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REVIEW: Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and me


thamm-book-coverHitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me – A Memoir of Sorts
Marianne Thamm

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

The age of identity politics has ushered a strange medley of ghosts into our lives.

Strange, because they sit so uncomfortably together, at once positively affirming that difference is a good thing (and that in smoothing over these, many are required to sublimate not just identity, but lived experience) and somehow trampling over the idea of “shared humanity” in a worryingly divisive way.

Thamm’s book enters this prickly, haunted era simultaneously banging her own identity drum with panache, while imbuing her memoir-of-sorts with a benevolent warmth that recalls what now feels like an outmoded idea: inclusivity.

With 5 000 Facebook friends and 16.3 K followers on Twitter, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Marianne Thamm’s first first-person book is one of the most highly anticipated non-fiction releases in South Africa in recent years.

Journalist Marianne Thamm

Journalist Marianne Thamm

Thamm – like most old-fashioned journalists – has worked behind the scenes for most of her career as an almost-anonymous news reporter and writer of books. She has done and seen much more than your average opinion punter and knows a great many people. The gradual but steady emergence of her own voice has been earned in a rather quaint way: through sheer hard yards.

She has worked the South African beat – to borrow the parlance of newspaper journalism, where she cut her teeth – for so long, and is so au fait with the country’s personality, foibles and mis-beats, that her commentary comes packaged in a charming robe of Actual Knowledge and Experience, a somewhat rare accoutrement in these days of the ubiquitous phenomenon of cheap opinion.

It is not surprising that she has also dabbled in comedy as this voice has developed, because Thamm, like most comedians, is not so much blessed with the gift of the gab (that too) as she is blessed with laser vision: an ability to see complexity, but also the overall picture, give it context, provide contrast and comparison, and convey all of this in few words.

This voice is what South Africans have come to love and admire, because it manages to convey criticism with warmth and humour, and to cut through BS as suavely as a hot knife cuts through butter. Which is not to imply that she doesn’t have her critics – and I anticipate the anti-Nelson Mandela brigade enthusiastically revving their engines to climb into her for unashamedly admiring Mandela – the eponymous foil of the two malignant leaders, Adolf Hitler and Hendrik Verwoerd, who she believes shaped her and the 20th Century she hated so vehemently.

Pared down to its essence, this rather awkwardly titled book is the story of a father and a daughter.

Georg Thamm immigrated to South Africa in the early 60s, with his Portuguese wife Barbara, and their two small children, Marianne and Alfred. Georg had served in Hitler’s Luftwaffe, while Barbara grew up an orphan during the Salazar reign of terror Portugal.

Coming to South Africa allowed Georg to slide easily into the confident role that history had bequeathed him: a natural recipient of all that was good and easy to gain as a white man. And it infuriated Marianne. From the time that she became sensible to the Holocaust at a young age, until her father was well into his eighties – she was enraged that she was bound, by blood, to a man who had played a part, no matter how small, in mass murder.

This is what shapes Marianne politically: that she is genetically implicated in murderous abuse of power. And her anger is fuelled as she grows “surrounded by adults who seemed to be oblivious of, conspiring with, afraid of, or in complete support of” systems of oppression like apartheid.

Beginning with the death of her loving mother, which throws her and her father into close pragmatic proximity of one another as they deal with the bureaucracy of death – a closeness that was uncomfortably borne for the years her mother was institutionalised after a debilitating stroke – the book picks up on a chronological story.

It starts in verkrampte Pretoria, where Marianne seems determined from a very young age to live right up in the face of the hideous world, playing wildly and independently and acting fiercely and vociferously against the expectation that girls wear dresses, don’t fight and allow themselves to be pawed and ogled and accosted by men. Her mother – in all other ways the embodiment of feminine conformity – shapes her indignation at the latter, one day marching down the road to shout at the café owner who had rubbed his erection against her daughter as she was choosing sweets he’d said she could have for free.

Her father, on the other hand, is nonplussed when Marianne tells him that a family friend pounced on her inappropriately while she was reading in the living room. Georg, while not essentially a bad person, was afflicted with that peculiar blindness from which those who benefit from the status quo often suffer.

