Thursday, November 19, 2015

iFix founder and CEO, Alex Fourie, on entrepreneurship, digital marketing and the hardest part of his job

At just 28, Alex Fourie is already the CEO of his own successful company. Named as one of Forbes Magazine’s top 10 Promising Young African Entrepreneurs in 2014, he’s been going from strength to strength ever since he started his company out of his dorm room at Stellenbosch University in 2006. 

His company, iFix, repairs apple products and has 11 shops throughout South Africa, servicing over 10 000 customers a month. Fourie  saw a gap in the market when he tried to have his iPod repaired but was told by experts that this wasn’t possible. A few YouTube tutorials later he had fixed the device himself and a business was born.
We asked Alex some questions to gain a better insight into his success.

You’re only 28 yet you employ a staff of 80, if my sources are correct. To what do you attribute your success at such a young age?

Yes, I’m 28. Currently we have a staff complement of 125. However, # of staff isn’t an attribute of success. Success is a mind-set. That is all.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I wouldn’t use the word, ‘hard’, but challenging is a better description. The sheer quantity of work is quite challenging personally. It’s important for entrepreneurs to create space in their minds and lives to think and if you have too much on your plate that is sometimes challenging. The key is to balance everything and create space to think through the barrage of noise in our current society.

iFix wasn’t your first business. Tell us a bit about the others.

Sjoe, I arranged tours for some of SA’s biggest artists to the UK & Europe in my first and second year at varsity. We also started the first digital music download platform in SA in 2006.

How has your company embraced digital marketing in your advertising campaigns?

Nearly all of our spend is on digital marketing. Digital is very different to above-the-line and your campaigns need to resonate to have an effect.

You are a musician as well as an entrepreneur. Tell us about that.

Ja, I played and managed bands for 10 years. It was fun and it taught me a lot about branding. Music is so subjective and making a name for yourself in music is so hard that business was nearly easy after that.

What tips do you have for young entrepreneurs in the digital industry in SA?

Solve niche problems. Look through your bank statement over the past month, see what you spent money on, see what sucked, build an MVP, throw $100 behind Google ads and gooi. It’s really not that hard, just focus on unique niche problems. Don’t try and become the next Facebook.

What did you study? And do you think that helped you in your career path?

I did a BComm at Stellenbosch. However, I don’t believe in the traditional tertiary education. Teach yourself a skill. You can learn anything online. Rather take the money you would’ve spent on studying at uni, go and travel and learn a skill.

What CSI projects does your company run?

We have 2 kids (Mihle, 6 & Nicci, 9) that we have taken out of a township school and put in a better school in Pinelands. Furthermore, we have an entrepreneurial teaching drive we’re busy with. We also support Greenpop quite extensively.

What are your personal Lovemarks, besides iFix of course?

Jeez. Tesla hands down. I would really wet myself for a Tesla.

Life motto?

You create your own destiny. Anything is possible. Gooi.

What’s next for Alex Fourie?

I’m currently in Elands and the waves are cooking, so I think I’ll go surfing.
Originally published on the Saatchi & Saatchi Synergize blog

Monday, February 16, 2015

Humour is a weapon of mass distraction

Humour is a weapon of mass distraction. As South Africans it is - and always has been - part of our culture to laugh at ourselves. We don’t shy away from racially charged topics knowing full well that laughter is the best antidote to fear.

Yes. South Africa is known for its strong sense of satire.

The beauty of satire is that it gives you the benefit of hindsight - but in the present - existing in a mock-reality that's frequently strangely closer to the truth than the truth itself.

Satirical news source is just that. As its punch line - "Breaking news. Into lots of little pieces" - suggests, it features articles reporting on national events, providing a biting social commentary on modern South Africa. A recent poll held on the website is a good indicator of its particular brand of humour. On it readers were asked to select a fitting punishment for Julius Malema’s latest outburst with the suggestion he take Helen Zille on a date (breakfast and taxi money optional) winning the vote so far.

Laugh it Off - a "loudly South African" satirical magazine - also promises to provide fun in lousy times, "while laughing stocks last". Aside from producing cutting edge journalism the Laugh it Off team made a name for themselves as “shirt stirrers” creating controversial T-shirts spoofing South African individuals and companies, most notably the one released ahead of last year’s elections. On it the word Zuma is printed above the silhouette of a nude woman, a parody of the Puma logo. Another contentious design was their take on the Black Label slogan, changing it to "Black Labour. White Guilt".

Africartoonist Zapiro continues this theme. Famous for his books: The ANC went In 4x4 (2001), Da Zuma Code (2006), and Don’t Mess With the President’s Head (2008) he also holds the dubious distinction of the cartoonist sued for the highest amount ever. He now focuses on ZA News, an online puppet show satire based on his political caricatures, now in its second season.

