns human flesh, so the only time to escape is during the night.

What would be the purpose of such a film – just to entertain, to titillate, to abhor? Or could it explore what South Africans are really so afraid of? Could it help them face their demons? And if the absolute physical expression of their deepest, darkest fears – times ten thousand, in living, screaming colour – is a barely imaginable gore fest, then perhaps the future’s not so scary after all.

It’s 6:30am, and Stanley’s had a hard night’s sleep on a concrete bench. “It’s not so cold this morning. But yesterday…Aish!”

The Vodacom phone booth is yet to open, but the Drakensig airforce men are up and about at ease, the Indian shop is stirring, and two young women line up old avocadoes on a milk crate. Behind the bus stop, bleary-eyed labourers clink away at a soon-to-be-opened garage, while a breakfast fire dwindles in their plastic-covered camp.

Stanley picks up two cane laundry baskets, and lugs them onto the tar road. His dread-locked friend, Thomas, carries a pile of masks sculpted from tin. They trundle down the hill, and set up shop for another day, on the corner of Ferret St, in the shadow of Blyde Canyon.

Three weeks earlier, Stanley fare-welled his young wife and their two children in the once prosperous farming town of Marondera, 120km south-east of Harare, promising to return with money for food and clothing. The 29-year-old former chef jumped a truck to Harare – the bus wouldn’t take his thirty-five items of luggage – and then changed again for the 600km journey to the South African border. Arriving at the border, Stanley hesitated. His six-month multiple entry visa had already cost him R2000. He doubted he could afford to do it again. Another few rand this month would mean a new pair of shoes for his eight-year-old son. “There’s nothing in Zimbabwe anymore. It costs more to have a job than to stay unemployed, when you include transport and tax and things like that.”

Strung out and anxious, Stanley still had four hundred kilometres to go. The truck continued to Louis Trichardt, where it arrived two hours later. There he waited on the side of road with thirty-five chests of drawers until, shortly after dark, he found a different truck heading to Tzaneen. The driver asked for R100, and Stanley did the math in his head and reluctantly handed over the cash. He spent the night sleeping in a ditch and in the morning paid the same fare to a driver en route to Phalobowra. He jumped out near Gravelot, where he slept in a derelict petrol station, and in the morning hitched a ride with a fridge delivery driver who dropped him at the four- way stop in Hoedspruit, four and a half days after he’d left home.


Stanley makes cane furniture. He buys the frames and weaves the drawers. He is short, smiley, and resolute. Fatigue has settled in the corners of his eyes. He has a generous paunch and a friendly smile, and every day he wears the same faded Nike hat, grey tracksuit, and small goat-beard under the chin. The police had moved him on from the four-way, because his business interrupted the traffic officer’s duties. He now sets up shop opposite the Wimpy, but he envisages more trouble in the future. “The shop owners in Khamagelo, they might not be happy with us being here.”

By 11am, nothing has been sold. No customers have been sighted. Thomas goes to fetch water, and a stranger brings a plastic bottle filled with rooibos tea. There’s not enough for everyone though, and Stanley’s buck-toothed brother-in-law misses out. “I already share enough with him!” Stanley is critical of his country’s government. “What you see in the papers is not even half of it.” But he has also grown tired of politics. “There is no point getting angry anymore. The most important thing to do is find some money for your family.”

Stanley’s younger brother, Maphione, appears just in time for lunch. He’s been out selling brooms near the Pick ‘n’ Pay, and trying to find a job on the sly. “No luck, today. But tomorrow? Ah, yes!” The four men gather round the camping stove. Thomas is the designated chef. “Pap and baked beans – sweet and savoury!” They sit on a Winnie the Pooh plastic chair and thin strips of cardboard and eat hungrily with their hands. The men talk fondly of their homes, of the tsvangu and kova that the Xhona women fry up so well. Thomas, 24, was once a prominent DJ, appearing in clubs, radio, even television until ‘people could no longer afford entertainment’. Now he makes metalwork warthogs, and wears the same blue overalls and slippers every day, saving money to take home to his parents. He dreams of one day emigrating to Australia: “I could rock the party there, no problem.”

