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Patricia Schonstein

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The writing of a seventh novel

I conceptualised my new novel, The Inn at Hellsvlakte, in 2011, wanting to again examine, within a work of narrative fiction, humankind’s penchant for war.

I formulated the terrain of the story and sketched the central characters while travelling through Namibian wilderness with my husband and Ian & Sharon McCallum.

We spent a month in a dramatic landscape transformed by particularly good rains. Golden grasses had turned to green and the rivers were full and joyous. The whole journey was one of simplicity, depth, reflection, poetry and star-spangled nights where even the Magelenic Clouds were visible to the naked eye. Without cell-phone coverage, the outer world grew diminished and irrelevant.

Following my usual method of composition, I wrote the opening and closing chapters, in order to ‘secure’ the boundaries of the story, but then I put my notebook aside, deciding not to write the novel at all. It was to be a dark work, a Tragedy, and I presumed it would not find much response from publishers or agents.

Since then, over the years, the story has ‘lent with force’ against me and the characters have hovered at my door with quiet insistence. Latterly they entered my office, my creative hours and my dreams, requesting that I be gracious enough to grant them life.

So intense was their presence that I realised, obviously, that only I could give them life, could give their story life, because I had created the template of their existence in the first place. Whether or not the work ‘went anywhere’; whether or not it would be accepted for publication, I was duty bound to give life to what I had seeded.

So, beginning in July this year, and over a period of 40 days, I woke up each morning before dawn and wrote the daily 1 000 words that have led to the core manuscript of The Inn at Hellsvlakte.

I’ve never worked with such characters before – strong, purposeful people who wanted to exist, who wanted their story told and who are all still here in my room while I polish and embellish and work with the extreme and absolute colours of their world and relationships.

The lesson? Authorship is not just about getting published. It’s about being responsible to the craft. If you’re going to start telling a story, you’d better finish it.

Here is the cast of characters. Theirs is a love story. A tragedy. A tale of war and of the crafty engineers behind all war.  I have given them life and am exhausted now.

The Captain: Ulysses Malan
The Inn Keeper: Jon Jonker
The Inn Keeper’s Wife: Katinka ‘Kitty’ Cloete
The Inn Keeper’s Lover: Tana Jonkertjie
The Great-Aunt: Eugenie Cloete
The Young Man: Regal van der Stel
The Army Chaplain: Gabriel Grobler
The Archivist: Ariel Liebowitz
The Procurer: William Blythe Morris
The Transporter: Boaz Apelbaum
The Housekeeper: Iaga Klaasen
The Chief of Defence: General Quintus Winter
The Inn Staff: Klas, Kapi & Meita Jonkertjie

The Three Military Commissioners
The Military Artist
Various members of the Janse, Cloete and Van der Stel households
Various minor players

The Inn at Hellsvlakte
Patricia Schonstein
Unpublished manuscript 2014

Image: Albrecht Durer. Four riders of the Apocalypse



Poetry in the art of John Kramer

John Kramer’s evocative repertoire of paintings record the shops, corner cafés, bioscopes and general dealer stores of South African dorps and towns.

This formidable artist has captured onto canvas (over a forty-year career) the small, old buildings that are among the hallmarks of South African country life. Many have been replaced by branded chain-stores, or modernised or closed, so a view of Kramer’s works carries a certain pathos and lament.

Shadows, light, doors, gates, drapes, signs, advertising boards, shaded verandahs, peeling paint and bins make poetry.

The heat of the day, the colours burned by sun and the dry air juxtapose the invisible merchandise on the shelves inside.

Poetry is found in the signboards, among such words as Joko Tea, Coke, Boerewinkel, Slagtery, Kafee, Vrugte & Groente, Café Fast Foods, Haarkapper, Cash & Carry.

Sentiment is enticed by drawn blinds, by the paper stuck against windows of a closed-up store, by boarded-up doors and by old petrol pumps.

Meaning is sought, because Kramer’s streets are empty, with no people walking about, no shopping or purchasing being done. Even so we feel the richness, the character, the wealth of communication that these small stores once afforded and which some continue to give.

We know it is Sunday in each of these paintings – we hear the church bells ringing and are aware that people are going about their sabbath business.


