This is a transcription of Episode 38 — South Africa.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Four Episode 36 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about South Africa.
[lilting African music]
Melissa: South Africa is another awesome place we have yet to visit. There is a beach where you can swim with penguins.
David: It was one of my first thoughts too, but they also have all the animals.
Melissa: And food. I got really taken with the food when I was doing the research for the 101.
David: Yeah, but I feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Melissa: Yeah. Let’s just jump into the 101 and get started.
David: Sounds good.
Melissa: OK, I’m pretty sure it’s all in the name, but South Africa is found on the southernmost tip of Africa. It’s like on Jeopardy when they have that category ‘Stupid Answers.’ Where is South Africa located?
David: Yeah, you just go to Africa. You go south.
Melissa: Keep going until you hit the water. Yeah, you’ve arrived.
David: There you are.
Melissa: And it’s pretty big. I was surprised. It’s twice the size of France, and it has a handful of neighbors with names that I love to say.
David: Like what?
Melissa: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Eswatini. It also has another country inside.
David: So there is a country that is completely surrounded by South Africa.
Melissa: Correct. It’s a tiny country called Lesotho. It’s in the Maloti mountains and it looks like Wakanda.
Melissa: It’s so beautiful. I’ll put pictures and info in show notes. Because we got to move on. There’s a lot to say about South Africa.
David: No time to hang out in Lesotho.
Melissa: Sadly. South Africa has three capital cities: Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town. They each represent a different branch of the government.
David: And none of those are Johannesburg.
Melissa: Exactly. Johannesburg is the largest city. Just for orientation: Cape Town is located way in the south. Johannesburg and Pretoria are more in the north. The population of the country is more than 60 million. About 81% of the population are Black South Africans. The remaining is white South Africans, Indian, and multiracial people. There are 11 official languages. English is compulsory in schools and is used for business, public service, and tourism. But it is only the fourth most spoken language.
Melissa: The first two are Zulu and Xhosa.
Melissa: Yes, it looks like X-Hosa, but the X is a click. And I found an awesome video of Trevor Noah pronouncing it, so we’ll share that in show notes. And then Afrikaans, which was spoken by the 17th-century Dutch colonizers, which leads us to our history lesson.
David: Ooh, the history of South Africa is troubled.
Melissa: First, let’s start with something pretty cool. There’s a cave called the Sterkfontein near Johannesburg. In that cave, archaeologists discovered the earliest human fossils ever. They’re more than 2 million years old.
Melissa: Mind blown.
David: Yeah, that’s crazy. 2 million years old?
Melissa: The region is called the cradle of humankind, and you can visit the caves. They are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first modern humans in South Africa appeared about 100,000 years ago. I can’t really even comprehend that number. Like 2 million is whateve, completely made up. One hundred thousan? I don’t know. Okay, I’ll try to imagine that.
David: I also found that number boggling. And when I think about periods of time like that for humans, I think about how 6000 years ago we invented writing. And so there’s 94,000 years where we don’t really know what was going on at all. And maybe somebody invented writing during that time. But other people were like, writing, what’s that good for?
Melissa: That’ll never last. [laughter]
David: One hundred thousand years is —
Melissa: Almost inconceivable.
David: An astonishing amount of time for for humans.
Melissa: The next one is not that much easier. honestly. Twenty-four thousand years ago, hunter gatherer tribes moved into South Africa. Okay, now we’re going to take a big jump. Around 900 —
David: Oh, wow. That is a big jump.
Melissa: And until 1300. So for about 400 years, the Bantu established the first and largest indigenous kingdom in the subcontinent. It was called the Kingdom of Mapungubwe.
Melissa: Now it’s a gorgeous national park. Then it controlled the ports and traded gold and ivory with Arabia, India, and China. It sounds so romantic.
David: It does.
Melissa: Then the Europeans showed up. In the 1400s European ships bound for the Far East, made their pit stops along the South African coast to pick up supplies. They were also making maps as they went. So in 1652, that troublesome Dutch East India Company came calling. They established Cape Town in the south, and Dutch farmers, which are called boers, settled around the city. Over the next 300 years, the colonizers help themselves to South Africa’s natural resources, including beautiful, sparkly things: diamonds and gold.
Melissa: By 1910, South Africa was controlled by the British.[sigh] Although the majority of people were black. Yeah, as we already said, it’s about 81%. It would have been higher then. The white minority unofficially launched apartheid with the 1913 Land Act. This law restricted black people from buying or occupying land, except as employees of a white master. Once that law was passed, the apartheid government started a mass relocation of black people to slums that are called townships. Those townships still exist today.
Melissa: In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party came into power, and that’s when apartheid officially came to be with more than 300 laws. With these laws, Black people were required to carry special passes at all times and have permission to travel outside designated areas. The government separated mixed communities and forcibly moved many people off of their land. From 1961 to 1994, more than 3.5 million people were removed from their homes. Interracial marriage was outlawed. Black people couldn’t vote.
Melissa: Hate all of it.
Melissa: Amidst this turmoil and strife is where we meet Nelson Mandela. In my imagination, when I say that, he is like a superhero. He was an anti-apartheid leader. The press nicknamed him the ‘Black Pimpernel’ because he was so good at disguising himself and evading authorities, which gives it a little playful tone. It wasn’t really playful. In 1963, he was captured and given a life sentence in prison for terrorist activities. Terrorist activities.