ZA News stars a slit-eyed Zuma sporting that iconic shower headpiece, Malema as a bumbling tot sucking on a candy stick, Zille as an opportunistic backbencher (with a loaded make-up bag) and Mandela and Tutu in front of an old television set reminiscing about the past.

Me hanging with two of the ZA News Crew

In its pilot episode the puppet incarnation of journalist Tim Modise interviews Malema. In the clip Malema insists that the internet doesn’t exist because he can't find that word in his Pedi dictionary. It's this kind of sharp wit that attracted more than 700 000 viewers over the course of its first season last year, shattering previous records to establish it as SA’s favorite online video content.

Yes. Zapiro slices through the fickle heart of public life with no apparent conscience, pointing out hypocrisy wherever he sees it. But, as he says, “offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder”.

Veteran cross-dressing satirist, Pieter Dirk Uys - better known as tannie Evita Bezuidenhout - a plain-talking Afrikaner housewife turned politician, shares this sentiment. “It’s my job to offend,” says the man who made his name lampooning the apartheid government with his impersonations.

The 2009 stage production - written before Thabo Mbeki was ousted as president the previous year - is a Shakespearian-cum-ANC inspired story of a power struggle between "Macbeki" and "MacZum". Here his cast takes a swipe at everyone in South Africa's political establishment down to journalists portrayed as the three witches. Another play of his, Dekaffirnated, underlines how hopes for the new world of the Rainbow Nation have in many cases been cruelly dashed. Pointing out that the South African flag was inspired by the yield sign “If you yield to the right, nothing is left; and if you yield to the left nothing is right” and that “We're quite a successful democracy, because we're all equally pissed off”.

Uys and others like him deftly intermingle light and shade finding humour in subjects where by rights there should be none, knowing full well that that's the only way to survive what's happening. "Apartheid was not funny,” says Uys, “Aids is not funny, but hypocrisy and denial and pompousness and arrogance can be made funny. Not because it's a ha-ha joke but because you see the obscene and the absurd aspect. And then hopefully you don’t take it so seriously.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Body Language

"Clothes maketh the man", Mark Twain said in the 1880s. When some time later he followed up with, "Naked people have little or no influence in society," the truth of his words was universally understood.

I wore a t-shirt today and it made me think about the ability clothes have to express an abstract idea powerfully. But first some context. The t-shirt worn has bold retro prints circling Biko’s famous face and the words ‘I Write What I Like’ sprawled above his head in thick print.

Steve Biko - for those of you who don’t know - was a political activist, writer and humanitarian in the 70s and author of the book I Write What I Like. Biko dedicated his life to this land. He fought for equality throughout humanity in a very inhumane time within our country.

Much of what he liked to write, most notably: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” and "It is better to die for an idea that will live; than to live for an idea that will die," landed him in trouble with the then government. These words, words which Biko did indeed live and die by in 1977 due to police abuse, do still live on.

Allow me explain how I came to this conclusion, why I believe that although Biko died all those years ago, that his words (their message) did survive and lies buried in this nations’ deep subconscious. A short story, if you will, an unwitting exercise in anthropology brought about by the aforementioned t-shirt and my wearing of it.

It began this morning.

Across the road from a friend’s house where I'd been staying, a handyman focusedly moved a paintbrush along the wooden panels of the fence. Looking up at me as I walked down the road to the train station, he scanned my person, his eyes settling on the t-shirt.

Aqua paint spurted onto the tar road, little flecks of it spraying over his takkies, clashing with the synthetic blue of his overalls. The whites of his eyes slowly brightened as their pupils dilated like black ink spots spreading across a fresh sheet of paper.

He then began to speak. Weaving a story of danger and intrigue. Of scrapes with police and run-ins with death. Of politics and of people. But most of all of hope and freedom in the face of despair and adversity.
There was now something so raw, so real and affecting, about this man standing there on that damaged street in his stained overalls spinning his stories delicately.

He then picked up his paint brush and pricking it into the tub nearby, signaled the full stop of our conversation as he returned to work.

Moving along the main road passerby threw me meaningful glances on seeing the t-shirt.

At the train station, guards shyly asked me about the t-shirt, forgetting to check my ticket. People on the podium intently looked my way. I lowered my head, leaving them to their thoughts and losing myself in my own. Soon we were bumping along together to rhythm of the train’s motion.

Walking into my lecture building, expecting the security guy's usual request for my student card, I put my theory to the test. Surreptitiously positioning myself for maximum effect, he was soon met with Biko’s resolute stare and I slid past him into the building.

Back at the train station ticket booth, a little while later, a woman offered me her space in the queue. Complimenting my top she smiled, the gap in her front teeth winking at me.

Waiting for the train I decided to get a coffee at the station’s shanty café. The man behind the shop's metal bars unusually engaged me in conversation. His bald white head shining as he stared impressed at Biko’s printed face.

