Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Lewin's Stones Against the Mirror is a milestone

The book 'Stones Against the Mirror' is another in a slew of South African books that look back on the past through the autobiography/memoir lens. The motivation for this kind of book, one takes it, is an author's need for things that happened in the past to be better understood or to ensure the past (or bits that are important to the writer) is not forgotten.  In other cases, the autobiography or memoir – as someone once said – is  a case of the writer saying … “see what I have been through”.

Hugh Lewin was part of an underground resistance movement, the African Resistance Movement. Made up of mostly white activists, they deployed violence to try to prevent the white electorate from sinking into a false complacency. All this was at a time of apartheid repression, a time when black movements and voices were being silenced. The strategy was to launch dynamite attacks on installations, in the process avoiding human injury or death. In 1964, Lewin went to jail for 7 years after Adrian Leftwich gave Lewin's name to the Security Police and after Leftwich and John Lloyd testified against him.

Hugh Lewin wrote his book for particular purposes, not explained but apparent. The reader is left with the clear impression that the book is a part of the same search for healing that is covered in the latter part of the book. Lewin wants to deal with certain deeply felt and unresolved things; he wants to slay some demons.

On the cover, it is noted that the book is about friendship. Actually, the book is better described as being about betrayal, about Lewin's crippling sense that he was betrayed by someone very close to him, about his long interregnum of bitterness, and about his quest for the final 'closure' through making peace with his (former) buddy. Thus the book is in many senses Lewin's own TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Committee) process - a painful process of retelling what took place and exorcising the ghosts.

What is great about the book? First, Stones Against the Mirror is powerful in its interiority and subjectivity. There is the broad canvas of politics (a further filling in of the resistance history); but the spotlight is also trained on personal issues, on interactions and on growth and development of Lewin and his relationships. Under discussion, at times in unflinching ways, are personal trauma, bitterness and the psychological process called healing. Secondly the book adds to the historical record. It covers a period – and a strand of resistance – that is often missed when the commemorations and reflections are done. Thirdly, it contains instances of brutal honesty (critical reflections). For example, he provides exacting reflection about the nature of sabotage activities, how naive and adventurous some aspects of this were and how, when the clampdown began, Lewin had no escape plan to deal with such an eventuality. Fourthly, the book adopts some sharp viewpoints about race and how race functioned in society. Discussing attitudes in boarding school, the outlook of his father, etc., Lewin shows how racist thinking permeated the society. He takes the black consciousness view when he notes how difficult it would be in such a context for someone from the privileged white group to claim no involvement: only deliberate action as opposed to neutrality was needed.

But the book also raised a number of issues at different levels, some of them controversial. (Some of these issues were also alluded to in the discussion at the book launch in Johannesburg on 9 April 2011. In the comment below, I refer to some of these issues.)

Constructing what happened: The book demonstrates the extent that history is a construct. In this sense, writing history is both non non-fiction and the work of the imagination. This book shows how difficult it is to achieve agreement as to 'what happened'. The angles regarding what occurred are many – the security police, the court record, Leftwich's writing (some of it self-serving) and now Hugh Lewin trying to piece it all together so many years later. [Writing about happenings, conversations and reactions so many decades ago is extremely difficult - who can remember exactly what was said and, in all cases, the precise sequence of events? There is a great deal of making up. Normally the process is rendered more credible through corroboration of stories and cross checking of facts. However, in a tale filled with such contestation and conflict such as Lewin's, constructing the story appears to be a far more difficult and charged process].

What is left out: “Stones” is interesting for what is left out or the silences in the book. For example, Lewin does not indicate what his current attitude to John Lloyd is, and why the latter is not included in Lewin’s 'making peace' process. At his book launch, Stephanie Kemp, a struggle stalwart and a former ARM activist, raised this very issue; Lewin responded that it was Lloyd who wanted nothing to do with him.

Forgiving: The book raises the vexed question of 'forgiving' – what is it, who is entitled to it and whether forgiveness can be deployed regardless of the perpetrator’s attitude or active participation in it? Hugh Lewin himself refuses to describe his peace-making interactions with Leftwich and the security policeman Johannes Viktor as being about forgiving them. For him, it is much more about his own process of dealing with nightmares and letting go (of bitterness?, of anger?) and of moving forward. There are contradictions between the TRC mode and the approach he adopted in relation to the two: Lewin makes peace with the two without requiring full explanations in return.