David: Like saying —
Melissa: Like saying I should be able to live where I want in the land that I’m from.
David: And love the people I want. Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: In the mid 1980s, sanctions from the United States and Great Britain finally started to have an effect. The government was starting to feel some pressure, and in 1989, F.W. de Klerk became the president, and he finally dismantled the apartheid laws. The next year, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Together, he and de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to unify South Africa. Which made my heart feel a little warmer. And then this part is really, really good: On April 27th, 1994, Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in his life. And 13 days later, he was elected South Africa’s first black president.
[voiceover] Great pleasure in announcing the election of Comrade Nelson Mandela to the post of president.
Melissa: Obviously, there is so much more to say about Nelson Mandela. Amazing superhuman. I’ll put a link to a really good multimedia biography of him in our show notes. Now let’s talk about why South Africa is an amazing place to visit.
Melissa: Let’s lighten things up in here. If you have ever wanted to go on a safari, South Africa is an excellent place to do it. I learned a new to me term during my research.
David: What’s that?
Melissa: The Big Five.
David: The Big Five.
Melissa: There are African lions, African leopards, black rhinos, African elephants and Cape Buffalo. The Big Five.
David: So the animals you might want to see when you’re in Africa.
Melissa: Yes. And South Africa is one of the world’s top Big Five safari destinations. Already packing my bag and my cute pith helmet. [sound of elephant trumpeting] It’s also a fantastic place to go hiking, surfing, horseback riding, whale watching, and stargazing. Just imagine the night sky.
David: Yeah. Beautiful.
Melissa: Again, I’m going to reiterate: There are beaches where you can hang out with penguins.
David: That seems important to you.
Melissa: Although much of the country is dusty and dry, in a really beautiful way, the area, called Namaqualand becomes a carpet of wildflowers every year after the winter rain.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: Yeah. During August and September, it’s just a rainbow of flowers. I’ll put some pictures in the show notes. It’s amazing. South Africa is also well known for its wine. If that’s your thing, you’ll want to visit the Franschhoek Wine Valley. There are more than 40 wineries and they’re served by a hop on, hop off wine tram.
David: That sounds good.
Melissa: But I really want to talk about the food.
Melissa: South African cuisine is a delicious mix of indigenous ingredients and recipes, plus the influence of Dutch, French and Indian flavours. Again, colonization: Not so good for people. Excellent for food.
David: Yeah. Because you get the mash up of different palates.
Melissa: The most important food-related word you want to know if you remember nothing else is braai.
Melissa: That is South African barbecue. The grilling is done over a wood fire and almost always includes sausages that are called boerwores. A braai could also include steaks and lamb chops and kabobs. On the side, there’s probably garlic bread and sweet corn, and there will definitely be chakalaka.
Melissa: It’s a spicy relish made from peppers, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and baked beans seasoned with curry. That is a perfect example of food mash-up and I want to eat some right now. In Cape Town, you can eat a dish called Bunny Chow.
David: That sounds like something you would feed your rabbit.
Melissa: It is not bunny food, and it’s not eating bunny either. It’s a half a loaf of white bread. Sometimes it’s just like a traditional square sandwich loaf. Sometimes it’s a crusty round loaf, and it’s hollowed out and filled with Indian curry. And in my research, it said there are some fancy restaurants that try to make an upscale version, but the recommendation was not to do that. Just have it at a fast food joint.
David: Yeah, the street food version.
Melissa: Yes, exactly. And I would be letting all of you down if I didn’t talk about two desserts for pie lovers. There’s milk tart.
David: Melk? M-E-L-K?
Melissa: The Dutch is melktert. It’s creamy custard with a little cinnamon and a tender pie crust.
Melissa: And for doughnut lovers, there are koeksisters.
Melissa: They’re made from strips of dough that are braided and then deep fried and dunked in a sweet glaze.
David: That sounds good.
Melissa: If you want to combine food and reading, I recommend the book Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew. This is a really sweet, cozy mystery with recipes. It was adorable, and it made me hungry all the time. So fair warning.
Melissa: Finally, if you want to travel from Pretoria in the north to Cape Town in the south in style, you could ride the Blue Train. It is a super posh train that goes through the desert, the mountains, and the vineyards. Beautiful, glowing hardwood, gorgeous upholstery. You get a butler to take care of you. And there are five course gourmet meals served in the dining car for the two-day trip.
David: So not a budget trip.
Melissa: Definitely not a budget trip.
David: But really exotic, posh —
Melissa: Luxurious —
David: — ride through South Africa. That sounds nice.
Melissa: It does sound really nice.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: Okay. I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here they are. The first statement is: A Detroit musician became famous, like super famous in South Africa. He was unaware of his fame there.
Melissa: Hmm. That’s fun.
David: He lived in obscurity in the States for decades. Two: There is a group of women in South Africa who called themselves the Black Mambas. They are an anti-terrorist organization, funded in part by Quentin Tarantino. And the third statement is: There was a man who ran an animal sanctuary who was so beloved by his animals that when he died, a herd of elephants gathered around his home and mourned him as one of their own.
Melissa: Elephants are the best. Even happy videos and photos of elephants make me a little sad because they’re so pure and beautiful.