Mr Ossher’s Trading Store
Grahamstown 1984

You can buy anything you want
in Mr Ossher’s Trading Store,
cotton on reels, bales of cloth,
beads, buckets, hats.
It’s dark inside
and the tailor sews the whole day long,
skirts and head cloths, aprons, bright shirts.
I like the smell –
dry goods, tobacco, soap, tea, new things, calico.
Mr Ossher is old already,
but he remembers everyone,
even the sons who go to the mines as boys
and come back men.
My mother keeps her money knotted inside her skirt,
counts out the coins on the counter,
there’s never enough.
She always sighs,
pushes something back across the counter,
maybe the soap,
till next time.
Outside it’s hot.
We stand in the shade.
Fried fish for sale,
nice pieces of meat cooked crisp.
My mother calls out to her friend
and they laugh together,
outside Mr Ossher’s Trading Store.
And I wait to be a woman, like her,
strong and with laughter,
to make the few coins do so much.

John Kramer

Solo exhibition of new work by realist artist, John Kramer
Irma Stern Museum 6-27 September 2014


Mr Ossher’s Trading Store by Patricia Schonstein
from Saturday in Africa
ISBN 978 1874915-05-08
African Sun Press Cape Town


  1. Shulamit says: September 13, 20143:38 am

    Nice, having a poetry reading alongside the painting exhibition. Thanks for sending the link to your blog. XXX.

  2. Ethelwyn Rebelo says: September 13, 20146:04 am

    Beautiful. Those trading stores were a wonderful hub where people could connect and look for unexpected treasures.

    SO GOOD to hear from you! Hope you are well? Hope the book you are writing is going well?

  3. Billy Kennedy says: September 13, 20147:18 am

    What a beautiful BLOG
    Thank you Patricia

  4. Ian McCallum says: September 13, 201412:15 pm

    a touch of class …

Turning poetry into storybooks

In my post-apocalyptic novel, The Master’s Ruse, I examine authorial conscience and the responsibility of authors to ‘up’ the human condition towards integrity and light.

It is a time of book burning. The central characters, an aging authoress and her close friend, a former university professor of literature, are both banned under draconian laws of censorship and martial control. They discuss, among literary matters, the concept of  messianic energy and redemption.

Central to the novel are their questions: How would messianic energy be revealed to humankind during these dark times? In what form? And what to redeem – earth or humanity?

They concur that messianic energy could never be rendered into human form, for it would surely be crushed by the junta in power. Nor could it take the form of a book, a ‘biblion’, for it would be cast upon a pyre. The only way messianic energy could restore humankind’s morality and ethics would be through poetry, indeed, through a single poem, which would be transposed from heart to heart.

In the fiction, a poem does take form. It is a love poem, addressed to the earth, to creation, and it begins its task of illuminating the collective human heart with an uncompromising bravado.

In the real world, away from my fiction, I’m attempting to use poetry in a restorative way through curatorship of three anthologies. These resound with the voices of three great groupings of poets – some are master-poets, some are well-established and others emerging. Together they weave a magnificent fabric of emotion and description.

Through the sale of these anthologies, I hope to generate the wherewithal to produce children’s books that are imbedded with loveliness; and to distribute a third of each print run to children who don’t have easy access to story books.

So it is with pleasure that I announce the launch of the first story book, funded by sales of poetry: Maggie, Mango and Scottie – an adventure in Africa.

Copies will be donated to Biblionef South Africa for distribution to schools and projects. The first two copies, hot off the press, went directly into the hands of children – one to Wedza in Zimbabwe and one to Khaylitsha in Cape Town.

I thank all the poets who generously allowed me to include their voices in the first three volumes in a proposed series of six.

And I thank all those who purchased copies of the anthologies, right at the start, when they were mere ideas; especially Monica Nagler, Oliver Munnik  Ruth Bloch, Leon & Miki Gittelson and members of the Swedish SAFRAN who put their names down for the first dozen copies of Africa! My Africa! without the blink of an eye, when I first mooted the idea.

Maggie, Mango and Scottie – An adventure in Africa
Patricia Schonstein Pinnock
African Sun Press ISBN 978-1-874915-21-8
Paper Back. Full colour illustrations. 32 pages


Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1

Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict selected by Patricia Schonstein
ISBN 978-1-874915-19-5

Heart of Africa! poems of love, loss and longing selected by Patricia Schonstein
ISBN 978-0-620-60850-3
African Sun Press: Publication date December 2014

These titles can be purchased directly from African Sun Press for donation to schools and projects.



