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The Nelson Mandela flower

The “Nelson Mandela flower” is in season at the moment. It was only a few weeks ago that I found out that it is actually called a Primula. But for me it is the Nelson Mandela flower because I always associate them with him and the day he and Graca Machel got married.

I had been sent to his house to confirm reports that he had got married. I had spent the morning in the office banging away at the phone trying to get something because the rumours had been wild the whole week. I even interviewed his spokesman Parks Mankahlana on the morning of July 18, and he famously lied to me and said there was no wedding and I wrote the story, with the quote.

Primula sieboldii

Primula sieboldii


The day before my boss at the time Russell Norton told me that I must go to Mandela’s house because there was a meeting with ministers, priests, rabbis, representatives of many of the religions practised in South Africa and see if I could find anything out.

I got there and it was just me and a reporter from 702, Donald Chauke who is now known as Njanje Chauke and the security guard asked me what I was doing there. I told him I had come for the meeting. Maybe the security guard was new, maybe it’s because I still wore proper office clothes in those days – a neat longish skirt, a nice top, heels. But he asked to see my ID book, made a call into the house and said “come with me”.  Just me. He led me to a garden and there was a semi circle of people on chairs under a tree in various religious clothes, with Mandela in the middle. I remember it feeling very peaceful and the grass was that lovely thick dark green grass that is nice to walk barefoot on.

Mr Mandela rose and said: “Ah! Are you coming to join us?” and I can tell you I did not see that coming. Walking with the policeman and being directed right to Mr Mandela. Caught completely off guard I replied: “I hope so” and started over the lawn towards the semi circle with my notebook in one hand, getting ready to greet.

The words had probably not even reached his ears yet, and a man came out of nowhere, took me by the elbow and led me firmly, but politely, away, and before I could blink I was on the pavement again with Njanje.

I had not blagged my way in at all. I didn’t think anything was wrong when I went in and I definitely did not expect to be led into the semi circle of religious leaders and up to Mr Mandela himself.  When I think about it now it was probably a massive breach of security and the policeman probably got some stick. But I didn’t do it on purpose. But it still wasn’t enough for a story. It was all just speculation and I had walked into a private meeting by mistake. Mandela was known to keep close ties with religious leaders from all faiths.

On Saturday July 18, 1998, after speaking to his spokesman Parks Mankahlana and writing my “he is definitely not getting married story”, the radio kept carrying on about him getting married. It was very exciting. It was also his birthday remember, so I said I was going to over and have a look and got into the company car and went over to his house in Houghton to see for myself.

People were arriving in their droves, the public, neighbours, media, everybody was just stopping and getting out and walking towards the house, leaving car doors open, the radio bulletin that he was married could be heard in the background through the open car windows. We were all standing outside wondering how we could find out absolutely one way or another. One neighbour came up to me and said, “You’re too late, it’s over, he’s married”. I asked how he knew, hoping of course that he had been a guest and had seen it himself, but he said no, he had heard it on 702. So I didn’t know what to file and started working on a colour piece to file describing what was happening outside the house.

And then they arrived. Domestic workers from the leafy wealthy neighbourhood, still in their pinnies in lovely pastels – pinks and lavenders – with neat white aprons, and they all carried little posies of primulas and they didn’t walk, they swayed, they sang, there were walls of them, swaying and harmonising beautiful songs, all holding bunches of primulas that looked like bright pink and mauve Guy Fawkes sparklers.

They gave the flowers to the gate guards and sang hymns and beautiful songs, and word started getting stronger that Mandela had actually married Graca, on his birthday.

It was a lovely story. She finding love again after her husband the late Samora Machel died in a controversial plane crash. She was going to be married to a president again too. We suddenly had to find out more about her at short notice – Google wasn’t around yet and Yahoo was in its early days so it wasn’t easy like it is now. And him – he was finding love again after his marriage to Winnie very sadly collapsed after his release from prison.  There was big serious stuff going on – Truth and Reconcilation Commission stuff, high politics, and in all this, a little window of beauty – a late love story for two people who had endured so much, with people singing songs of celebration and carrying flowers for them picked from their garden.

The office let me know that Parks had confirmed that they were married and that he admitted that he had lied about it to protect Mandela and Machel’s privacy on the day. Parks spent a lot of his life defending himself over that.  Sadly he died a few years later at a young age.

Leaders from various religions had blessed the marriage – I remember mention of the Methodists, a Rabbi, and the Friday meeting I accidentally gate crashed fell into place. And no wonder I was removed so swiftly.

