The super spy you love to hate

spy

YOU WILL BE hard-pressed to pause in Jonathan Ancer’s critical biography of one of apartheid’s most notorious spies, Craig Williamson, once you start reading. From the start, this book presents a fully-fleshed terrifying character who is at once a blend of John le Carré-like intrigues mixed with ethical and deeply South African ponderables. It’s a meaty read, but one that will sweep you off your feet as you hear your pulse roar in your ears and feel your heart bleeding for the family of Williamson’s victims.

Notorious high apartheid spy, Williamson (b. 1949) was always big. He was also always something of a bully, but furthermore something of a wily strategist. Not a stupid man, but one with a fraught understanding of moral and human values, he was perfect grist for the apartheid goverment’s mill. Blend all this with time in the South African Police service, an offer under the table by the powers that were and the volatility of anti-apartheid tensions at their angriest peak, and you have a recipe for someone unstoppably lethal in the context that formed him.

Is the man an unmitigated psychopath? Is he the embodiment of quintessential evilness? Is he a manifestation of what political theorist Hannah Arendt describes as the banality of evil in her thoughts about Nazi Adolf Eichmann? Is Williamson a man who should be allowed to hide behind an avuncular image in contemporary times, or should his demons be exposed for all the world to see? Maybe he should be seen as simply one of apartheid’s foot soldiers? A man who was in the right – or wrong – place, at the right – or wrong – time? Ancer writes around these issues with simple journalistic brilliance. His work is crisp and to the point and while it is unapologetically in the first person, it never stumbles into being self-congratulatory.

As a result, you have a book which is unequivocally important for an understanding of the South African narrative. It’s very far from being a simple angry bruising attack on a man, or an academic treatise. Rather, it is alive with the words and opinions of sources, as it uses acute and careful descriptions of Williamson’s life and times, based on exhaustive research, to serve as a cipher to give his victims the fleshed out dignity they warrant.

For instance, we get to meet Neil Aggett, a medical doctor who was headlined as having died in detention in 1982. A victim. Ancer reflects him as a man with his values intact and his brave sense of priorities refined and honed, before the apartheid regime broke him into a million tiny shards.

Jenny Schoon (nee Curtis) and her six-year-old daughter Katryn have oft been similarly relegated to the footnotes of a contemporary understanding of the great ponderous beast of apartheid history. Ancer brings her sense of humour, her beautiful friendships and her values into the frame, reflecting potently on who she was, as a librarian, a wife, a reader, a Yeoville resident, before she was rendered a bloody statistic by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, with little Katryn.

Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, who too was slain by a Williamson-driven parcel bomb in the 1980s, is also pivotal in an understanding of his brutality and is, too, presented as a real person, with fears and priorities, who loved and believed, who wore a white skirt on that fateful day.

By and large, Williamson kept his hands clean and got others to do his dirty work. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he rose through the structures of Wits University student politics and was up there with the National Union of South African Students’s leadership, cosying up with the thinkers and opinion-makers, listening, waiting, disclosing, betraying … and shocking myriads when he was revealed as a spy and then rapidly defected to the ‘other side’ of aggressive South African politics.

It’s a well-structured and balanced work which should be a must-read for the generation that’s coming of age, as we speak. Without being didactic or formulaic, it explains how binaries of black and white/good and evil are meaningless as it offers insight into the rich and messy texture of apartheid that is vital for any South African, or anyone wishing to know more about an era soiled with political assumption and legislated hate.

  • Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
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Elephants and the art of letting go

HOTEL2

LESSONS of the river: Lali Behl is Daya. Photograph courtesy http://www.fourthreelfilm.com

AS SOON AS the basic premises of this Hindi film (with English subtitles) are revealed within its first few minutes, you know how the story will end, but it is not the plot that is the main magnet of this simply magnificent bit of film. The acting is competent and believable, but that’s also not why you should see it. It is the mix of cinematography, music and editing that grabs you with a wild gentleness and holds you in thrall right until the closing credits. You will laugh out loud, you will weep, even louder, but you will leave with an understanding of beauty and of what it means to die, that is different from what you believed or understood, when you entered the cinema.

Daya (Lalit Behl) is a man in his late 70s. He is a father and a grandfather, living in the house of his son Rajiv (Adil Hussein) and his daughter in law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni). And he feels it is time. Time to leave this world. He tells his children that he will do so after he’s completed all the necessary rituals – the buying of a cow, the eating of sweetmeats, the trip to the holy city of Varapanasi on the borders of the Ganges River.