An exchange between an anthologist and a gentleman

I’m delighted to announce that the manuscript of the third anthology in my Africa! series is  complete. I had the privilege of giving readings from it at one of Hugh Hodge’s recent Off-the-Wall live poetry events.

The anthology, now sitting on my designer’s table, waiting for cover and layout, is titled Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss and longing. It opens with Richard Whitaker’s translation from the Septuagint Greek of selections from Solomon’s Song of Songs; and closes with his translations of Four poems by Callimachus and Three poems by Dioscorides.

Callimachus (310-240 BC) was from Cyrene in ancient Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Dioscorides (3rd century BC) wrote epigrams. He lived and worked in Egypt.

I placed these sensuous, sometimes witty love poems from Antiquity at the beginning and end of the collection to form an embrace, within which to hold contemporary poems, all touched by Africa.

Initially, while I gathered the poems, love’s dark side emerged as a storming force. Strong, harsh expressions eclipsed gentler, romantic notions. Poets revealed deeply private feelings of betrayal, loss, remorse and spent passion.

At times, I felt like an intruder, entering scenes where by rights I should not be – places of emotional wreckage and pain. I stood among shredded love letters, stained sheets, discarded vows and melted down wedding rings. I noticed, in dark pits, the glitter of diamonds torn from engagement rings. I watched lovers weeping at the loss of the one they held more precious than any other.

At a certain point, the questions arose: ‘Is this what love is about? Is it all hurtful, dark-matter?’

This proved not to be, for, as the collection slowly grew, it began to reveal the infinitesimal detail of deep, intricate and true love.

We find the unadulterated first kiss, first touch and first breaking of all things virginal and are thus reminded of love’s sweetness.

There are some bursts of eroticism. Beautiful body-forms are draped on couches and beds or across wilderness settings. Wet and pulsing corporal landscapes serve as boudoirs. Some surprising details of bedroom intimacy are shared as well as a lot of imagined, longed-for love. There is the occasional touch of humour with some make-believe and pretence too, in unexpected milieux.

Running through all the poems, like an underground river or an electric charge, is the longing that we all have to be held by another; the longing to find meaning in that other; and to give back meaning in return.

It is the yearning for the Beloved and it is always the Lover speaking.


An exchange between an anthologist and a gentleman
At a literary tea party
Ivydene, Rondebosch 2014
Patricia Schonstein

‘I sent out a call for submissions,
For love poems.
Hundreds came in – well – that is, heaps were sent,
Yet, how strange, not one of them celebrates the male torso.’

       But my dear,
Homosexuality was criminalised until fairly recent times.

‘Yes, but surely, if the gay fellows are not ready to express it all,
One of the lady poets could do something with pecs and abs,
With those firm six-packs we always hear about,
The smooth skin, the male nipples …

‘I mean, I’ve been presented with a surplus of the female landscape –
Breasts, thighs, that gentle curve of the armpit,
The down-below areas …
But no male plateau, no male terrain, no dunes, no crevices,
None of the potent man-musculature …

‘Sorry, I’m going on a bit.
It’s just
That’s where my thoughts are at the moment.
I hope I’m not being too frank – gosh we’ve only just met!
But it’s a problem, you see,
Because, as it stands now, the anthology is weighted one way
Mostly, it’s sad women lamenting loss.

‘I’ve been scouring the city, looking for poems,
Listening to people speak, finding poems in their words,
Without hearing any erotic celebration of the man-body I’m looking for.

‘Surely, somewhere, there’s some Adonis,
Some Atlas, some Mark Anthony, some hot … hot …

‘Oh, I can hear myself sounding rather … I’m sorry …
Please excuse me.’

       Yes, I see. Shall we have another cup of tea?


 Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss and longing
ISBN 978-0-620-60850-3
African Sun Press
Due for release December 2014 but we are now taking pre-publication orders

Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1
African Sun Press

Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict
ISBN 978-1-874915-19-5
African Sun Press

The Unknown Child – Poems of war, love and longing
ISBN 978-1-874915-15-7
African Sun Press

Please send your orders to:

Painting by RB Kitaj

Off the wall live poetry at Touch of Madness, Nuttall Road, Observatory, Cape Town every Monday night


In memory of a trainee-igqirha

In 2002, before embarking on a two-month journey with my husband through central Africa, following part of David Livingstone’s route, we commissioned a Xhosa woman, who was training to be an igqirha, to make us a protective talisman.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked.

“Soldiers. Boys with guns. Bandits,” I replied.

