What can we expect from you next? I have a novel [ Notes From The Lost Property Department ] coming out in September this year, which explores brain injury, mountains, secrecy, and the thorny challenge of forgiving your parents. Interview by Liz Sarant. Following the crime-thrillers of Bloody Satisfied and erotic tales of Adults Only , the focus in is on a journey, be it political, personal or emotional. This collection provides a chorus of voices from throughout the Commonwealth, and I feel extremely privileged that my own story, Next Full Moon we will Release Juno , represents one of these.
The story that gives the anthology its title is by Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a sharply observed narrative on the death of a man with a secret from his wife. The other stories feature a humming bird, a smoking grandmother, a devil on a church outing, a mother lost to America, a Haitian cowboy, a woman married to a ghost, a mummified cat, an elusive giant squid, and my own a stuffed Kudu. The narratives are satirical, tragic, compassionate and humorous, but all are wonderfully expressed and compelling to read. Taken together, they form a remarkable portrait of the world we live in, with all its pathos, absurdity and delight.
The stories were selected from over ten thousand entries to the Commonwealth Prize over the past three years. The book can be purchased on Amazon in print or on Kindle. Below is an extract from my story. Not a single story features a Chihuahua It was also well known that anyone who had a problem with that could sort it out with me. Jonah sometimes made me want to run up the koppie behind the Ouport and scream so loud that all the boulders would roll down the hill and bury the whole damn town.
But he was my cousin and I had to keep him safe. Jonah was always different. Ouma Saartjie said it was because he was born just as the blood-red midsummer Karoo moon was rising on one side of Oupoort, while the angry orange sun dipped below the ragged-toothed mountains on the other side. But when the aunties tried to cuddle him, Jonah would go rigid and silent, as if listening for instructions from a distant planet on how to manage a life-threatening situation.
And they would put him down, puzzled and a little afraid. When I saw that, I understood that Jonah needed someone to stand between him and the world. Keeping him safe at school was a trickier business. Jonah just lay there staring out at some dark star, and when I dived in and persuaded Willie to beat me up instead, he picked himself up and wandered off as if the whole thing had nothing to do with him.
Every other day I had to punch someone for calling him spastic chicken brain or fish puke which some genius coined after a Sunday school lesson about Jonah and the whale. Jonah never seemed to care about the insults, and never thanked me for defending him, but he was family. What else could I do? And the word was God So there is this place where I walk my dogs.
I call it the Bosky Dell, but its official name is the Kirstenbosch Arboretum. Now it has beautiful, lush growth as if the sorrow of its past has fertilised the ground. In spring it is carpeted with snowdrops and Arum lilies. In summer the grass grows high and hums with cicadas, and my dogs bound through it in a shower of golden grass seeds. A river runs through it, clear water fresh from the mountain rushing over pale stones. At one point this stream forms a deeper pool, in a shaded, quiet moment beneath contemplative trees.
The pool is fed by a small waterfall; gnarled and woody roots garland the water, fish and tadpoles flicker through the still depths, beneath the dart of dragon flies. Visiting this was once the highlight of my walk. It felt like a portal into wild, untouched spaces in distant forests, a reverent place that could bring me back into connection with myself and the earth. A place where I could feel the humility and serenity that comes from knowing you are just one small part of a very big dance.
Until the day I came to find a word spray painted in dayglo orange on one of the trees. How thoughtful, he said. A tree especially for dogs, and he proceeded to honour it, as dogs do. Because far from bringing God into the place, it just crushed its inherent spirituality and shoved God right out. A God who is offended by homosexuality, for instance. You think that a being who created a universe of which the world is one miniscule particle in an unbounded vortex of stars and galaxies, who spawned billions of life forms, who has watched humans evolve to find ever new ways of destroying the life, is going to be offended by two men wanting to love each other?
I think God would be a lot more annoyed by someone defacing a tree. A lot of work went into that tree. Millions of years of evolution, to get it from a single celled amoeba into a multicellular brachiate and intricately functioning organism. I mean perpetrating acts of cruelty, or abuse, or greed and claiming that you are acting for God. But when the abuse is so widespread, you have to question whether it is not intrinsic to organised religion.