In summary 

The t-shirts power seemed to be in the way that it changed the demeanours of the people I came into contact with. Going from blurred, drawn out and desensitized to alert, aware, interested.

Perhaps the t-shirt’s symbolism is at the heart of its popularity. It’s the image of a man who didn’t sit back indolently complaining about this country’s political system; but rather a man who united people through the power of his words, initiating change and fighting for freedom and truth quite literally to his last breath.

Although his life, marred by repeated beatings and imprisonments, came to an abrupt end in a cold cell at the hands of cold-hearted officers, all those years ago, his writings - the power of his words – did survive and lies buried in our collective memory.

In a time of corruption, chaos and confusion in this country where people prefer to not get involved in politics, Steve Biko, represented here by the t-shirt, and others like him, remind us, as a country, of the power of a person, a pen and the truth to bring about transformation.

The despondency felt by South Africans is a paralyzing us from taking action. And it’s a given that we need to start doing something to preserve our beautiful South Africa (rather just being aware of our political system’s downfalls) if we want it to remain so.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A rainy day

Paper lanterns drip crimson tassels one on each side of the restaurant's entrance. A hand drawn specials list is loosely presticked to Doyu's* front window, while an inviting neon-red Open flashes brightly above a small metal gate.

Colourful oriental creations hang from hooks on the plaster ceiling above a scratched but clean floor. The air is wet and wisps of steam seem to twist in time to the soft stereo music.

I sit at a table facing into the restaurant, joining a pair of ornamental geese, a half used bottle of soy sauce and a plastic lantern, its wick floating in a luminous pink solution. My fingers brush across the table’s surface, rough against my hand.

A young waitress approaches. She is wearing a synthetic green top rimmed with crispy gold and a pair of faded Levis jeans; her hair is smoothed off her face into a tight bun. She runs a damp cloth over the fine layer of dust coating my table. The faint smell of cleaning detergent lingers.

An aged Chinese man in a woven sun hat and a colourful Adidas tracksuit sits at the back of the room. He stares thoughtfully through the restaurants rain-dribbled front window, looking out onto to some unknown point beyond the parkade across the road. Crates smack the wet pavement as a truck unloads.

The waitress returns and slides me a menu. Imitation leather, its cover is marked with delicate calligraphy strokes. She then returns to position behind the counter where she is neatly framed by a carved wooden screen separating kitchen from restaurant. Metal scrapes metal as the chef sharpens his knives for the next order.

Two elderly women enter. One leans against a walking stick and is slowly helped into her seat by the other. They join the man in the sun hat at the back table and make light conversation in mandarin staccato. Soon the rain returns, licking mist from off the window's outside surface.

My eyes scan the room. Messages from customers have been crayoned onto the walls: ‘Happy birthday Karryn,’‘A perfect end to a perfect day,’ and others in languages I can’t interpret. Heading for the door a final message whispers to me:

Don’t take life too seriously, just enjoy yourself here.

and I step out into the cold.

*Doyu is a tiny Chinese eatery just off Rondebosch Main Road and although it's been neglectfully squeezed between a hairdresser and a locksmith it has a certain charm that cannot be overlooked. And I'll mention that it's still reminding people to not take life too seriously.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Crossing The Line - Exhibition at the Barnard Gallery

Art is the signature of civilisations, as was famously once said. Acclaimed South African artist Robert Slingsby explores this idea in his exhibition Crossing The Line that opened at the Barnard Gallery in Newlands last night.

Slingsby travelled to a remote region in Ethiopia for the inspiration behind his large-scale portraits depicting tribespeople who have lived according to ancient traditions since 7500 BC. The area is so war-torn that he had to travel with soldiers in tow. It is with this fearlessness that Slingsby confronts his subject matter.

Slingsby explains that what he is doing with his work is documenting art - the art of the tribespeople.
What is so striking about the portraits is how he has depicted the way the subjects adorn themselves, with body paint culled from the earth as well as through the controversial practice of body mutilation - many of the portraits show women with discs pierced through their lips.

Slingsby has captured this all in brilliant detail. He uses subdued tones but for intermittent striking splashes of colour. It took him 18 months to complete the collection with each piece taking him three weeks. Indeed, it has been said that he captures the soul of his subjects.

The Barnard Gallery is the perfect space to showcase this work and it is Slingsby's third exhibition there. I really enjoyed the behind-the-scene video footage one could watch in a room leading off from the main gallery. 

It's important to note that in documenting the art of the tribespeople Slingsby raises a myriad number of questions. The effects of urbanisation - one portarait shows a warrior woman holding a modern gun is just one of them. I highly recommend that you go see this exhibition for yourself. It runs until March 13.

