A Walk on the Wild Side – Christmas 1970 on the Transkei Wild Coast

The Wild Coast

The Transkei Wild Coast is a scenic wonderland of unspoilt beaches, gently rolling hills covered with lush green grass interspersed with some rugged ravines, dramatic cliff faces topped with wild banana trees with ferns growing out of the cracks in the rocks.

In summer the Wild Coast is a hot, moist stub-tropical area with mists that roll over the hills and make one’s skin damp, the leaves of trees drip and animals almost disappear on the roads, creating real hazards for drivers.

This is the region my first wife Joan (we had been married a year then) set off for from Durban in our hired car in the middle of December 1970 for a holiday with my parents and my brother Chris and his wife Maxine and their three-year-old daughter Andromeda (known as Meda). We were then living in Durban.

Lovely beyond any singing of it

The drive down to the Wild Coast was uneventful and the scenery quite beautiful, as it is at that time of year. Natal and the former Transkei are very similar across either side of the border between them.

As we drove through the little town of Ixopo on the kwa-Zulu Natal side of the border we were reminded of the wonderful opening sentences of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country : “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hill are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

We drove along many such roads, past many such grass-covered and rolling hills, with the huts of the people and their goats and sheep and large black pigs, their cattle and stands of maize. It was a beautiful journey with a beautiful destination.

At that time I did not have a great camera, but I took photos anyway and whenever I could to try to capture the loveliness of the scenery and its people. The accompanying photos were all taken on this magical holiday, which was the last time we were all together as a family until my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1985, so it is a special time in my memory.

The cottage at the sea

Maxine and mother doing a jigsaw puzzle while Andromeda does her own thing

We arrived at my parent’s little cottage at Qolora Mouth in the late afternoon and it was a time of first meetings – Joan and I had not met Maxine or Andromeda before, and Joan had not met Chris either. My parents had brought Joan’s mother from East London to join us. So it was a happy time, as I guess Christmas is supposed to be.

Our days at Qolora were peaceful, spent in long walks on the beach and the occasional dips in the warm Indian Ocean.

Due to the legislation governing the so-called “Bantu reserves” under the apartheid regime, white people were not allowed to own property but could get permission from the local chief to build and occupy beach cottages. So the cottage my parents had was not strictly theirs. They were allowed to take holidays there only. So there was no incentive to “improve” these cottages in any way.

As a consequence this cottage had no running water or electricity. Water was collected from a little spring that flowed, winter and summer, with the sweetest, freshest water imaginable, just behind the cottage. At night we played canasta or read by the light of candles and paraffin lamps.

The cottage itself had two bedrooms on either side of the little living room, and a small kitchen at the back. On either side of the front stoop (verandah) were two thatched huts, in one of which Joan and I slept and in the other Chris, Maxine and Andromeda. Joan’s mother had one room in the cottage and my parents the other.

On Christmas day the Anglican priest from Butterworth, whom we knew well, Fr Woods, came to celebrate a Christmas mass to which some of us went.

Christmas and New Year

Christmas lunch was a happy time with presents all round and of course wonderful food. My mother was especially good at making steamed Christmas pudding, something of an anomaly in the hot summer weather, but enjoyable nonetheless.

On New Year’s Day a group of local people came around looking for the traditional

In all his finery. The incredible beadwork of the amaXhosa is always dramatic and beautiful

“Christmas Box” and so we were entertained by their singing and dancing.

The “Wild Coast” did not get that name for nothing! Historically it was a wild place, where the seafarers of old feared the rocks and contrary currents and winds. Many a ship came to grief on the treacherous rocks that stick out into the ocean along its shoreline. There are many stories of the survivors of shipwrecks being taken care of by the local people.

But for us that December it was the setting for an idyllic time of relaxation and fun, of getting to know each other anew, of celebration.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