In particular to those religions whose doctrine dictates that God loves only those who subscribe to a particular belief. It is nice to imagine old Beezlebub skipping through the Bosky Dell with a can of orange dayglo paint and defacing the tree, but I have no doubt that the devil was invented by priests to rule their subjects with fear, and to absolve themselves of responsibility. By Jordan Weissmann. Twenty years ago, flushed with the euphoria of our first democratic election, I wrote a glowing letter to friends abroad describing the event. I tried to find this letter on election day this year.
But the letter I was seeking remained elusive. Much like that dream of the egalitarian and democratic society that we so cherished twenty years ago. Back in the eighties, it seemed improbable that we would ever attain this dream, but we thought this would be because PW Botha and the ugly black hat brigade would rule this land to the end of time.
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We did not for a moment countenance the possibility that the heroes of our beloved liberation movement would be selling out our tender hopes for tender hopes of a different kind. Disappointing, that. Because however much the current ANC has dashed our hopes for equality, liberty etc. It really was, and those two small reminders — my confiscated items list and my lost typewriter — brought back to me how pervasive state repression was, how commonplace it was for people to be harassed, beaten or killed. Being searched and having documents confiscated was of course very minor harassment in the context of those times, but if it happened to anyone today it would be met with righteous and justified outrage.
It was a horrid, horrid place for anyone not classified as white, and a horrid place for anyone with any moral values, whatever the colour of your skin. And so far we are doing better.
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Not nearly as well as we should be, but better than a lot of our current leadership would like, I suspect. We can still write rude things about them in the newspapers without someone in a trench coat and a moustache banging on the door at midnight. Thuli Madonsela can still rip into the Nkandla scandal and make sure we all know about it.
We still have one day every five years where everyone, from the President lounging in his firepool to the homeless jokes-for-change seller, has exactly the same political power to choose the next government. Before the first democratic election, there was panic buying of baked beans and toilet paper — there seemed to be a belief that the moment a darker hued backside was lowered in the presidential chair, the entire infrastructure of the country would fling up its skirts in alarm and expire on the spot.
But while too many of us lack toilets in which to deploy it, toilet paper has remained in steady supply. BUT, the report card still echoes almost every teacher who ever commented on my academic progress: Could do better. We could, and we should, and we need to daily remind ourselves of that elusive dream.
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But maybe we should stop throwing up our hands because our heroes have turned to straw and failed to deliver us Utopia, and focus instead on delivering it ourselves. I used to believe in grand solutions. Now my ambitions are much humbler. Now I recognise that humans are fallible, that power does indeed corrupt, that the global economy is predicated on exploitation and inequality and South Africa does not operate in a vacuum.
But I still believe that most people have an impulse towards kindness and fairness, and I believe in the accumulative power of small actions… that old butterfly tsunami thing. So this is my pledge for the next 20 years of democracy if senility does not take me before they are up : to keep tinkering away at our faulty democracy, and fix whatever bits come to my attention — write a letter, sign a petition, wave a placard, pat an anxious dog, whatever it takes to foster a kinder, more connected, and happier home country.
And tidier… where did I put that dratted letter…? Grown from saved seed. In this instance from squished tomatoes thrown out with the compost. If the biotech companies have their way, anyone who grows a tomato, or broccoli or cucumber from saved seed will be prosecuted for infringing patents. Once they can patent life forms like tomatoes, they can patent anything. Even Chihuahuas. If you were patented, they could sue you for having puppies. The loss of his manhood remains a sensitive issue. That kind of obsession with profit is what has turned the big corporations into psychopaths.
His pursuit of profit cannot match the lure of a really good chew or a roll in the grass. Sadly, the owners of the biotech giants are not so easily deterred: the risk of imploding global food security, wide spread famine, mass suicide amongst peasant farmers, the extinction of bees, the collapse of ecosystems… nope, none of that is any match for a really pleasing incline on their profit graphs. A seed is a wonderful thing. Do you remember getting dried beans from your mother and wrapping them in damp cotton wool?
Watching the skin of the bean turn wrinkly and soft, until one day a tender pink root suddenly appeared from one side, and a pale green leaf started unfurling from the other? Better not let your kiddies do that now — you might get Mr Monsanto a-banging on the door with a court order suing you for infringing a patent.
