Oh, Pretoria: you’re breaking my art

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How does a municipal structure in place for decades, get broken with abandon? Is it a process? What breaks first that is deemed not important enough to fix? The abysmal current state of Pretoria Art Museum is a crying shame to its proud, polished history. It feels as though the best solution is to shut it down and give the vagrants who dry their smalls on the Bartholomeu Dias sculpture in the museum’s park, a roof over their heads.

You drive into PAM’s parking lot – the museum campus occupies a full block of central Pretoria, including lavishly sized grounds and a generously structured building. It’s a weekday at the end of the year. People are on leave from work. Children are not at school. The parking lot has two police vans parked at random in the shade. Their occupants sit in their vehicles, doors open and legs out. It’s lunchtime. They eye you quizzically over their greasy burgers: “What are you doing here?” they seem to ask. There are no other cars.

You ignore that. Mount the stairs to the 1970s-styled venue. And look to the right. The grass is bald; freshly washed T-shirts are drying on the bronze public sculptures.

The security guard sits in her belted bulging regulation trousers, fingers at her weave, phone at her ear. She clearly uses all her airtime and battery power in this job, daily. With her chin, she instructs you to sign the visitors’ book; she doesn’t deign to pause in her conversation to greet you.

You enter the space. The next security guard, behind the desk grins vacantly: R22 he asks. He doesn’t offer a receipt. And if you think of the numbingly boring life he must lead day in and day out sitting in that chair, with maybe three visitors a month you feel this arbitrary sum can be viably chalked down to charity; you let it go.

You ask where the Keith Dietrich exhibition is; the man gesticulates vaguely. “There’s art everywhere,” he frowns. “This is a gallery.” He returns to his catatonic lassitude immediately.

The first thing you encounter on your left is the museum’s curious collection of ceramic art. It’s so precious and fragile no one is allowed to see it. You’re only allowed to peer through the thick and dusty glass at how the works are irretrievably ramped against one another, frozen in time.

And there is Dietrich’s show. It’s a gem in a slum. <<See my review of it here>> Having had your fill of this beautiful, terrible, sophisticated reflection on society and slavery, your instinct is to flee, at once. But fatal curiosity holds you back. And oh my goodness: cheek by jowl with Dietrich’s show is a group of the most wretched little JH Pierneefs imaginable.

Exhibiting art is a complicated exercise. It’s about PR as much as it is about art history. But, it’s also about the behind-the-scenes magic that makes a theatre set design into a whole world, and a dance venue into a place of dreams: an art gallery needs proper lighting. Maybe the Pierneefs in this show are not wretched, but with stunted lighting and a devastating sense of sameness, your mind gets numbed. The works are ignominiously killed. Your sluggishness drags you forward.

There’s an exhibition by contemporary photographer Michael Meyersfeld in the next space. It features giant texts on the wall which scream out at you so loudly they destroy the work completely. You come away unable to remember what the words say or the photographs depict. It’s not clear who made these aesthetic decisions or sanctioned them. Or why.

The next space presents the work of Artists’ Proof Studio artist Bambo Sibiya. Beautiful drawings and extraordinarily fine linocuts hang in a place where clearly the lighting guy got side-tracked. It’s also a space where the low ceiling fights so obviously with the work exhibited, you can’t breathe properly.

Had enough? Probably. But the day would not be complete if you’d missed PAM’s final disappointment. This dreadfully dry potted history of South African art, from San Rock art, through the mists and mothballs of high apartheid to art produced in protest and concept, has been on show for at least a year – I brought students here last February – and everything’s still in the same dusty sequence. You come away from it with moist eyes. From lots of yawning.

It’s in the long, potentially elegant space of the Albert Werth Hall, named in honour of PAM’s first curator, who enthusiastically took up the museum’s reigns in 1963. From the 1990s, this was where the Sasol New Signatures competition happened. [Curiously this competition is still hosted at PAM, but clearly not in the Albert Werth Hall]. It was here where the remarkable, fabulous work of Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo was showcased in 2005, an unequivocal highlight for that year, if not that decade, searing images into visitors’ minds that are still there <<see my review of that here>>.