Stanley dips a brush into half a Grape Fanta bottle filled with turpentine, and carefully brushes his furniture. Thomas leans against the fence and bangs on a sheet of rusted tin. Next door, Theresa, in an old woolen sweater covered in moth holes, hangs out large tye-dye sheets, and soap stone figurines. Her elderly husband is a skilled craftsman. His giant carved face of a Swazi royal guard will fetch R1000 if he’s lucky. Late in the afternoon, a female European tourist stops. She’s searching for a praying Jesus. Will someone make it for her? “She always asks for something we don’t have,” laughs Stanley, “then she changes her mind and disappears!”


Two weeks have passed, and business has been poor. Four new vendors have arrived, including Atwell, who sells chess sets and lampshades, etchings and animal statues. Maphione is sitting across the road, warming up in the sun, waving from beneath a sign for St Martin’s Church. Trucks carrying reeds whiz by, and the Hi-ace for the Oaks is almost full. Stanley and Thomas have left for Phalaborwa, Maphione says, to try their luck somewhere else before their visas expire.

Maphione is in no such rush. The 20-year-old came to South Africa ‘this way and that way’, he says, making fish movements with his hand. He’s a handsome, muscular boy who grunts and groans happily when he speaks. He wears a red sleeveless top, blue jeans, and brown loafers. Maphione crossed the border through the dried up Zambezi River bed with ‘thirty or forty’ others. One girl, Pretty, distracted then bribed a guard, while another man cut a hole in the fence. “You got must be brave, like a soldier. If you cross without fear, it’s like a symbol. The world knows you have courage, and there’s no problem.”

Maphione spent one night sleeping under a tree and a second night up it, all the while surrounded by roaring lions. “Our God gives us strength. He doesn’t let us feel sorry for ourselves.” He then decided to split from the group. He walked to Chinjiwe, where he hitched a ride to Messina. When he arrived in Hoedspruit two days later, he met up with Stanley, and they ‘screamed like children’.

Mophiane plans to stay in the area until he can find work. His brother-in-law has just found a job as a security guard on a nearby farm, earning ‘no more than R1000.’ Another brother-in-law, Austin, also works illegally, in a canteen in Johannesburg.

So is he sad to be alone in Hoedspruit? “Oh no. Look at all my new friends.”

The sun starts to set, and a car pulls over. A white woman in a family car winds her window half way down and motions him across. How much is the big chest of drawers? Oh really? She’ll think about it. Probably come back tomorrow. Thanks anyway. Mophiane rolls his eyes, shakes his head and walk away smiling.


The following day, Mophiane had disappeared, and all his merchandise had vanished. According to other street vendors, he’d found a construction job on a nearby building site. Stanley and Thomas returned to Zimbabwe, with a pile of unsold goods.

A bakkie-load of Shangaan construction workers huddles tightly in their rainbow beanies. The young men slap backs and flash smil es as they scoot past a bevy of Boers dressed head-to-high-knee in khaki. The property developers suck their skafes and puff steam rings through the icy air. It’s Wednesday morning in the Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate.
Across the R40, a stream of Toyota Hi-Ace taxis pull up in front of La Bamba supermarket. Farmhands and well-made wives banter in circles on the steps and chew fried chips, the air already full of sweat and laughter. Army green safari vehicles crowd the petrol bowsers, and from a cloud of dust comes the inaugural class at the Amazwi School of Media Arts.

Here in South Africa, where history is delicate and fresh, revolution is a dangerous word. Hundreds were exiled for imagining a post-Apartheid state, and millions suffered trying to outlive it. But in this sleepy tourist town, on the edge of Kruger National Park, fifteen young Shangaan and Sotho women are learning to tell their stories straight.

It’s the first Wednesday of the month, and time for the Editorial Meeting. The first edition of the signature publication, The Amazwi Villager, is just three weeks away, and the students are restless to see their names on the page. Lydia, fresh from her Rise & Shine snack stall, sits quietly in a huge apricot sun hat; Constance dishes out sweet cherry bubblegum at a rand for six pieces; and Maria, the dressmaker, in her black velvet boots and a white woolen sweater, laughs to herself, no longer ‘crying beneath a Marula tree’, no longer so ready to quit the bush beat.

