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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Colleen Higgs

Colleen Higgs

Higgs [Halfborn Woman (poems, 2004)] is a writer, champion of small small-scale, self and independent publishing in South Africa. She is currently Information Manager at the Centre for the Book. Her writing has appeared in Botsotso, O Magazine, New Coin and Noseweek. In 2007 she has a story in Dinaane, edited by Maggie Davey of Jacana, an anthology of stories by South African women. She has also written and published through the Centre for the Book and the South African Small Publishers’ Catalogue, with Maire Fisher. The Community Publishing Project which she has managed since its inception in 2001 won the 2007 Arts and Culture Award for Cultural Development. She wrote a series of articles on writing and publishing in South Africa for South Africa Writing and participated in the British Council sponsored Crossing Borders programme in 2005.

 Notes from a ‘New’ Country

Forest Town, 2005

I wake up, it is after midnight I hear a calling out in despair, a keening sound, I think it is my godson crying. It’s raining hard, through the soft insistent sound of the rain, I hear wailing and sobbing. I am spending two nights in Joburg. My ten year old god son’s mother has died. She killed herself. I am upstairs and he’s asleep downstairs in the TV room, where for now he is rooted. I listened harder through the rain and I realise it is the animals from the zoo. I can’t tell which ones, perhaps peacocks, donkeys, or monkeys. It was a sound unlike any I have heard before, I am tired and overwrought and my imagination amplifies what I hear, it sounds like all the loss, all the sadness and anguish in the world, in the history of the world, slightly muted by the thrumming of the rain on the roof, on the skylight and in the trees outside. I go downstairs, wide awake, my mouth dry from drinking whisky earlier. I am afraid I won’t be able to go back to sleep. Everyone in the house is asleep and I can hear them sleep, their steady breathing. I go into the kitchen and cut a slice of cake that someone has brought and I pour a glass of milk and take it back upstairs. The animals are still taking it in turns to wail and sob, keeping up their night vigil of despair and longing.

The Mount Nelson Hotel, 2006

I've just been to the launch of The Year of Women in SA, and the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Women’s March to the Union Buildings (in Pretoria) in 1956. I was invited ostensibly because I am a poet.

The launch was at the Mount Nelson and started at 5.30 am because it was televised for Morning Live on SABC 2. I found myself sitting at a table of elderly black women who were all veterans of the march and all amazing old ladies in their late 70s and 80s. I was the only white person at their table, and was younger by thirty or more years. I escorted two of them downstairs to the marble and gilt toilets when they needed to go, Clorence Peters (85) and Tuli Makhalemele (78). At one point Clorence took out her ID book to show me that she was indeed born in 1920 and then so did Tuli. So I took mine out too, to show them that I was born in 1962. Someone asked me if I was asking the women for their passes.

We ate sliced fruit on large white platters and croissants and then had a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and sausage. Tuli told me she is poor and doesn't get paid to do what she does, which is to help disabled and elderly people to access the grants they are entitled to. She looks as though she might be in her late 50s, except for her teeth. She was dressed in a fitted ANC suit which she made for herself in 1994. All the ladies wore fabulous hats or berets. It was the one day that I wished that my cell phone took pictures.

All of this was filmed on television, and the speeches by Pallo Jordan announcing a youth poetry competition and the questions asked by Cape Town high school girls of the Minister, which he answered with easy facility. The presenter was glamourous and confident and kept returning us to Vuyo in the studio in Johannesburg for the weather or the sports or whatever.

Only in South Africa do you get to have breakfast with MPs as they stage a heartwarming (propaganda) occasion where old women who have lived in poverty get to eat scrambled eggs and croissants on national television.

Robben Island, 2006

Seagulls circle and cry overhead as the Susan Kruger ferry chugs off to Robben island. I’m sitting next to Amron, our American volunteer librarian and next to Elizabeth Magakoa from Ekhurleni on the other side. The morning is overcast, the skies low and threatening. I wish I’d brought an umbrella and a wooly hat. Angifi is sitting across the way framed by sea and moody skies in his techni-colour dreamcoat made of thick woven West African cloth. I don’t know where Mandla is. I feel ever so slightly queasy, inhaling diesel engine fumes mixed with fresh sea air. The Susan Kruger is one of the old prisoners’ ferries – today carrying mostly librarians and old age pensioners from Elsie’s River who heard that there was a special R20 trip to Robben Island with a free lunch thrown in. Little do they know that on the return trip they will be drenched and throwing up the free lunch as they squash into the hold while the Susan Kruger lurches back to Cape Town harbour through heavy seas and driving rain.