Every year I see these flowers popping up around this time of year, bringing colour to our bleak Johannesburg winter gardens and getting bigger and bigger as the weather improves, finally dying off late in spring and early summer to give other beauties time to shine. My neighbour plants them en masse every year and they are beautiful and for the last two years I have started buying a few trays and popping them in here and there and they give me great happiness because they are so unfussy and pretty and easy going. It was at a nursery a few weeks ago that I paid attention to, and remembered their proper name.

I googled them and found out that the one I am talking about is the Primula sieboldii and it seems to come from Japan.

But for me these tall spiky pink, mauve and white flowers will always just be “the Nelson Mandela flower”.





It was a beautiful Friday in Johannesburg. I packed the sketch pads, pencils, sharpeners. We were going on a cultural outing. More of an expedition. We were going to the Johannesburg Art Gallery and we were going to choose a … Continue reading


One guy (black) behind the wheel of a skadonk stuck in the middle of a terrible intersection, his face scrunched with come on start come on start Ohmygodnotnowness. Traffic forming a rush hour laager around him while his mate tries to rock some momentum into the stubborn sedan. Nobody has hooted yet. We’re all thousand yard staring, mentally clocked out for the day, clutch in, clutch out. Meanwhile, oke (white) in one of those grand bakkies manages to drive to the other side, parks, and in his stripy shirt and office pants, helps push the car out to the side of the road. This breaks the trance. The driver gets out of ohshit mode and gets out too, leaning into the car to steer, pushing with his shoulder. Corporate dude and the two of them nose through a gap and they’re out. Afterwards we’re all superpolite, after you-ing, because we saw something nice, and kind, as the traffic moves again. It is usually all scowls and don’t be an asshole and Really?

Why did I want to write this down to remember it? Because I felt, ja, even though there is so much political static, we’re going to be okay.

Happy Birthday Ms J

(Written before Jazzy’s birthday in 2012 and found in old drafts)

Time passes quickly and time passes slowly. Sitting at this table in 2003 I was wondering what those small cramps were. Wind I was told. It was two weeks too early for the big day. Eight hours later I was screaming the Hillbrow tower down and a little person stared at me with huge eyes.

Miracle and wonder.

It is apt that in this week’s word list one of the words Ms J has to learn is voyage. It’s part of the “oy” sequence they are learning. Oy. I say that a lot on this voyage we are having. And sometimes that’s all you can do. If the hamster falls in the guitar during his freetime and you can’t get him out because he’s now nesting in the far curve, you can just say oy, and make a plan to free him.

Her voyage has been a tough one for such a little person. But she seems to remember the silly thing I used to say to her from when she was very little. Just sing and have fun. Another oy word on the list – enjoy. There’s also boycott. No I won’t wear a jersey I’m not cold. Yes I know it’s winter. No I won’t wear those brand new shoes they’re pinchy.

Boyfriend. She is still smitten by a certain class smartypants who starts sentences with “as you know I…”. He shockingly dispensed inaccurate information about why birds don’t get shocked on powerlines yesterday. He had told her before the class and she said afterwards she was very pleased the teacher didn’t pick her to answer the question. She would have looked so stupid she said. Oy. He lost a bit of his glitter I’m afraid.

She announced that now that she is getting a little older, she can’t speak dog and cat anymore, so I have lost my interpreter. She insists she is old enough for a cellphone, but still cannot understand why Shakira would allow the s word on her CD because it’s such a bad word. Joy.

It’s quite a voyage Ms J and I’m loving it. And I’m also not taking my seat belt off yet. Happy birthday bean. X


Just another Jozi day

(First published on Facebook Aug 31 2009)

Sent off to cover Julius Malema at the Equality Court. Continuation of hate speech complaint about the woman who laid a rape charge against President Jacob Zuma. Not looking forward to it.

Anyway, there’s very little traffic on the way to court – oh, there’s no taxis in what 702 diplomatically called a decision not to work, made by taxi drivers grumpy about a new bus system.

I make my way to my secret parking behind the court. Drive down a bus lane by accident and don’t get fined – things are going well. My secret parking is packed – the friendly grandpa waves me to the next derelict backyard with its hastily painted “R10 parking” sign – also full. I follow a car guard, reversing against traffic in a side road and when it becomes clear he wants me to also reverse down a main road in the direction of Joburg Central Police Station I kick the car into first and drive forward.

