How to realise you are beautiful


MY sister, my best friend forever: Celie (Didintle Khunou) writes a letter to her sister Nettie (Sebe Leotlela), who lives in Africa. Photograph by enroCpics

THERE ARE SO many “wow” moments in the South African stage version of The Color Purple: The Musical, you’ve got to hold onto your seat with both hands. Supported by a set that features diagrammatic representation of space and texture, a cast that sparkles with magnificent voices and fine acting skills, and a classic narrative that just doesn’t get tired, this is the cultural imperative of the year so far, in this city.

The translation of Alice Walker’s 1982 classic black women’s liberation novel into a stage musical is simply gorgeous, offering a gloss on the horror of black women’s lives in America between 1909 and 1949, punctuated as it was by rape, battery and an implicit understanding as chattel. The songs are wrenching and potent but jazzy and full of poetry. And the choreography in this work represents an understanding of the rhythm of the spoken language, the lyrics and the context that will completely satisfy your head and heart. Ultimately, The Color Purple a tale of victory and it is a six-tissue show – you’ll shed tears of outrage and of joy, in an unmoderated way, from beginning to end.

With magnificent Didintle Khunou in the role of Celie – a role performed by Whoopi Goldberg in the original 1985 Steven Spielberg film – the brilliance is cast. And while the production is not flawless, there is a moment in the second half of the piece, where Khunou, slight of size, stands alone on the stage and embraces the whole huge space and all its audience, with her rendition of “I’m Here”. It’s a moment which will stay in your heart forever.

But Khunou is not alone in giving this production incredible vocal muscle. Stand out performances by Lerato Mvelase in the role of Shug Avery, the catalyst to Celie’s abusive marriage, who teaches her that sex can be fantastic, Neo Motaung as Sofia, Celie’s daughter-in-law, who gives as good as she gets and who has a voice that reaches across generations in its heart and soul, and Dolly Louw, as Doris – an ensemble member – who has physical presence onstage that makes you simply fall in love with her.

Mister, played by Aubrey Poo and Harpo, his son, played by Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, collectively offer an understanding of flawed black American maleness, which is violent and crude, aggressive yet still capable of love – and indeed capable of turning around. The work is replete with sarcasm and the power of defiance in the name of unfairness and it is funny and rich and nuanced with gossip and jazz.

It is supported by a set that simply takes your breath away. Slats of wood are hammered in place to set up a sketched illusion of context. It’s free of gimmick, strong and direct, and does exactly what a set should do. There are moments when you stop noticing it, simply because it cleaves so perfectly with the work. Similarly, the costume designs are understated yet appropriate, they’re comfortable on the eye, on the cast members and on the context being represented.

And while the individual voices in harmony and alone are beautiful enough to make you weep, by themselves, there is a glitch in the work — or rather, two — which stand like two book ends for the show. The ensemble songs, at the beginning and the end of the work, which feature the whole company belting it out, fight mercilessly internally and with the orchestra and as a result, they’re very shouty. And the casualty: the lyrics and the clarity. You get a bit of a fruit salad instead. Occasionally also, in the sphere of sound design, some of the voices, including notably Funeka Peppeta’s, goes rogue and turns into a shriek.

One other glitch in the overall show’s identity is weak design on the part of the production poster which is emblazoned on the highway as a massive billboard. The work is so much more than those bleached out sad faces which take the colour purple to dreary and corpse-like lengths: it really doesn’t do justice to the colourful, rollicking monster of wisdom and intimate poetry that you see on stage.

That said, the work, a tale of unmitigated sisterly love and extreme hardship, of church values and the magic of discovering one’s own sexuality, is one that celebrates women’s pants in the most delightful of ways and continues to be a benchmark work in the name of black women’s identity, liberation and voice. But be warned: Just one viewing just might not suffice.