David: Yeah. Shall we start from the top?
David: So there’s a Detroit musician who became famous in South Africa. He was unaware of his fame there.
Melissa: I’m going to say that’s true.
David: That is true. Sixto Rodriguez was born in 1942 in Detroit to a Mexican father and a Native American mother. He loved music. He grew up and he recorded two albums with a small label. [music playing and singing] His music was mainly about the difficulties faced by the inner city working class, but unfortunately, they didn’t sell well. And then in 1975, his label collapsed. By 1976, he had gotten out of music. He bought a derelict house at a government auction for $50. And he moved in.
David: And he spent the next few decades working in construction, mostly. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, his albums got some play in Australia and New Zealand and South Africa. An Australian label bought the rights. They released three albums, his first two and a compilation called All His Best. That album, the compilation, went platinum in South Africa.
David: They liked his music and they agreed with what he had to say. He was compared to Dylan and Cat Stevens. He was said to be bigger than Elvis, but he never knew.
Melissa: Oh, that is so sad and so sweet.
David: Yeah. So you might wonder why the South Africans never wondered about why they weren’t seeing him live. There was a rumor that he had killed himself on stage.
David: Yeah. Time went on. Sixto had a family. The Internet was invented. Sometime in 1997,his oldest daughter was surfing the net and I imagine was shocked to run across a fan site dedicated to her father.
Melissa: Holy cow. Were they not paying him royalties all this time?
David: That’s part of the story that I won’t get into, but they were not. In 1998. Sixto in South Africa.
Melissa: Oh, happy ending.
David: Yeah. He also toured Australia, Sweden, and New Zealand. In 2012. A documentary about his life called Searching for Sugarman was released. It would go on to win an Academy Award. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. When they were nominated, the filmmakers asked Sixto to come to the awards ceremony. He says he wouldn’t because he didn’t want to overshadow the filmmakers achievement.
Melissa: So he’s a nice man, too.
David: When the director accepted the award, he said That just about says everything about that man and his story that you want to know. Sixto has gone on to appear on The Late Show and The Tonight Show soundtrack. And according to Wikipedia, he still lives in the house that he bought for $50 in 1976.
Melissa: What a great story.
David: Isn’t that amazing.
Melissa: Also, now we can watch the documentary. You don’t need to keep it a secret from me anymore.
David: It’s true. So the second statement, there’s a group of women in South Africa who call themselves the black mambas. They are an anti-terrorist organization funded in part by Quentin Tarantino.
Melissa: I think that’s the lie.
David: [laughter] That is the lie. There is a group of all women activists in South Africa who call themselves the Black Mambas.
Melissa: That’s very cool.
David: But they defend animals.
Melissa: Even cooler.
David: They are anti-poachers. The Balule Nature Reserve is in northwestern South Africa. It’s about the size of a medium-sized city. There you’ll find elephants and buffalos, leopards, lions, black rhinos, giraffes, wildebeests, and over 250 kinds of birds.
Melissa: Wow. So they have the Big Five and a bunch of birds.
David: And you will find the Black Mamba anti-poaching unit. It is the first of its kind. The team is made up of nearly all women. They are unarmed. They believe the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through monitoring and community building and education. There are 26 mambas. 24 of the mambas are women. Each of them gets three months of training. They’re trained to handle both armed poachers and survival in the bush there. After graduation, they each work 21 days a month, patrolling the reserve. And for many of them, it’s their first job after high school.
Melissa: Oh, wow.
David: Yeah. The Mambas have been in operation for nine years, since 2013. In that time, they’ve arrested six poachers, shut down five poachers’ camps, and reduced snaring by 76%.
Melissa: That is so cool.
Melissa: And all without guns. Look at that.
David: Yeah. If you want to know more, there are a couple of excellent video, and we’ll point to those. As far as I know, they are not funded by Quentin Tarantino, but they should be.
Melissa: Do you hear that, Quentin? Give those awesome ladies some cash.
David: I know. Do something with your money. So that means that the third statement is true. That is: A man who ran an animal sanctuary was so beloved by his animals that when he died, a herd of elephants gathered around his home and mourned him as one of their own. Let’s talk about Lawrence Anthony.
David: Lawrence Anthony was born in Johannesburg in 1950. He grew up there. And for a while he followed in his father’s footsteps. For a long while, he worked in insurance and real estate, and then one day he got fed up with that. So in the mid-nineties, he had the midlife crisis to end all midlife crises. He bought a game sanctuary.
David: He bought one of South Africa’s largest game sanctuaries. It’s a 5000 acre place called Thula Thula Reserve.
David: He gussied it up. He added fancy accommodations and fine dining, and he moved in. Elephants were not originally part of this sanctuary. One day, Anthony got a call and the caller said, ‘I’ve got nine elephants here. They’re wild and they’re trouble, and I will shoot them if you don’t come get them.’ And that’s how Laurence Anthony became friends with elephants.
Melissa: Of course he did. I would try to find a way to put nine elephants in our flat, if someone said they were going to shoot them.