His family are aghast and distraught, disbelieving and uncertain, but they humour the old man in his quest for Mukta Bhawan (Hotel Salvation), which is a pit stop before death. A place stripped down to its basics, it’s an experience which at times horrifies and alienates the well-intentioned son. Blending the tragic hilarity of material poverty with trying to keep up with the proverbial Joneses, the film is about the Eastern precept of following your heart, no matter what the world tells you. And of letting go. It is about the instinct of elephants who leave the community when they leave the world, and it is about the magic of humour in a context where everything else seems to tell you to be sad.

Cinematographers David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney play with light and colour, with breaking up the screen into vertical space and with the sheer magnificence of a series of urban landscapes in a way that makes you gasp at almost each vignette and every panorama or vista as it opens up. Their cinematography is like gems of poetry and while the story of the film itself is ripe with the kind of robust cliché that keeps the world turning, there is no cliché in the photography, which tells of birdsong and death rituals, of hashish and badly cooked Hindi food. It’s about the independent spirit of a woman called Vimla (Navnindra Behl) whose magnificent head and profile is celebrated astonishingly well. It is about how death comes in a phonecall, and about pink walls with zigzags drawn on it. And above all, it is about the dignity of the aged.

  • Hotel Salvation is directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani and features a cast headed by Lalit Behl, Navnindra Behl, Palomi Ghosh, Adil Hussain, Geetanjali Kulkarni and Anil K. Rastogi. It is written by Shubhashish Bhutani and Asad Hussain. Produced by Sanjay Bhutiani, it features creative input by Tajdar Junaid (music), David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney (cinematography), Manas Mittal (editing), Gopal Dey (casting), Avyakta Kapur (production design), Shruti Wadetiwar (costumes) and Akhilesh Acharya (sound). The film is in Hindi with English subtitles. Release date: October 27 2017.

 

From the mouths of babes

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SINGING to make the world feel beautiful. (from left) Violet Ledwaba (partially obscured); Tisetso Masilo; Zinhle Mnguni; Sakhile Mlalazi; Luyanda Mahlangu; Surprise Seete and Nyiko Kubayi. Photograph by Adriana MC

WHEN YOU KNOW there are children in the cast of a staged work, you instinctively lower the parameters of your expectations. They’re not professionals, after all. Theatre’s a difficult thing to do, if you’re a child. And it’s a truism that the fact of children on stage means that the mommies and daddies in the audience are the ones to whom it is addressed. But when you see Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi’s Thwala, you realise from the get-go that this is simply something extraordinary and you will be swept away by the muscularity of the performances, the wisdom implicit in the work’s structure and quite simply the value and ethos of this story.

Comprising an all-girl cast, aged between 11 and 16, the work conveys a simple and bold story about a pastor taking sexual advantage of little girls who live in an orphanage. Already it’s a focus that seems too complex and too sophisticated – not to mention too disgraceful – for these angel-faced children to be confronting, and yet, tragically, this kind of story is par for the course, given what contemporary youth have to face all the time, in this day and age.

While the performers, led by Sakhile Mlalazi as Sebendzile Skhosana and Amehle Mene as the priest are completely wonderful in their sense of self, their sense of cohesion with their peers on the cast and their understanding of character, full credit is due to Dlamini and Mgeyi: the staging of the work, the use of props, which are drawn by the cast, the discipline of the cast and the sense of context they present is exceptionally well developed.

The priest gets his comeuppance and the young girls’ headscarves are uses to represent not only a sense of female modesty but the bars on the prison, in a poetic touch. And in telling all of this, in an amalgamation of languages, the work doesn’t miss a beat: a marimba band lends the work its soundtrack and singers and a chorus add to the energy and fire generated here. It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but one coaxed into life by the horrors that are endemic to our society, playing very directly into the focus of the #metoo movement.

Will these young women, who put many a professional stage production in this city to shame, get to see professional careers on the back of a university degree in performance? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. With their socio-economic context, it is not a given that the expense of higher education in a field such as drama is something that any of them will be able to take for granted.

While you might weep at the beauty of their understanding of characters bruised and torn by corrupt figures of authority, you need to reflect on the potential future of these girls. It bodes well for the possibilities of theatre in this country, and serves to lend a very developed reflection on what projects such as the Hillbrow Theatre’s Outreach Foundation continues to do. But this is no pity party. Whatever happens in the future of these children and this initiative, the magic seeds that engender values and creativity have been sewn. The seasons of Thwala have been brief, but there deserve to be many more in the future of this production.