And so the rebellious child becomes a news journalist. The reader is given a vivid account of her early adult years, golden years in journalism, but a period of extreme and violent suppression by the apartheid government of the majority of the country’s citizens.

This section is entertaining and provides some very visceral “remember when” moments for anyone over the age of 40. However, it is of necessity less concerned with the parental apparition that is Georg, which renders the narrative both more rollicking, but also more superficial.

However, just as one begins to worry that the writer might have slid into glibness, she unexpectedly becomes a mother. To be specific: a white lesbian mother of two black girls.

The narrative, though not overtly so – is never far from the question of identity, though at the same time, this is precisely the book’s obsession: how do we become what or who we are?

Marianne is a white lesbian of (what most white South Africans would regard as) radical politics. Her father is entrenched in his white-man ideas of how the world should work. Her daughters are black.

What makes them who they are is the world into which each is born. Georg becoming a man in Nazi Germany. Marianne, a community outsider in white Pretoria because of her immigrant status and her wild streak, but a winner on the South African chess board in which she plays for the white team. And her daughters who, though born into a free country, are reminded daily by the insouciance and arrogance that are the hallmarks of whiteness, that they are black.

And built into these is suspicion – “[t]his is the burden of history”, says Thamm.

What redeems them, makes them human, is their connectedness to one another. What redeems anyone is seeing that each human being is more far more complex than a mere representation of a type. And while politics moves us in innumerable and insidious ways along the paths of our lives, it’s within intimate relationships that we can become fully the people we are.

Thamm heroically sidesteps cliché and (for the most part) the catch-all phrases of modern socio-political interaction that are rendered meaningless through over-use, in order to write a book that is at once too specific in identity detail to have universal appeal, but yet which transcends the narrow confines of identity. This is a very particular South African story, but it will have a wide and appreciative audience.

Because while there is much that separates us, a well-told story is a magnet for disparateness.

  • An abridged version of this review appeared in the Financial Mail in November 2016.


REVIEW: Best White and Other Anxious Delusions

2015-05-17 22.11.26

best whiteBest White and Other Anxious Delusions

Rebecca Davis

Pan Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

When there is grand hype around the release of the book, it can often be a disappointing read. Not necessarily because it is bad, but because it is quite good – and nothing more.

Cultish admiration of an author’s public persona can sometimes obscure the quality of their work.

The debut work of Rebecca Davis, possibly one of the best known journalists currently working in South Africa – not only because she has covered some of the most newsworthy events of recent years, but because she is very active and has a large following on Twitter – is in such danger.

She comes across as likable (though not everyone likes what she has to say). It would be easy for her fans to approve of her first foray into book publishing simply because she wrote it.

And the hype around the release of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions is – well, it’s big.

So the chances of this book fizzling like a giant balloon are great.

Does it?

No. Not once. Not even when you read it cover to cover (an episodic approach over a period of time is more recommendable, however).

Over 32 chapters, Davis maintains a consistent level of “edunewsatainment”, a made-up word you’ll find in the chapter entitled “Look It Up”, and which would refer to a “media product which is part education, part news, and part entertainment”, if it were, in fact, a word.

Davis herself calls Best White a collection of essays. Which, indeed, is what they are.

Sarah Bakewell, writing about Michel de Montaigne’s essays in How To Live, says his essays have “no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please” with them.

It counts for Davis’s essays too.

What this requires on the part of the reader is a certain amount of tolerance. Do not approach Best White expecting answers because, in the best tradition of the form, Davis answers nothing. If you like your non-fiction authors and journalists to dole out wisdom and point their finger with authority at a direction in which they believe you should move, then Davis is not for you.

If, however, you can plop around happily in puddles of randomness without such expectation, read Best White, because not only will you laugh really hard sometimes (and want to interrupt family members in their own business to read some paragraphs aloud), but you’re likely to learn stuff.

Because Davis, like all good essayist and journalists, has a voraciously curious mind.

She is able to impart the most fascinating nuggets of information that seems completely unrelated to her topic in such a way that you feel you might want to spend an hour or two – as soon as you’ve managed to put her book down – doing a little bit of research into types of winds, Kitty Genovese and the possible legal complications of an accident involving two self-driving cars.