The Robben Island Museum has invited three Community Publishing Project grantees and me as part of a panel of guest speakers for their 2006 World Book Day seminar, “Books that changed my life”.

The pensioners aren’t really interested in the programme or the speakers. But the librarians are. The talks are moving and fascinating, but it all goes on too long and then the weather changes. We eat lunch hurriedly before catching the bus back to the ferry. The rain is cold and driving as we queue. We squash into the covered parts of the ferry, overcrowded and wet. The trip back includes Island staff, school children, and us, the people from the morning. Someone grabs hold of my coat, later there is a murky stain at the back, vomit? “Keep your eyes on the horizon,” someone else tells me. It sort of works. I give Amron a lift back to her Backpacker’s Lodge and then drive into gridlock traffic. It takes four hours to get home. It wasn’t only the ferry affected by the storm.

Centurion, 2007

I have just - well last night -- discovered that I have spent the last couple of days in Verwoedburg, it has (wisely) changed its name to Centurion, much less possibility of any ugly nastiness.

I am at an international multi-lingual/multi-cultural library conference. I am here because of the work I do in Community Publishing.

The sky is so blue and clear and winter is coming to an end here, and last night the Mayoral function at Munitoria was even better than expected. We were escorted a long circuitous route through drafty corridors and were greeted by a diorama of a Tswana village and library (how authentic is that?) which delighted the foreign visitors or perhaps amused them, but they were polite so they appeared delighted.

As it was the Executive Mayor's function, she was suddenly unable to attend this function as something much more urgent had arisen, even though I am sure this function was booked at least 6 months ago if not longer. A minor dignitary was sent in her place. The minor dignitary and her companion were seated at a thatched podium far away from the conferees. We were treated to a number of choral musical items by students at TUT (Tshwane University of Technology) one of the numbers included “Mashini Wam”, in which the student singers mimed shooting the guests with automatic weapons, they did this in a low key, relatively unthreatening fashion while they danced. The musical items concluded with a newer, hipper version of  “Sarie Marais”.

Supper consisted of a small plate onto which you could pile chicken thighs, crumbed deep fried chicken, fried fishballs, beef skewers, samoosas, white bread cheese sandwiches and a fruit skewer. We were each allowed one glass of pre-poured wine or juice depending on our preferences.

The speeches were to die for, they toed the party line and were padded with much friendly yet somehow menacing goodwill.

Staying in a hotel in Centurion (aka Verwoedburg) - is like hanging out with someone who is in a witness protection programme.

Jeppe, 1994

We stand outside the Jeppe police station waiting to collect the ballot boxes and ballot papers. They have to be brought by armed police to the polling station, our voting station chief signs for them.

It is 5.30 am on the 26th April 1994, the moon sets over the city, the Joburg skyline, the tall buildings. It hangs there heavy and yellow. The sky lightens behind us in the East. We drive into the lightening sky to work for the IEC for three days that change the country forever.

A powerful thought enters my being, I don’t want to die, not just yet, I want to live.

We drive off followed by the police. It is OK to be followed by the police.

For three days we take turns at different tasks. We work for twelve or more hours each day. We are tired, we are exhilarated. We are working at the first democratic elections. We lived to see the day.

“This is your National ballot paper. Take it, make your mark.” I feel like a priestess at some vital ritual. I hand out the paper. Give it into the hand of each person who appears before me. There are students, hostel dwellers, teachers, domestic workers, people, ordinary people. I know some of them.

“I am Lord Aston, most people call me Lord.” I hear this from one of the IEC observer’s. He has come to see whether we South Africans can manage a free and fair election.

I examine people’s hands, they hold them out to me and then put them under the infra red light so I can check they have not already voted. The voters are innocent and trusting about this, like children showing their hands to their teachers to show they were clean.

On the first day we go to a Chinese old age home in Bertrams to allow the elderly Chinese people to vote. Some of these voters lie in bed. Everyone over 18 is eligible to vote.

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