An old man carrying a see through bag of some unspeakable looking stuff waves me into his spot. It’s a junkyard with car bodies and a dog straining at its leash, with some of the unspeakable contents of the bag strewn in front of the dog for breakfast.

With junkyard dog on his hind legs barking at me and a man hanging washing on a balcony nearby I see a sign on the plastercast wall in front of me: “My car is your car”.


Am I giving my car to the old man’s chop shop or does he take his R10 a shot trade very seriously?

No time to think about this – got to get to the only plug in the court room.

The Star has beaten me to it, but bless her heart, she’s a mac girl, and uses a two pin plug so has brought an adaptor. 702 and I share the power.

The Equality court is in a forgotten room of this beautiful court building. Once abandoned oversized furniture has been squashed in so there is only one way in and one way out of the vast bench with the table pressed against the opposite wall. Letting someone else in is like disembarking from a crowded taxi when you were in the back seat – everyone out, then everyone back in.

Julius Malema’s lawyer starts speaking. Fuck, I can’t hear a word he is saying. Everyone out so that I can get closer. Everyone back in again. I sit on a chair next to Julius. Someone arrives who I assume is his advocate and I am waved away by Julius. I sit on the floor behind Julius surpressing granny-like feelings of entitlement to The Chair. He’s not the advocate but the treasurer general and he’s quite obsessed with his cellphone.

The hearing drones on, Julius has a power nap – the blue powerade he brought not giving him a boost in the pre-summer heat. I don’t know how I’m going to file because my laptop is on the other side of the room and seven people have to move for me to get to it.

Eventually, I get my phone passed to me and I go out to file in my other secret place – the parole office where you share sunshine and cigarettes with garrulous chainsmoking supportive mums aunts and sisters waiting to see their family members from behind the bars of the parole office. They have an extra plug behind the water machine is how I found this place. They smoke up a storm and ask for the time while you self consciously dictate your piece while everyone is listening while discussing family drama.

By now the ANC aunties have arrived. The men are low key and slide through the door, but the aunties have this desire To Be Heard as they support Julius.

Outside the court two protests are underway. The Youth League with posters “hands off to our president”, the Sonke Gender Justice People advocating against silence about rape – each trying to outsing each other – each with a bakkie parked on the pavement. Pity the noses aren’t facing – it could have lent a handbags at dawn quality to the moment. This is good – opposing points of view being heard – if you stand somewhere in the middle. Everyone has forgotten to bring a vuvuzela and attempt to remedy this by rolling up their posters that say things like “Hands off Malema” and then blowing through them.

The cops shuttle between the newly launched bus stations around the corner and the court protests.

One woman, with Jacob Zuma’s picture pasted onto her earings, and an exquisite Xhosa traditional outfit gets a bit carried away – shouting about money and Malema being persecuted and why do women set themselves up for rape by walking alone at night? A policeman moves me gently back on to the pavement – so that I don’t get run over by one of the new buses. Write the news. Don’t be the news.

I walk over the road to a nice looking office establishment that has patches of grass. I want to file an adjournment piece – it looks quiet and I can sit.

The security guard pounces and says No Loitering – ha ha ha – how funny. I start picking up my stuff and it’s not fast enough for him – he points to some cctv and wants to know if I intend giving him any trouble.

I phone my story through while resting up against the spikes built into what would have been a perfect seat opposite the court. The leaguers, armed with bright pink ice lollies end up sitting next to me and I get filing shyness again. The gender people are having nice looking chicken lunches dispensed from the back of their bakkie, theirs and the league’s posters resting on the pavement. Reminds me of my history teacher’s lessons on the Anglo-Boer war – everyone stopped for tea every day. He may have made that up.

My notebook has run dry and my other one is in my other bag. I set off to find one from the multitude of supermarkets. They appear to only sell hair products and airtime so eventually, I’m all the way down the road in the opposite direction, with a laptop flapping in the breeze in downtown Joburg, at a place called Charlie Parkers that has every hair braid and hair thingy imaginable. And school exercise books. Six South African ront and I get one of those big school hard cover books. I didn’t have enough on me for a bulk pack of brightly coloured hair squeegees at four ront because I’m saving up for a bottle of water bought at the next shop with its impressive display of extremely cheap and glittery watches.

The concertina-like Rea Vaya buses shudder past with police escorts and me and a couple of reporters and photographers now waiting for the court to reopen admire them, and the passengers have the look of royalty about them, albeit squashed royalty because the buses are packed. There was even a white person in one. Julius would have been pleased. There is also an armed policeman. See earlier comment about cross taxi owners.