Each reader of this book must answer (for themselves) the question as to whether this book is a full unburdening or whether they judge it as unsatisfactory because of the gaps. It is true, as Claudia Braude raised with him at his book launch, that Lewin is stingy on detail in his description of the meeting with Leftwich? (This meeting is a key focal point of the book). It is also true that the book is silent about his feelings regarding John Lloyd today. While readers always want “all” to be told, Lewin may retort that he has never punted the book as being about ‘truth’ or the whole story, but about friendship.

I have a dual response to Stones Against the Mirror. One part of me, the one that espouses intellectual rigour, asks for more about this process of closure (the how, the why); that same part joins in to highlight gaps, silences and inconsistencies. Another part of me applauds this work as a milestone, and  views the book as a wonderful piece of recollection. It foregrounds a neglected strand of resistance during an important historical period. This second part of me asserts that Lewin should be saluted for having given so much of himself while writing ‘Stones” (that in a book that stands out for highlighting the personal/psychological while also narrating broader political events).

[Please feel free to add your comment in the Comment box]

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The vision, talent and inspiration of jazz giant Zim Ngqawana lives on

Zim Ngqawana has certainly left his mark. Reports in the media this week referred to him as a genius. His 'son', Ludwe, drafting the press statement, referred to him as an icon. These superlatives are no exaggeration; Zim was a professional musician of note   one who operated in the world as if he had a clear mission and a singular calling.

On 9 May 2011 Zim played his beloved instruments for the last time. Rehearsing at his Johannesburg home for a forthcoming gig, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital where he died the next day from effects of a stroke.

Saxophonist, flautist and composer extraordinaire, Zim was highly talented and inventive, creating distinctive sounds and boldly combining various styles of jazz. Musically he was a visionary. He was always pushing the boundaries, trying to go beyond what he created before and frequently fusing indigenous sounds with stylistic elements from the canon of western jazz. He never patronised his audiences, always believing in their capacity to appreciate the avant-garde.

He not only played music for his and others' enjoyment, music for him was a meditative space. Through it, he seemingly strove to reach a deeper core of human existence. Many of those who listened to him came to appreciate this and turned up at his gigs with a fitting mindset. Others did not quite get this, sometimes causing Zim frustration as he played. They did not get that he wanted music to be approached with a certain reflectiveness, that his stage could be seen as an altar that could help life-weary listeners enter a sacred space (even if that place was the space within). It’s not that he opposed people having a beer or scotch in the venues where he played; but he did hate it when a venue was like a bar-room -- when excessive drinking and raucous banter superseded the listening.

Zim had many visions, some might even say lofty ones, for his music. This is why he called it Zimology – he saw it as an approach, a way of thinking and a way of being in culture. Music to him was part of a journey of spiritual discovery he was undertaking. In radio interviews, questioned about his music, he found an incredible articulateness about the meaning of his music. Tapping into his inner core, he spoke wisely about the deeper sources and meanings of music.

I haven’t seen him much in recent months, but in earlier times   a few years back   he was driven by a need to try to create a physical home for Zimology. He dreamed of establishing a renowned jazz club cum rehearsal space cum academy. He identified certain buildings/venues and submitted offers or expressions of interest, but nothing came of this. He bought a farm in Walkerville and some wonderfully crazy, creative and collaborative things happened there. But this venue never really took off in a big way. The dream of a special and spectacular 'space' always eluded him, slipping through his fingers.

Zim established two organisations to carry his vision, the Zimology Institute and the Zimology Development Institute (Zimdi). Zimdi expressed his commitment to young artists and was meant to be the forerunner of the major academy he dreamed of. There were debates about how much the work of Zimdi would be structured and how much would be a kind of loose mentorship based on the idea that the protégé would learn from spending time with, observing and listening to the Master. Numerous young artists   rough diamonds   were nurtured and honed by Zim, and have emerged as accomplished musicians in their own right. Zim was by nature a person constantly generating knowledge, thinking and insights. With the exception perhaps of jamming with fellow jazz musicians, he liked nothing better than sitting in a lounge or a kitchen talking, reflecting and discussing. These discussions covered views of life, culture and, as often lately, existential questions.

Zim achieved greatness in seemingly deft and clear-guided ways, but much of it was underpinned by relentless hard work. He won many awards and played with renowned jazz musicians across the world. He netted a slew of SAMA awards and, early on, was hailed as the brightest and most exciting young jazz artist in Mzansi. He featured as a solo saxophonist at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994.