David: Yeah. He was slowly able to gain their trust, primarily by spending time with them morning, noon, and night. He emphasizes that a lot. He would ultimately write a book about that experience called The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild that came out in 2009. And as amazing is that story is that is not the most famous story about Lawrence Anthony. The most famous story about Lawrence Anthony started in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq. Anthony knew that one of the biggest zoos in the Middle East was in Baghdad and he knew it probably wouldn’t go well for those animals. So he packed a car full of veterinary supplies and he went to Baghdad.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh. This guy is awesome.
David: 100%. Yeah. He arrived at the zoo while the fighting was still going on. The zoo was a mess. It had been looted and shot up. Of the 650 animals in the zoo before the invasion, only 35 were alive.
Melissa: Oh, no.
David: Yeah. And most of those were larger animals, lions and tigers and such. He stayed there for six months. He bought donkeys from the locals to feed the carnivores. Yikes. Decisions we make. He hunted down a giraffe that had been stolen.
Melissa: So he’s a detective, too?
David: He’s a giraffe detective, yeah. When he left Iraq, the animals were healthy, and the cage is clean and the zoo was stable.
David: The US Army gave him a medal for his bravery and he wrote a book about that experience. We’ll link to that. Anthony died of a heart attack in 2012. When he died, the elephants he rescued gathered at his house. Some of them traveled for over 12 hours to get there. Most of them hadn’t been to his compound for a year and a half. Nobody knows what brought the elephants to his house. According to his son, they stayed there for two days. Then they mourned their friend.
Melissa: We don’t deserve elephants.
David: I know, it’s true. That’s true. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: That was so good.
David: Before we get into books, we want to tell you about a podcast that’s new to us that we think you’ll enjoy. It’s called Play on Podcasts. It is a retelling of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays for a modern audience, done in a very podcast friendly format.
Melissa: I’ve been listening to Macbeth, and it is awesome. It has really great original music and the voice work is phenomenal. I am in the story.
David: Yeah, they have like a whole team of people behind this, so they’ve got professional heavy-duty directors and actors and composers. The current season is King Lear. They’re redoing King Lear, and that stars Keith David, who is an Emmy winner. He is one of those guys who you don’t know his name, but if you see him, you’re like, oh, yeah, that guy.
Melissa: That guy is awesome.
David: Yeah. And one of the stars of Severance, Tramell Tillman.
Melissa: Severance, is one of my favorite things that we watch this year, and I will literally watch or listen to anything Tramell Tillman does. So I’m pretty excited about King Lear because this is also one of Shakespeare’s plays that I am not that familiar with. And this seems like a really good way to rectify that terrible injustice.
David: So if you want to hear Shakespeare like you’ve never heard him before, the podcast is called Play on Podcasts, and it is available wherever you get your podcasts.
David: Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am because my three books are awesome. My first recommendation is The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. It’s set in modern Cape Town in a very posh neighborhood with wide lawns and bougainvillea blossoms everywhere. At the heart of the story are two women. Hortensia is black and Marian is white, and they are sort of mirror images of each other. They’re both in their eighties and recently widowed. Hortensia is a very successful textile designer. She designs the print on fabrics, and they get turned into purses that are sold to people with very good taste all over the place. And Marion is a groundbreaking architect. These are powerful women. They’re both very strong willed and incredibly capable. And through twist of fate, they end up living next door to each other. And they are sworn enemies.
Melissa: Yes. The setup is almost like a rom com. The very first house designed by the architect, Marian, made her name professionally and she has wanted to live in it ever since she finished it. But opportunities to buy it always slip through her fingers, so instead she lives in the house next door. This is a quote from the book describing Marian’s attachment to the house: ‘After number ten was complete and the Norwegians living in it, nothing had alleviated that sunken feeling in the bottom of Marion’s belly, not a marriage to Max, not one child after another, not starting her practice. Nothing.’
Melissa: This woman is driven by the fact she can’t have that house. Hortensia doesn’t know anything about this when she moves into the house with her husband. So Marion hates Hortensia immediately on principle, and the two of them have been sniping at each other for decades.
David: Wow. This goes on.
Melissa: Yes, this is a long feud.
Melissa: When an accident happens, the two of them are forced to start dealing with each other in a different way. I was a little worried that this was going to turn out to be one of those saccharine and now they’re best friends kind of story, right?
Melissa: But it is much, much better than that. So here are things I loved about this book. First, these women are in their eighties. We never get grown up, adult women who are still living their lives with gusto. These are rare heroines and they’re formidable. They might move a little slower than they used to, but their minds are razor sharp and so are their tongues, [laughter] particularly in the early chapters.
Melissa: The tone is super snarky and often very funny. As the story moves forward, the tone kind of subtly shifts as the women start to reveal their vulnerabilities, and we learn more about their back stories. It’s really well done. I want to read another quote. This one is from Hortensia. She’s at her husband’s funeral: After the church, all the mourners except Marian Hortensia noted with relief, went to Peter’s patch of ground where the tombstones stood waiting. The ashes collected in a simple wooden box were placed into a hole. And even though she could feel the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, when a wiry man began shoveling the sand, there was also a part of Hortensia that wanted to tell him to stand back so she could spit.’