  • Thwala is directed and created by Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, in collaboration with the cast who are from Centurion College. It features creative input by Bigboy Ndlovu (choreography), Themba Moyo (musical direction), Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (costumes), members of the cast assisted by Gift Dube and Benjamin Sambo (set) and is performed Neliseka Malinga, Thobeka Malinga and Hope Mwenda (voice coaching) and is performed by Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Luyanda Mahlangu, Tisetso Masilo, Amehle Mene, Sakhile Mlalazi, Zinhle Mnguni, Hope Mwenda, Bontle Ndlovu, Nthabiseng Ndlovu, Tumelo Nkoele, Gugulethu Nxumalo, Aminathi Radebe, Surprise Seete and Pearl Segwagwa, supported by a marimba band, comprising Matham Fokane, Pearl Mmamorare, Bridget Moyo, Abigail Skhosana and Ukho Somadlaka. It performed in the Inner City Drama Schools Festival in August, the Drama for Life Sex Actually Festival in September, and was hosted by Drama for Life at the Emkhaya Theatre, Wits University between November 3 and 5. The work is hosted by the Outreach Foundation at the Hillbrow Theatre. Call 011 720 7011 or visit outreachfoundation.co.za

Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Night of a thousand stars

Evita

BIRTHPANGS of Argentinean freedom: Che (Jonathan Roxmouth) and ensemble cast. Photograph courtesy of http://www.stageandscreen.co.za

ONE OF THE toughest aspects of mounting a West End and Broadway hit musical that has iconic film status is probably also one of the production’s biggest blessings: everyone knows the lyrics to the Lloyd Webber and Rice production Evita so well, they’re bawling them out all the time as the work unfolds. But by the same token, the comparisons with the film are begged with abandon. And this does hurt what you can currently see on stage.

While director Harold Prince is at pains to reinvent many of the scenes, which obviously contains a pared down cast and similarly tightened effects such as choreography, in many ways, you do feel as though you are watching a stage version of the 1996 film which starred Madonna and was directed by Alan Parker, and indeed, in areas where the narrative feels foxed by special effects, you find yourself relying on your knowledge of the trajectory of Evita Perón’s life, as depicted in that film, to fill in the blurry parts.

The other thing you might find yourself reverting to is the 2010 version of this production, also staged at Montecasino, which was memorably tight and impeccable in its focuses, in its group scenes and in its choreography. While comparisons are always odious, if you did see that earlier production which had Angela Kilian opposite James Borthwick in the main roles, you will appreciate the discrepancies.

Borthwick is a performer who lent the character of Juan Perón the necessary gravitas, cruelty, flawedness and imposing visual value that Robert Finlayson unfortunately doesn’t have. It has to do not so much with the performance, but with the performer’s age and physical presence that plays into one of the reasons why Eva Duarte’s relationship with Perón was so shocking to many: he was more than 20 years her senior. An important military figure. A guy with stature. This production focuses on the sexiness of the couple which feels a little out of sync in terms of the story being told.

Similarly, Emma Kingston in the role of Evita has been compromised in terms of the way in which her body feels truncated by the choice of shoes she wears and the way in which the lighting embraces her. Yes, clunky shoes were worn in the 1940s, but there is but one pair of shoes she sports, toward the end of the production that lends her dignity rather than clunkiness, as do the rest of them. She also feels compromised when her voice is stretched to the higher registers of the demands of the role and it is not consistently clear whether this is a voice or an amplification issue, but you hear the words caught in a state of shriek which isn’t pleasant. The character’s agony toward the end of her life is also played with a stylised crudeness which doesn’t lend credibility to the scenario. Evita died of cervical cancer and the bending and pushing Kingston articulates with her body makes it feel like a digestive issue.

Having said all of that, the interfolding of genuine footage in this production renders moments like the famous balcony scene at Casa Rosada which sees Evita as Argentina’s controversial yet generally well-loved First Lady, is simply breath-taking. There’s a relationship between the real woman and the real story that is informed and energised by the footage. The set is almost architectural in its refinement, but is splintered illogically by lights mounted into the floor. So, you sometimes experience strobe-evocative flashing moments which are about sensation rather than pragmatics, and you also experience ghostly reflections from these ground-based lights that bounce off the rest of the set rather distractingly.

One of this work’s magic ingredients is a nuanced and strong cameo performance by Isabella Jane in the role of the mistress who must be disposed of, when Eva comes on the scene. Another is an incredibly strong ensemble cast which includes performers such as Mike Huff, Adam Pelkowitz, LJ Neilson, Keaton Ditchfield and others, as well as a very well-placed children’s cast, which lends the work an irrevocably wise texture that makes you understand the atmosphere in an Argentina replete with protest, poverty and struggles.