Art history is a funny discipline. While it contains the rollicking beasts in the hearts and sensibilities of talented, sensitive people on the forefront of society who saw things differently and had the courage to say so, it’s about beauty, as it’s about politics and circumstance. And it’s about fun. And horror. But an exhibition is seldom a self-generated miracle. A curator’s hand matters.

Steven Cohen’s Selfish Portrait (1999) an upholstered chair silkscreened and hand-coloured, is the gem on this side of the slum, but it isn’t exhibited in a way to make you swoon.

There’s also lovely Walter Oltmann, Cyprian Shilakoe’s represented, as is William Kentridge. But the show is stripped of wow, bleached of life.

You exit the building. All you want to do is blindly hit the highway, saving off your thirst for the first cheerful roadside fast food place. There’s nothing here to offer you solace. Or even refreshment. Drinking toilet water feels dodgy. The Spar over the road looks skanky. Besides, you haven’t stamina to walk further than your car.

While PAM reeks of apartheid thinking, it really did evolve: the collection started in 1930, in Pretoria’s town hall. PAM’s erection was completed in the 1960s. Indeed, South Africa’s prime minister HF Verwoerd – the architect of apartheid himself —laid PAM’s foundation stone. But the forward thinking in the collection from its very inception was kick-started by work bequeathed from the estate of Sir Max Michaelis (1852-1932), a mining magnate and art patron.

Michaelis’s collection, valuable though it may have been, largely comprised work by Northern Dutch masters from the 17th and 18th centuries, which was already well represented in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It did, however also include work by local masters: Pierneef, Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder, Anton van Wouw and Irma Stern.

The city council developed PAM’s focus on local talent; the initiative developed its own momentum.

The space was enlarged in 1975 and 1988 and upgraded in 1999. But then what?

Not only does the space today have paltry visitors, creative energy or attention to curatorial detail, not to mention no sense of the sacredness that would make the very idea of hanging freshly washed broeks on the side of a sculpture anathema to even a vagrant, but it also has no internet presence.

It’s unforgivable. Yes, times are tough; money’s too tight to mention and arts funding is always in business’s cross-hairs. But by the same token, this creative industry is replete with talented, brave, passionate people who understand how earning money and doing things that matter must balance. Come, come, Pretoria. It’s time to think out of that box. Or surrender it to the homeless.

<<This article was posted five days ago, on December 25. There has been unprecedented response to it, including a blog which looks at the broader sociopolitical situation. Read it here.>>

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Dance should make you weep, says Sylvia

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DO IT LIKE THIS: Sylvia Glasser works with Fana Tshabalala in studio, 2010. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

With her floor-length purple dress riffling in the wind as she shimmied across President Street on the arm of choreographer/dancer Muzi Shili and others associated with Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MiD) , arguably South Africa’s most important contemporary dance company, Sylvia “MaGogo” Glasser, the institution’s founder, bade MiD – and the country – goodbye.  What a send off! What a way to leave that which you started 38 years ago, in good health, good humour and a position of authority.

For Glasser, it’s a bittersweet move, but one in which she can acknowledge touching so many dancers’ lives. Last month, Glasser spoke to My View about the rules she broke during the 38 years of MiD’s existence, and the ones she made. Also, the dance fraternity hosted a farewell for her, featuring comments from heavyweights in contemporary dance, including Shili, David Thanatelo April, Christos Daskalakos, Bev Elgie, Portia Mashigo and Kefiloe Morand.

Daskalalos, an architecture student in 1978 was enticed by an MiD poster for an improvisation workshop on Wits University campus: “I went. It was the start of a whole new life, for me. Sylvia had us doing things to tables and chairs that was never meant to be done to tables and chairs.

“Improvisation was how a lot of the works were choreographed by Sylvia and the dancers – Sylvia had the idea, the structure, the clear vision, and we would go into the studio and improvise and improvise. It was so creative. It is how a lot of the work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery was made,” he described performances in Johannesburg’s municipal gallery in 1980 and 1988.