  • The Color Purple: The Musical is written by Marsha Norman based on the eponymous novel by Alice Walker. Featuring music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it is directed by Janice Honeyman. Performed by Zane Gillion, Didintle Khunou, Sebe Leotlela, Dolly Louw, Andile Magxaki, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Venolia Manale, Namisa Mdlalose, Phumi Mncayi, Neo Motaung, Lerato Mvelase, Tshepo Ncokoane, Thokozani Nzima, Funeka Peppeta, Aubrey Poo, Senzesihle Radebe, Lelo Ramasimong, Zolani Shangase, Ayanda Sibisi and Lebo Toko, it features design by Sarah Roberts (production), Mannie Manim (lighting), Richard Smith (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction) and Oscar Buthelezi (choreography). The orchestra, under the direction of Rowan Bakker, comprises Dale-Ray Scheepers (keyboards), Leagh Rankin and Brian Smith (reeds), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Viwe Mkizwana (bass), Donny Bouwer (trumpet) and Mike Ramasimong (drums). It performs at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex in Braamfontein, until March 4. Call 011-877-6800 or visit

Molly’s story: not just any card game


TAKING the world on with integrity: Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), her lawyer. Photograph courtesy

THE CHALLENGE OF telling a complicated story in bold brush strokes in such a way that detail and nuance are not part of the casualties is a stiff one. The creative team behind Molly’s Game has achieved almost the impossible with this finely honed piece of filmography that is at once beautiful and sexy, intelligent and thought-provoking. It is informative and has a moral core; it’s magnificent to look at and will keep your conversations for weeks after you’ve seen it, peppered with suppositions and reminiscences.

On one level, it’s a poker movie. But if you’re not a poker buff, it doesn’t matter. The game and its morality, the energy behind its allure, are portrayed with a slick suaveness that never becomes self-indulgent. Indeed, there are explanatory overlays that speak of the potency of different hands, and it’s a directorial feat achieved with balance.

Similarly, the story is told on an almost documentary level. There’s a narrator to the work which fills in the narrative interstices and lends the story historical flow without dumbing down the performances or making them illustrative.

And then, there is Jessica Chastain in the leading role. She’s beautiful in the sense that LA-film critic Mick La Salle describes French actresses: there’s a realness, an almost harshness, to her which lifts her stature beyond that of bimbo and into the messy realm of high-end gambling behind closed doors. She really looks at the characters she interfaces with, and she embodies her character with a wrenching earnestness that never feels forced.

As the trailer will show you, there’s lots of high velocity gambling, with the lights, the bling, the revealing dresses and the dodgy rich men. But what the trailer doesn’t show you is the deeply intellectual soul of the story.

It’s the true tale of Olympic skier Molly Bloom, who is shaped by the urge to conquer the most difficult challenges, an urge which takes her in a completely different direction to what any of her fans or enemies might have imagined. It’s a tale with heart and soul, blending and twisting James Joyce’s Ulysses and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible deliciously into its narrative and its screenplay.

With honed and strong performances by Idris Elba and Kevin Costner, it’s a work that foregrounds a young woman’s relationship to men in power, and there are psychological themes and intellectual choruses in the work which are allowed to develop in strata.

In short, this yarn, which touches all mythologist Joseph Campbell’s values about the way in which a hero’s life story is constructed, is tight and intelligently made. There are simply no flaws in it. And you will not be satisfied with a single watching of it. This is one of those films that slides into classic status automatically.

