Resilience and issues of identity skilfully surfaced in ‘Gau-trained’

Flow Wellington is a well-known figure on the Johannesburg poetry scene. Her book Gau-trained adds to that presence. The book, Gau-trained is about Johannesburg and about the city-region in which the city resides. It captures poetically what we know about major cities in the developing world. They are magnets for people who hail from different parts of the country (and beyond) and migrate to the metropolis in search of a better future and a decent livelihood. At the same time, the cities are often poorly prepared to receive them; their plans for roads, houses, schools are often several years or even decades behind the wave. And those who come must (for a seemingly indeterminate period) use all their resources to keep the flame of hope alive amidst the precariousness that afflicts the poor and marginalised. Those who come — we now know — are a self-selected group: they are the ones who are more resilient, determined and entrepreneurial, and, indeed, we can learn much from them.

Flow translates this story into a captivating creative work.  She gives it her own slant. She makes the story concrete and visceral by her close observation and her skill with words. I showed my 16 year old daughter the Park Station poem. Not knowing the churning of emotions, edginess, bustle, hopes and fears that happen at Park station, she said she found the poem “dramatic”. And yes, that experience of in-your-face descriptions speaks to the  grittiness and immediacy that comes through in many of the poems in Gau-trained.

At one of the launches (Saturday 24, 2018), Flow described herself as a storyteller. The storyteller’s skill is to draw everyone around; he or she lays great store by communicability. Although Flow’s poetry uses figurative devices and images/references that makes you see old things in new ways, there is also a great communicability in her writing. It is the kind of writing that can have old and young sitting together, nodding and finding points of identification.  In this sense, storytelling taps into our being human; in the hands of a great story teller, even if the narrative is about something more brutal and rawer than we have personally experienced, we can — even in a small ways — relate.

This book is divided into sections that in themselves constitute a narrative arc: The Platform, Derailed, Crossroads and Full Steam Ahead. With all the poems, we see images of the city: the high-rise buildings, the sex-work, the “doctors” that promise penis enlargements, the feelings of depression, women’s particular insecurity in the city, the hustling and the many instances of people ‘making a plan’.  The poetry is written in manner that you can smell the smells, feel the claustrophobia of cramped space, touch the stickiness of drool on a train-station bench and hear the sirens ringing in your ears . In one of the poems, “Second Floor”, the birds have nests (a space that provides some ‘holding’ and repose) while at street level there is “women screaming” and people being robbed for “small change”.  The contrasts that arise from these observations, as well as the poet’s reaction, gives this poem clout.

As the poems roll out in the book, one gets a sense of the poet becoming more resilient, on the one hand, and clearer about her positionality in this, on the other.  In one of the poems, the poet states: “Drink your tears when your heart begins to parch/And blood is cleansed by oxygen;/ so breathe  … breathe and exhale the toxins of your conditioning.”  One gets a sense that the poet is crafting her resilience as much as she  is fashioning poems.

But this movement (towards a greater sense of comfort and belonging) is not a straight line; progress is interrupted by depression, identity issues and a discovery, in return trips to Port Elizabeth, that “where I’m from” is not the same anymore. The identity poems are particularly engaging. These poems add an additional core of authenticity; they convey the sense of ‘finding of self’  and a continued grappling,  the very sensibilities which often fuel  powerful works of art.  In “Mixed Enough”, the poet speaks about having names thrust on her and issues of acceptance/being properly accepted within the melting pot that is Johannesburg: “They call me yellow bone here/Where I grew up, I was brown skinned”.  The poem ends without resolution and with the poet taking note of the unenviable distinction of being a novelty at social gatherings and of being “(j)ust mixed enough” to be accommodated.

The poem, “Afrika Kind”, also in the book section called Crossroads, continues with this theme of searching for truth about self and finding acceptance. The poem, in Afrikaans, exhorts the poet (or indeed any child of Khoi descent) to stop hiding her beauty behind relaxers and concealing mother-tongue rhythms behind the constant use of lingua francas. Through this poem, the poet situates/defines poetic works like the ones in Gau-trained, and indeed much of the storytelling tradition, as a connection between the ancient bloodline of the Khoi and the culture, creativity and humanity of the entire continent.

The last section of the book, entitled Full Steam Ahead, is less about an easy resolution and the gold-filled potjie at the rainbow’s end. Rather, it is about the ways of carrying on and, despite the scars and continuing turbulence, finding ways to face the future. It is about finding meaning (a factor so critical to elevating human existence, as Viktor Frankl has noted) and moments of pleasure and happiness that are still there for the taking. In “Instructions for Chaos”, Flow advises those who  want to make it in the concrete jungle to live life to the fullest, to “wear your cap back to front”, to “show your bra straps,” to “bulldoze boardrooms in a doek” and to speak out when words of courage are needed.