From Apartheid to Zaamheid – a book review

In the midst of the furore of the Limpopo textbook crisis and the gloom of the world’s economic failures a book arrived serendipitously on my desk and helped to keep my spirits positive.
From Apartheid to Zaamheid is a readable and practical book about making a difference, being a positive force for change in South Africa, rather than a perpetual whinger about all that is wrong in the country.
My only complaint really is, why did the book take so long to arrive on my desk? It was published by Aardvark Press in 2004 and yet I only came to see it this week. Well, maybe I’m not as awake as I like to think I am!
The author is Advocate Neville Melville who played a significant role in the transition from the apartheid regime to the non-racial democracy we live in today. He has also been the Banking Ombudsman as well as being appointed by former president Nelson Mandela as the Police Ombudsman.
The book is 130 pages long and presents, in very readable ways, the problems facing South Africa and a number of possible ways that individuals can make contributions to solving these problems – not in grand, sweeping ways, but in small ways that touch people’s lives.
The word “Zaamheid”, Melville explains, he coined from the international symbol for South Africa, namely “ZA”, and the initial letters of the words “alle mense (all people)” to form the “Zaam”, which sounds a lot like the Afrikaans word “saam” which means “together”. The suffix “-heid” means roughly “-ness” as in “apart-ness”.
Melville defines his new word as meaning “everyone working together” and he writes, “The choice of an Afrikaans-sounding word would, in itself, be an act of bridge building.”
That introduces the major theme of the book, which is also its sub-title: “Breaking down walls and building bridges in South African society.”
Some of the chapter titles give an idea of how this theme is explored by Melville: “The crack in the wall”; “The great wall”; “Behind high walls”; “A peek over the wall”; “Up against a brick wall”; and “Bringing down walls”.
In his analysis of the problems facing South Africa Melville makes it clear that the walls, both real and metaphorical, which continue to keep South Africans apart from each other are the source of the ills besetting the country: “The affluent continue to barricade themselves from the rest of the world in security villages with checkpoint controls. The workplace is increasingly becoming a no-go zone for whites, particularly if they are males.”
In the final chapter of the book, “The way ahead”, Melville makes some pertinent points, like “We are, as a country, spending too much of our energies in trading blame and squabbling amongst ourselves. Instead we should be focussing all our efforts into the challenges that face us. Until every last person has a stake in the country’s wealth, none of our individual wealth is secure.”
The book as a whole is a challenge to all South Africans to become bridge builders rather than wall builders.

Blue Notes Memorial Trust Bursary launched

Ntshuks Bonga (left) and students from the SA College of Music

In 1990 two great South African musicians died within weeks of each other. They died in exile in Europe, and their deaths took away something special for their fellow-musicians and their myriads of fans.

The two musicians were pianist/composer/arranger Chris McGregor and alto player Mtutuzeli “Dudu” Pukwana.

Bra Tebs at the launch of the Bursary.

Jazz musicians from all over Europe and indeed beyond had been deeply influenced by Chris and Dudu, and the other musicians of the amazing group known as The Blue Notes. When these two musicians died (fellow Blue Notes Mongezi Feza and Johnny Dyani had died earlier) many of their fellow-musicians felt that something needed to be done to acknowledge the impact of the Blue Notes on jazz in Britain and on the Continent, and so the ideas of the Dedication Orchestra and the Memorial Trust were born.

The Dedication Orchestra was formed under the leadership of the sole surviving Blue Note, Louis “Bra Tebs” Moholo-Moholo and recorded two outstanding albums featuring arrangements of compositions by Blue Notes members arranged by other musicians who had played in different formations with them.

The Dedication Orchestra made two albums released in 1992 and 1994 respectively, called Spirits Rejoice and Ixesha (Time), both on the Ogun lable. These albums featured arrangements of the Blue Notes songbook by such musicians as Keith Tippett, Mike Westbrook, Kenny Wheeler, Eddie Parker, Django Bates, Jim Dvorak, and Sean Bergin, among others. All the arrangers and musicians gave of their time and skills for the project.

All proceeds from the doors at concerts by the Dedication Orchestra and from the sales of the two CDs formed the capital of the Trust fund which has now achieved its purpose – providing a bursary for a student to study jazz at the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town.

Ogun's Hazel Miller at the launch

The Bursary was launched in Cape Town on 11 April 2012 at College of Music with performances by a student group under the leadership of Bheki Mkwane, the UCT Jazz Voices and a group comprising students under the leadership of Bra Tebs and with contributions by alto player Ntshuks Bonga.

Ogun’s Hazel Miller, longtime friend of South African jazz and widow of bass player Harry Miller, gave a short address outlining the Memorial Trust and the idea behind the Bursary.

The event was attended by many friends and family members of the late Blue Notes.

The Bursary was established with £25 000 capital, and in addition many of the charts of arrangements for and recordings of the Dedication Orchestra will be housed in the W.H. Bell Library at the SA College of Music.