Melissa: And that is the beginning of learning more about her relationship with her husband, Peter. The other thing I appreciated was how the story handled the hangover from Apartheid. Marion, the white woman is really struggling with this new world order. Like everything made sense to her before and now she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to behave or what is going on and why people aren’t behaving the way they used to. Like, all of her expectations have been thrown up in the air. There’s a really poignant scene. Oh, it was so good. Marion from a distance is watching some Black people that she knows interact with each other, and she realizes that she has never really seen them before. For the first time, they’re real people to her. They’re not just automatons who bring her things. She literally had never thought before about what their internal lives might be like or what they do when they’re not in her presence. The idea that they were somehow friends and had all of these life things happening unrelated to her.
Melissa: Blew her mind.
David: That is a crazy lack of empathy.
Melissa: Mm hmm. 100%. And it really gave me insight into how someone without empathy sees and experiences the world.
Melissa: Because, I mean, I look at a still photo of an elephant, and I want to start crying. You know?
Melissa: The third reason I love this book is because of the way it explores anger, both at the level of the characters, but also at that higher societal level. Hortensia and Marion both walk with a lot of anger for different reasons. It’s all tangled up with guilt and shame and disappointment. It’s really hard to tease all of those things apart, but the two of them are like little rain clouds of bad feelings a lot of the time. Part of the reason that I read novels is to see the world through other people’s eyes. And these two characters are very different than I am. It was really fascinating to experience things with their vision and their set of expectations, I guess.
Melissa: I realize, as I’m saying, these things out loud that it makes it sound like a real bummer of a book, and it is 100% not. You know how when something terrible happens and then later you tell the story over beers and it’s really funny.
Melissa: That’s this book. Hortensia and Marion are super prickly, and they go through some very serious stuff. There’s some infidelity, their deaths, their injuries, professional disappointments and of course, racism popping out everywhere.
Melissa: The way they kind of stab and poke at each other with their words is very funny, very biting. And then when you least expect it, you kind of get punched in your solar plexus, and there’s little tears in your eyes. It’s amazing. That is The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso.
David: My first book is We Kiss Them with Rain by Futhi Ntshingila.
Melissa: I love that title.
David: Yeah. She has a couple of books, and they all have really great titles.
Melissa: So poetic.
David: Yeah. This is a young adult book. It is one of those books where I’m not sure the author knew she was writing a young adult book. Maybe.
Melissa: I love those.
David: Yeah, maybe she just thought she was writing a story. And then marketers got involved. But it’s now a young adult book. It’s fiction. It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl who has seemingly lost almost everything.
Melissa: Gee, Dave, that sounds super fun.
David: Yeah. This is this is not a super-fun book. We’ll talk about that. Her name is Mvelo. In the opening chapter, it’s 2005, and she and her mother are turned down for government support by a hung over and bitter bureaucrat. The bureaucrat says,’Now, shoo.’
David: Yeah. They are dismissed like cats. Mvelo and her mom Zola don’t have the money to take a cab back to their shack in the squatter’s camp. So they walk. Zola is sick. Later, we find out she’s HIV positive. So they’re going very slowly and the walk is far. They are saved kind of by the neighborhood gossip. The gossip seems to both revel in their pain and the idea that she’ll have a story later and delight that others are seeing her do a good thing.
David: Yes. And Mvelo and Zola know that. But they still take the ride with her.
Melissa: Of course they do.
David: Yeah. Later in the chapter, Morvillo and Zola spend the last of their money on a pack of Oreos. Yeah, I know.
Melissa: So poignant.
David: They eat them with some tea, and they talk about when times used to be better. And Mvelo tells a story that makes her mom laugh. There are books that you read because they’re fun and they take you on a journey. And there are books that you read because you walk away richer. And this is definitely the second. Eventually life gets better. This book is ultimately about hope and strength of character and found family, but not before her story gets worse. The book is a rough ride. If you’re curious about what it’s like to be poor in South Africa, this book is going to take you there. It is not nice. Eventually the narrative shifts back in time and you see how Zola and Mvelo wind up in the position that they’re in. The author takes you through their decline in fortune and the crash and then the long uphill on the other side. This is a particularly good book for people who say things like, ‘Why don’t homeless people just get a job?’
Melissa: Oh, the worst question.
David: The morality is close to the top in this book. The author pretty clearly wanted to talk about poverty and social inequity and sexual politics and AIDS and how all of those feed one another. How if you’re inside of all of that, it’s easy to get caught in a long descent. The author Futhi Ntshingila was a reporter and then a speechwriter. She has a master’s degree in conflict resolution.
Melissa: Whoa. That must be super useful.
David: Yeah, I know. I read that, too. And I was like, Why don’t I have a master’s degree in conflict resolution?
Melissa: That would be so cool to have that in your toolbox.
David: Right. Since 2012, she’s been a researcher for the highest award that South Africa has for civilians, which seems like a fascinating gig to me.
Melissa: And you would be spending your time researching awesome people.
Melissa: That would probably feel really good.
David: I would assume that somebody comes to you and they’re like, We should give this person a medal. And you spend, yeah, some time looking into that person’s background and saying, Yes, I think that’s a good idea.
Melissa: I want that job.
David: Yeah. Her her work centers on women in marginalized communities. So she knows what she’s talking about. Her life and her work reminds me a lot of Charles Dickens. They both sort of started out as reporters and they both seemed moved to action by the inequities they saw. And both of them put narrative over the social issues of their day. And both of them have a knack for writing memorable characters. And in narrative shorthand, this book has charm and drive. It is short. It’s about 160 pages. I enjoyed spending time with the characters, even when the characters were unpleasant, like in Dickens. If you want to read about the challenges of a girl in the hard neighborhoods of South Africa definitely take a look. That’s We Kiss Them with Rain by Futhi Ntshingila.