But lately, things for Zim began to move to a certain point – a decidedly downward turn. His health took a dip when he had more than one minor stroke in the last three years. His farm was vandalized and a grand piano senselessly damaged. As is the case for most jazz musicians, it was a struggle to ensure strong and steady income streams from his work. He saw his dream of establishing an iconic jazz club and successful academy wither, thanks to closed doors on the part of financial institutions and myopic vision from relevant public bodies. His mood became sombre and sometimes depressed, and in an interview just after he turned 50, he made a point of discussing his mortality. Latterly, he even began to wonder if jazz would ever get its place in the sun and be properly appreciated in our society. He seemed to be overcome by a weariness and he told one friend days before his untimely death that he was overwhelmed and another that he needed rest.

At his funeral on 10 May, a rainy evening, scores of people packed his home to say their final farewells. Although there were many musicians present, there was no sound of a musical instrument to be heard. Even at the graveside, there seemed to be a sombreness. We should have been celebrating an icon, remembering him with bold brassy sounds and vibrant vocals; instead, the mood and much of the discussion between mourners was pensive and somewhat downbeat. Perhaps it was just the rain and the mud and the piles of slippery brown leaves on the roadway and the verges. Perhaps and more likely, it was the huge sense of loss – our realization that, even though Zim would be with us in so many ways thereafter, we would not see him play on stage again, at one with the sound being created and, simultaneously, profoundly connected with those present.

One thing is for sure: the greatness, the inventiveness and the pioneer spirit that is Zim will live on in the oeuvre of great works he produced, and in the hearts of his numerous followers. He was a grand master of his game, and has laid down tracks and planted signposts that will influence jazz for many many decades to come. I honour him – go well, anointed one....

(Please feel free to add your views in the comment box).

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Memory and the present clash in The Pump Room, a dynamic new play

Allan Horwitz’s play, the Pump Room, which just finishes its run at the Theatre in the District in Cape Town, should have attracted much greater attention from audiences and reviewers alike. But this small production, lacking a big budget and the marketing muscle of the big theatre houses, has for now made only a tiny blip on the theatre scene. Pity.

The play has interesting structural elements. The narrative is built around the central metaphor of a pump room – around the sluggish but rhythmic work of pumps to depollute, clean up and freshen out water so that it can be fit for public use.

Although the specific comment is about how former security policemen have reinvented themselves and function (in often toxic ways) in the new dispensation, there is an implicit reference to wider comment about corruption in society.

At one level, the play throws light on how emotions, issues and trauma of the past have washed over into the present. At another level, it shows how the evil deeds, manipulation, terror and human exploitation, including exploitation of women, continue into the present.

Horwitz juggles the characters between crosscutting lines of conversation, between the male and female poles and between the claustrophobic pump room setting and the sea-view location. He manages to maintain the balance (and precariously so) without letting it all collapse in confusion. The banter between characters becomes fast-paced; everyone struggling for some control of their situation by defending who they are, using verbal sniping, pushing their view of life and all too often sticking the knife into each other's flaws.

In the end memory and the present jar but also, in a strange way, work to form a coherent whole. For the characters, the memories opens wounds and surfaces unresolved issues. But for the audience, as the past is revealed, it helps to explain the distorted relationships and the strange bonds. The information about the past brings a frame of understanding and even empathy.

The play is political but also invokes the personal dimension. It skillfully raises the question: what is it that prevents the individual from breaking out of paralysis so they can move forward with some sense of future and purpose? How much of the 'stuckness' is due to external forces, and how much is due to the demons, often un-named, that we carry with us?

It was a pity the show attracted such small audiences, as I said. The powerful piece forms part of a broader phenomenon. There is currently a flourish of new works, in literature and the theatre, that focus on the past (the days when apartheid reigned supreme) or show how the new democracy is still shadowed by ghosts of the past. The Pump Room links particularly to works that show how individuals, including those who were involved in the struggle, were traumatized and brought close to breaking point by what they went through. For a good number of such people, while many aspects of life in Mzansi move forward, they remain on the sidelines, trying to reassemble their life. Although the social situation cries out for selfless champions, for the kind of value driven activists that they were, they are unable to bring themselves to drive the dynamic social change agenda that they fought for in earlier times.

Horwitz, in his guise as a playwright and director, is an important new voice - one that believes in the vibrancy, ongoing relevance and life-giving quality of politically-oriented theatre. Skillfully directed and well acted, the Pump Room’s brief run is over; one hopes that it will be staged again in the near future.