Port Elizabeth’s “great gale” of 1902

“Never before in its history has this port suffered under such overwhelming disaster as we record today. On Sunday morning some 38 craft rode at anchor under the leaden sky. Heavy rains had fallen and the wind gradually rose until, as the shadows of evening hid the shipping from view, a fresh gale was blowing in from the south-east, which, as the midnight hour was reached, had developed in to a hurricane. As the turmoil of wind and wave continued, so the toll of ships mounted, until 18 vessels were aground, with a raging sea adding a high toll of human lives.”

So read a report in the Eastern Province Herald in Port Elizabeth on 2 September 1902.

A gale force south easterly wind came up during the evening and night of Sunday 31 August 1902 when some 38 ships were riding at anchor in Algoa Bay. Huge waves battered the ships and several of them began to drift onto the bight of the bay.

The first distress signals sounded were gun shots which were heard just before midnight. The local rescue team, consisting mainly of a rocket brigade, went to the shoreline to see what they could do. In spite of their efforts the wind made it almost impossible to get lines to the distressed ships.

Four local men, Frank Gregory, A. I. McEwan, E. Hayler and John Mannie went out to attempt to get a line across but all were drowned in the attempt. Mothers and children were among those who succumbed in the raging seas.

By the time the storm abated on the Tuesday there were perhaps 38 people known to have died and about 300 rescued. From that day funerals became a daily occurrence as more bodies were washed ashore. The victims were buried in Port Elizabeth's Southend Cemetery, where there is also a monument recalling the tragedy. On the monument are recorded the names of all the ships, those victims whose names are known, and the names of the local men who made the rescue attempt.

The disaster remains the largest marine disaster ever to hit South Africa – though there have been others with greater loss of life, never before or since have so many ships come to grief simultaneously on the treacherous South African coastline.

The list of ships which were beached that day included:

Oakworth – a British cargo sailing vessel of 1242 grt was on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;

Emmanuel – was a German sailing barque of 1147 tons under the command of Captain Tuitzer on route from Port Pirie with a cargo of grain;

Coriolanus – was a German sailing barque of 978 tons. under the command of Captain Gotting on route from Wallaroo with a cargo of wheat;

Hans Wagner – was a German iron barque of 938 tons under the command of Captain Millman was on route from Melbourne with a cargo of grain;

Agostino Rombo – was an Italian sailing barque of 827 grt, en route from Buenos Aires with a cargo of forage under the command of Captain Vassho (Captain Vassho is listed on the Memorial SE cemetery at Port Elizabeth);

Waimea – Norwegian ownded ship was carrying a cargo of wood, with loss of Captain Oredorp and 7 crew on passage from Fremantle (Captain Oredorp is listed on the Memorial to the dead in the SE Cementary of Port Elizabeth);

Arnold – was a German iron sailing barque of 854 grt under the command of Captain Ahlars and carrying a general cargo

Sayre – a British cargo sailing barque of 735 grt was on route from New York with a general cargo ;

Nautilus – was a German sailing barque of 745 grt that dragged her anchor in the great storm of the 1st September 1902 and was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay. She was under the command of Captain Assing and on route from Adelaide with a cargo of wheat. Captain Assing and 11 crew lost. Their deaths are listed on the Memorial SE Cemetery, Port Elizabeth.

Content – was a Swedish sailing barque of 547 grt. under the command of Captain Gustafsen. She was on route from Rangoon with a cargo of rice when she was wrecked on North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902.

Iris – a transport schooner of 522 tons;

Kimara – I have been unable to find out anything about this ship;

Hermanos – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 498 tons under the command of Captain Gunderson which was on route from Banbury with a cargo of wood;

Thekla – was a German sailing 3 masted schooner of 350 grt on route from Mauritius with a cargo of sugar;

Constant – was a Norwegian sailing barque of 292 grt that was wrecked at North End Beach, Algoa Bay on the 1st September 1902 under the command of Captain Jacobsen when on roure from Rio de Janeiro with a cargo of coffee.

Clara – was a British Steam tug of 139grt;

Gabrielle – was a British sailing schooner of 78 tons on route from St. Johns with a cargo of wood;

Scotia – was a British cargo steamer of the Clan Line;

Countess of Carnarvon – was a wooden British steam tug of 38 tons;

Cavaliere Michele Russo – was an Italian ship of 1,529 tons on route from Newcastle, Australia with a cargo of Grain. 17 crew members died;

Inchcape Rock – was British full-rigged ship under the command of Captain Ferguson on route from Portland, Oregon.

My source for most of the above information about the ships involved is The Wreck Site.

The photos accompanying this post come from the collection of my late father, Murray McGregor. I do not have any idea of the name of the photographer.