Then things go a bit pear shaped. During an adjournment, the auntie with the JZ earings starts going on a bit, the people around her agree in that way you hear in movies with gospel church scenes – uh huh yeah – and, fired up, she leans on one of the vast tables and wants to know if the network wants money and it all gets very noisy and hot while another auntie with Bennie Boekwurm glasses starts demanding an answer for where swine flu came from. Huh?

The magistrate returns and just sits. She doesn’t say anything, just looks out at the court. We think we’re all in trouble for the bout of rabble rousing. The silence and staring continues. The Star and I are whispering what’s going on? The Star suggests that she is cross. Eventually, the magistrate breaks her silence – technical problem with record capturing, can’t carry on without a record. Completely oblivious. Same magistrate arrived late for the hearing apparently because no one told her the court, heaving with people, was ready for her.

The network’s lawyer complains about the outburst, which involved much pointed shouting at the journalists and lawyers. 702 reporter had bravely thrust her mike in front of the cross auntie earlier and is trying to edit her clip and file her piece hoping she won’t be set upon.

The magistrate orders the court cleared of public excluding reporters. The Heathcliff-like dude in the brown leather jacket next to me doesn’t move. I have wondered about him – he is expressionless throughout, very occasionally flicking his eyes over my copy, (me trying to not cover the text with an arm because that would seem rude), and apologising for bumping the computer.

Case postponed and I almost concus a reporter trying to pack up to rush outside for Julius’s statement.

I see Heathcliff later on the back of the Corsa bakkie that Julius and nine others mount for a post-court speech. So he is a bodyguard. You can hear the car’s suspension gasping and whistling as everyone gets on to the back. I’m tapped on the arm by a kind man I met in the pouring rain at the ANC’s Polokwane conference. With water dripping off our noses he explained how revolutionary songs get updated for the politics of the day and I remember how he and a group of his friends sang and toyi-toyied, water splashing everywhere to demonstrate the new songs. He gives me a business card – he’s a larney in a branch now. We hug and ask after each other’s health. He’s also part of the inner circle here and his young face is beaming.

The speech itself is almost drowned out by women passing cellphones over for a picture of him, and then delighting over the picture but I hear something about colonising through NGO funding and mickey mouses. Sonke is singing up a storm a few metres away and the league’s secretary general is re-readapting the “touch a woman” slogan – you touch Julius you touch 640,000 Youth League members etc. Last week it was you touch Caster (Semenya) etc. The top brass leave in cars that were parked on the pavement for them. Earlier, on the other side of the court people were being pulled over for driving in the spanking new bus lane.

I go back to my junkyard. I’m going to miss my yoga class, be late collecting Jasmine etc.

About three men are sitting in a circle with another dog that’s not on a leash. The junk yard dog gives a half hearted bark as I go to my car. It’s not on bricks.  Thank you sweet Jesus. The grandpa bids me goodbye at the gate, wishing me well.

Kevin fetches Jas (thank you) and I get home finally. She has stood on a thorn and there’s a plaster disaster because I had them all in my bag (the one under the vast court bench). But she’s ok. Her and Zenzi are covered in poster paint and they start playing ball in the lounge – happy shrieking baby girls – and I don’t shout about them breaking stuff. Just another day in Jozi.

RIP Stephanus

Today my boet Stefanus aka Stephen Bruce Evans would have been 44. He introduced me to the Sex Pistols, reggae and the twilight zone of evading hospital police guards. He suffered from genius and creeping gatvolness and these plagued him throughout his life.


He almost had me jailed for 15 years after passing out in my bedroom while on awol from the army. While the cops who had come to haul him back to the army got all excited about a Nelson Mandela poster in my room he very quietly. Escaped. Not forgetting his two litre of brandy and coke. It was his dagga smoking gardener friend Andrew who burnt the evidence that I had cycled off with while the cops arrived with reinforcements so I didn’t go to jail. He spent a month in DB and got kicked out of the army. The police initally thought they had found themselves a terrorist. But it was the drunken polony cookup in the army kitchen that finally had the army fed up. His friends, who had pretended to be mad and flat footed to get out of conscription, were cross that they had not thought of that themselves.