Photographs of dancers in the JAG’s majestic space recalls performance art under choreographers like Robyn Orlin – a student of Glasser’s in her youth – decades later. Indeed, so much of the dance language developed and honed by Glasser was before its time, certainly in South Africa, where the notions of collaboration, performance art and impromptu gesture were important and new.

In 1981, MiD, just three years old, hosted South Africa’s first mixed-race work, at Wits’s Great Hall.

“At MiD, colour was never an issue,” Daskalakos said Glasser was not afraid to engage ugly South African metaphors, remembering this was high apartheid and everything she did with black and white dancers together was illegal.

In 1983, her work Not For Squares, ostensibly a light piece was performed to a gavotte by JS Bach. It also featured tyres. “Remember what tyres were used for in this country at the time?” Glasser mused, referring to “necklacing” in which people were burnt to death in a tyre.

Not only the tyre metaphor but also the use of Baroque music to support contemporary dance broke rules, which aligned Glasser’s dance philosophy with that of another dance legend, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) who cocked a snook at balletic traditions in reinventing dance grammar. Effectively, Glasser created a dance grammar specific to South Africa – something which many of her dancers, who affectionately call her “MaGogo” (grandmother), have taken to the next level.

Not one to rest on laurels, Glasser was quick to disparage what she deemed too much praise. “I had a good education. I had a house. I was privileged. It was an obvious path for me to take.”

Elgie remembers the fledgling company, before 1987, used not only Glasser’s garage at her Victory Park home, to rehearse, but also the school hall at King David Victory Park and two scout halls. “In the one [scout hall], you went home and dug splinters out of your feet after each session. And the other was so cold we looked like oompa loompas, we had to wear so many clothes to keep warm.

“The piece that I collaborated in that still means the most to me is African Cassandra. I remember waking up in the morning after Wits lecturer and anti-apartheid activist David Webster [with whom Glasser had an important friendship] was assassinated [by apartheid security forces] and feeling what an awful thing had happened but feeling very proud of Sylvia for wanting to do this. It was a marvellous collaboration, which with pride we performed at the lecture in honour of David.”

Glasser was a mature student in 1989, having returned to Wits to read social anthropology, where  Webster was her professor. She recalled: “on the Friday, David had said he was organising one of the Wits cleaners to come to Braamfontein Recreation Centre to teach us Zulu dancing. That Monday, I saw in the news David had been killed. So this thing of Cassandra was David singing to the future, trying to change people.

“I also felt like a Cassandra in the dance community at the time.” She spoke of how her work was “scorned” locally, which affected her critical presence and fundraising profile. It’s ironic, that one of the highest profile award-winning companies, which saw Glasser knighted by the Dutch in 2014 struggled – and still struggles – for broader community support, in kind, in coverage and in funding.

Pragmatically, Glasser didn’t sidestep the importance of funding a nongovernmental organisation; an issue which became (and still is) a vital challenge for MiD. She needed to raise funds from 1984, in addition to the many competencies that steering MiD demanded of her.

Glasser vehemently disparaged the idea that “you need to do fluffy work for the public to patronise you. There is much talk, not only at MiD, but in dance generally, of a need for self-sufficiency. It’s become a buzz word. I’ve worked in many countries. I have learnt that any dance company that makes its audience cry, that has an ethos where people are more important than policies, does not cover its expenses through performance alone. Any organisation that brings in people, as MiD did, has a commodity to offer which overrides pressure for self-sustainability. Sure, you can commercialise a dance company. But it will lose its soul.

“Today I’m told I don’t understand business. How can you survive with no capital investment and [between 2001 and 2004] employ over 30 people? I didn’t do it by myself.”

But MiD has stood for a lot more than the trend of self-sustainability. It made careers. It made dreams feasible. Mashigo came into dance as a teenager. “I was in standard eight and there was a group of friends I had who were doing dance at a youth centre. One day I went with them, to watch. I had never seen a dancer’s body before. I had never before seen how physical fitness can train a black woman’s body. I started dancing. It was fun. It was easy. We were the ‘it’ girls.”