Melissa: My second recommendation is Gallows Hill by Margie Orford. This is an intricately woven crime procedural set, mostly in modern Cape Town, with a little foray to Johannesburg. I wanted to read a thriller or a murder mystery because I knew that my other picks were going to have a lot of feelings in them. Joke’s on me. This book is a page turner and it has a lot of feelings that punched me in the face.
David: There are a lot of feelings in South Africa. There are a lot of feelings everywhere, but particularly in South Africa. A
Melissa: Closer to the surface in some places more than others.
David: Maybe so, yeah.
Melissa: The author, Margie Orford, has been called the Queen of South African Crime Fiction and it is justified. I want to talk about her a little bit before I get into the book itself. She was born in London but grew up in Namibia and South Africa. She was a student at the University of Cape Town during the 1985 State of Emergency.
David: Let’s pretend I don’t know anything about the State of Emergency.
Melissa: That is legit because I had to look it up, too.
David: Yeah, I’d have no idea what that is.
Melissa: In the mid 1980s, the situation in South Africa was very tense. There was violent resistance happening against Apartheid and the government was not having it. So they declared a state of emergency. That increased police powers and allowed for the censorship of journalists. In practical terms, that meant that there were physical crackdowns on the activists. It wasn’t unusual for people to disappear.
David: So they descended into a military state and all of the bad things usually associated with that.
Melissa: Yes. When people disappeared, the assumption was that they’d either gone into hiding or had been arrested. The author, Margie Orford, was caught up in that. She was detained and took her final exams while she was in prison.
Melissa: Later she was a Fulbright scholar and worked on a book called Women Writing Africa, which is a collection of songs and folktales, letters, diaries, poems, essays, stories all written by African women. After that, she led a creative writing workshop for men in prison and released a book about that. She’s the president of PEN, South Africa. That’s an organisation devoted to the freedom of expression, and she’s involved with a children’s book charity and a rape crisis organization.
David: What am I doing with my life?
Melissa: This woman is amazing.
Melissa: She said that when she was a reporter because, yes, she was also a reporter. She was always asking why, why, why? Why was there so much rape and robbery and murder happening in South Africa? She didn’t just want to report on it. She wanted to make some sense of what had happened and what was happening. Very similar to the author you just talked about. It sounds like. She realized that she couldn’t answer those questions in 2000 word articles anymore and decided that she needed to write 100,000-word novels instead. She brings all of that to her character Dr. Clare Hart and her paramour Riedwaan Faizal. He is captain of the Organized Crime and Drug Unit in Cape Town. Clare is an investigative journalist and police profiler. Separately, they’re pretty badass. Together, the bad guys do not have a chance in real life. There’s an area of Cape Town known as Gallows Hill. That is the title of this book.
David: That sounds like a tough neighborhood.
Melissa: Yes, it’s called that because in the 18th century, it’s where the public executions took place. They would hang people on the gallows and then just leave them there and eventually their remains would drop and they would be buried on the hill. This is also where slaves were buried. It was not a nice place.
Melissa: When the book opens, excavation is being done on Gallows Hill for a building project, and the workers unearth a pile of bones. So immediately, construction has to come to a halt. And they call in the archaeologists because these are potentially hundreds of years old. And then another body is found. But this one is from only a few decades ago. And it’s a woman in a green silk dress. She has been murdered, and Clare Hart is going to find out who did it and make them pay.
David: That sounds awesome.
Melissa: The mystery is slowly unravelled through Clare’s meticulous and very methodical investigation. She is very intelligent and intuitive, but her real superpower is that the murder of women makes her very, very angry. And she uses that to fuel her investigation. She talks to experts about the physical evidence. She eventually interrogates suspects and ooh, boy, there are good suspects. There are land developers with questionable morals. There are art gallery owners with a colorful past. Shady politicians. Corrupt police officers. The story really gives you a peek inside different subcultures in Cape Town.
Melissa: And as it progresses, we learn all kinds of dark secrets about the people who came in contact with the woman in the green dress. The thing I love about this for Strong Sense of Place is that the crime itself grows directly out of Cape Town of the past and of the now. The murder of this woman in the green dress has its origins in the State of Emergency in 1985 and the history of the burial ground of Gallows Hill.
Melissa: If the book was a TV show, it would be like Law and Order, right? There’s like clue leads to clue leads to clue. And you’re talking to shady people and they’re trying to lie to you and you’re trying to assess if they’re telling the truth or not. And then that leads you to the next clue. If you like a procedural like that and you want to revel in the grit and grime of an uncomfortably hot city. It’s a very urban environment. This is a great book for that. That is Gallows Hill by Margie Orford.
David: My second book is by Trevor Noah. You probably know him. He’s the charming and good looking host of The Daily Show. He took over when Jon Stewart left in 2015. He wrote a book, an autobiography. It came out in 2016. It’s very popular. The title of this book is Born a Crime.
