“Thank you for the nostalgic drop of red wine. For me, red wine will always, always be you. From the very first night, remember?”
Flame in the Snow, André to Ingrid, 12 August 1963
“Thank you for the nostalgic drop of red wine. For me, red wine will always, always be you. From the very first night, remember?”
Flame in the Snow, André to Ingrid, 12 August 1963
(An edited version of the following article was published in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008; a bit of the background story to the post I want to write next.)
They thought that he was just another white man come to make their lives miserable. The previous owner of the Zandvliet Delta farm filed for insolvency. The new one announced himself to the farm residents, wanting to meet every family individually. Nico Jansen, an outspoken member of the community, remembers his first encounter with Professor Mark Solms: “We were scared that he would want us off his land. But I knew we had to stand up for ourselves, because we belonged here.” He told Solms straight out, “You’re not going to kick us off!”
Mark Solms had no such intentions. Namibian-born, he emigrated in 1988 in search of better career opportunities. After having made a name for himself as a world-leading researcher into the brain mechanisms of dreaming, in 2002, he decided to follow his own dream of returning to Southern Africa. His late relative, Friedrich 4th Prince of Solms-Baruth, knew that Zandvliet Delta had been lost to creditors and recommended it. “He thought I would recognise the value of this place,” Solms recalls. “I came to look at the land after the great veld fires of that year. I remember the smoke-heavy air and the rustling of leaves when I walked around the farm. No decision had to be made; it was exactly the place I was looking for.”
The land in question, which became known as the Solms Delta, is situated in the Franschhoek Valley just off the R45 between Franschhoek and Paarl. The sheer beauty of the region and the quality of the wines produced here are world-famous. But Solms knew that settling and making wine in the area required a sensitivity to the historical burdens embedded in the local communities living in the Valley: “Very consciously, on a local scale I wanted to contribute to the transformation which was taking place in the country. I saw the farm as an opportunity. Only after getting here, I realised how challenging the whole project would be.”
Mark Solms was unprepared for the lack of enthusiasm and engagement he met with on the farm: “There seemed to be no common purpose or hope. The lethargy and depression were overwhelming.” For centuries people had lived here with strictly predetermined possibilities and would not think beyond them. He had to confront the “deeply uncomfortable role of a white farmer” which he suddenly personified. The attitude of most people on the farm was that, since he was the owner, they must be scared of him; or, if he does not live up to the role, then he can be taken advantage of. “We had to work around layers and layers of scar tissue,” he says. Moreover, he had to confront “the racism that exists in oneself”, and the tendency to transform while maintaining one’s own privileges.
Jansen was very sceptical about the plans Solms had for the Delta. “It was very difficult for us to believe in white people’s good intentions,” he remembers. But then Prof, as Jansen refers to Solms, took them by surprise. He met with all the families on the farm and addressed their fears directly. He also recognised Jansen’s leadership qualities and the young man became a facilitator between himself and the community: “He told me the reason he liked me was that I said what I thought, about him and the situation. It wasn’t a smooth path. There was a lot of mistrust on our part at first. But then Prof did two things that made people begin to respect him. He told us to work on our houses at the same time as we worked on his. Then he asked us what we were passionate about. Our answer was sports, especially rugby. So he had DSTV installed in all our homes.” These events were “attitude changing, real eye-openers,” Jansen recalls. “From the beginning Prof treated us as humans, and we decided to meet him halfway. Prof told us that he wanted to set right the things his people had done wrong. And I felt I could guide Prof’s dreams. I am proud of the fact that he didn’t break any of his promises.”
Shortly after his first visit to the Delta, Jansen telephoned Solms to tell him that the residents of the farm had organised “a prayer meeting to thank the Lord for sending them an owner they didn’t have to be scared of.” Solms knew that transformation would take time. Given human nature and the injustices of the past, “nobody can take your word for it in this place, sincerity has to be proven.” The changes have been gradual, but if he had to define the turning point, it would be the Bastille Day parade in Franschhoek last year. Tokyo Sexwale suggested using the festivities to celebrate, not the storming of the Bastille, but our local freedoms: the Huguenots’ freedom from religious persecution, freedom from slavery, Mandela’s freedom. The Solms Delta people created a unique float for the parade: a pyramid of wine boxes, each representing an inhabitant of the farm. They walked with the float, wearing t-shirts with their hands imprints on them in the colours of the South African flag, making music and waving to the crowds. It was “nation building on a small scale,” Solms remembers, “That day we were one, we were Delta, all of us.” The farm workers suddenly felt that a commercial event for the elites had turned into a festival in which there was a place for them. And to crown their achievement, they were awarded the prize for the best float. The feeling of belonging made Solms realise that they had “genuinely transformed the farm, in structure and feeling.”