What makes her writing so funny – quite apart from the fact that she has a clear, authentic and consistent voice – is that she uses the essay as a lens for close observation of the world. And when the world – and here, particularly South Africa – is viewed closely, its inherent absurdity is revealed.

For inconclusive, self-effacing, informed humour, delivered with often almost perfect pitch by an openly ambivalent writer (she often questions her own take on things), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying example of essay writing in South Africa.

And if the zeitgeist has you chewing your cuticles to shreds, then that’s all the more reason to read Davis’s collection of wild anecdote that manage, admirably, also to capture a social and historical moment that both has us in its thrall but which is, like all other social and historical moments, transient.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2015. 



South Africa, twenty years on

Max du Preez

rumours of springA Rumour of Spring: South Africa After 20 Years of Democracy

Max du Preez

Zebra Press

By Don Paul

In December 2010, a 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, for seven years, had his trolley and all the vegetables thereon confiscated by a police officer. When he attempted to pay the $7 “fine” for trading, the officer slapped him and basically told him to get lost. This was not his first run-in with arbitrary and random police actions and he decided to take it to the local provincial authorities. They, the corrupt and arrogant, ignored him.

That slap was to be the proverbial slap heard around the world. Bouazizi planted himself in front of the provincial headquarters, doused his body in petrol and set himself on fire. He died 18 days later. Thus began the Arab Spring.

The title of Max du Preez’s book, A Rumour of Spring alludes to this “spring” — this moment when democracy blossomed, or should have.

Four months later, at the other end of the continent, a 33-year-old mathematics teacher Andries Tatane joined a protest of more than 4 000 people in a march on the Setsoto Municipal Offices in Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa to protest against poor service delivery.

They were met by the SAPS who turned water cannons on the crowd and then started arresting people. Tatane attempted to intervene. He was beaten and then shot in the chest twice by SAPS officers. He died on the street. All the officers were acquitted. Political analysts thought these would be the shots that would reverberate, if not around the world, at least around South Africa.

Du Preez is right: it was just a rumour.

Tatane’s death would be eclipsed 16 months later when the SAPS killed 34 striking platinum miners outside the small town of Marikana. Again, analysts pontificated about “watershed moments”, “turning points”, “tipping points” and “seminal” moments. Again, it was all a rumour.

Yes, Du Preez is an Old White Male (OWM) but if you think that is ground for dismissal, then you probably also believe that Julius Malema is a hopeless politician because he’s black. Du Preez brings his cynical, inquisitive and compassionate intelligence to the table in discussing South Africa after 20 years of democracy and the role played by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). It’s an intelligence that has won him numerous awards, including the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa (1996)and the Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year (2006).

If you’ve read any of his regular columns or one of his many books you will know roughly where he is going with this book. But it is in the details, the conscientious examination of events that make this one of the ‘must read’ books about our country. It is his conscience that is troubled, and this is best revealed in his anecdotes. The story of meeting Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou in 1987 with Thabo Mbeki and other ANC members, and thinking: ‘Surely these guys have a similar commitment to genuine liberation of our people?’

‘Ouch,’ he says, he was wrong. Just another rumour.

Sankara was killed three months later in a coup staged by his comrade Blaise Compaore. Now, 26 years later Burkina Faso is a textbook example of what Acemoglu and Robinson describe in How Nations Fail: The origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Burkina Faso is a nation of extractive institutions, embedded with corruption and cronyism, where important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president who operate with impunity and where the political/economic elite flaunt their opulence.

Du Preez covers the familiar territory of Jacob Zuma’s rise to power but includes all the elements that make the whole story read like a political thriller. Except that it is true. The way Mbeki was outmanoeuvred and humiliated, the way Zuma manipulated the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and how he gathered around him a security cluster of ‘100% Zulu Boys’ — Jeff Radebe, Nathi Mthethwa and Siyabonga Cwele. Shades of PW Botha’s ‘Imperial Presidency’ and his State Security Council, which we now know served mainly to intensify the environment for structural corruption?

