Book reviews: District Six to the Karoo

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Restoring the archive

Sala Kahle, District Six by Nomvuyo Ngcelwane

Kwela Books

192 pages

R159 at takealot.com

Originally released in 1998, Kwela has now republished this valuable contribution to the archive by Nomvuyo Ngcelwane, whose parents lived at 22 Cross Street in District Six, Cape Town, when she was born. The property was a double-storey house owned by the friendly landlord Abdullah, who treated his tenants with dignity. This remained her home for 20 years and in her personal memoir the author relates the everyday details of the lives and musings of the people who were close to her.

As a child Ngcelwane mixed comfortably and gladly with all the children of her neighbourhood, no matter their ethnic origin. As the book unfolds, she increasingly tells the story from the perspective of the black African families she knew, providing insights into her tight-knit community and their social history. Cultural differences are apparent, but never divisive. All the people of the district suffered at the hands of the police, and their vulgarity and brutality are a constant presence in Ngcelwane’s story.

Disciplinary committees, child-rearing practices and social networks among her kin are explored in detail.

Early in the writer’s life she had to commute to Langa to attend school as only mixed-race children were allowed to attend local educational facilities. This long, tiring and totally unnecessary journey for a small child epitomises in some small way the ludicrous apartheid laws, especially as she played so freely with other children on her street.

The writing reflects a farewell to District Six several chapters before the family is forcibly removed. The author begins to focus on the social and cultural life of Langa and Nyanga. As District Six is in the title of the book, perhaps there could have been more detail about this historically rich place. Does this suggest that as she grew older she felt less accepted?

Only the iconic cover photograph places the story geographically for the reader as descriptions in the book are infrequent. There is a sparseness of colour about the writing, which is at times pedantic. However, this true story is valuable as it adds another piece to the pictures painted by others about what was a truly racially mixed community.

Reviewed by Christine Forbes, a school teacher and librarian who lived in District Six in her childhood

The cult of the wild

Wild Karoo: A Journey Through History, Change and Revival in an Ancient Land by Mitch Reardon

Struik Nature

224 pages

R216

Once viewed as a harsh, dry and desolate place best avoided, the Karoo has, in recent times, grown in popularity as a tourist destination. As the cult of the wild grows stronger, more and more people find themselves attracted by its unique flora, sheer physical beauty and a resurgence of the wildlife that once populated its plains.

The name Karoo itself is said to come from a Khoekhoen word, possibly “garo” or “karusa”, meaning dry or desert. Covering 35% of the country’s land area it is South Africa’s largest ecosystem.

Wanting to find out more about this ancient and rugged landscape, author Mitch Reardon set out on an epic 4 000km trip through the region through all four seasons.

Wild Karoo is the result, a series of vivid vignettes that capture the nature of humanity’s relationship with this harsh landscape. Wild Karoo is far more than just a manual; it has plenty of inspiration and fresh knowledge to offer.

The book is divided into various sections – local conservation, large and small game, birds and other creatures; the regional landscape and geology; and the history and lifestyle of the people who have made a home here.

Wild Karoo is very well written and the author’s description of individual places is rife with enticing phrases and gleaned insights. Reardon has the ability to draw readers in to the experience through the precision of his prose.

Extensively illustrated and beautifully produced, it is a success of both organisation and observation.

Reviewed by Anthony Stidolph, a cartoonist at The Witness

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