A few days before we left, she delivered a charm wrapped in tar-paper which we were to hang at the windscreen for the entire journey, after which it would no longer be potent. It was as slim as a pencil, odourless and expensive.

We felt protected throughout our journey, which took us through wilderness and very remote regions, never once doubting the power of the talisman in warding off malice and harm. We encountered men with guns and were stopped at numerous road blocks, once by a group of young soldiers who wanted cigarettes. In northern Mozambique, we missed a head-on collision by a hair’s breadth. The other vehicle, an open bakkie coming towards us on our side of the road, was overloaded with standing people and a chicken coup. It carried its petrol tank on the roof of the cab. It surely would have exploded if we’d collided.

In western Tanzania, on a remote and poorly maintained road, we passed Jane Goodall, the primatologist, and her researchers, driving in convey. They were protected by government soldiers who had a mounted machine gun on their cab roof.

“What the fuck are doing here?” one of her team called out to us from his rolled down window. “Where’s your back-up?”

“Back-up?” we replied, rather lamely.

“You fools!” he shouted, “there are bandits here,” and drove off.

At one of the road blocks, at which it was proposed we had been speeding –impossible on those roads – my husband suggested to the uniformed person who had stopped us that he come for a ride, to test our very accurate speedometer against his measuring device. I got out of the car and the man was about to take my seat, but instead paused and turned to me saying, with a delicate change to his demeanour and voice: “What is it that Madam does?”

I replied: “What do I do? You mean my work? I am an author. I write books.”

Tall, and leaning down to me, he paused, then expressed certain dreams he had for his daughter before saying everything was fine and that we could go, there being no need to check the speedometer after all.

“Maybe God will help me send my daughter to Cape Town, one day, for an opportunity better than here,” he said, before wishing us a good onward journey.

Later that evening we reached a small town. I noticed a fenced-off Catholic church and suggested to my husband we stay there, where the power of angels and saints would surely be concentrated and where our talisman’s energies would be reinforced. But my husband is not drawn to anything Catholic and instead we booked in at a small inn.

There we met two travellers, M. and S., both heading for Kigoma, at the edge of Lake Tanganyika, to investigate the possibility of importing fish to the Congo. On the real level they were just travellers, two young people, but in the magically real tracks of our journey, they were angelic beings garbed, over their safari gear, in lucent material.

I tell you this story because the trainee-igqirha who made our protective talisman died this month and was buried over the Easter weekend. She had led a very hard life and leaves behind her orphaned young grandchildren.

Today, I reflect on her powerful charm, and wonder why she did not make any for herself and her family. Perhaps her strengths lay only in warding off men with guns and defusing malice. Maybe her powers were not developed enough to protect her from the TB, diabetes and cancer that felled her. Perhaps AK47s are easier to deal with than the angels of death in the employ of those slayers of good people.

Nokwayintombi L. D. K. –  Ulale ngoxolo  – Rest in peace



Part extract from my memoir On Writing (Work in progress)

Photograph from BBC News 6 December 2005

Showing beauty to Patricia de Lille, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town: At an exhibition of photos of homeless people’s dwellings by Gaelen Pinnock

We are attuned to seeing these shelters as piles of rubbish
As eyesores to be removed from pavements,
Because they spoil the visage of the city

But when considered as art installations
Our eye accommodates them as things of beauty:

There is balance
Material is thoughtfully gathered –
Placed with deliberation and attention to detail
Belying their sense of impermanence

See this one’s symmetrical composition –
How it uses a length of tarpaulin,
With poised drums and rocks weighing it down
Against the South Easter

There’s irony in the Maserati cover of that one
And the red Stor-age Self-Storage sign in the background of the other,
And just look at the measured tying together of waterproofing sheets
That gives finesse to the whole

And what about the juxta-positioning
Of the towering-grey highway overpass,
Against the soft fabric of these warm papoose-homes, these cocoons
These ephemeral single-night dwellings, packed away each day
To be rebuilt, differently every night?

Here is dignity, wouldn’t you say?
The work of  artists
Who construct narratives worthy of respect
In the mad-hurry-harsh of  Cape Town.


I am Raphael
Cape Town July 2013
Raphael Dumisani

I am Raphael Dumisani.
Raphael was a painter of the bible.
I sleep outside.
The blankets get wet.
I wait until the day is shining.
Then I put them out to dry.
It will rain again.
Then it will shine again.