The cherry on top of the work is the narrator, Che, played very ably by Jonathan Roxmouth. It is in this representation, replete with a lit cigar and a whole rash of nuances that you get to understand the underbelly of the story being told here, which doesn’t hold back on glorying in the sexiness of the era and the messiness of its values. It’s a beautiful role that is both sinister and informative, but lends this musical the kind of kick that balances the historical, tango-scented magic of the original sound track.

  • Evita with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is directed by Harold Prince and Dan Kutner. It features creative input by Louis Zurnamer (musical director), Guy Simpson (musical supervisor), Mick Potter and Shelley Lee (sound), Richard Winkler and Gary Echelmeyer (lighting), Larry Fuller and R. Kim Jordan (choreography), David Cullen (orchestration) and Timothy O’Brien (production). It is performed by Robert Finlayson, Isabella Jane, Emma Kingston, Anton Luitingh, Jonathan Roxmouth and an ensemble comprising Cindy-Ann Abrahams, Danielle Bitton, Ivan Boonzaaier, Ruby Burton, Beverley Chiat, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Stefania du Toit, JD Engelbrecht, Ambre-Chanel Fulton, Richard Gau, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Hayley Henry, Tamryn van Houten, Mike Huff, Kent Jeycocke, Hope Maimane, Thabso Masemene, Carlo McFarlane, LJ Neilson, Adam Pelkowitz, Mark Richardson and Trevor Schoonraad. It is supported by a children’s cast: (Johannesburg) Nicole du Plessis, Pascalle Durand, Fadzai Ndou, Shayla McFarlane, Victoria Levick, Levi Maron, Patrick McGivern, Sean Ruwodo, Cameron Seear, Mikah Smith, Benjamin Wood and Indigo Wood; and (Cape Town) Alon Adir, Jack Fokkens, Mira Govender, Emily Johnston, Charné Jupp, Kate Richards, Lia Sachs, Shani Sachs, Morgan Santo, Tamlyn Stevens, Matteas van Blerk and Daniel Wolson, and the live orchestra under the baton of Louis Zurnamer comprises Stefan Lombard, Rowan Bakker and Drew Bakker (keyboard), Cobie van Wyk (percussion), Donny Bouwer/Michael Magner (trumpet), Bez Roberts, Jurie Swart or Nick Green (trombone), Ryan Solomons/Robert Jeffrey (guitar), Jason Green/Graham Strickland (bass) and James Lombard (drums). It is at Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 26, and at Artscape Opera House, Artscape theatre complex, Cape Town, from December 2 until January 7, 2018. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Two men and a long road home

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IT’S going to be a long drive: Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

OCCASIONALLY, A FILM crosses your awareness that makes you remember why films exist in this world. Nick Hamm’s The Journey is unequivocally one of those productions that celebrates the value of beautiful storytelling and the impeccable characterisation of historical figures, while it relentlessly keeps you utterly transfixed in a what-if scenario that blends political history with a foray into human values. It’s the kind of film that will suck you in, body and soul, and one that you will feel bereft when it reaches closure. And the pinnacle of its brilliance is its fictional premise, rather than its reconstruction of period, politics or the wide world.

Northern Ireland was one of the world’s most virulent hot spots since 1968, seething around the schism between Protestant and Catholic values, as it festered over the constitutional status of the area in the United Kingdom and the eruptions of ethno-nationality which saw the deaths of many innocent people in 30 years of unmitigated tit-for-tat violent recriminations. The Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the firebrand Protestant clergyman who became the face of hardline unionism. Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was his arch rival. Republican champion of the IRA, he was considered an arch-terrorist – depending, of course, on where you sit as you read history.

In 2007, these two men did the unthinkable: They came to terms with their differences and put an end to the internecine violence in the region. What was it that enabled these two sworn enemies, on the cusp of great, righteous anger, to suddenly see eye to eye and to shake hands?  The history books will tell you one thing. They speak of time and cogitation, much renegotiation and hard work.

Director Nick Hamm, looks at this conundrum from a human perspective. Take two men. Leaders and important figures, by all accounts. Strip them of their lackeys and supporters. Frighten them a little in a road with detours and with no clear recourse to help. Pare them down to their basic humanity, and something else can happen.

And of course this is not Hamm casting aspersions at the facts of history. And of course this is not a real-fire solution to intractable politics in the world. The work, since its UK release in 2016, stands amidst a furore of critical opinion, some of which angrily declares that Hamm is hurting history for future generations. It’s a curious concern which reflects more on the success of the credibility of this piece of cinema than on the argument: if this critical position held sway, all fiction that rests lightly or heavily on fact would be rubbished.