Surely not, but it does sound like the same dogs barking. Du Preez quotes Prof Njabulo Ndebele on the Nkandla debacle — more than R200-million of taxpayers’ money spent on Zuma’s private residence. ‘Nkandla,’ says Ndebele, ‘manifests an advanced stage in the systemic nature of corruption in South Africa that has been growing over an 18-year period and gathered momentum in the past five years.’

Zuma reveals himself not so much a leader of the nation or even the government. He is a leader of the ANC, and as long as he remains as such, he is in essence protected from prosecution (there are more than 700 legal cases outstanding against him). And because the nation is rudderless, the technocrats that may have made the country viable have long been replaced by political appointees, mostly inept, some corrupt and largely indifferent but yet filled with grandiose schemes (think e-tolls, nuclear reactors, SAA).

Another telling anecdote. Du Preez recounts a story told him by a colleague of how the Indian government built a dam to supply Mumbai with 455-million litres of water that the city required per day. But if the city had simply fixed all the leaking pipes it would have saved more than 600-million litres per day. The moral for South Africa is that ‘we should first fix our leaking pipes and taps before we build a new dam’.

Du Preez thinks the nation will be saved from becoming a Burkina Faso, a Zimbabwe, a Russia or a Greece because of two things: our Constitution and the Independent Electoral Commission. That, as he says, ‘no one has tried to mess with it [the Constitution] so far’ and that the ‘credibility and efficiency’ of the IEC ensuring the ‘credibility of our elections are never in doubt’.

Well, the constitution is under threat — Zuma has said it needs to be changed. And the Electoral Court ruling last year that IEC officials were wrong to bar individual candidates in the Tlokwe by-election goes to the heart of its credibility.

All this may be theory, another rumour. For in the wings, as Richard Poplak has so cogently argued in the Daily Maverick (‘Hannibal Elector: The rise and rise (and rise) of the EFF’) is Julius Malema and the EFF. His followers are ‘ready to throw the ideals and rhetoric of liberation out of their shacks with the day’s rubbish… [they] want to hear that the system will come up for a review, and that title deeds are going to be shredded, banks nationalised, the Mzansi flag raised over the mine shafts’.

It may be too late to fix the pipes.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014

PLAY REVIEW: The Orange Earth


The Pain of our Past in Classic Play

47539941_0_Img2The Orange Earth

Adam Small

NB Publishers

As I write this, it has been barely a week since Nelson Mandela passed away. All day, as I considered how to review Adam Small’s play The Orange Earth, which he describes as a “denouncement of the evil political system of Apartheid”, one of the memorials held for the former South African President played on the TV behind me. Reading The Orange Earth, which is the story of a political activist detained during Apartheid, I cannot help but think of Mandela and the many, many others who were unjustly arrested and imprisoned during that time.

Although The Orange Earth was written in 1978, it is only earlier this year that the text was published for the first time. The play follows Johnny Adams, a coloured man (he calls himself one of “the dusty people”) who is being tried for his suspected role in the bombing of a shopping centre during Apartheid. The play is structured as a series of dream-like memories revisited by Johnny during his trial and filtered through interactions with his wife, father and prison warden.

Arguably the best known of the celebrated writer and academic’s work, Small has described The Orange Earth as a fictionalised autobiography. The playwright refers to the play as “on- and ongoing”, perhaps in part because of its various versions. The play was initially written in Small’s first language, Afrikaans. He then translated it into English in 1984 to be broadcast as a radio play by the BBC. Small writes that “the drama’s Afrikaans version is somewhat tighter than the full length BBC text.” However, it’s the English version that is being reviewed here. Even in the notes around the play, Small is clear that, in his opinion, it is only through considering both versions that a director could do justice to the play, perhaps underlining the manifold dangers of segregation explored in The Orange Earth’s content.

That the play was eventually rewritten for radio seems clear when reading its opening. The first few pages are meant to be experienced in production as a soundscape, with the stage directions instructing that all lights be turned off in order for the audience to listen to “the unsettling voices in the dark.”  Perhaps this particular focus on the sounds of words, particularly those describing confusion and terror, are also linked to Small’s prolific career as a poet. The play is lyrical, using repetition and ellipses to, perhaps, point to the struggle to articulate pain through words.