A year later, she auditioned with MiD. “I got in. And I got scared. For the first time, I realised how tiny I was – and I was competing now not only against township girls; I also had to speak English. The teachers were white. But the love of understanding exercises opened a new understanding of my body for me.”

Said April: “In Kimberley, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for dance training. In 1992, I heard an advert on Radio 5 for the community dance teachers training course auditions [run by MiD]. At that time, there was a programme on TV called Fame [based on the 1980 film]; everyone wanted to be like those dancers. I decided to be a ‘Leroy’ [played by the late Gene Anthony Ray] at MiD.”

Glasser concluded, smilingly: “I do have an ego,” she pooh-poohed peers’ claims that she was one of few professionals they worked with who didn’t come ego-first into a studio.

“I loved performing. Teaching is performing. It was the world to me.”

  • MiD is run by chief executive Nadia Virasamy, and artistic director Mark Hawkins.

They’re playing your song at Monte

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Think of Dreamgirls or Jersey Boys on a shoestring budget and you will get an idea of the loveliness of I’m playing your song. It’s a new work, co-written by its director and performer, embracing the period in which arguably some of the greatest popular music in the world was made. It has a cast of two – three, including the piano – but a reach as rich and tight and melodic as the big budget shows. It embraces the life and music of Marvin Hamlisch – he of songs such as The Way We Were, The Spy Who Loved Me and the theme song from The Sting, to name but a few. But in touching all these points, the work is big-hearted and soundly made: it’s backed by a strong team who clearly are deeply in love with the material itself, and what you get, in the audience, is a big musical in a small framework. And it’s a gem of a success.

Indeed, Alan Swerdlow, director and co-writer of the work has done it again. I’m playing your song is beautifully constructed around America’s glitterati in film and music of the time; it doesn’t pretend to be chronological and it doesn’t shy from the overtly Jewish elements in Hamlisch’s life. Rather it is punctuated with chunks and anecdotes, engaging everything from the overbearing presence of Hamlisch’s European refugee mother, to the unapologetic romance describing his relationship with Terre Blair, who he married in 1989.

But in terms of the songs being yours and mine, so is the story: these classics of western popular music are so universal in their meaning and catchiness that the story is not only that of Hamlisch, but it’s yours and mine too. The theme about falling in love. The one about following your dreams. About finding the ‘elbows’ to make yourself a place in the world. And yet, even though it is loaded with all these schmaltzy clichés, it vies from silly maudlin. Granted, the humour is very American and not often sophisticated, and there’s a weird anachronism with a cell phone in the early 1980s, but forgiving those elements, this is a magnificent piece of work, which pays breathtaking and fun homage to the great Barbra Streisand.

It is supported with an ingenious set which is at once a screen for projections and a domestic space, the home for the piano, and the place where Hamlisch’s mother makes tuna sandwiches, with celery.  There are some quirks and light bulb moments in the set which will make you shrill with delight, but overall, there’s a sense of smooth comfort with these performers, in the context of the set, with one another, that’s so delightful that it spills over into the audience from the work’s opening bars until its finale.

You may just have been wowed by Jonathan Roxmouth in the eponymous role in Sweeney Todd at this theatre; you won’t be disappointed with him as Marvin Hamlisch. This multi-talented performer exercises other muscles here, which succeed admirably in giving the musical giant flesh and blood and wonderful humanity.

But in many respects and at several unequivocal highlights, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner steals the show. Playing every female lead, in clever costumes and wigs, she truly comes into her own in this work. Audiences have watched her mature onstage over the last decade or so. But here, she takes on her characters and performs her music with a sense of authority and sheer passion that holds the whole audience in the palm of her hands.

I’m playing your song is one of those shows that touches many buttons in the heart and sensibility of an audience who was alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it doesn’t feature the kind of show-stopper musical moments as you might remember from Jersey Boys, its piano work is masterful and witty and its interchange of time frames, characters and mood, is crisp and engaging. In short, see it.