David: The book was a surprise to me for a few reasons. I was expecting a book that was about how he rose up through the ranks to become a world class entertainer. I was expecting a book that portrayed him in a good light throughout, and I was expecting a book that was mostly about him. It’s definitely not the first two. The book is mostly about his childhood, and his career is only briefly mentioned as an aside, and he is not quick to portray himself in a good light. He was a troublemaker when he was a kid and he tells you all about that. And it’s a lot less about him than you might expect from an autobiography. Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa. His father was white Swiss-German, and his father was black, a member of a xhosa tribe. At the time he was born, interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. It is boggling to me that people want to police relationships between consenting adults. Life is hard enough without trying to gate love, but that’s what was happening.
Melissa: I know you guys can’t see me. I’m just sitting here shaking my head as Dave is describing the background.
David: So in the first few pages of the book, Trevor quotes the 1927 law that made his birth a crime. He grew up during the fall of Apartheid. He was six one when Mandela was released, and he was ten when the government reformed. He grew up poor and not just kind-of poor. Sometimes his family existed on caterpillars.
David: He has opinions about which cars are the most comfortable to sleep in. They were poor, and Trevor was trouble.
Melissa: How would you not be?
David: There is trouble. And then there’s the kind of trouble that Trevor brought. In different stories, he runs from the cops. He spends a week in jail, and he sets a house on fire. He was known in his neighborhood and his school for being unruly. There was applause when he didn’t make detention. [laughter] Beyond that and beyond the coming-of-age story, there are three themes that echo through the book. The first is that because Trevor was mixed race, he wasn’t welcome anywhere. Yeah, apartheid might have ended, but racism is strong. And he makes a good case that Apartheid was really good at getting people to hate people who weren’t like them, even if they were just a little not like them. There is a lot here about Trevor trying to find a place to fit in. The second theme is about Apartheid and how awful that was in the first part of the book. You hear about how arbitrary and cruel it was when he was a kid. Trevor couldn’t be seen in public with either of his parents.
Melissa: Oh, that’s awful.
David: He was frequently hidden. In the second part of the book, you hear about how ending apartheid changed things and didn’t change things. People’s feelings have inertia. And the third story is the best one. It’s about his mom. This book is an amazing portrait of his mom. And she sounds lovely. She is fearless and rebellious and fervently religious. She loves that boy, and she also knows what time it is. Just as an example, there’s a bit in the middle of the book. He’s a teenager. He walks into the house. He’s ignoring her. He’s just being a teen. And she says, ‘No, Trevor, you look at me, you acknowledge me, show me that I exist to you. Because the way you treat me is how you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Don’t just see me when you need something.’
David: Throughout the book, she shows him a world beyond their present situation. She works at that. She continues to expose him to things that are uncomfortable for both of them, I imagine. She’s got a quote. She says, ‘Even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.’ The last chapter of this book is about their relationship. I won’t spoil it, but the last chapter is worth the price of admission. It is a good story, well told with a lot of feels. It is amazing. Some reviews that I’ve read from major outlets spoiled that chapter, which filled me with reader rage.
Melissa: Really not cool.
David: Why? Why would you do that? The book sounds like Trevor Noah. It’s fast. It’s funny. When he wrote it, he started writing it by telling other people his stories. Trevor started his professional life as a stand up comedian. It’s got his cadence. He also narrated the audiobook, if you like audiobooks. Unsurprisingly, he does a really great job telling his own story. If there’s a young person in your life, you should know that there’s been a version of this that has been edited for them.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really cool.
David: Yeah, it’s called It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. It’s good for children 11 and up. It seems like that might be an excellent pair of read, if that’s a thing for you. But this book was one of the best of the year from New York Times and Esquire and NPR. It’s a good read and maybe an even better audio book. If you want to spend a few hours around a storyteller who will tell you about his difficult childhood in South Africa and the fascinating people he knows there, and his rocky and rewarding relationship with his mother. I absolutely recommend you pick up a copy. That’s Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.
Melissa: My final recommendation is The Promise by Damon Gadget. This is one of those books that cast a spell on me. I read it over the course of two days and I was actively mad at anything that kept me from picking it up. I needed to know what was happening to the characters while I was away. I love that feeling.
Melissa: This is a family story and it’s told through four funerals, each one set ten years apart, starting in 1986. The Swarts are a white family living on a small estate near Pretoria, and when the matriarch dies, the remaining family members disperse, running away from the burdens of being part of this family. The promise mentioned in the title drives the story.
David: What’s the promise?
Melissa: So there’s a mother and father. The mother is 40. She is Jewish. The father is Afrikaner. Their whole lives, they’ve had a black maid named Salome who has served them loyally. She lives in a small house on their estate. When Ma knows she’s going to die, she makes Pa, her husband, promise that he will give the house to Salome. She wants Salome to have the deed to the house and the patch of land that it’s on so that she is taken care of.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: It’s really nice. Unbeknownst to either of them, their daughter Amor overhears. This becomes the formative event of her life because her father is a selfish bigot and he conveniently forgets all about that promise after his wife dies.
Melissa: This broken vow follows the family through time. It’s like a curse or a ghost. It is invisible, but it’s always there. And it affects everything that happens to all of them. So at each funeral, every ten years or so, we get snapshots of what’s happened to all the members of the family. We see Amor’s older siblings. There are a variety of aunts and uncles who are very spoiled, racist, selfish, judgmental. We check in with what’s happening with Amor and we see the black family who still lives nearby in that little house, still without the deed that was promised to them. All of this collective family strife and the personal challenges faced by each of the characters, all of that can only happen because this story is set in South Africa. It’s tied very closely to the land laws and the history of Apartheid.