In 2005, the Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust to benefit all the historically disadvantaged residents of the farm and other employees of the Solms-Delta wine company. In due course, Mark Solms convinced a dear friend from Britain, Richard Astor, to buy an adjacent farm, Lubeck Delta, and the Trust was restructured in the process. With the help of loan funding secured by the Solms and Astor families, the Trust purchased a third adjoining farm, Deltameer. The three linked properties now became equal partners in a common enterprise.Richard Astor first visited his friend on Solms Delta in 2003. He returned several times and the beauty of the place grew on him, but he never considered settling here. In 2005, because of personal misfortune he needed a change and that was when Mark Solms suggested he buy the adjoining farm: “Mark managed to communicate his passion to me. I have been looking for a cause I could get involved in and it was suddenly easy to see the opportunities to make a difference here.” There was only one obstacle: “I love wine, but I can’t take it seriously; I don’t have the palate or Mark’s passion for it. He sees wine as an art form. I told him that the one art form I can be passionate about is music.”
The idea for the annual Oesfees (Harvest Festival) was born. Celebrated for the first time in April this year, it was an enormous success. Farm workers from the entire area were invited to participate in the festivities, involving traditional music, local food and wines. Richard Astor, a cornet player, performed on stage with the likes of David Kramer and the Delta Optel Band, consisting of Solms Delta residents and led by the young Cape music enthusiast, Alex van Heerden.“Alex fitted perfectly into the project. He brings music out of people,” Astor says in admiration. Employed by the Delta Trust (established by Astor), van Heerden can now pursue a lifelong passion: “I have always wanted to uncover the common musical heritage we Afrikaans-speaking people share in this area.” In the mid-1990s van Heerden founded the “Gramadoelas” band and began his field research work in the rural areas of the Cape to get material for them. The project was not financially viable; nobody was ever interested in getting properly involved. Coming to work for the Trust has been a dream come true for van Heerden. Forty people are now directly involved in the music projects on the farm. Two bands, the Delta Optel and a brass band, meet regularly for practice. Van Heerden and historian Tracey Randle are collecting materials for a music heritage centre which is to open on the farm in 2010. Van Heerden is also in charge of the Saturday evening concerts which will begin in December. “I feel healed by making music with my people,” he says, clearly moved, “There is a feeling of unconditional sharing involved.” Richard Astor knows that “all these great people on the farm can’t be a coincidence.” He says of his friend, “Mark brings out the best in people in a realistic way. He builds confidence and helps people realise their potentials.” The pool of talented individuals involved in the Solms Delta projects attests to this.
Cathy Macfarlane began as administrator at the farm in March 2007. A former teacher with no experience in administration, equipped only with vast enthusiasm, she swiftly adapted: “Working here has been an adventure. It’s tough at times, but I love my job.” As Solms Delta’s administrator, she coordinates all the entities on the farm, interviews new staff members (mostly appointed internally), and until recently was responsible for the certification of wine. Her latest projects are a fynbos reserve and “Fyndraai”, a restaurant which from December onwards will delight farm visitors with traditional Khoi cuisine based on the dedicated research of food scientist Renata Coetzee.
Tracey Randle was fresh out of university when she came to work at the farm in 2004. Finding vast amounts of artefacts during the renovations of Delta, Solms had an idea for a museum on the farm and employed Randle to direct it. A passionate historian, she shares his vision on how history can be told in a multitude of voices, an idea inspired by André Brink’s novel A Chain of Voices. In 2005, Brink was invited to open the Museum van de Caab which became one of the most sought after tourist attractions of the region. The Museum is unique in that it seeks to present history from individual perspectives of all the people who have ever lived, worked and died on the farm. There is no attribution of blame, just a display of the resilience of the human spirit.
In 2004, Medwin Pietersen and Johan O’Rayn came to work at the Delta as security guards, but both had a passion for history, which they have been given the opportunity to develop at the Museum and by completing heritage management courses. Later this month they will be travelling abroad for the first time in their lives on an exchange program to Sweden: “We’ll be visiting museums and schools in Malmö and learning how best to teach children about history, heritage and culture at school,” says Pietersen.