Having said that, and as you find yourself magnetised to the premises of the tale, you get to empathise with both men. They’re in a car on the way to Belfast. The weather is wretched and it is the eve of Paisley’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations. He has to make his flight in time. You know how it will end – the proverbial book-ends of the story are firmly and unapologetically in place. But it’s what happens between point A and point B that is the central kernel to the work.

Like the play, Freud’s Last Session, this piece places emphasis on content as well as context and the words matter as much as the performances. Spall – who you may have last seen in the film Mr Turner – reflects the immovability of a man nearing the end of his life. He offers such a beautiful understanding of the persona and physical idiosyncrasies of Paisley that you cannot stop looking at him. The sculptural quality of his head is given emphasis and it sits with irrevocable nobility on his shoulders, which are more often than not hunched away from his travelling partner.

Meaney’s McGuinness is a fantastic visual, intellectual and human foil to Paisley and his vanities: he’s a bit of a jokester, but one firmly focused on his values. He’s more ordinary to behold, smiles more easily, but is no less tough a companion, with a fervent and focused understanding of the fight for freedom central to the ethos of him and his followers .

It’s a tale of attempted manipulation – featuring a very cleverly primed driver in quiet communication with MI5 Harry Patterson (John Hurt), but one in which the universe prevails. Things go wrong. And the two icons reach crisis in a remote forest covered in a forgiving layer of moss, in the presence of a godforsaken church and a dying deer.

It’s a story that resonates with the blood of innocent lives that gets shed in the name of ideology and power. It’s one about the seductive temptation and the possibility of power that the ego is prone to. It’s about an understanding of the Anti-Christ and a reflection of the 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. It’s also about the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the nuance of Irish dialect, of ancient graveyards and stained glass windows paying testament to the agony of martyrs. Above all, it’s a crisp and refined piece of storytelling that will not let you down. It will make you laugh and weep, it will stay with you for good.

  • The Journey is directed by Nick Hamm and features Ian Beattie, Frank Cannon, Stewart David Hawthorne, Freddie Highmore, Michael Hooley, John Hurt, Mark Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Colm Meaney, Aaron Rolph, Kristy Robinson, Timothy Spall, Toby Stephens, Barry Ward and John Wark. It is written by Colin Bateman and features creative input by Stephen Warbeck (music), Greg Gardiner (cinematography), Chris Gill (editing), Olivia Scott-Webb (casting), David Craig (production) and Suzi Battersby, Chris Lyons and Polly McKay (makeup). Release date: October 26 2017.

 

Everything you ever wanted to know about crime, but were too afraid to ask

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IT INFILTRATES OUR very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams. The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons. This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written. And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

While they do manifest a tendency to use terms like the ancient regime as a reflection on apartheid, which might not necessarily always be contextually meaningful to most readers, and you obviously need to bypass the in-text references if you’re just an ordinary reader and not an academic, these are minor digressions that cannot even be seen as inconveniences. The text is divided into two parts – the first offers insight into the historical dynamics of modernity and its interface with policing, the order of things, and the economy of representation; the second looks at the other side of crime dynamics, the mythostats and the kangaroo courts, the witch hunts and the alternative methods designed and marketed to keep crooks out of your stuff, including the fake ivy product on the contemporary South African market called Eina!

Stories pepper the text, from the big headline events that saw Oscar Pistorius attempt to use white fear as a foil to explain the violent death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, to more low key ones that sometimes don’t make it to headlines, but are nevertheless no less complex and disturbing. These include the 50-year-old hairdresser in the Western Cape willing to sjambok any miscreant to death in the name of social justice. They’re stories told with a great deal of levity, accessible facts and balance, leading you through the Comaroffs’ focus by the proverbial hand.

Indeed, the book touches on all the bits and pieces that comprise our society, and there are moments in which you will feel as though you’re reading a South African manifestation of Michel Foucault, touching as it does on so many elements that point to the basis of power in our society. But it is not the last word in crime. It’s not a how-to text that offers you insight into where you should go to protect your body, your loved ones and your life from being hurt by others. But it doesn’t pretend to be.

You emerge from this heady read with a whole lot of stories that you won’t forget in a hurry. You emerge with an enlarged sense of context as to the huge catchall that may be understood as criminal behaviour – from the draconian rules and appalling legalism applied by the apartheid regime, to the values of the 1990s Muslim organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that was headlined in the Western Cape. It’s a book that will stand proud and well-thumbed on any reader’s bookshelf – over and above the mandatory university library and syllabus for which it is designed.

  • The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order by Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff is published by Wits University Press (2017).