  • I’m playing your song: The Marvin Hamlisch Story is written by Jonathan Roxmouth and Alan Swerdlow, based on idea by Pieter Toerien. It is directed by Alan Swerdlow, features music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Bryan Adams, Carol Bayer Sager, Alan and Marilyn Berman, Craig Carnelia, Ed Kleban, RJ Lange, Howard Liebling and Barbra Streisand. It is designed by Denis Hutchinson (lighting and set), Mark Malherbe (sound), Bryan Schimmel (musical supervision) and Colin Muir (wigs). It is performed by Jonathan Roxmouth and Sharon Spiegel-Wager, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until January 10. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011 511-1988

Dietrich and the skill of folding sullied flesh with frank words

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Has this broken world in which we live, replete as it is with an anything goes mentality, become numbed by the notion of horror? Have images of atrocity lost their bite? This is a question you might be tempted to ask as you enter the space of Keith Dietrich’s astonishingly beautiful exhibition which focuses on crimes and punishments relating to colonial slavery from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. But as you peruse this body of work, which in its thinking and its execution brings the spectre of slavery to the fore, you will be unnerved and seduced in a way that graphic representations of violence just cannot reach.

In 1985, film director Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work Shoah shook the foundation of what Holocaust documentary film should be. This monster production which is over 10 hours in length and which took some 11 years to create redefined the telling of a story of an atrocity. Lanzmann veered completely from any images relating to the series of brutalities which have come to be collectively called the Holocaust. Instead, his panning camera focuses on the beautiful lush green landscapes of the contemporary sites of those appalling acts of hate. And he records verbatim the words, in layers of language, of the witnesses, victims, perpetrators.

In his elegant and enormous yet profoundly subtle exhibition, Dietrich does something that cleaves to an understanding of the underpinnings of Lanzmann’s project. In reflecting on the punishment of slaves in 18th and 19th century colonial South Africa, he quotes from 1 220 legal treatises and record books, offering names, crimes and punishments. Bound magnificently into four artists’ books, the work has no images of brutality. But the words in red ink, accounting these floggings and impalings, amputations and beheadings, punishments for petty crimes, are far more emotive and evocative than any representation could be.

It’s like radio theatre: the words simply and directly open your sensibilities to the real horror under Dietrich’s loupe. The four hand-stitched unique books play with the traditions of bookbinding in a way that skirts notions of fragility and notions of tradition, yielding a kaleidoscopic series of impeccable paper folds that seize you by the eyes and pull you in to its interstices, unyielding.

The walls around the installation feature four photomontaged portraits that focus on the diversity of people who were, indeed, slaves in the period under scrutiny. Each of them – three men and a woman – are strong, iconic images that engage you directly. Each has a text on his or her body, embracing and celebrating a drawing of a vital organ.  It’s a text of records of atrocities, but in its physical presence it entraps your eye, your heart and your sense of history.

Dietrich is a heavyweight – as an academic and an artist – and yet, he exercises great astuteness and restraint, almost levity, in presenting the material in his exhibition. This is not about prowess. The writing and how it relates to the subject matter in its positioning and its layout flows with directness that takes you through geographies and moralities with a smoothness that leaves you thinking – the vessels for the ideas in this exhibition are so beautifully honed and so thoughtfully compiled that they do not stand in the way of the gem-like kernels presented.

But visiting this exhibition in its current manifestation – it will be travelling the country in the coming year – is a stultifying challenge, saved by the strength of the work. While this is a topic for another post and shouldn’t detract from an honest engagement with Dietrich’s work, the Pretoria Art Museum shrieks disrespect for the work it houses.

Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives is an important exhibition, not only in terms of the documentary insights it offers into the grim and dirty roots of slavery in this country, but also in terms of the unequivocal achievement the work offers the rather obscure discipline of artists’ books.

  • Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives, an exhibition by Keith Dietrich is at the Pretoria Art Museum until January 17. Call 012 358 6750

A splendid afternoon with the naughtiest boy in the world

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“Cor! Blimey! Crikey!”  “You would say that, wouldn’t you?!” There is a very special place in the heart of many a former radio theatre fan, for real British radio drama; the kind that we in South Africa used to hear on the ‘A Programme’ on radio; the kind that is blithely politically incorrect, as it takes a chunk out of the preciousness of societal norms while it is gingerly yet viciously rude and has the internal doubts and give and take that make the whole discursive domestic culture so very endearing and barbed. Think Dame Margaret Rutherford. Think Maggie Smith, and indeed, think of the crisp and sarcastic, farcical and totally hilarious writing of the calibre of Agatha Christie, Edith Nesbit, and of course, Richmal Crompton, the creator of Just William.