For the identification of the photos I am grateful to FaceBook friends Valma Meier and Derek Watters.

Greenmarket Square – a sense of place in Cape Town

“The search for a sense of place in a city is also a search for that place where the city is most itself. For me this is Greenmarket Square.” – from Sea-Mountain, Fire City by Mike Nicol (Kwela Books, 2001)

For around three centuries the heart of Cape Town has beaten in Greenmarket Square.

It started in 1696 when the authorities at the tiny refreshment station, founded by the Dutch East India Company (or VOC, for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) 44 years earlier, decided that a building should be erected for the Burgher (Citizen) Militia (or Burgher Wacht) which had been established in1659 as a force for both policing and defence.

The members of the militia were given wooden rattles which with they signalled the hours, as well as sounding a warning to loiterers and others up to no good.

Mothers in the Cape taught their children a little Dutch ditty:

Moederlief, ‘k geloof vast

Dat hy op de dieven past,

Goede klaper houdt de wacht;

Ik ga slapen – goede nacht.

(Dearest mother, I firmly believe

that he catches the thieves,

the watch has a good rattle

I’m to bed – good night)

The Burgherwacht Huys was built in 1696 on what was to become Greenmarket Square. It was a simple building and no doubt a fire-trap too! Fire was a constant hazard at the little settlement at the time and one of the duties of the Burgher Wacht was to act as a fire brigade.

In 1710 the Council of Policy, the highest authority at the Cape, decided to erect a more permanent building for the Wacht and in the same resolution set aside land for public use. The land so set aside was what is now Greenmarket Square.

The building for the Wachthuys was started in the same year. It served not only the Burgher Wacht but also served as a meeting place for the Burgher Council (Raad), until in 1755 it was demolished to make way for a new Wachthuys. The foundation stone of this new Wachthuys was laid by a member of the Court of Justice, Baerendt Artoijs, on 18 November 1755. The silver trowel used for the ceremony is still in the building.

The Old Town House across the Square. Photo taken in 1967

The Old Town House across the Square. Photo taken in 1967

The new building was completed in 1761, although it had been in use for some years before already. The façade, still largely unchanged to this day, was designed by Matthias Lotter whose father was a stucco-sculptor in Augsberg.

The balcony in the front of the building was used to make proclamations and citizens were summoned to the Square to hear these by a bell in a tower above the balcony, now replaced.

When in 1804 Cape Town was given a Coat of Arms, this was placed in the cartouche above the door to the balcony. From this time onwards the Wachthuys was used for civic functions, which is why it acquired the name the “Old Town House”. It served as Cape Town’s Town Hall until the present Town Hall was built in the early years of the 20th Century.

The square in front of the Old Town House was used as a market by the market gardeners on the outskirts of Cape Town, hence the name Greenmarket Square. The square was first mentioned officially in 1733 but by then had already been long in use.

Slaves on Greenmarket Square. Drawing by Johannes Rach, 1762.

The square was also a favourite gathering place for slaves during their infrequent free time, when they would gather there to gossip and relax. It was also popular with visitors from all over the world when their ships called at Cape Town, the square being a jolly meeting place offering travellers all the amenities of bed and board.

One of the travellers who spent time in the Square was Norwegian Johannes Rach who visited Cape Town in August 1762, staying for a fortnight. While in Cape Town Rach captured the early spirit of Greenmarket Square in a series of drawing like the one here.

During the 1960s and 1970s Greenmarket Square entered into a period of what Nicol described as “sterility”, weighed down by the dark mantel of apartheid and its denial of life. It became primarily a car park.

People relaxing under a tree next to the once-disputed toilets.

One of the stories about the Square in that era concerns the farmer from the Free State Province who was visiting the Cape and had to make use of the toilet facilities in the Square. He found himself standing next to a coloured (creole) man at the urinal and was outraged. He wrote to the City Council demanding that the toilets be declared for white use only. The Council did a survey to establish who used the toilets most and found that coloured people were the most frequent users. They therefore decided to proclaim it a “coloured” facility.

The cobblestones of the Square

The square and surrounding streets were paved with cobblestones in 1967 when the whole area was proclaimed a National Monument. This proclamation has ensured that the façades of the surrounding buildings will not be encroached on by high-rise buildings which would destroy the human scale of the Square.

In the late 1980s the Square was opened up for trading again and became a “noisy, friendly, raucous” place – it has become, as Nicol writes, “A meeting place again.”

Drawing of Greenmarket Square in 1833 by Sir Charles D'Oyly.