At home, Pietersen’s wife is one of the teachers involved in supervising the farm children in their after-school activities. The after school is an initiative coordinated by Frances Semmelink, a social worker employed by the Wijn de Caab Trust to represent all its beneficiaries. She began working for the Solms family as an au-pair while studying social work at the University of Stellenbosch. Recognising her potential, Mark Solms invited her to invest her skills in helping the Delta community after she completed her degree. Her focus is education: “It’s crucial that we break the cycle of poverty and dependency, so that children can move on if they wish to in the future.” By providing financial assistance for education on all levels, private health care and encouraging independent home ownership, the Trust aims at broadening the horizons for its beneficiaries. Semmelink coordinates various other projects, including all sports activities on the farm: a rugby team coached by the cellar manager, Fanie Karolus, a young basketball team led by a noted American player, Kyle Ray, and a walking team participating this month in the Big Walk in Cape Town. Semmelink knows that one has to remain “realistic about change, it’s a slow process,” but people see that it is real and that they are truly making a difference. “There is still drinking and domestic violence, but it’s on the decrease. The community realises that they have the power to control and stop things. They recognise their responsibility.” She adds with a confident smile, “People are happy.”
Even though he swore early on in life that he would never work on a farm, today Nico Jansen is the estate manager of Solms Delta. “Before, I used to work for a construction firm. I never believed in farming because it had broken my people, but now I love it.” He is proud of all the achievements on the farm. “People started taking care of themselves, they drink less. They feel that they can uplift themselves and restore their dignity,” he says. “Every week people come to me asking for work here, and it’s not about money. It’s about the respect and equality we all share here.”
The cycle of fatalism has been broken. People on Solms Delta know they are the masters of their future and that their fates are interlinked. “If you can transform one farm, why not a valley or a province?” asks Solms. What is he happiest with? Being greeted with a smile by every person on the farm and hearing the spontaneous eruptions of music on his daily walks. He explains, “Music is a genuine expression of pleasure and cultural participation.”
As I leave Solms Delta inspired by these stories, the voices of all the people fuse into the words of Theresé Willemse, a young woman working at the Museum van de Caab: “We are a whole big family here.”
Another FLF has come and gone. It was my first one as a participating author. My event with Nadia Davids was a real joy. Nadia is wonderfully articulate, kind, a pleasure to talk to, and more beautiful in real life than in any photograph. We discovered that on top of everything else we have in common, she left South Africa the year I first arrived here. We seem to be leading these uncanny parallel lives. I hope there will be many more points of contact. We read from our novels, spoke about writing place and history, being first-time novelists, the genres we write in, and our lives as writers and critics.
(Jennifer Platt from the Sunday Times twitted live from our event.)
The guest of honour at the FLF this year displayed her eloquence with light, shade and colour, bathing Franschhoek in its autumn glory. This is my favourite time of the year, and the beauty of autumn days like these past two fills me with a sense of wonder like nothing else. (There was this one autumn day in 1990 when my mother was hanging up laundry in our garden in Church Street in Warwick, NY, and I was just there, watching her, surrounded by the reds and browns and yellows of dying leaves, basking in the early morning light, the sun on my back, and silence between us when I thought, This is where love comes from, from the beauty of this world, it is nourished and sustained by it. Despite its craziness, the weekend reminded me of that day.)
Franschhoek had all its other treats ready for us. Books and book lovers everywhere. The programme offered tons of stimulating encounters. The food and the wines were divine, as always. Gable Manor, the guest house we stayed in, was charming and cosy. In the words of Kgebetli Moele, the author of Untitled, who left a comment in the guest book the day before us: “Perfection!”
All that was missing was the time and space to enjoy it all, but festivals are by nature hectic creatures, especially if one is participating, leaving you dazed and exhausted for days afterwards. There is something about a festival that often puts me on edge. It’s not the participating on stage or being part of an audience, but rather the in-between of awkwardness when these boundaries are blurred.
I attended four sessions and a show during the weekend. The highlight was the show: Pieter Dirk-Uys’s AND THEN THERE WAS MADIBA! I have heard him speak at FLF and other events before, seen him numerous times on TV, and have cooked with Evita for years now, but I had never attended one of his live performances. Now I know that by not making it to one earlier, for years I have been depriving myself of laughter and insight. I will not be so stupid in the future. Dirk-Uys as Madiba or Zuma or Verwoerd was a sight to behold. He was priceless as Winnie. And underneath all the laughter and fun was a profound message of hope and being all together in this beautiful mess we call the New South Africa. There is always hope for a nation capable of laughing at its follies.