  • Molly’s Game is directed by Aaron Sorkin and features a cast headed by Gurdeep Ahluwalla, Mary Ashton, Nicholas Banks, Jon Bass, Tom Black, Jacob Blair, Chris Boyle, Steve Brandes, Gary Brennan, Joey Brooks, Catherine Burdon, Bill Camp, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cera, Laura Cilevitz, Ari Cohen, Michael Cohen, Kevin Costner, Brian d’Arcy James, Karl Danhoffer, Todd Thomas Dark, Lizzy DeClement, Linette Doherty, Dennis Drummond, Dan Duran, Idris Elba, Frank Falcone, David Gingrich, Jake Goldsbie, Zachary Goodbaum, Angela Gots, Graham Greene, Shane Harbinson, Thomas Hauff, Daoud Heidami, Stephanie Herfield, Kjartan Hewitt, Chris Hoffman, Piper Howell, James Hurlburg, Samantha Isler, Morgan David Jones, Tommy Julien, Jeff Kassel, Joe Keery, Robert B Kennedy, Justine Kirk, Khalid Klein, Michael Kostroff, Natalie Krill, John Krpan, David Lafontaine, Maria Lerinman, Dan Lett, Ken Linton, Alanna Macaulay, JC MacKenzie, Bo Martyn, Matthew D Matteo, Madison McKinley, Elisa Moolecherry, Timothy Mooney, Duane Murray, John Nelles, Randy Noojin, Chris O’Dowd, Chris Owens, Vasilios Pappas, Jeffrey Parazzo, Whitney Peak, AC Peterson, Jason Pithawalla, Phil Primmer, Jonathan Purdon, Claire Rankin, Robin Read, David Reale, Amy Rutherford, Victor Serfaty, Chris Siddiqi, Rachel Skartsten, Tony Stellisano, Amy Stewart, Rae Anne Stroeder, Jeremy Strong, George Tchortov, Dov Tiefenbach, Vladimir Tsyglian, Rico Tudico, Alyssa Veniece, Bruno Verdoni, Leo Vernik, Jason Weinberg and Moti Yona. It is written by Aaron Sorkin, based on Molly Bloom’s autobiography. Produced by Mark Gordon, Matt Jackson and Amy Pascal, it features creative input by Daniel Pemberton (music), Charlotte Bruus Christensen (cinematography), Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer (editing), Francine Maisler (casting), David Wasco (production design) and Susan Lyall (costume design). Release date: January 12 2018.


Humble giants; flies on the wall


TAKE TWO INTELLECTUALS with something to say, put them together and record, transcribe and publish their words. Effectively, this is what you get in Footnotes for the Panther, which sees William Kentridge chatting to his friend Denis Hirson about life, the universe, his art, the craft of writing and being in the world.

On the one hand, this curious little book, designed and made with the kind of properness and dignity that lent the hard cover book its longevity as well as its sense of character, a hundred years ago, fits in the 19th century construct of belles lettres: pretty words cast out for posterity. And this makes it feel oddly precious and decidedly prescient and ironic in its sense of nostalgia.

Hirson (b. 1951) is a Paris-based writer. Born in South Africa, he was the son of anti-apartheid activist Baruch Hirson, who was jailed by the South African government for many years. Denis graduated in South Africa in the 1970s and then went to Paris where he made a life around theatre and literature, and where he still lives today.

Kentridge (b. 1955) is a South African-based artist, the son of Sydney Kentridge, who was one of the leading voices in many significant trials that South Africa weathered, including the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko. In many respects, William needs no introduction — the meteoric rise of his fame and world respect has rendered his name known everywhere.

The two men knew each other as boys. As they chat, you realise an easy camaraderie which enables difficult questions to be asked and complicated answers to be teased out. The tone differs in the two conversations which were presented for an audience, and the other, more intimate eight, but this doesn’t make them any less readable.

So what you get when you read this book is a give and take, a recitative play between two men who have allowed you to sit, like a proverbial fly on the wall, as they wrestle with panthers conjured by Rainer Maria Rilke and South African nostalgia, with the detritus of Marikana and a brass band from Sebokeng township, among other things. It’s a foray into the work of Kentridge that reaches from his Jeu du Paume exhibition in June of 2010 to Amsterdam and the rehearsals of his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in May of 2015. Lots of work happened in that period.