Nicol writes of the 1833 drawing of the Square and the Old Town House by Sir Charles D’Oyly shown here: “…the mountain rises behind Town House and the buildings that enclose the square in a warm embrace. I can stand where he stood, see the Town House he saw. I can imagine, then as now, disappearing into the market jostle, becoming part of the city.”

Square, while the Metropolitan Methodist Church (right) offers comfort to the lost and lonely, as it has done since 1879.

The Old Town House (centre) still keeps guard over the Square, while the Metropolitan Methodist Church (right) offers comfort to the lost and lonely, as it has done since 1879.


Introducing a Charles Mingus decade – the flowering of a jazz genius

The truth of what I am

“I’m going to keep on getting through and finding out the kind of man I am through my music. That’s the one place I can be free.” – Mingus in conversation with Nat Hentoff (A Musician Beyond Category – From Gadfly April 1999)“In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” -Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus playing at the Bi Centenial, Lower Manhattan July 4, 1976. Photo by Tom Marcello via Wikipedia

This is the first in a series of articles which will explore some of the music Charles Mingus recorded in the astonishing decade in which he emerged from being a sideman of note and great virtuosity to being a composer and leader of imposing stature. Of course this decade includes that incredible year for jazz, 1959, during which Mingus was involved with four major releases as leader.

The decade in question is from the incredible Jazz at Massey Hall of May 1953 to the Jazz Workshop recording Right Now of June 1964, a period in which he was involved in some 30 releases. OK, so it’s a year more than a decade but you get the idea – it’s a convenient period starting and ending with very different and very great live recordings (there will be a couple more live recording thrown into the mix as we go along). I will concentrate to some extent on numbers that recur throughout these recording to give an idea of the growth and change that Mingus insisted on throughout his life.

First just a little about Mr Charles Mingus, a towering genius of jazz.

He was born 22 April 1922 at a US Army base in Nogales, Arizona and grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, where his mother fed him a diet of church music and his grandmother took him to a Holiness church in Watts where he was exposed to the crying, moaning and singing of the church people.

He told Nat Hentoff about this musical background: “All the music I heard when I was a very young child was church music. My family went to the Methodist church; in addition, my stepmother would take me to the Holiness church and other such churches.

“The blues was in the churches—moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.”

In his genes he carried a wide cultural mix of Chinese, English, Swedish and African American, but the blues seem to have been central to his music over the years. It comes out in almost everything he recorded in one form or another.

From a relatively early age he became interested in jazz, most especially the musician who for most of his life was his idol, Duke Ellington. In 1943 he toured with Louis Armstrong and later played in Lionel Hampton’s band, in a trio with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow before joining, for a brief and shining moment, the orchestra of his idol, Ellington. Here his tempestuous temper led to his being allegedly the only musician (although Sidney Bechet might also have been) to be fired by the Duke.

Mingus increasingly demanded respect for his music, becoming intolerant of audiences who did not pay sufficient attention to the music. He once said to a nightclub audience when the clinking of ice in glasses was distracting him: “Isaac Stern (the great classical violinist) doesn’t have to put up with this shit!”

His famous temper led him into many difficulties with club owners, fans and even fellow-musicians. He once famously hit trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, causing damage to Knepper’s embouchure and leading to a court case.

Mingus was a larger-than-life personality who could inspire both awe and fear. He also struggled all his life with a weight problem, shedding and re-gaining weight regularly.

He contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is caused by the degeneration of the motor neurons, those nerve cells in the central nervous system which control voluntary muscle movement. The loss of muscle activity leads to atrophy of all the muscles and the loss of the ability to initiate and control voluntary movement. The body wastes away, while the mind is still unimpaired, so patients can literally watch themselves slowly die.

Even after he was unable to play, Mingus continued to compose and supervise recording, but was unable to complete a project with Joni Mitchell.

He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979, where he had gone with his wife Sue in search of a cure or at least a palliative for the disease that was so cruelly taking away everything he had lived for as a musician.

A look at some important albums

Nat Hentoff, in the same article quoted at the start of this post, said of Mingus: “The reason Mingus reached so many people around the world was the depth—sometimes the explosive depth—of his expressions, his emotions.”

In the posts that follow I will try to look into those depths and see in them what it is that stirs me, and I hope will stir you, to the depth of my being. As Mingus said, “Music is, or was, a language of the emotions.”