This theatre work, drawing from the pen of Kenneth Williams and under the powerful directorial eye of Alan Swerdlow brings together a whole range of anachronisms and theatre traditions – on radio and on stage – utterly flawlessly. In the hands of Malcolm Terrey who plays Williams playing William, the naughtiest boy in the world, eternally an incorrigible 11-year-old, the three stories told here are just not enough: they come with a level of colour and detail that is at once innocent and delicious in its girl-hating mischief. And you will wish there were more – or that you could tune into the same programme tomorrow afternoon and hear some more of William’s madcap adventures with his mates.

Terrey, a man who won’t see 50 again, is completely perfect in this complex play within a play: he skips from being the six-year-old tyrant Violet Elizabeth to being Aunt Emily with her dentures, large bosom and thigh, seemingly limitless capacity for bread and jam, to say nothing of cake, and her propensity to snore, but then, Terrey bounds back as little William Brown himself, a boy who is the centre and the generator of some of the most farcical mishaps you can imagine.

Just Carry on William is a scrumptious bit of nostalgia which will enable you to laugh uproariously at the obnoxiously ridiculous without feeling the need to check in your political correctness. The character was written from the 1920s until the 1970s and spawned several generations of warm following and much theatrical and film interpretation. While this isn’t a show for children, given the complexity and honed nature of the language, it’s certainly one about children and their fierceness and foibles, their idiosyncrasies and petty yet very vicious and real brutalities. It’s an essay on social manners but it’s also a jolly good laugh and the kind of tonic that we all need after a rather stressful year.

  • Just Carry on William based on the stories by Richmal Crompton is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Malcolm Terrey at The Studio theatre, Montecasino, Fourways until January 17. Visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za or call 011-511-1818

The drab mundanity of working nine to five

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A young woman sits chained to her chair, with a long noisy chain. The room is a quiet cacophony of cheap plastic wall clocks, some suspended from the ceiling, one serving as the lid of a dustbin. A gentle sense of the surreal is cast across the space as it is punctuated by a recording of a pianist playing Beethoven’s Für Elise. But as the lights open the scene, as the music fades and you look at the elements that constitute the set of this work and contemplate the work’s title: everything is revealed. Everything. Nothing is a surprise. The unfolding work, handled with a great deal of effort on the part of young performer Swankie Mafoko, contains an astonishing lack of nuance or sophistication as the notion of a young adult working for her living in an office is extrapolated. And sadly, the Beethoven is left to hangs arbitrarily and feels like an afterthought.

Nine to Fivers Anthem is the kind of work that begs and pleads loudly for the input of a more experienced eye or hand in its development. The language is riddled with easy cliché and the narrative, stripped clean of character development and of light and dark tone in its splaying of details, is earnest, yet skitters feebly around issues of job exploitation, the need to earn a living and the challenges one faces in the time one spends at the service of an organisation or individual who pays one’s salary. The material is bold, but lacks freshness.

Almost teetering into the realms of poetic development, the work contains refrains and repeated elements, which are not formulated with a sufficiently honed sense of rhythm and dynamic to enable the performer to sync with the sound and texture of the words she articulates. Almost resonating with the kind of harsh social critique which a writer like Jack Livings sculpts in his astonishing tales that gut Chinese communist society, such as The Crystal Sarcophagus and An Event At Horizon Trading Company, the heart of Nine to Fivers is in the right place.

But the work needs more time on its drawing board. And the performer’s skills are not stretched enough to reach you there in the audience.

  • Nine to Fivers Anthem is written by Lotanang Makoti and directed by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana. It was performed by Swankie Mafoko, as part of an extended version of the So Solo festival, at the Nunnery at Wits University, on December 11 and 12