Charl-Pierre Naudé. On the cosmopole and the province – another sort of angle

    Richard Jürgens



Richard Jurgens

Richard Jurgens

[Richard is die skrywer van The Many Houses of Exile (Covos Day), oor sy wedervaringe as ‘n apartheid-dissident in Afrika terwyl verbonde aan die ANC, en later  ook vlugteling van ook die ANC. Die boek het verskeie baie gunstige resensies in die pers gekry in die laat negentigs toe dit verskyn het.]

I am asked to outline my experience of living in a cosmopolitan country. The idea is that I should approach this coming from an English-speaking background in provincial South Africa. This description surprises me. It’s like encountering my reflection in an unexpected mirror. Who the hell does that schmuck think he is? Oh, right: me. 

Implicit in the way the theme is framed, I feel, too, is a question. What do South African writers and artists get from living in the cosmopolitan world, far from their province of origin? For me the whole point about where I live (and therefore work) is that it’s always local. I’m not really from South Africa, or even from Johannesburg; I’m from a particular neighbourhood in Johannesburg. The same is true here, in this city. I don’t live in Amsterdam. I live in a particular district of the city, with its particular atmosphere and history.  

One disadvantage of life in a cosmopolitan city is the incredible bureaucracy. At any rate, the other day, having made it through the tunnel of paperwork associated with moving, I ventured out to explore the streets, shops and cafés, as one does. There’s always a window of a few weeks when impressions are fresh, when everything in a new environment is still very strange and present. During this period, the smallest things that happen imprint a sense of the possibilities inherent there.

As part of these explorations, I checked out the local market. The one by the city hall is very tourist-oriented; I lived near there for a while, and always disliked it. Then there’s the market in the eastern part of the city which is very down-town, but it’s genuine. The market of this neighbourhood in the middle of the city is also down-to-earth, but it has good quality crafts items and food on offer too.

Getting into the spirit of a Saturday morning, I admired the knock-off brand name jeans, loud china tea sets, plastic high-pressure water pistols, bright orange organic carrots, white sports socks, luminescent tracks suits, fancy flick-knives and furry bathrobes. Meanwhile, smells of Thai pasties and springrolls frying and Dutch bread rolls filled with hot ham off the bone and honey and mustard sauce filled the air. Browsing among some second-hand DvDs, I discovered a film that I’d been after. Finding it in my new neighbourhood was very pleasing.

‘And it’s based on a true story,’ said the market stall guy. 


The film, Stander by the Canadian director Bronwen Hughes, tells the story of a Johannesburg cop turned bank robber whose exploits shocked and delighted the newspaper-reading public in the 1970s. I’d been looking for it ever since reading a review, and could hardly wait to get home to watch it. Inevitably, it romanticises its subject somewhat. But I was astounded by its background accuracy: it recreates that bustling capitalist city to the last detail, with its modernist architecture imported apparently from East Berlin via Houston, suburbs imported from Los Angeles and shantytowns imported from Africa.

I was a teenager growing up in Johannesburg at the time of the Stander Gang robberies. Reading the film’s background made me suddenly realise that I never felt out of place living in London for periods as a child, or in parts of Africa and Europe as an adult; the city I grew up in was a considerable metropolitan centre in itself. (Or to put it another way: it’s hard to surprise someone from Joh’burg, that city of the quick buck and the sudden stroke of fate.) Another striking thing about the film was its balanced point of view: it recreates the historical world of its protagonist without flinching. This is a quality of perception that’s severely lacking at present, so far as I can tell, in South Africa.

Later, I stopped at the coffeeshop just around the corner. Called Paradox, it’s an unpretentious establishment offering a small but well-informed selection of weed and hashish, a minimal menu of toasted sandwiches and coffee, and a table of the national papers. That day, someone had left a fine hardback edition of a book by the Taoist master Chuang Chu among the crumpled remains of the daily rags. Paging through it, I came across the story of Knowledge’s quest in search of the right path in life.

Going to the north, Knowledge runs into Do-Nothing-Say-Nothing, and asks him how to find the Way. Do-Nothing-Say-Nothing doesn’t answer, because he didn’t know what to say. Going to the south, Knowledge runs into Wild-and-Witless, of whom he asks the same question. Wild-And-Witless starts to reply, but forgets what he was going to say. Knowledge takes his problem to the Yellow Emperor, who says that Do-Nothing-Say-Nothing was probably wiser than Wild-and-Witless, and that neither Knowledge nor he, the Yellow Emperor, were anywhere near the truth. ‘Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.’

Had the book been left there in error by some scholar of mysticism who lives nearby? Had someone placed it there as a sort of random gift to anyone who might care to open it? Serendipity, synchronicity, whatever. This could only have happened here, in this neighbourhood.

The next day the book was gone.


Richard Jürgens is die skrywer van The Many Houses of Exile (Covos Day), oor sy wedervaringe as ‘n apartheid-dissident in Afrika terwyl verbonde aan die ANC, en later  ook vlugteling van ook die ANC. Die boek het verskeie baie gunstige resensies in die pers gekry in die laat negentigs toe dit verskyn het.


Richard is ook ’n gepubliseerde digter in Engels.


’n Onlangse kortverhaal van hom is op Litnet te lees, en ’n kortverhaal (in Afrikaans vertaal uit Engels) is opgeneem in As almal ver is (samesteller: Danie Marais), wat pas verskyn het maar nog nie versprei is nie. Die boek fokus op Suid-Afrikaners se ervaring van die buiteland en die diaspora.


(Nou die dag vra iemand my in ’n grap: “Wat het alle Afrika-lande in gemeen?” Nou moet mens in gedagte hou dis dalk die mees uiteenlopende kontinent op die aardbol, en op meer as een manier so. Daar is, byvoorbeeld, meer uiteenlopende genepoele in ’n wat – 100 km radius? – in Oos-Afrika as in die ganse Europa. “Antwoord: Die diaspora, he he.”   



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