I reread The Orange Earth during the past week’s deluge of homages to Madiba, thinking of his speeches around the importance and necessity of forgiveness. This play feels like a reminder that behind forgiveness there is the memory of what came before, and perhaps after, it: pain.

The Orange Earth is a pain-filled text. The feeling of a harm which seems almost irreparable and the question of how to live in the face of it (especially when you are repeatedly told, as Johnny is, that you are not allowed to) is almost palpable in the play. It pulsates. One of the most searing images in The Orange Earth is a childhood memory returned to repeatedly. In it, Johnny’s mother is instructed by a white woman to move to the back of the house rather than approach the font door. “She looks right past her, as if Mamma isn’t there,” recalls Johnny. This memory, along with others, is dragged across the skin of the play repeatedly. That The Orange Earth is loosely based on the playwright’s own experiences is clear in his decision to include a photograph of his mother on the back cover. A similar picture is mentioned in the play. In it, she looks at the camera, a bloom tucked behind an ear, posies in one hand, the other holding out her flora dress. She is, herself, budding, full of potential. Beneath the picture it reads: “The playwright’s mother as a young woman, the girl who had to go around the back.” This is one of the strongest moments of The Orange Earth for me. Here she is, her position at the back now signifying her importance, her history, her existence. She is impossible to look past.

  • Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MA Theatre-making (Playwriting) at UCT.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014


REVIEW: Pilgrim


Pieter Cilliers
Protea Book House

REVIEW: Shirley de Kock Gueller

The English translation and update of Pieter Cilliers’ groundbreaking book, ‘n Kas is vir Klere (I wish he had published the book under the title, A Closet is for Clothes) is making an appearance 16 years after the Afrikaans was published. The first part – the original book now called Different – is heartbreakingly and movingly written. The second part, Sixteen Years Later, comprises responses to the book, with Cilliers’ insightful commentary.

8776063359_860059bd19Cilliers is well-known as a television producer, and particularly as the man who turned Carte Blanche into an investigative journalistic force in this country. But, as a Hervormde Kerk minister at the age of 23, the young Cilliers was schooled in the Biblical response to homosexuality and thus, along with many of his peers, battled the wisdom that said homosexuality was deviant, and could be corrected with treatment. What’s shocking is that there are still people around who deny research that homosexuality is not a choice.

Faced with a father who had no truck with homosexuals, a country that believed the American Field Service was ‘commie’, a conditioned rural society of boys who scorned those who were different, Cilliers recounts without pity the pain he suffered, not least in accepting himself for who he was and is.

As important, he recounts his awakening to the struggles that others were suffering especially in the church thanks to the dogmatic justification of apartheid and keeping women out of the pulpit. It’s an assault on hypocrisy and were it not so damaging and hurtful it would be almost funny. There are times when you may be moved to tears, times when you will get enraged, times when you will laugh at the things he says and at the characters he sketches.

It’s a reminder of the narrow-minded days when people rushed to Lesotho to watch the banned Godspell, and when the church, for a time, banned the ‘pagan’ wedding march by Mendelssohn. It’s searingly honest and, coupled with the fact that the television producer is so-well known, it is really courageous. His writing style is clear and concise, also sensitive and keeps you reading. You can feel his desolation and isolation, usually self-imposed because he felt he couldn’t confide in anyone, and then applaud the guts it took to publish his story.

This is a social history, a lesson in self-acceptance and, above all, a lesson about ignorance, misconceptions, moral judgment and prejudice. In spite of our tolerant constitution, there’s still ignorance and prejudice, as you will discover in the letters he quotes.

Not all are hostile … some show how the book gave them courage, others recount their own quests for honesty, and others are downright laudatory. Prof Wimpie de Klerk writes: “I salute you with a sincere warmth … your accessible style … your storyline is gripping ….. your struggle …your protest against the traditions of the church …. ”

Buy it and read it. It’s completely worth it.