The sessions I attended were truly inspiring, worth every cent:
WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT’S LITERATURE
Jenny Crwys-Williams talking to Karin Schimke, Lauren Beukes and Imraan Coovadia about the interactions between authors, critics and readers. I found the following comments interesting:
Lauren said that nowadays authors have to be more social and put themselves out there. As Jenny pointed out, Lauren is highly successful in exploiting social media for book-promotion and is one of the few young South African writers who can write full-time because of commercial success. Lauren said that as a social person she counts herself lucky to be able to engage in the world of social media and enjoy it. She also said that she was fortunate in finding an agent who understood her vision. Lauren helps to promote other local writers by hosting The Spark on her blog. When she started with it, the idea was to have a white and a black writer alternatingly, which has proven impossible. It seems that black writers were not responding as readily to her requests as white writers (I had a similar experience when compiling Touch: Stories of Contact for which I was subsequently criticised, but I did approach many more black writers than ended up in the anthology; for various reasons some chose not to participate in the project; both Lauren and Imraan donated their fantastic stories for which I am still very grateful). She also praised her South African editor, Helen Moffett, who allows her to perform all kinds of acrobatic stunts in the air because she knows who is on the ground waiting to catch her if anything goes wrong. (As part of the trio Helena S. Paige behind the Girl series, Helen is not only a successful novelist, but also a sensual poet and a nurturer of South African literary talent.)
Karin conceded that as a journalist she understands that she should be participating in the world of social media, but admitted to finding it exhausting. She made a wonderfully vivid comparison between twitter and being at a crowded cocktail party where all one longs for is a breath of fresh air, but getting to the door proves to be nearly impossible. (I cannot say how grateful I was for that image – I am too frightened to even enter that room – I am the one outside in a quiet corner, sipping the champagne, and reading a book). Karin did not get out of her way to market her book of poetry Bare & Breaking when it was published in 2012. Like most writers, she would love to be able to write in her chosen genre fulltime, but has to make a living otherwise. She has no illusions about being able to live off writing poetry in South Africa, but that is not what it is all about for her. As a writer, one has to understand one’s motives for writing, she said.
Imraan spoke about the difficulty of talking about the reading experience which is deeply personal and not always easily shareable. I loved his comment about the fact that a change in taste is proof of a “living mind”. He also mentioned that for him there are different ways of being a writer in the world. He referred to Damon Galgut who is shy and simply gets on with his writing without unnecessarily putting himself out there. He also said something very interesting: Why spend so much time on publicity if the reason you write is to get rich? Instead, one could invest the time in becoming a billionaire by other, more straightforward ways. For him, writing is about the “book and you”.
(After the session I bought a copy of Karin’s Bare & Breaking. Some time ago, I published a review of four Modjaji poetry titles, three of which I found outstanding, one less so. The positive comments I made about the three books went largely unnoticed. For my comments about the fourth one I got lynched. The heated reaction of the publisher and friends of the author to my negative remarks about the fourth volume sadly put me off further Modjaji titles. This is how I missed out on Karin’s book until now. But some of her comments about the volume and her own approach to writing made me curious enough to ignore my decision to keep away from Modjaji titles. On Saturday evening, I read some of Karin’s poems in the luxurious bath of our room with a view at Gable Manor and the moment I got out, I made my husband read them. We were both bowled over by her “sound-shades”. I look forward to discovering the rest of the volume.)
Here is one gem:
“Morning Work” by Karin Schimke
We are cocked and angled
together like an African chair,
groin-hinged and eye-locked,
small-talking the sun up.
At the join we are genderless
until – out of two flat triangles –
something flowers at us,
blooms bright as though
our eyes are suns
and it must find light.
We give it light, and we laugh,
and then bury it, lids shut,
so it can seed again.
THE CONSIDERED CANON
Imraan Coovadia spoke to Nadia Davids and Michiel Heyns about the Western and the South African literary canons. All three are novelists, reviewers and academics.
Nadia said something very moving about academics having the “privilege of learning to read deeply”. She sees the text as a social document that operates in the world, not only as something read for pleasure. During our talk the day before, I asked her whether her own novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was an attempt to write a people into history who had been underrepresented until recently, and she said yes, admitting that it was done with the full awareness of the pitfall of representation. That was her reason for including minute details of everyday Muslim family life in her story of specific historical moments (time round forced removals from District Six, the state of emergency in1986 and the year 1993, just before the first democratic elections). Michiel mentioned that while reading Nadia’s novel he was aware of her having read Jane Austen. What a compliment for any writer!