The best plastic for a street shelter
Denis de Waal

White is too bright.
Green can be seen.
But black! Black is right!
It’s the colour of the night!
They can’t see me when I sleep.


Seasons on the street
Denis de Waal

The days are warm now
But the enemy is coming
­– winter!


Exhibition: Future Foreshore, including Home Series 2013 – ongoing by Gaelen Pinnock at Cape Town City Hall 2nd Floor 14 – 25 April 2014
Curated by Ralph Borland
Model of Cape Town Foreshore: by Gaelen Pinnock assisted by students from University of Cape Town


Photographs A  B & C: Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille with Patricia Schonstein – by Heleen Mills.

Photograph of model  by Romaney Pinnock
Photograph of  Gaelen Pinnock with model by Heleen Mills

Photograph of Ralph Borland  and Gaelen Pinnock by Heleen Mills




Reading Chris Ahrends

On my workbench is Dumisani Sibexo’s photograph of a man swinging a burning tyre during a protest in Mothutlung in Brits. The fire of it is like molten gold. The smoke is black. The man’s body has a choreographed, easy grace to it, like that of youths flinging stones in slingshots to kill birds. One feels the force he is generating as he swings that tyre of flames around himself. One anticipates its horrific release, and the way its momentum will hurl the fire outwards, towards people standing perilously close by.

I reflect on the hands that swing the burning tyre and see a vital, urgent, desperate form of verse. The swinging motion brings out a steady rhythm from the sound of the unfolding violence. Voices explode in chorus and the chanting is frightening. There is rumbling. The flames, newly released from hell, hiss. The man’s heart beats like drumming.

Also on my workbench is an Ethiopian cross, made from the silver of melted down Maria Theresa Thalers.  The cross has a delicate intricacy to it. I reflect on the hands that fashioned it, and on the poetry within it – so different to that captured by Sibexo’s photograph. Here, by contrast, is the gentle run of a sonnet.

I closed 2013 with publication of Africa Ablaze! and by reading, on the final afternoon of the year, Prayer for Voices by Chris Ahrends. I read it aloud, alone, standing under a lemon tree, which happened to be full of wit oogies.

On the morning of January first, 2014, the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, I began curatorship of an anthology of love poems as a sequel to Africa Ablaze! I will curate it with the Ethiopian cross in mind, seeking out, with diligence, the poetry of love in its broadest, most far-reaching, expression and thus contributing something of homage to all victims of war.


Prayer for voices
Chris Ahrends

This morning we wake up and know where our children are.
This morning our homes are still standing.
Our sisters and brothers are not buried under bombed concrete.
We do not have to search for lost relatives.
We breathe fresh air, drink clean water.
We turn on lights and prepare food.
We wash our faces and see they are not scarred
by vengeance nor disfigured by war
nor twisted in conflict.
This morning we have voices that cry out
for the people for whom this is a day of suffering,
of loss and grief.

Oh God, give us strong voices.

Chris Ahrends, an ordained Anglican priest, was the former Sub Dean at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, and Chaplain to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He served as Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and now works as a consultant in personal and social transformation. His poem Prayer for Voices is included in Africa Ablaze!

Photograph: ‘Powder Keg’ by Dumisani Sibexo. Cape Times 15 January 2014

Note: The Maria Theresa Thaler is a silver bullion coin, first minted in 1741, that was used as currency in world trade. It was issued in Vienna, Prague, Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome, London, Paris, Brussels and Bombay. It came to be used in North Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. The coin has a portrait of the buxom Empress on the front and the Habsburg Double Eagle on its reverse.

Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1

Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict selected by Patricia Schonstein
ISBN 978-1-874915-19-5

Africa in love! An anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein
African Sun Press: Publication date December 2014






On the day after Nelson Mandela died, an inter-faith prayer service was held on the steps of the City Hall for a crowd gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town.

People came with bunches of flowers. Someone handed out pictures of Madiba. Flags flew at half-mast.

The wind was blowing fiercely and its roaring carried away the words of rabbi, priest and imam, so we could not hear them, though we sensed their depth. We knew them to be words of homage and gratitude; we knew them to be words of praise and blessing. Surely the earth itself mourned the departure of this great man; surely all the wild beasts of Africa were also expressing homage and farewell.

A Zimbabwean man standing next to me told me: “When a man dies, we place upon the burial site his cup and plate and those other things he might have used in this life, and may still need, in the beyond. We do not keep his things.”