Without an overriding voice, or internally edited-in contextual material, the work presupposes that you know what they’re talking about. And this, in many respects, is its downfall. It’s also its strength. As you slip deeper and deeper into the words of Kentridge and Hirson, you begin to hear their voices in your head. There’s a profound sense of humility in Kentridge’s mien; there’s humour and sadness; an understanding of the context of the art world, and a reach into philosophy and myth, the magic of chance and the madness of unusual juxtapositions, from violence in Betty Boop cartoons to the ways in which Kentridge represents himself in his drawings, films and other works. It is here where you learn of photographer David Goldblatt’s “fuck-all landscape” and how it makes drawing sense in a South African highveld context, and the thrill of drawing a piece of paper as it blows in the wind.

The work touches on everything from Kentridge’s collaborative talents, to his relentless work ethic and his Norton lectures. These, delivered in 2011-12, as Six Drawing Lessons, were commissioned by Harvard University and put him alongside thinkers of the ilk of Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Octavio Paz, John Cage, Orhan Pamuk, to celebrate “poetry in the broadest sense”. But in discussion, these also represent a rich cross-pollination of Kentridgean energy which considers courage and growing old, confidence in a variety of mediums and that question of so what, in the development of an artwork.

And all at once, you reach the end, and you have this powerful urge to start again. At once. It’s a gem of a publication which doesn’t kowtow to rules. Call it a vanity piece, if you must; but it’s a delightful dialogue to challenge the idea of formal research, as it places everything on the proverbial table. It’s detailed and nuanced, direct and mesmerising. And one reading just doesn’t do it justice.

  • Footnotes for the Panther: Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson is published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg (2017).

Decency in a time of hateful chaos


IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.

Seduced by a tulip with crimson streaks


WOMAN at a casement: Alicia Vikander is the inscrutable, beautiful Sophia Sandvoort. Photograph courtesy

IT’S MID 17TH century Amsterdam and the money making pastime of predicting the rarity of a tulip from its bulb is all the rage. Picture the hustle and bustle and noise of a 20th century stock exchange, or a nineteenth century auction, toss in a bit of Victorian bawdry and market banter, and you’ve got the picture. It’s rough and wild and replete with glorious surprises, which enfolds the rich and controlled presence of the church into its complexity. Against this backdrop, a wealthy spice merchant buys a beautiful young orphan from the nunnery to be his wife, and there follows a beautiful tale of sacrifice and disappointment, love and fear, chance and tulips that will make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a painting by Dutch master Jan Vermeer.

The film is beautifully crafted with a great sense of research and intelligence. It offers the texture of Dutch 16th century life that doesn’t seem to miss a beat in its reflections – and there’s everything there, from the propensity of Dutch artists to work on wood, to a visual comment on the Jewish and black communities of the city at the time. There’s an understanding of class hierarchy and costume rules, as well as of the ignorance of men in matters of gynaecology. And there’s a tiny performance by veteran Judi Dench as the authoritative abbess, pipe in hand, that pulls it all together with wit and wisdom.

It’s a rich and heady tale that presents the older gentleman – the king of peppercorns – who knows a thing or six about what makes a good nutmeg, Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) as the ultimate hero: the widower who in spite of great hurt sees an understanding of truth and is able to reflect generously on the value of wealth in a way that seems to contradict his station or stereotypes of his gender.

Sophia (Alicia Vikander) is heartbreakingly young and her astonishing beauty embraces a deep vulnerability. The challenge of being wife to a man at least forty years older, one who wants an heir is tough, and Sophia remains fairly inscrutable even in bed with him. Enter the young artist, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), on a portrait commission and all libidinal abandon is tossed to the wind.

While the love scenes are deeply beautiful, in certain respects, adherence to the time frame is lost and in the midst of rapture and blind passion, the young couple – Sophia and van Loos – loosen the bounds of the period and seem like a modern couple. Similarly, the finished paintings feel far too modern in style for the period in question, which was curtailed by stylistic convention, even though so much of it is drenched in the kind of liquid light you can see in paintings by Vermeer, from the same kind of period.

