TRIBUTE TO JOHN W FREDERICKS BY MATTHEW VAN DER WALT.
THE WRITER BEHIND the award-winning films Noem My Skollie and Shooting Bokkie, John W Fredericks, passed away peacefully after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, on 7 July 2019. He was 73. Having made peace with his own mortality, on the day of his death he refused to get out of bed to enjoy a cup of tea.
Fredericks lived an extraordinarily unique life which he translated into an exceptional autobiography: Skollie: One man’s struggle to survive by telling stories. He was unafraid of telling the gritty truth behind his life and his artistry will not easily be forgotten.
Born on 7 October 1946, Fredericks was the fourth of six children to his mother, Kathleen who worked in the abattoirs and father, Philip, a refuse collector who knew the wiles and interstices of the Cape dock intimately. He grew up in the Cape Flats suburb of Kewtown, and it was in this humble context that he began to grow his passion for storytelling from the time he could read. During his formative childhood years, he actively searched for books and anything else of resale value. These found books gave him solace and knowledge about the world around him, a world bruised by violence and impoverishment. Fredericks loved listening to the graphic and entertaining tales of the drug dealers, street characters and old convicts of his community.
But many of the stories that fuelled Fredericks’s writing drew from his unforgiving childhood: food in his house was scarce and his family was terrorised by gang members who ruled the Cape Flats. However, after surviving a traumatic rape as a teenager, Fredericks decided to form a gang, which became known as the Young Ones. Like many gangs in the district, all of the Young Ones’s members were arrested and sent to the notorious Pollsmoor Prison. Fredericks was 17 at the time and was sentenced to three years of incarceration for trying to steal a radio from a shop.
After seeing how his childhood friend was inducted into one of the infamous gangs and forced into becoming a concubine, Fredericks, like the legendary queen Scheherezade in the Arabian Nights began telling stories that captivated prisoners and ultimately saved his life. These tales shielded him from becoming a concubine. Storytelling was his escape in Pollsmoor Prison.
And storytelling remained his lifeline: After coming out of jail, in the early 1970s, Fredericks participated in a creative writing class sponsored by the ATKV. In 1988, the South African Screenwriters Laboratory launched a screenwriting workshop in which he took part. He wrote stories for the FunDza Literacy Trust. Fredericks had spent most of his life trying to rise above the stigma surrounding his prison life and gangsterism.
But stories come and stories go, and while Fredericks’s taut hand on the keyboard yielded stories that the public loved, none of them was really the one he wanted to tell. He began writing the script behind the film Noem My Skollie after returning to South Africa from a film festival in Italy in the late 1990s. In 2000 he met with producer David Max Brown, who loved the script and believed in its potential. They applied for funding and in 2016 all his dreams came true: the film was completed. Director, Daryne Joshua — also the director of the important work, Ellen — stated that he set out to make a coming-of-age film in place of another stereotypical coloured gangster film. It made South African film history as it was shown to the prisoners of Pollsmoor before being released to the public. Fredericks dedicated the script to his son, Clint Fredericks, who was murdered in October of 2012 under gang related circumstances.
Shooting Bokkie is another important film work to have come from Fredericks’s pen and was brought to life by director Rob de Mezieres. It’s a 30 minute-long documentary following the life of a juvenile courier running for the gangs in the Cape Flats. It shows the drugs the boy delivers, the stores he robs, the people he kills, and the difficulty faced by the people behind the cameras. The film was a huge success and stunned audiences around the world.
While Fredericks was compelled, for much of his adult life to seek pedestrian work, in order to keep food on the table, his deep-rooted passion for writing stories never waned. When Penguin Random House offered him a six-month contract to write 82 000 words in 26 chapters, he immediately decided to quit his job as a security officer and tackle this commission and creative opportunity head-on. He was 50 years old at the time. Uncensored and spine-chilling, Fredericks’s stories captivated a readership of some 90 000 South Africans. His undying love for something as pure as telling a story had finally been given the wings it needed.
Fredericks had audiences around the world on the edge of their seats through his honest tales that mirrored his own life with exceptional clarity and veracity. Fredericks was able to prove that a simple story has the power to change people’s preconceived perceptions. The trajectory of his life story serves to affirm that every person has the ability to overcome the stigma of their heritage, as it illustrates that if you have courage and perseverance you can overcome the adversities life throws in your path. His films and writing pieces will continue to inspire young people, provoke audiences and shed a light on the often-harsh circumstances that many communities face.
He leaves his beloved wife, Una, his children Eugene, Sonia, Melanie, Janine and Quinton, and his siblings, Grace, Francis, Cecelia, Valery, Gloria, Ivan and Diane, as well as his diverse and committed readership and fans.
- Matthew van der Walt is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. He is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.