He continued: “Mr Mandela will be buried in his suit and black shoes. But he will leave to you, he will leave to you the people here, the broken bars of his prison cell, as lights.”

The crowd pressed and reformed, in the way crowds do, and the Zimbabwean was suddenly no longer at my side, but gone, swallowed by the movement of people. I was left listening to the haunting “Asimbonanga” sung by a small group of mourners, and the continued roaring of the wind.

I have been reflecting on those broken prison bars all these past weeks. They can indeed be taken up as a symbol of Nelson Mandela’s massive legacy of forgiveness and his singular disregard for revenge.

If they are held aloft, as beacons of ethical light, then Mandela’s “long, lonely, wasted years” would not have been in vain.


“Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the Island into the Bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water

Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me

Asimbonanga: We have not seen him
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina: We have not seen Mandela himself
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’ehleli khona: In the place where he is kept

Steve Biko! Victoria Mxenge! Neil Aggett!

Asimbonang’ umfowethu thina: We have not seen our brother
Laph’ekhona: In the place where he is
Laph’wafela khona: In the place where he died

Hey wena!: Hey you!
Hey wena nawe!: Hey you and you as well
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona? : When will we arrive at our destination?”


Asimbonanga – We have not seen him – by Johnny Clegg and Savuka from their album Third World Child (1987) was composed during the 1987 State of Emergency, when South Africa was heaving with political unrest; when we could not see Nelson Mandela,  but when everyone felt his power, like that of a lion, waiting in his cell.

Johnny Clegg singing Asimbonanga in 1999 concert, with Nelson Mandela on stage:  (Skip the advert)


Figurines of lion, leopards, zebras and baboons by Liso


Turning swords into sonnets


Extract from launch speech of Africa Ablaze! and Horison

The poems in Africa Ablaze! are placed chronologically. They are anchored by the Frontier Wars of the Eastern Cape, the Boer War, the North African campaign of World War 2, the Angolan Civil War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Rhodesian War, the Chimurenga War, Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi, South Africa’s Border War and conflicts elsewhere in Africa – Biafra, Eritrea, Uganda, Central African Republic and Sudan.

The collection allows for a graphic and emotional view into killing fields, into scorched earth policies, into the shame of child soldiery and into the betrayal of conscripted youth.

Through the various poems and prose pieces we hear the triumphant, strategic rhetoric of politicians and generals. We hear the angels of death barking and reaping. We find the nightmares and remorse of former soldiers. We see courage, self-sacrifice, compassion, and a brotherhood forged in battle as nowhere else.

Early on, we are aware of gallantry and a strange courtesy. For instance, it is well recorded that the Xhosas never deliberately harmed or killed women or children during warfare. For a warrior to kill a woman or child branded him irrevocably as a coward.

There are a number of records by missionaries and others, of Xhosa warriors slaughtering husbands, fathers and adult sons right next to wives and daughters, but never deliberately harming  the women.

One of the pieces in the book records how an English settler, a Mr Mahoney, farming in the Eastern Cape, was visited by his son-in-law and grandchildren. One of his servants alerted him to a Xhosa invasion and he speedily loaded everyone onto a wagon and headed for the nearest military post.

On the way, they were intercepted by a band of warriors. The warriors overturned the wagon and killed Mr Mahoney and his son in law. Meanwhile, Mrs Mahoney crept away through the bush with the grandchildren, dropping her shawl. One of the warriors saw this, picked up the shawl and followed her. He put it on her shoulders (an extraordinarily gentle gesture for someone who had just killed the woman’s menfolk) and then shooed her off.

A similar gesture is seen in Marinella Garuti’s extract from her Memoir-in-progress. At the outbreak of the war in Angola, in April 1975, in the town of Huambo, she was caught in the cross-fire between MPLA and FNLA soldiers. One of them turned to her with: “Miss, you are in the trajectory of our weapons. It is best for you to leave now or else there might be some confusion.”

Further sensitivity is shown by Bruce Moore King. His poems of the Rhodesian War illustrate brutality and ruthlessness. In one of them, he relates the destruction of a village by Rhodesian soldiers. Villagers are given a few minutes to empty their huts before these huts are torched.

The villagers bring out their meagre worldly possessions, which the narrating soldier notices. Among them are an enamel bowl; a cheap record player; tin plates; eight spoons; a Singer Sewing machine; an iron bucket.