The newly built classroom of clay-coloured concrete, thatched roof and high wooden beams echoes with Tsonga whispers. The students are reluctant to present their new assignment ideas. The editor is ready to bend their ideas to fit.

As one-by-one the topics are revealed, the threads are hope and life and struggle, but death, it seems, is everywhere. There’s a profile of a prosperous coffin-maker, a tombstone carver, an investigation into Burial Societies, a day-in-the-line at a hospital, plus a staple diet of abortion, AIDS and TB.

We break for lunch, and the students burst into sing-song relief. “Aish, this journalism stuff is too hard!” moans Thandi, 22, for whom writing stories is in fact too easy. On her first assignment, Thandi spent an evening at a local shebeen (unlicensed bar), witnessed one stabbing and another near-death, and wrote it all up with poetry and poise.

Her Group B teammate, Siphiwe, 27, is a bronze Sotho athlete with high cheekbones —the right side stamped with a ceremonial scar—and a broad, ready smile. She wants to be a sports broadcaster, but for now, it’s an illegal immigrant from Mozambique who fills her days. Meanwhile, Bongekile, the accomplished, unofficial matriarch of the group, is trying to sort through the mess of government housing.

Revolutions can take at least four drafts to finish, usually handwritten and always double-spaced. Once submitted, everyone heads for Pick n Pay. Like a high school cafeteria, the class-come-newsroom bristles with mess and noise. Milk cartons – Maluti Fresh – twice-fried chicken, potato salads, cream-filled fatties, packets of Big Korn, Tupperware containers of thick beef stew, bags of wet peanuts and dry mopane worms. Copies of the Daily Sun change hands like winter gloves, and Gloria, this week’s blogger, writes a celebration of feminine might.


According to a survey conducted by the Media Monitoring Project, in 2005, only 26% of news coverage in South Africa focused on women. Furthermore, the huge majority of this coverage presented women in reference to their families, or as unfortunate victims of crime. This in a country with a nearly 52% female population highlights a discrepancy in gender representation. The old boy’s club, it seems, has only changed colour.

Similarly disheartening is the way in which gender stereotypes are upheld by South Africa’s influential tabloid press. For every story of witchcraft and fraud, it seems there are two dealing with sexual assault. “There is a lot of media reporting on rape,” states the Media Monitoring Project report, Who makes the news?, “but it tends to victimize women or keep them silenced.” The report continues that, on February 16 2005, a prominent soccer star was charged with raping an underage girl. The married celebrity denied the charge, but much of the media attention was on his celebrity status, rather than the allegations themselves. Likewise, a study in the Rhodes Journalism Review found that “South Africa’s women journalists not face a glass ceiling, but indeed one made of concrete.

In light of South African women’s mirepresentation in the media, the role of Amazwi, which mean ‘voices’ in Zulu, is political as much as social. Rural stories struggle to be told in South Africa, as journalists must give precedence to the stories that affect their readers’ lives. As scores of men rush for the cities to find employment, many women are left behind, and life goes on unreported.

Yet here in the poor northern province of Limpopo, where news is usually bad, the women of Amazwi are blessed with an added responsibility. Rather than merely entertain the urban middle-classes with the oddities of the outback, they must bring everyday life to the breakfast table of the communities in which they live. It’s a tough job, but there’s no need to hurry. It’s slow news that sometimes burns brightest.

There’s a Turkish saying that goes like this: don’t even try to understand your old man until you reach your thirties. I’ll be 30 the week after Fathers Day, and my dad will be sixty-five the week before. I’m getting married next year to a Jewish girl (dad’s a half-assed Catholic), and sure enough some day we’ll have kids. You can’t talk about having kids these days, without first thinking about your father.

The most difficult subject a man to write about is his own father. It’s a tricky business that sticks close to home, like a wrinkly memory of a futuristic dream. So what do writers do to get away from facing down their fathers? Quite often, they write about their grandfathers.

My grandfather’s name was Kevin Woodlands Spurling, and he lived for ninety-three years in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. In 1930 he started a tailoring business with a man called Mr Scovell in Barclay St, Footscray. Soon enough ‘Scovell & Spurling’ was the go-to name for the well-dressed gentlemen in town.