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Far fetched? Not as far as you would like it to be. But he is being sued none the less. For years, agri-tech companies have been getting fabulously rich on selling only the first generation of seeds to farmers, who buy the seeds again the following year because the first generation is a better quality.
They want to own mommy, daddy, and all their kiddies and grandchildren into perpetuity. The GMO process involves engineering a whole new species by ramming in genes from other species, a fact which has been used to justify bringing out a patent on the species that covers every generation of plant that grows, ten, twenty thirty years down the line. They sell the seeds at considerable expense, getting the farmer to sign an agreement that they will buy new seeds and not replant.
Then they can sue anyone who plants the seeds of these crops, wittingly or not. Such scenarios seem to be the stuff of dystopian nightmares, but in a world dominated by corporate arrogance and avarice of staggering proportions, it was only a matter of time before someone claimed ownership of living beings. The title, The Unseen Leopard , is a metaphor for both the priceless value of wild nature that is not perceived by the likes of Monsanto; and for the dangers that lie hidden, creeping up on us until it is too late to escape them. What I discovered about the industry in my research was alarming — even more alarming was how blind people seemed to be to its hazards.
What I read now is a hundred times more alarming — every dire prediction and worse is unfolding. I recall a walk down a supermarket aisle in Florida that offered me varieties of sweetened cereals but nothing that was free of sugar or colouring. The bio-tech companies are similarly reluctant to offer us too much choice. You just sort of surrender. Their strategy is simple: Buy up all the seed companies. Ensure that only GMO seed is available. Mix up the grains. Make the organic farmers pay for expensive tests to have their crops certified, then lose their certificates when traces of GMO genes are found in the crops.
Sue them if you find your crops growing on their land and put them out of business. Make it almost impossible for consumers to choose non-GMO food. Challenge labelling laws, because, weirdly, if they have the choice people are reluctant to eat crops that contain a genetically engineered insecticide, or that have been doused in herbicide. Harmful effects? Or like the giant herbicide resistant weeds that have emerged after ten years of dousing crops with Roundup [ix]. Even in the cemeteries eerily apt , according to Percy Schmeiser.
Does it matter? What are the consequences of a world governed by biotech corporations? Apart from the health risks, which are largely unknown although studies have shown organ damage to rats from long-term consumption [xii] , the environmental consequences are drastic and well-documented. Of particular concern is the loss of genetic biodiversity: the biotech companies want to reduce our food crops to a handful of engineered varieties.
Hybrid monocultures are already more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate disasters, which are all set to increase with climate change. The engineered seeds are even more limited genetically, and already show a sharp decline in yields. Luckily, humans are not that gullible. In 36 hours, they got 1 million signatures.
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In the meantime I shall save those seeds and cultivate my tomatoes. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.
What a feast the media has had lately. Pistorius and the beautiful, doomed Reeva Steenkamp.
Young Anene Booysen, gang raped, mutilated and murdered. So many words thrown out into the chatter clouds. So much indignation. So much condemnation. So little change. Once you start listing brutality, it is hard to stop. If you laid all the abused women end to end, would they reach the moon? If you laid out the names end to end would they weave a rope long enough to bandage the wounds? To tie up the rapists? To shroud the dead? After Anene Booysen was raped and disembowelled, our politicians fell over themselves to decry the offence.
They called for the perpetrators to rot in jail, to feel the full might of the law. The same politicians whose corruption and greed perpetuates the cycles of poverty in which abuse festers, who shelter the teachers who impregnate students, and the councillors accused of sexual harassment. No politician has bothered to comment on this. Ten years ago, Baby Tshepang was raped in Louisville, a crime born of poverty that rocked the nation.
Her rapist was jailed, but nothing has changed in the town. Of course I was sickened by what happened to Anene Booysen, and tempted to join the public lynch mob that wanted to hang her rapists high. But there is that uncomfortable truth, that nagging feeling that Anene was paying a price for a system that benefits me and all others born into privilege; that the rapists, along with Anene and millions like them, have been rotting in jail since they were born: the jail of poverty, alcoholism, and social deprivation; Anene was forced to leave school in Grade Seven; her rapists no doubt had similarly grim prospects.
They all suffered the daily assault of a bleak, impoverished life with no chance of escaping it. Most children growing up in abusive situations see the world as divided into only the abusers or the abused — their only prospect of improving their situation is make sure they are the former.
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