He ran away from home when he was 13. To Durban. He came back when some alley oke took his last R5 and kept him waiting for hours for a pair of off-the-truck Levis which would have gone well with his blanket shirt. He won the class prize in the John Travolta lookalike competition. He got marked wrong on Lilongwe as the capital of Malawi because the new name wasn’t in his text book yet and he had to learn what he was taught said the teacher at the time. My mother walked to the school to complain, because it was the difference between 19 out of 20 and 20 out of 20. This was standard three. He later rebelled and test-drove some of the top schools in the country, and very quickly figured out how to get the maximum points to be allowed to leave De Bult reform school.He did ace wheelies on his red yamaha 50. He finished the rubik’s cube before anyone else had figured it out.


He had a bad motorbike crash one night and spent his life in constant pain and far too much time in the emergency rooms of the country’s hospitals as he battled to not have his leg amputated. His relief was the marshmallow world of pethedine and syndol. Stefanus’s resume included being a manager at Clicks, a miner, a bar manager, a waiter, a plumber.


His other affliction was alcoholism. It tormented him and no matter how hard he tried, it kept coming back. After crashing into a BMW he went on the run from insurance companies wanting him to pay. He lived in the church yard at Rhema in Durban. Paying the local wishy washy to wash and iron his work clothes, and showering on the beachfront, until the alloted claim time lapsed. He said Mrs Rhema was very kind to him. It was on a similar mission that I inadvertently drove the escape car from Helen Joseph Hospital with his friend Ian after being called to come and fetch him after another episode which this time involved an injury and a police guard.


For his international travel he chose Bulgaria and Hungary and Egypt and he was pleased that he not done the “London sheep” thing.


Brendan once had to go to court to be him when he did his usual of crumpling up a fine and throwing it out of the window. He used to give Brendan’s name because he didn’t have a licence and they looked alike in their ID books. The two of them spent hours fixing my cars for me. Loud music pumping, quarts of Black Label at hand. He crashed my Beetle twice coming back with a completely plausible story of how he and his friend Paul encountered someone running across the road in their path. His second last crash was into a dominee’s car. It was do not pass go time. But the dominee took pity and got the police to agree to him going for one last treatment so he didn’t go to jail. He was sober for two years with the help of an antabuse patch. He was with our dad when our dad died. The patch ran out. He kept putting off the replacement appointment. He drank. He crashed into a Beacon sweets truck in Melville. He survived that but the shit was creeping back into his life.


He survived for two weeks without the patch. On his last night alive he drove around Honeydew trying to find an AA meeting. He couldn’t find it and went into Zandspruit and bought some quarts instead. Brendan phoned me to say Stephen had shot himself. All I could think to say was in journalese: Is it fatal? Brendan’s reply in shock was: I don’t know what the fuck fatal means, but he’s dead. I went to the toilet. I nearly fainted. I packed some clothes.


I met the ambulance on the dust road on the way to his cottage. Its red light flicking lazily over the highveld sand and bush ahead of me. I stood under a thorn tree when his body was taken away. It was an exquisite morning. Misty, fragrant. If he had not shot himself he would have found a reason to carry on living, no matter how kak he was feeling. But it was too late. I hope his girlfriend Sharon is okay because she was with him that night. Funny thing though. He hated birthdays. RIP my boet. Jah love.

(First published 15 Sept 2010)


The taxi driver was half an hour late. I was supposed to be at court when he arrived and when I saw it was the ancient driver in the ancient car I just felt the assignment slip out of my hands.

At first I thought it was the horrible old man in the blue car. The one we ask the company not to send. He drives at 20ks an hour and bitches all the way. Perhaps he had bought a new car so that he could get our work again. So I was a bit remote.

But this man was sweet. It wasn’t blue car man. It was Hendrik. He drove slowly and spoke about how in winter he could always smell food and was always thinking of food. Cars swung round us like dodgems as he sped up to 35. I offered him half a Marmite sandwich, which he declined. Just as he hit his full stride of 42ks, we came upon a massive truck doing a three point turn in the middle of the road.

Ag what can you do, we agreed, as we waited. We set off again and went through the s-bend, slowing down to 30 because of the speed trap (the limit is 60). We crawled past a minor bumper bashing which made Hendrik’s heart open to those who now suddenly have to find insurance excess money. He related a story of how he “let off” a woman who drove into his bumper and told him money was no object, only to find that he had to pay the R450 out of his own pocket. R450 ront, can you believe it, he said. But God gives it back to you in another way, he said.

We passed the swells of people at home affairs and I found out that he was from Benoni, but could have been Capetonian if his parents hadn’t moved just before he was born. I think he would have been a good Capetonian and I told him so. His thick silver hair combed back into his neck, blue eyes, lines on his face like contour marks on a map. He just needed a surfboard and a dog.