My father’s father passed away in the first half of 2005, and I gave the first half of the eulogy. My own father gave the second half, and we both held it together, separately. I told stories about the Friday evening dinner rituals we shared in the old guy’s final years, while Dad went on about his father.

Kevin spent his final years in a retirement village in Williamstown, and for a few months I moved into his house on Williamstown Beach. It was a splendid old Edwardian house, part quaint English seaside, and part Amityville Horror. I even wrote a book about it that still sits in my drawer called The House on Williamstown Beach.

The book was a whole lot of nonsense, really, partly because it involved an upstairs room that was a portal to another dimension, and partly because I wrote it in a farmhouse in Portugal, alone, with nothing but a picture of the house, taken on a day too rainy to see much. The other problem was that the end product bore no resemblance to my own life. My grandfather drowned in his bathtub at the end of Chapter One, and my father was killed off in the backstory. That dad came back via a portal – and a series of unsent letters – made no sense other than I still wasn’t ready to write about him.

I’ve attempted two other novels in my life. Neither was published, but both hid the identity of the man who helped give me life. The first was a rant called Pushing Time. I imagined the cover would have a cartoon boy exerting all his energy in trying to overturn a giant clock. Of course, it was about me, or someone like me, but like many first efforts it was too violent, too sexual, and too unnecessarily over-the-top. The hero (me) was traveling unconsciously back in time through a series of foreign cities, in a quest to discover exactly where he had started, and why. The plot was either non-existent or heavily flawed – plus it ran to 100,000 words – but of interest was a regular phone call the miserable protaganist felt forced to make to his father. Nothing was said, no insight was offered, but still it felt wrong to leave him out.

My second effort was better – a comedy about a young teacher who is victimised by the staff at an elite high school because of the mistakes his father made. It’s not bad, in parts, but I wonder where I got the idea from. My father dropped out of university and made a packet working hard to sell the suits my grandfather got made, and I got three degrees and became a teacher. Don’t tell me I wrote it to prove some point? Oh how dreary!

There are always sharp differences between generations. My father never gambled a cent in his life, but I was something like addicted (oh, no, not another point!). Likewise I travelled aimlessly in my twenties, while Dad stayed home and worked. But the father-son thing is much more about celebrating similarities. I sleep in the afternoons, just like Dad. I watch too much sport, just like Dad. And for the first time in my life, I want the same things he has – a family, a home, money.

I currently live in South Africa, many thousands of miles from home. When I return I imagine working with my father, part-time, as his coffee kid at Spurling Group of Companies. It wouldn’t have to be much, just a prodigal son hanging about, learning what it means to be an old man, to be a father, a grandfather, a failure, a success.

So on Fathers Day next month, let’s think about the fathers, but let’s not forget the fathers-to-be. It’s never easy being a son. Get on with your life, they say. Don’t look back, kid. Have your own, and go your own way. Respect us, love us, need us. Our fathers must think we’re crazy.

If you pull into the Total Gas Station at Middleburg East, on the N11 headed south, you may decide to use the bathroom, purchase a copy of the Johannesburg Star, or even try a delicious Steers Real Calypso Burger.

An African man wearing brown trousers and a blue shirt may approach you as you get into your car to commence the remaining 150km drive to Oliver Tambo International Airport to board a plane for a week’s vacation in Cape Town. He may be excitable, and direct – even pushy – and you may still be suffering the ill effects of a tightly packed cigarette made with Swaziland bushbud and Peter Styvesant tobacco.

Your partner may be fed up your insistence on a non-Jewish upbringing for your as yet unconceived son, and you may find the African man’s stop-nonsense a welcome distraction from the thought of your child’s painful future.

The toll gate is broken, the African man will say, and you may look at your partner like, really, the tollgate is broken? How bothersome!

He will then tell you that you must purchase a coupon from the ATM machine, and you will look at your partner like hey baby, help me here. She will grow impatient, and put your reluctance down to an indecisive nature, and for a moment debate the worthiness of you as a father to her first-born son. You will shake your head worryingly as the animated African man leads your love to an ATM machine and points to the word, VOUCHER, inscribed between DEPOSIT and WITHDRAWAL. You will think to yourself that maybe this man really is trying to help, and you scold your usual open-mindedness and pledge to treat everyone as equal and not to mimic those horrible founders of Apartheid.