Imraan, who is an excellent book reviewer with the kind of gutsy eloquence which I lack, quoted from the curious Wikipedia entry about South African literature which made most of the audience shudder. Hope was expressed that people engaged in writing these entries will amend it to reflect less biased views. Imraan asked the panellists to name their own personal South African canons. The Story of an African Farm was there for both Nadia and Michiel. Michiel mentioned Bosman, Paton, J.M. Coetzee (Age of Iron and Disgrace); Nadia added Woza Albert!, The Island, Gordimer and Brink. Outside of South Africa, Nadia made a special mention of Anna Karenina, and Michiel of Middlemarch. Harold Bloom’s conservative take on the Western canon was discussed. Imraan found that according to Google the most mentioned South African books are Long Walk to Freedom, Cry, the Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, Spud, The Smell of Apples, The Power of One, and Master Harold and the Boys. He added Burger’s Daughter to the list himself, because “it should have been there.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Michiel Heyns is one of my favourite local book reviewers. (For five years, I’d had the honour of reviewing books alongside Imraan and Michiel for the Sunday Independent under the editorial guidance of Maureen Isaacson.) I always say that when I grow up I want to write reviews like his. I also had the privilege of working with him on Encounters with André Brink. Michiel is one of the few South African authors who see the entire world as their fictional playground, daring to write about topics other than local. I applaud him for that! Exciting news is that Michiel’s latest novel, A Sportful Malice, has been published last week. Talking about the Western canon, or any canon for that matter: the title derives from Shakespeare. Definitely something to look forward to! During the discussion, Michiel mentioned merit in relation to Nadia’s reference to the text as a social document. He spoke about literature and the canon as a “moral guide”, of showing you “how to live your life”. A test for any text is whether you are prepared to reread it, he said. I also think of it in terms of whether you want to share it with other people. The moment I find myself buying the same title over and over again for my friends, I know I have encountered a good book.
Claire and Dominique are first-time novelists. Like André, Dominique writes in both languages, Afrikaans and English. She recommended to everyone in the audience to write in Afrikaans if they could, as she was thrilled with the kind of enthusiasm and reception she encountered on the Afrikaans literary scene. Her novel is based on her family story and she has kept the names of her family members in the book: “It’s my take on something that may or may not have happened,” she said. She is of the opinion that “it is much better to write truth and call it fiction than to write fiction and call it truth”. (During questions from the audience, I asked about her decision to keep the real names for a fictionalised story. She said the names were beautiful and that changing them would not have removed the problematic aspect of the situation. The people involved would still know that they are being written about, only the larger public not. I’m not entirely convinced. In cases like this, I always try to imagine what it would be like for me: I would feel uncomfortable about my own brother writing a fictionalised version of me and using my name for it in a novel. It simply would feel that it wasn’t me. Why my name then? If he was writing a memoir or biography, and attempting to reconstruct memories in the process without intentionally fictionalising them, I would have no issue with him telling anything about the family past we share and using my name. In a novel based on fact, on the other hand, I feel that a name change signifies that fiction is part of the parcel, that the people are no longer the ones you knew in real life but partly imagined characters who might reflect on real people but are their own creatures. This is particularly true for me when one writes about people who are still alive and who owe their own versions of a story. I don’t want to pretend to have final answers to this complicated process, not even for my own work, but I think it is an aspect of writing that should be treated with utmost care.)
Claire, who had the rare experience in South Africa of having her book go beyond the first impression within a very short period of time, spoke about the idea of a farm novel which not only connects us to the land but to something much larger. After she’d finished her novel, it revealed to her that what she had been writing about is the “urge to perform acts of rescue”. While writing, whether as a novelist or a journalist, she looks for “tragic flaws”, not “wickedness”, in people, whether it is in the men of the Enlightenment or the architects of apartheid.
Tellingly, I forgot to note who during the discussion said that memory is a “very personal and unreliable thing”.
For André, whose novel Philida was born on and delves into the history of the nearby wine farm Solms-Delta, the act of writing begins when fact ends and imagination takes over. Through writing the story of Philida, he felt “enmeshed in my own life”. Philida could voice things which were difficult to communicate otherwise.
In the fourth event I attended (LITERARY DOYEN) Victor Dlamini, an insightful and patient interviewer (and one of my favourite photographers), spoke to André about his career, belonging, and Philida.
A note of thank you: Thank you Liz for all your kind words about my novel (you made my day!). Thank you to all for a weekend of literary delights!
Books sold (that I know of): 1 (thank you Nols – very kind of you! I hope you will enjoy it)
Books bought: 3
(I’m clearly not in it for the money.)