In the articles which follow I will look in a bit more detail at some of the more important recordings of this most creative and growthful decade in Mingus’s life. Of course, this is my personal selection and is based on the recordings that I have access to and knowledge of. Others might argue for a different selection, and that’s jazz for you – always something different and new.

The albums I am going to examine (not necessarily in separate posts) in this series are:

Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)

The Charles Mingus Quintet with Max Roach (1955)

Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956)

Mingus in Wonderland (1959)

Blues and Roots (1959)

Mingus Ah Um (1959)

Mingus Dynasty (1959)

Mingus at Antibes (1960)

Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus (1960)

Tijuana Moods (1962)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

Right Now (1964)

The first article in the series will look at the first three albums and will be called “Massey Hall to Pithecanthropus.”

The second article will look at the famous 1959 albums, delving in a bit more detail into Mingus Dynasty..

The third article will take the two important 1960 albums.

The fourth article will look at Tijuana Moods, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Right Now, taking us up to 1964.

© Text copyright Tony McGregor 2011

The search for our intrinsic nature – in search of the San

“…the evident longing of our times to understand through these delightful people the intrinsic nature of our species and of human alternatives.” – from Frontiers, by Noël Mostert.

When whites first settled at the bottom end of Africa they encountered a group of people they did not understand, a group so different from themselves they could hardly see them as human, and as a result they began to treat them quite literally as vermin.

This group of people were known by the Dutch settlers as “Bosjesmans” or “Bushmen” – people who lived in the “bush”, people who “could appear and vanish as though materializing from or dissolving into sand or grass.” (Mostert, Frontiers, p31).

From the 17th to the late 18th Century Bushmen, or San, as they were called by the Khoikhoi, were hunted as vermin by the settlers, and, to some extent, by the Bantu-speaking people who came into contact with them from the eastern regions of Southern Africa.

Only in the second half of the 20th Century were their real significance acknowledged and a beginning was made in an unbiased assessment of their importance in human history.

Sir Laurens van der Post, famous South African writer, published the first popular studies of Bushmen in his books The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of the Hunter (1961). These books promoted a kind of “noble savage” image of the San, a highly-romanticised vision of them.

A very different view is that taken by photographer Paul Weinberg in his wonderful book In Search of the San (The Porcupine Press, 1997), a collection of Weinberg’s highly evocative photos linked by his commentary on his trips to Bushmen settlements in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana spanning the years 1984 to 1996.

In an introduction written by Riaan de Villiers the gut-wrenching reality of Bushman life in the late 20th Century is put into the context of the conflict between development and conservation.

Early morning - perhaps the most appealing of the photos in the book (at least I love it!)

The Bushmen suffered displacement on a large scale by the development of nature reserves and the destruction of the conditions which made their lifestyles viable. Some Non-Governmental Organisations are helping the Bushmen adapt to a market economy and to develop the skills needed for survival in the 21st Century, including the development of art schools and retail outlets for their arts and craft.

But, as De Villiers notes, “…these trends do not mitigate the dispossession of the Bushmen, and should not serve to obscure it. The vast majority continue to drift further and further away from their culture as they struggle to survive.”

Weinberg noted in his entry for Tjum!kui in Namibia: “At the weekend, social dislocation reaches a crescendo. Ghetto blaster rule: men and women alternate between traditional rhythm,s and township jive. Alcohol takes its toll; some people pass out, others fight. The modern world and a stone-age culture have met – with dire results, it seems.”

One of those dire results is the continuing exploitation of Bushmen and their culture as tourist attractions. Weinberg relates how a group of Bushmen in Kagga Kamma reserve near Ceres in the Western Cape are used to provide the illusion of Bushman culture: the advertising brochure reads “Enjoy a trip with the small people. Participate in an informal experience with a Stone Age culture.”

Admittedly, for all the inauthenticity of the experience, the Bushmen themselves are better off in this set up – Weinberg notes that the clan’s “standard of living has improved dramatically,” because they are able to keep the proceeds of sales of their crafts and have land on which to farm with chickens and turkeys.

Perhaps the saddest photo in the collection - buying liquor

The book is full of such interesting and insightful reading, mercifully free of the kind of sentimentalising that so often comes into writing about the San.

The main impact of the book is made by the superb photos which, in documentary style, show the contemporary lives of Bushmen in all their many facets – from typical hunting to drunken fights, from cute children to army recruits.

There is a richness in the images which helps the observer to get a strong sense of the impact of the collision of the modern world on the culture of what was a hunter-gatherer culture, and the impact is not always pleasant.