Your partner will take the initiative and snap into gear. She will think that there’s no way she’s going to drive all the way to the tollgate, only to be turned away because of her own impatience and prejudice. She will instead take out her Westpac Bank Visa Card and place it into the machine, at the recommendation of a tall, foul-smelling friend of the original friendly citizen.


You will then think, right, it’s time to come to the rescue, because these men are clearly after her affections. A third man wearing a Nike baseball cap will position himself behind the plastic see-through security screen and watch as your wife-to-be punches in her 4-digit security code. To everyone’s surprise, the card will disappear, and no money will exit the machine.

I told you so, you’ll think, even though you thought and did nothing, and now a fourth man, who has thus far said nothing, will kindly ask madam if that was an overseas credit card she had used. Oh yes, you will reply, on her behalf, and she will swear to herself, and stand guard of the machine. Then you must insert another card, the fourth man will suggest, only it must be upside down this time.

You will think to yourself, this time I will not let myself get carried away by the tingling in my chest and the blurred vision that is caused by a mixture of panic, confusion, dehydration, drugs, and the hot mid-afternoon sun. This time I will make a wise decision.

But your partner will look to you for help this time, and you will relent because you just can’t be bothered today and really want to sleep in a nice bed, in a nice hotel in Cape Town, and so you will take out your ANZ First Visa card, and follow the instructions by placing it in the machine, upside down, and back to front, and by typing in your own 4-digit pin and pressing CANCEL, with one hand feebly covering the other, and the fourth man, his hands deep in his jacket pocket, will insist that he’s not trying to rob you.

Nothing will happen, and you will swear out loud. You will turn around for help, but nobody will be there. You will think, right, I’m going to deal with this once and for all, and you will storm into the Total Store – where you greedily eye the peri-peri biltong – and you’ll wait patiently for the grey-haired man to buy his cheesy pastry, then you’ll notify the teenage assistant that two cards have been stuck in the ATM machine, and she’ll shrug her shoulders and say she doesn’t have a key, and you’ll ask if this kind of thing happens very often, and she’ll say yes, all the time, without looking you in the eye.

Then you’ll worry about your partner again. You’ll think to yourself that it was much less complicated when you travelled alone, even though you’ve been robbed in seven foreign countries, and hospitalisd in Morocco, and imprisoned in Mexico, all because you couldn’t take care of yourself. Can we just get the hell to Cape Town please? Why the hell do Jews circumcise babies without anaesthetic? And you’ll remember that you too were circumcised once, and you’ll think of your mother, and that you just spoke to her that morning, as you weaved through the world’s largest green canyon, Blyde, in Mpumalanga, or Limpopo, or whatever, and you’ll think fuck it, who needs other people anyway.

And so you’ll exit the air-conditioned store to find your partner in conversation with a middle-aged Afrikaans gentleman who laughs at the naivety of the tourists, and you wish your partner would stop telling him everything, but she’s rambling now, and angry, and you ask yourself, where was that guy when you were surrounded by the four black men at the ATM? Was he one of the three white people waiting quietly in line, having learned that it never pays to interfere in other people’s business?

The Afrikaaner man will say that he works for this particular bank, and that this petrol station has a bad reputation. In fact he wouldn’t be surprised if all the staff here were in on it. He’ll jokingly point out that the signs are only in Afrikaans, so how could you know that the VOUCHER was in fact referring to telephone credit? And so you pace up and down, looking at your watch while your partner telephones her bank in Australia, and a fifth black man, short and insignificant, will huddle over the ATM machine, withdrawing bundles of notes, and stuffing them into his pockets.

You head for the car, but your partner says we’re not leaving til you also phone your bank, so you do so, for twenty long minutes, until you realize you have no other access to money for the remaining six months of your stay as a volunteer in a media arts school for women in rural areas.

“Let’s keep this to ourselves,” you’ll reason with your future wife, who you’ll argue with, for missing the next turn-off, then again, as you pay the guy at the toll booth 31R, and speed silently to the airport.