Connie Ngcaba tells how she survived & fought apartheid

Connie Manse Ngcaba’s book, the story of her life titled May I Have This Dance, is a stirring and inspirational read. This book demonstrates again the contribution by many ordinary people to the overthrow of the apartheid regime. By ‘ordinary’ I mean those who aren’t recognisable as the big names of the struggle or the transition and people who have not occupied top posts in the ANC and other liberation  movements.

May I Have This Dance describes facets of life in the Eastern Cape under apartheid. The book remains compelling because Connie’s telling is granular and particular. In that tough social milieu, Connie plugged away at her desired career in nursing and at her ambitions to have a family. Along the way she endured many obstacles and not a few setbacks. Her life as a child was hard. After her father died, she was sent as a young girl to stay with an aunt, Mamkhulu. Life there was rule-driven, and the children toiled to help the aunt run the many activities on her smallholding. Children had to fetch water, gather eggs, take the sheep out for grazing, milk cows, pound maize and help with kitchen work.

For Connie, the crunch — in terms of pricks of awareness — came when she entered nursing studies and the profession. It was a rough ride without a safety belt. She encountered racism by members of the white management team; she also encountered systemic discrimination in the differential treatment of white and black patients and the subjugation of black nurses. She became outspoken, which triggered further unjust treatment against her. He outspokenness was born out of a natural sense of what was right and what was wrong.

A strong thread through the book is the love story of Connie and Sol. He, the handsome dancing instructor that caught that attention of many other nurses, deepened her political understanding — only for Connie to later become the more active, outspoken and persecuted of the pair. Her sons also become active and suffered detention without trial during one of the bitter states of emergency in the eighties. The book relates how one of her sons, Andile, crossed the border to join MK; he later returned to become director-general of the Department of Communications in the democratic government.

Connie comes across as a stoic and austere person. In pursuit of her goals (being successful at community work, nursing and building the family unit), there was hardly a time in her adult life when she wasn’t hardworking and focused. In this regard, she remained true to the values she learned at an early age from Mamkhulu’s farm. Despite her rugged determination and intimidating seriousness, she did take pleasure in dancing, time with family and making friends.

People like Connie carried the struggle forward through small acts of organizing and resistance. The cumulative effect of such actions taken by hundreds of thousands of people made apartheid unworkable and contributed in no small way to the downfall of the Botha and de Klerk regimes. At the same time, most of these grassroots stalwarts remain unsung, their stories present within but largely submerged beneath, the broad narrative. In particular, the voices of women are insufficiently heard and their actions in fighting apartheid inadequately acknowledged. I trust many will read Connie’s book and, of those, a good number of people would be inspired to write their own stories (autobiography, testimony or even just the snippets that form part of ‘life-writing’) of survival, activism and organizing for justice in South Africa.

Capacity building in SA over 20 years

This article was first published on Sangonet on 28 July 2010.

The Community Based Development Programme (CBDP) in 2009 celebrated 20 years of existence. The organisation was launched during the latter stages of apartheid rule, and played a critical role in the transition and preparations for the changeover. A joint venture by Kagiso Trust and Wits university and the brainchild of Achmat Dangor and David Adler, the CBDP anticipated the need for high and middle level management skills to complement leadership abilities.

When the transition came, CBDP ‘graduates’ were part of the many activists who went into government. Alumni are in local, provincial and national government, and it is our belief that they are better prepared for their roles there than they otherwise would have been.  During the management training they received, emphasis was placed on planning, budgeting, and management of projects.

In the nineties, the organisation formally adopted the slogan, “Are we ready to govern?’ This slogan was taken directly from Trevor Manual (later Finance Minister Trevor Manual) who had made this the subject of his seminar series when he lectured at CBDP. Manual engaged with the students and, together with other lecturers, often challenged students to indicate how fulfilling the demands of the Freedom Charter were to be funded. In those days, it was the norm to point to a bloated ‘Defence’ budget and to argue that such monies would be redeployed to ensure housing for all and that the doors of learning and culture would be opened. The point Manual was already making then was that leadership and management (‘governing’) involved making tough choices – prioritizing even when it seemed impossible to, and getting results despite constraints. 

CPDP operated in heady times. The social movements and the trade unions were in full bloom. There was secrecy and intrigue as the ANC strengthened its interface with above-ground politics, the black consciousness movers and shakers were articulate in debates and government repression attacked freedom of speech while the third force seemed to kill at will in the dead of night. The programme had bumpy rides: hot debates in the classroom, class boycotts over security police presence near the class venue, arguments with activists who neglected their studies in favour of mobilizing work, and disputes over whether the new SA would be able to meet Freedom Charter demands if the economy did not grow rapidly. Interspersed between concrete training on “how to manage” students held fervent debates. Although most favoured socialism, students could not avoid lively debate on socialism versus capitalism versus a mixed economy. Of course, being based at a business school, it was often up to visiting lecturers from the school to defend capitalism – either as devil’s advocate or apologist – and in at least one case this led to a class walkout.