Melissa: This is an eminently readable literary novel. The narration is mostly in the third person, but every once in a while it slips into first person, and sometimes it even addresses the reader.
Melissa: I found that very delightful. It can sound a little pretentious. It’s not. The way it works on the page is very charming. It’s a little bit snarky, and it made me feel like I was in there with the characters being told this story. And every once in a while the person who’s telling me the story would turn and say something to me to make sure I was still paying attention. You’re still with me, right?
Melissa: The writing is also… the word precise kept coming to my mind like it feels like every word was chosen for a specific reason. And it’s very funny, I mean, darkly so but very funny and sometimes just painfully sweet in how honest it is. You know how sometimes — Well, I know you don’t do this, Dave, but maybe people in our audience can relate. When I have a black and blue mark, I have to touch it. Like that feeling of it hurts, but it feels good. It hurts, but it feels good. Like you can’t leave it alone. Yeah, that’s kind of what the writing in this book is like. I want to read a passage from early in the book. Amor is a 13-year-old at this point, and she has run out of her mother’s funeral. It’s too much. So she goes to a nearby hilltop to have a little solitude and try to comfort herself. And then, when she’s regained her composure, as much as a 13-year-old who’s just lost her mom can, she goes back to the house and this is what it says: ‘By the time she comes in through the back door, 133 minutes and 22 seconds have passed since she ran away. Four cars, including the long, dark one, have departed. A single new one has arrived. The telephone has rung 18 times. The doorbell, twice, on one occasion because somebody has sent flowers that improbably turned up all the way out here. Twenty-two cups of tea, six mugs of coffee, three glasses of cool drink, and six brandy and Cokes have been consumed. The three toilets downstairs, unused to such traffic, have between them flushed 27 times, carrying away 9.8 litres of urine, 5.2 litres of shit, one stomach full of regurgitated food, and five millilitres of sperm. Numbers go on and on. But what does mathematics help? In any human life, there is really only one of everything.’
Melissa: For me, the specificity of that just really captured what it’s like to feel grief when everything is in sharp relief and mundane things take on outsized importance, and you get hung up on these weird little details. The book uses funerals as its signposts. Obviously, it’s starting from a place of loss and sorrow, but this book is not without hope. Funerals are endings, but they’re also beginnings. And throughout the story, there’s a lot of dark humor and this very stealthy sense that even though the characters are really going through it, yeah, everything will be some version of OK. I didn’t know until I finished it that it won the Booker Prize in 2021.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: Yeah. So zero surprise that it won. It is brilliant and news to me.
David: That always feels good to me when I finish a book and I think, well, I really like that. And then I get online and I’m like, Look, everybody else liked it too.
Melissa: Experts like it, too.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: I don’t do research before I read the books, but when I’m finished, I do. And I found a wonderful reading and Q&A with the author Damon Galgut. I’ll put that in show notes. The story of how he came up with the structure for his novel is great. That’s The Promise by Damon Galgut.
David: Those are five books we love set in South Africa. Visit our shownotes at strong sense of place wwe.com for a parade of fascinating information about South Africa, including some really nice videos, a bunch of links to things that we found that we didn’t have time to mention.
Melissa: The photo of Namaqualand blooming with flowers. You don’t want to miss that one.
David: Yeah. And a whole bunch of other cool stuff. Before we go, I wanted to mention or perhaps just tough up the Strong Sense of Placewebsite. The last time we did a survey, we found out a bunch of you lovely people don’t know we have a beautiful website. We do, in fact, have a beautiful website. Experts have looked at it and said, ‘My, that’s a beautiful website.’
Melissa: It’s like if a travel website was a piece of bread with jelly on it and a bookshop website was a piece of bread with peanut butter on it, and we pushed them together to make something incredibly delicious.
Melissa: StrongSenseofplace.com is essentially a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
David: There are beautiful photographs and essays about great bookshops and beautiful historical libraries. We have book lists up there, like ‘27 books in translation.’
Melissa: ‘Ten novels about vacations gone horribly, fantastically wrong.’
David: There’s a roundup of 45 Instagram accounts for people who love libraries and librarians. I’m betting you are one of those people.
Melissa: We also have Destination pages. On those, we collect all of our book recommendations and blog posts about a particular place and our podcast so you can find everything all on one page.
David: So for instance, if you wanted to see everything we have ever said about Ireland, you could hit Destinations in our nav, go to the Ireland page and there it’ll be. All of the cool stuff we’ve ever said about Ireland.
Melissa: Before you know it, you’ll be making soda bread.
David: And making plane reservations to Dublin. Probably.
Melissa: I hope so. I love when people tell us that they’ve gone somewhere because they listen to our show. If you need inspiration, there are now 50 destinations on our Destination page. Yeah, you can find all of that and so much more on strongsenseofplace.com.
David: Mel, can you tell us where we are headed for our next episode?
Melissa: This is very exciting. This is by request of one of our patron, and it was a genius idea. Our next episode is going behind the scenes of museums.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of jaroslava V/Shutterstock.
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