Another aspect brought out by the book is the fact that the Bushmen are not a homogeneous group – there are many different clans or groups which speak different languages and have different cultures.

Dusk - a hunter

The book is not a “coffee table” book and neither is it an anthropological text – though it has aspects of both. It comes across mainly as one person’s response to a continuing unfolding of a changing culture – a culture which in many ways provides a link between the reader’s time and a time in the almost unimaginable past.

As Weinberg notes in a sort of foreword: “I join a long line of outsiders who have studied, filmed or photographed Bushmen over the past 100 years or more. With these image, I hope to depict a once harmonious culture in a state of flux and struggle. I hope they bring the reader closer to the real San of southern Africa.”

The book, and espcially the photos,  is a constant reminder that people, however we might classify them, remain people with their own sense of dignity and worth. The Bushmen are not tourist attractions but real people with the needs and wants of all people for respect, understanding and involvement. In that Weinberg has achieved what he set out to do.

A book for all South Africans now

“We were on a coast of centuries of sea tragedies, and of millennia of prehistoric habitation. A great deal of the strange and incomprehensible surrounded one there, and one was credulous of many things that one would not believe elsewhere. Such belief is a form of affirmation of that sense of wholeness that is so distinctively African, and upon which I have several times remarked, a purity of bond with the unfathomable, the unknowable and the long reach back that reduces the human immediate to a great littleness. It was what I chose to remember throughout the writing of this book.”

These final sentences of Noël Mostert’s great, wonderful book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Pimlico, 1992) are really a summing up of the experience of reading this long and absorbing book. There is so much in this book of the unknowable, of the “long reach back”, and the final littleness of our human existence.

On one level the book is a chronicle of the incredible arrogance of white encroachment on black existence, the piecemeal and yet dogged conquest and appropriation of the land which the Xhosa-speaking peoples of the Eastern Cape regarded as their ancestral birthright.

At another level the book is an exploration of humanity, of what makes us human, what leads us to forget our common humanity, and so the book rises above mere history to become a philosophical meditation on the human condition, and especially on that condition in the South Africa in which we find ourselves in the early years of the 21st Century.

On this level the Frontiers of the title are not only the moving borders on the colonial map but also the interface between two civilisations – the white European and the black African. On this “frontier” the missionaries who came to “civilise” the black people in South Africa were key, and highly controversial, players.

The missionaries mostly brought a high Victorian sensibility to their work among the Xhosa-speaking peoples, which caused misunderstanding and conflict. The attempts at “civilising” the blacks meant that the missionaries became associated with the colonising forces in the eyes of the Xhosa-speaking people, and their message of salvation was treated respectfully but critically. This “frontier” remained largely intact even as the lines on the map shifted and changed.

In a sense, if we want to understand South Africa now, this book is essential reading. If we want to understand our fellow-citizens in this strange land, black and white, this book will deliver deep insights.

Mostert, Cape Town born and of a long line of ancestors stretching back to the early white settlement of the Cape in the mid-17th Century, is a masterful writer who manages to hold attention while delivering masses of information; drawing on a wide variety of sources his narrative has a weighty authority.

Chief Maqoma

From the background of the broad sweep of the historical events colourful characters abound who stand out and command attention. There is the frontier giant at almost seven feet tall Coenraad de Buys who married many women (none of them white) and fathered a people, the Buysvolk of the northern parts of South Africa; there is the very human and yet very interesting James Read (Snr) who came to South Africa fired with enthusiasm to uplift the “Hottentot” (Khoikhoi) people and lived as one of them, marrying a Khoikhoi woman and championing their cause against the white settlers; there is the brave and ultimately tragic chief Maqoma who in the end wanted nothing but to live like a white farmer; the little braggadocio governor Sir Harry Smith who, understanding almost nothing of Xhosa culture, claimed himself to be their “Paramount Chief”; there is the sad chief Sarili who had a deformed leg and was regarded by many as a weakling, but who was the “last great independent chief of the Xhosas” and whose final tragedy was to be the chief over the great cattle killing of 1856 which brought about the end of the Xhosa-speaking people’s independence.

Sir Harry Smith

As Mostert notes, in spite of the way the British had treated his father and his people, “…there had never been anything in Sarili’s demeanour that suggested a hatred or a longing for vengeance. He appeared in every respect to be a larger man than that.”