The soldier shows no outward remorse. He does not seem sorry to be destroying these people’s lives. Yet the mere fact of seeing these pathetic belongings, of listing them, and it is a long list, shows a deeply concealed remorse.

Many of the early poems in the collection give a sense of regulation, of military orderliness. They have structure and rhyme to them.  They are not bound by literary form. But as we move toward more recent times, this falls away. Guerrilla warfare breaks the ranks. The poems loosen up into free verse – only a few have rhyme or rhythm – they defy order and lose structure. Yet they describe the horror in as much detail as do those written classically, if not more so. They are brave with their imagery. There is no pretence. Blood is not covered up. Shattered limbs lie exactly where the landmines left them. These poems expose the sexuality, the eroticism given by the power of a machine gun or bayonet. They admit to doing horrible things. These poems expose the sexuality, the eroticism given by the power of a machine gun or bayonet. They admit to doing horrible horrible things. Here I mention the poems of Kris Marais and Derek Davey which are graphic, unflinching and honest in what they portray. In the same breath I mention the poems of Chas Lotter, for their artistic sensitivity and for capturing the human face of soldiers at war.

Taken as a whole, the collection forms a dark, tableau. A dark picture of dark human endeavour.

People have asked me whether it was depressing to curate this work. No, it was not depressing. But it was amazing to see, just on this one continent and without being at all representative, this repetition, this pattern through the ages, this extraordinary precedence for conflict, as though the human heart is hard-wired for warfare, as though warfare is humanity’s hall mark.

If that is so, if warfare is our inescapable hallmark, then surely we must also be seekers of the opposite of war. And indeed, if one reads Africa Ablaze! from beginning to end, to get is chronological picture, one senses a yearning for that which is not war.

That yearning flies through the work like an exhausted bird looking to perch somewhere. Exhausted though it is, this pastiche of the clichéd peace dove flaps on. I was aware of that bird all the way through while compiling. It seemed to be made of old, bloodied military canvas, flapping, flapping, flapping but never reaching the perimetre of the battle ground, never reaching the end of the last battle.

When the collection was complete I needed to redeem it. I wanted to cut through the tableau with a shaft of light. I searched everywhere for such a shaft and found it in Stephen Watson’s poem, Psalm. His poem is not a war poem. Nor is it an anti-war poem. It is simply about light. And it brings an inner illumination to the martial landscape of Africa Ablaze! I used it to close the collection. Deep inside the anthology I placed a poem by Ian McCallum. This too is not about war, but about homecoming. It is placed as a single drop of light so that Stephens shaft is not alone.

In simultaneously launching Horison, the Afrikaans translation of Skyline, we examine the dark matter of war and its effect on ordinary people. The novel reveals that, ultimately, the true victim of all war is the child. Whether he is a child soldier, or whether orphaned by war, or whether his whole world – his village, his town, his home – has been destroyed, it is the child who carries the brunt of humankind’s warring nature.

Horison holds at its core the effects of the Mozambican civil war on one of the central characters, Bernard Sebastiao. Bernard has fled the war and arrived in Nelson Mandela’s newly democratic South Africa, having lost his wife and children in the mayhem of an attack on his village.

He and the young girl narrator form a close friendship and together uncover the pathos of Cape Town, a city that has reluctantly become home to refugees and illegal immigrants from war-torn Africa.

The girl wants to become a poet. She is haunted by all the images thrown up by the migrants in her building, by the sounds and landscape of central Cape Town. Bernard reveals his own triumph over terrible experiences and encourages her to write, to capture what she sees and turn it into verse.

But Horison is also a book about hope, and self-discovery and the power of poetry to heal the deep wounds of loss. I want to just link this to the anthology Africa Ablaze! with a suggestion that it will be poetry that may one day become our tool for peace.

Perhaps we will one day turn the proverbial sword, not into a ploughshare, but into a sonnet.

And maybe we will allow Stephen Watson’s Psalm to resonate across battle fields, so that our weary peace dove can finally land somewhere.


Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict

ISBN 978-1-874915-17-1
Fiction: Novel
Afrikaans edition

Order through African Sun Press

The launch of these two titles was held in Cape Town on 10 December 2013.
We celebrated with wine, ciabatta, camembert, olives and honey.
Thanks to the poets who contributed to the anthology.
Thanks to those who could be present and who read their works.




Tribute poem to Nelson Mandela by Maya Angelou