Having said that, the complexity of the story which sees the underbelly of the tulip prediction business infiltrating through it, involves chance and misunderstanding, a misleading pregnancy and a plan destined to fail. Fail it does, but you’re overwhelmed and surprised by how and why. It’s a rich and beautiful film that might make you think of Alexandre Dumas’s fabulous tale of a black tulip, as you learn about the nature and ethos of betting, acquiring and letting go.

  •  Tulip Fever is directed by Justin Chadwick and is performed by a cast featuring Keith Ackerman, Laura Allen, Sebastian Armesto, Cressida Bonas, Cornelius Booth, Amy Brogan, Greta Brogan, Jody Brogan, Daisy Chadwick, Conner Chapman, Declan Cooke, Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Judi Dench, James Dryden, Ian Drysdale, Jane Edwardes, Patsy Ferran, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Geary, Alexandra Gilbreath, B Glanville, Holliday Grainger, David Harewood, Anastasia Hille, Douglas Hodge, Tom Hollander, James Inkling, Alex Lowe, Daisy Lowe, Brendan McCoy, Kevin McKidd, Simon Meacock, Tom Meredith, Deborah Moggach, Matthew Morrison, Michael Nardone, Jack O’Connell, Megan O’Connell, Rhoda Ofori-Attah, Carl O’Rourke, Harry Rafferty, Ian Ralph, Richard Alan Reid, Joanna Scanlan, Michael Smiley, Johnny Vegas, Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Miltos Yerolemou. Its screenplay is written by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard, based on the eponymous novel by Deborah Moggach. Produced by Alison Owen and Harvey Weinstein, it features creative input by Danny Elfman (music), Eigil Bryld (cinematography), Rick Russell (editing), Shaheen Baig (casting), Simon Elliott (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set), Michael O’Connor (costumes). Release date: November 10 2017.


My mother’s dignity, my society’s shame


BETRAYED as a repository for sins: the Scapegoat.

A BEAUTIFULLY CRAFTED tale of loyalty and values learned and imbibed, Dalene Matthee’s novel Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) translates with a true sense of Klein Karoo grit into an Afrikaans-language radio drama you won’t forget in a hurry. It’s an extremely sensitive and intelligent radio-adaptation that will haunt you with all the moral decisions you’ve made that you would change if you could. And while its live broadcast was hosted a few weeks ago, this is the kind of work you will want to listen to again and again.

Karel (Dean Balie) and Lillian (Danielle van der Walt) are engaged to be married. They’re on a 1 300km road trip, to visit Karel’s mother, Ou Bet (June van Merch) in Wolwedans, the farm on which Karel grew up. They’re planning to leave the country; it’s a farewell visit. Sounds idyllic? It is, until you take a step back in terms of context. It’s 1982. It’s South Africa. Apartheid is rumbling like a destructive force through society, breaking hearts, confusing beliefs and smashing values in its wake. Andries Treurnicht, a government minister, is in the process of carving out a place in South African politics for the Conservative party. Bad things are happening everywhere.

And, yes, Karel is not white. Lillian is. Technically, their relationship, under the apartheid jurisdiction, is illegal. Ou Bet, whose the general factotum in the house and has raised the farm’s family as best she can, believing herself to be a part of it. She knows that Karel has a “Lillian” in his life, but the two women have not yet met. This roadtrip is infused with the ghosts and memories of Karel’s past, the beauty of the farm in Lillian’s unsullied eyes, and deep, difficult crossroads to encounter and confront for the mom. And there’s the memory of the farm’s dam which too contains mixed understandings of what skin colour means.

Along similar lines to Mark Behr’s Die Reuk van Appels, it’s a play which contemplates the horrors of being ‘different’ in a society that promulgates very specific race and class and gender values. Containing revelations about the past that will make you tremble, it’s a story that wrenches an old woman from her sense of where she fits in, in her everyday world, and one of bravery and beliefs in the face of disbelief.