Sarili, as he comes through in this great book, epitomises the tragedy of the Xhosa-speaking peoples. The various groups of Xhosa-speaking people seem to have gone out of their ways to accommodate and appease the colonists in hopes of being left in peace to continue their lives in the way they most wished to, and at every turn, they were frustrated by the demands of Britain and the colonists. They saw their land and cattle taken from them and even when they were innocent were accused of cattle rustling.

The cruelties visited on the Xhosa-speaking people were unbelievable. And yet they tried to maintain their dignity, to maintain as much of their customs and beliefs as they could in the face of the colonial and missionary onslaught. Their land they lost. As they said, “ilizwe lifile (the land is dead)” – “You kill our country by taking away our customs.”

Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa-speaking peoples, Sarili

So, as Mostert says, South Africa was born in a great tragedy, symbolised by the death of Sarili, who died in hiding at the age of 83, in 1893.

With the defeat of the amaZulu in neighbouring Natal the British had “achieved the military conquest of the two great black groups which had offered the main resistance to the white domination of South Africa.

In a final ironic twist of history, though, as Mostert noted, “It was through the Xhosa-speaking peoples, however, that African political leadership in South Africa mainly continued to express itself.” The list of 20th Century leaders who came from among the Xhosa-speaking peoples and have shaped the new democratic South Africa is impressive, among them Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Steven Bantu Biko, Chris Hani, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, to name but a few.

Frontiers is an essential and absorbing read for anyone wishing to understand South Africa today, and an enjoyable trip through history, thanks to the skill of the author.

© Text copyright by Tony McGregor. All illustrations from the book Frontiers: the Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noël Mostert (London, Pimlico, 1992).

Birders’ paradise in Pretoria

The most famous book on South African birds is Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa, first published in 1940. The book was so authoritative that all birds in South Africa are now identified by their “R” number, the number they were given in the book. The book is now in its seventh edition, published in 2005. A species list from this edition is available here.

Austin Roberts. Image via Wikipedia

The author of the book was Pretoria-born ornithologist Austin Roberts, son of a minister who became the best-known authority on South African birds.

Roberts worked for the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria for 36 years until his untimely death in a car accident in 1946.

In 1958 the Pretoria Municipality declared a bird sanctuary and nature reserve in the Muckleneuk area of the city and named it in honour of the famous son of the city.

Today the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary is a very popular place with birders and just about anyone else looking for a peaceful, restful place to relax. Very popular too is the Blue Crane Restaurant situated on the banks of the lake in the sanctuary.

The sanctuary is now home to some 170 species of birds, notably South Africa’s National Bird the Blue Crane (R208), and large numbers of water birds.

There is a beautiful hide from which the water birds especially can be watched, but also in summer large numbers of masked weavers (R815) and southern red bishops (R824) can be spotted.

The diorama display of birds

There is also a building housing a display of stuffed birds in a diorama.

A red-knobbed coot (R228) foraging for food in the lake.

The sanctuary covers some 11.8 hectares and is part of the Walkerspruit Open Space System. Two streams feed the lake.

Looking across the water towards the restaurant

Adjacent to the sanctuary there is also a beautiful recreation park with attractive walks and playground equipment to keep children occupied.

© Text and photos, unless otherwise indicated, copyright Tony McGregor 2011

Fort Klapperkop – one of Pretoria’s historic forts

In the months prior to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 the government of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR – the South African Republic) four forts were constructed to defend the capital, Pretoria.


The entrance to Fort Klapperkop

One of these, Fort Klapperkop, was built at a cost of £50000 and was handed over to the government of the ZAR on 18 January 1898. Included in the fort was the Central Magazine, also handed over that day.

The entrance to the Central Magazine

By the following January the fort was manned by 17 troops, increased to 30 six months later, although only three months later the number had been reduced to 16.


A replica of the “Long Tom” cannon stands guard over the southern approaches to Fort Klapperkop

By October 1899 the armaments of the fort included a “Long Tom”, a 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt and three Martini-Henry hand-maxims.

The “Long Tom” was sent to Ladysmith (Natal) by train to assist the Boer forces there. A 65mm Krupp mountain gun was the only armament left at the fort, with two Martini-Henrys, by 7 November 1899.

The fort had a reservoir under its floor fed from the Fountains Valley some distance away.

Communications with the outside world were by means of heliographic and overhead telegraphic links as well as telephone.


The generator which supplied power to the fort

The fort had electric power supplied by a paraffin engine and generator.


Part of the moat around Fort Klapperkop

Unlike the other Pretoria forts Klapperkop had a moat and drawbridge, though the moat seems never to have been filled.


A display in the museum

The fort is now a museum with some well-planned displays.