The management of CBDP needed to – and did – have a clear vision. Although part of the democratic movement and favouring redress and transformation, the Board and management agreed that proper training in effective management was of critical importance.  In this regard, learning included reference to research, models and management thinking in management practice and teaching worldwide. Management insisted on using the term managers, at a time when NGOs preferred the term co-ordinators and “management”, moreso than now, was a swear word to trade unions. Thirdly, the CBDP training team, led by David Adler and subsequent directors, rejected rhetorical responses, empty slogans, and claims which could not be substantiated. In this regard, many activists from community organisations were shocked when on their first day at class they were asked questions such as: “In what way are you community based?”, “What does ‘consulted the community’ mean?”  and “whom do you define as ‘the people’?” The anger subsided and the learning continued, and to this day, all the students have nothing but praise for the learning obtained.

CBDP itself has been affected by the societal transformation and has negotiated profound changes if its own. It has over time given up its link with Wits University. It also no longer runs the certificated management training programme; in the last ten years it has focused on community based training in a programme called Community Empowerment for Development (“CEFD”). In this training it works with representatives from organizations in specific communities, and it situates training in the context of area based participatory planning. The management training aspect is still there – perhaps at a different level – but it is strongly augmented by processes of community empowerment.

Of late CBDP has again considered the need for a management training course for managers of NGOs. It has noted the huge challenges facing non-governmental development organizations, including declining resources, relative marginalization from policy processes and the sustained effects of its loss of leadership to the democratic government since 1994. CBDP is currently exploring a new programme, a diploma-based Development Management Course. It is currently engaged in consultations with the sector and the School of Public and Development Management  at Wits University. And because many NGOs are too cash strapped to pay the real costs of such training, CBDP is also busy mobilising donor support.

CBDP has achieved much: it has trained scores of persons in management skills, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, it has successfully completed numerous community empowerment processes and each year its work results in the launch of livelihood projects in communities in different parts of the country.

CBDP is a proud partner of civil society, and 20 years on, remains fundamentally committed to the strengthening of the sector. Although government and the private sector have central roles, the non-profit sector remains a critical resource and vital base of capacity in a society where distribution and delivery has fallen behind, and where the private sector has so far not contributed nearly enough to broad based social inclusion. (by F.Meintjies – A former executive director and board member of CBDP)  

Participation in Arts and Society seminar

In late 2015 I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar on social transformation through the arts. The seminar or colloquium was convened by Cynthia Cohen, Michelle LeBaron and Kim Berman.

The event took place at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) from 30 November to 5 December 2015. You can see a list of participants here: .

The event examined practice in the light of theory and vice versa. It explored the role of arts in creating resilience, in strengthening possibilities for reconciliation after conflict as well as in forging compelling narratives about social justice in contexts of inequality.

My contribution focused on the persistent challenges of inequality, gender/racial strife and ongoing marginalisation in South Africa circa 2015 and the ways the arts might relate to this. Using my own creative work as a reference point, I wondered how the arts could work against avoidance of burning issues and at the same time help open up new possibilities rooted in deeper understandings of and emphasis on our shared humanity. I held out the possibility that artists can simultaneously adopt both the role of the clear and strong voice, on the one hand, and be willing to be vulnerable and create channels of deeper communication, on the other?

Participants explored work on the ground as well as thinking frameworks. They further saw the STIAS event as a springboard for further inter-disciplinary and intercultural conversation on what it means to be human in times of great upheaval, and the role of arts in social change.

Frank Meintjies, arts & culture, profile

Frank Meintjies is based in Johannesburg and currently works as an independent development consultant. Before that, he was based for several years at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, coordinating one of its global campaigns. Starting out in COSATU, Frank has spent 13 years in the field of improving organisational effectiveness and in human resource development. He has worked at senior level in the new democratic government, at Deloitte Consulting and in developmental and educational organisations.

Frank Meintjies is member of the Association of Non-Fiction Authors of South Africa and writes commentary on social, organisational and cultural issues. He has also, over the decades, been active in the arts world through writing and other activities.

He has been guest editor of Staffrider magazine, was a founder board member of Zimology Music Development Institute (providing music training). He formed part of a reference group for an in-depth HSRC study on the visual arts in South Africa (2010), cited as the first major study into the visual arts in South Africa. He also gave  input to Culture and the Right to the City (2008), a study undertaken for Isandla Institute by Zayd Minty.
Frank’s poetry has featured in various anthologies. In 2009, he released My Rainbow, a poetry collection that spanned poems from early years and more recent work. His latest work, Connexions, builds on the wide range of themes that appeared in his previous work. Frank was a columnist for the Sunday Times from 1998 to 2001. He was co-editor of a book, Voices of the Transition, which featured commentary on the many faces of change – and the stubborn challenges – in the first decade of democracy. Frank’s articles on culture have dealt variously with film in the townships, the role of resource centres in communities, language issues and the role of arts in society.