The first adult novel penned by Matthee in the 1980s, it’s a book which contains all the energy and verve, the rich and complex understanding of an Afrikaans-speaking community who are not white-skinned and where they fit into the society in which they exist. As you listen to the crisp and solid tones and scene changes in this work, so do you melt, under the tough sway of the story’s impact, but also the way in which the environment is conjured by words and references, music and the twittering of birds. It’s a must-hear and a must-have.

  • Die Judasbok (The Scapegoat) is written by Dalene Matthee and adapted for radio by Anton Treurnich. Directed by Eben Cruywagen, it features technical assistance by Ricardo McCarthy is performed by Dean Balie, Susan Beyers, Danielle van der Walt and June van Merch, and debuted on RSG on November 17. It is available through the rsg website as a podcast.
  • RSG can be found on 100-104FM, on DStv channel 913 or live on

Jo’burg: A portrait with broken dreams


YOU WILL RECOGNISE many characters in this debut novel by Peter Harris, not by their names, but by their amoral attitudes and cavalier actions that enable them to play loose and fast with money, values and other people’s lives. Bare Ground is absolutely unputdownable; it’s ideal holiday reading – not because it’s frothy and easy, but because it is crafted with such a deft understanding of the complexities of madness, human nature and greed with such an intelligent approach that you will race through it, your heart in your throat, in a bid to know what happens next. And you will be surprised by the nifty bends in the story, from its prologue to its very last word.

These characters are the ones who populate our news right now; you’ll find many a ‘flabby fellow’ in the tight fitting suit of a government minister, with mayonnaise from an expensive club sandwich dribbling down his front, and his face, distorted by the reflections in a whisky glass. Hell, you even encounter the president himself, who remains nameless behind dark glasses and much unmirthful laughter. He’s a man to be avoided, or cherished and adulated, depending on how much you – or your loved ones – have benefited from him over the years.

Bare Ground is the complex tale of Max Sinclair, a man born of South African privilege who seems to be piling riches on riches as he goes. With Oxford credentials, he was raised a lonely child, but has grown into someone controversially respected. Perfect though he may seem, from his sharply ironed impeccable clothing to his taste in the most expensive cars and whiskies, he’s a man not without personal horrors.

It’s also the tale of Sifiso Lesibe, an earnest hard-working geologist from the Eastern Cape who studied at Rhodes University. Like anyone in his shoes, he’s ambitious and wants good things for his young family. In every way, this chap is ideal grist for the mill of sordid hypocrisy, writhing snakes and gifts – a multitude of gifts cast in the sickly sweetness of dangerous traps, hidden resources and corporate crime on a massive scale.

And then there’s the straight lawyer, and the guy with struggle credentials who smells a rat and finds a notebook. There’s the wives who have more perspicuity than their men credit them with, and the contexts and childhoods which have left their mark on each individual. Stereotypes abound here, and the narrative is laced with the relentless sound of singing cicadas, a cipher of horror and insanity that subsists just under the surface of the unfolding events.

More than all of this, it’s a story about the mining history of this city, and how even the mine dumps, detritus of an earlier history of mining technology, become useful means to continue squeezing money from it. Think the biggest mining consortium the country has seen being put together, but also think kick backs and cartels, deals and sinister manoeuvres, the kind that keep the backstabbing in corporate jargon alive and seething. It’s a racy tale by any account, but it is written so well and has its characters and their contexts so intently and wittily described with such strong and convincing narrative line work and colour that you feel you are a part of it all.

Everything from opportunistic crime at Johannesburg’s traffic lights to the dirty little street urchins, some more horribly deformed than others, comes under the loupe of this exceptionally fine novel, playing its role in the richly textured portrayal of contemporary Johannesburg with all its rough and tumble, underhandedness and disparities. If you’re not from Johannesburg – or South Africa – you may find some of the references to real monsters in contemporary society a bit obscure, but that will not hurt the rollercoaster you will find yourself on in every one of Bare Ground’s 291 pages.

  • Bare Ground by Peter Harris is published by Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2017).