REVIEW: Thoughts on the New South Africa



Thoughts on the New South Africa

Neville Alexander


REVIEW: Kavish Chetty

Unavenged histories return in Alexander’s critique of post-apartheid South Africa. He inaugurates this, his last collection of essays, with the remark that there has been a “virtual blocking of all channels of memory that do not […] relate to the historic activities of the Congress movement,” and from here attempts a retrieval of the repressed memories that haunt the national consciousness.

In short, the ambition is to reveal the lurking continuities between the system of apartheid and the present, and to this he summons the analytic complex of language, race, power and class – that last, among the most occlusive categories of political inquiry.

Alexander is to be commended from the outset for the sense of unity he brings to his materials: reflexive and critical, his writing is still edged with optimism among the “palpable signs of social breakdown”, and he does direct himself toward a common enemy – even if it is the consuming catch-all of “neoliberalism”, the black hole of leftist aggression. It is a thing, which – in a country that quarantines its social failings until the point of irruption – needs to be spoken about more.

The volume divides itself historically across the chasm of 1994, searching for the links and ruptures across the two periods, and then opening up inquiries into race, affirmative action, “afrophobia” and other fraught socio-cultural issues.

Alexander’s background is socialist: he conceives of the independence struggle as being split into two stages – national liberation and then socialist democracy. This vantage gives him a South Africa of “incomplete revolution”, one in which the fundamental economic, political and social relationships (of apartheid) remain intact due the organising force of “racial capitalism”. The despair can be registered in the failure of the African continent to decouple itself from “imperialism”, and anyone familiar with the novels of Ayi Kwei Armah will know that sense of material and existential alienation that attends this incompleteness. Consider Frantz Fanon, writing in The Wretched of the Earth: “When [the nationalist bourgeoisie] has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that… everything must be started again from scratch, since that class has done nothing more than take over the unchanged legacy of the economy, the thought, and the institutions left by the colonialists.”

South Africa finds itself enmeshed in its unchanged history. Alexander writes of “no revolution”, only a “regime change”. He identifies the monstrous enormity of “neoliberalism”, and critiques the “fraudulent doctrine of individual enrichment”, the corruption of an ascendant political elite. Such ideas find a productive tension with dominant right-wing thoughts. In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama adopts the term “getting to Denmark”, as a metaphor for how the rest of the world, by moderating and strengthening its institutions, can become as wealthy and stable as Denmark. This is pure fantasy, misrecognising the connective tissue which runs from one prosperity to another crisis; an entanglement of complicities. Indeed, Alexander writes that such stabilities as are enjoyed by European countries, are the product of “super-dividends that have accrued from colonialism, slavery and centuries of exploitation.” He himself takes the radical position that structural and global imbalances preclude such utopian possibilities. He speaks of “the continuing scissors-effect of the abysmal gap between rich and poor”, and says that South Africa is “facing one of its deepest crises”.

Alexander’s register is sociological, gesturing toward the academy, but resisting its complicated-ness in favour of more general, impressionistic arguments. It is disillusioned, yet hopeful writing, but one which conducts itself in a stately, elegant manner, sometimes dispassionate or regimented. It does not have the conversational tone of some recent volumes by public commentators, but certainly offers a greater level of sophistication.

In the later stages of the work, having diagnosed the “barbarism of real capitalism”, having charted the uneven and textured processes of resistance – in which, Alexander is quick to inform us, the ANC was only one player among others – attentions are turned to the materials of public debate. Alexander offers a robust critique of Black Economic Empowerment (“deepens inherited class inequalities”), and the “myth of an exploding black middle-class”.

His signature take on the problem of language and multilingualism is both affirmative and problematic, and its pursuit throughout the volume is never less than provocative.  What Alexander encourages, in effect, is a vast re-thinking of South Africa since 1990. His emancipatory interests are, however, allied with those of the dispossessed and forgotten, and he compels a critique of this country’s premature triumphalism, and the prevailing attitudes of self-entitlement, among both complacent middle-classes and glutted elites. Alexander himself believes that “another world is possible, indeed probable”. His death last year is an impoverishment to public discourse. – Chetty is a graduate scholar of critical theory and literature

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2013