 Click here for more details

Monday, September 9, 2013

Interview with award-winning novelist Andre Brink

“There was a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adventure, a sense of enjoyment in everything that we did” – on his time in the Sestigers

André Brink is one of the greatest South African writers of his generation. A key figure of the Sestigers, he helped revolutionise Afrikaans literature, but he is also equally well-known as a consummate master of English prose. In his long career he has explored many themes in his work, including the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in the country. He’s written more than twenty novels, most recently Philida, which is written from the viewpoint of a female slave who was owned by one of his ancestors. The book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

I interviewed  the great man for House of Publishers.

André Brink is a literary powerhouse. Masterful in both English and Afrikaans, he has wowed South Africa with his uniquely apt turns of phrase since his debut as a writer in the late 1950s. I visited him in his Rondebosch home to discuss his writing, his role in the Sestigers, and his views on the Censorship Bill.

Brink’s house is full of beautiful artworks rendered in bold, vivid colour – perhaps a reflection of the writer’s rich imagination.

We cover a lot of interesting ground during the interview, including Brink’s time as a revolutionary Afrikaans writer struggling with the burden of apartheid’s ubiquitous censorship, but it is when he is talking about writing itself that he becomes most animated.
You can judge his passion for yourself in the transcript that follows.


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from a lifetime of writing?

To write. You have to keep doing it, and you learn with every little bit that you do. Every book, every article teaches you something you hadn’t known or hadn’t known in that particular way. It’s a matter of constantly learning, constantly being alert, and taking it from there
You were a key figure in the Sestigers. How successful do you feel the movement was in liberating Afrikaans literature?

I think it turned out to be extremely successful because of the dire state in which Afrikaans fiction found itself in right then. At that stage, there had been a long tradition of very naturalistic, realistic storytelling. Everybody did it more or less the same way. It was a 19th century approach, so it was a pretty dreary thing. Then along came this group of young writers who had all spent shorter or longer time overseas, especially in Paris. Paris became the sort of focal point and main point of reference for the whole movement. That bound us together. We wanted to do something new, and we wanted to do it in roughly comparable ways to the things that were happening overseas.

There were some people, like Jan Rabie and Bartho Smit, who had spent something like seven or eight years abroad and really knew the scene out there extremely well. Others, like Chris Barnard, went for only one year or slightly less, but in that short space soaked up the atmosphere of what was happening. And, because it was so startlingly different from anything that was happening in Afrikaans at that time, it immediately made an impression on our minds and we just tried to, like a sponge, suck it all up.

So there was a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adventure, a sense of enjoyment in everything that we did. We didn’t get together very often. Right in the beginning almost no one knew the others. I don’t think there was any one of us who knew all of them. That makes it sound like there were a hell of a lot of people, but there were only six or seven of us. The country is big, so we didn’t often get together. In fact, I think that in the period that the Sestigers lasted (and that wasn’t all that long, I think two or three years) we got together as a group only two or three times. For the rest, of course, we corresponded. But correspondence in those days was nothing compared to what it is today.

It was not a matter of just picking up a phone. Because we got together so rarely, the communication among us was very intense. There was this sense of discovery, coming at a time when something drastically new was necessary in the field of writing. We were there with this passion, this very fervent interest in the processes of writing, so all of this had an effect on our work and we did, at least some of us, start, from a very early stage, to realise that our interests lay in the same direction. To try and spread our ideas, we were very fortunate in that one of us, Bartho Smit, was a publisher. This meant that we could found a little magazine, which brought us together, which fired our interest, and which gave us the possibility of going to the public.

This magazine only lasted for two years. Partly because right in the beginning we decided that even though we were passionately fired by the same interests in prose writing and storytelling, we did not want to be a school. We didn’t want to be too close. We wanted no sense of inbreeding with everybody in the little group doing the same sort of thing. I think right in the end that was one of the weaknesses of the group; that we did not last long enough because of the decision we had made beforehand. And so, we were brought together and at the same time kept apart because we were aware that even in our sense of storytelling, we approached writing from so many different angles. Each one of us had a very different way of wanting to tell a story.

To go back to the success of the Sestigers, I think part of the reason for it was the political climate at the time. The apartheid situation was coming to the fore and people were getting interested in new things. And it so happened, almost inevitably, that our interest in a new kind of writing coincided with a need in our society, which in world terms is very small, for pretty radical new ideas. Because of this, the press became very interested in what this movement was about. The Afrikaans press, but also the English, and that gave us a larger window on the world through which they could look in on us, and we could look out on them. This became an immensely fruitful part of the whole communication setup within which the Sestigers operated.

How did having the first Afrikaans book [Kennis van die Aand] banned by the South African government change your direction as a writer?

It certainly made a change because censorship had been in the air; had sort of been born with the book. It was just a time when the government was thinking in terms of passing a new censorship act, systemizing the whole approach to literature, English and Afrikaans. But, because it was a largely Afrikaans government, the Nationalist government, their primary focus was deviant writers in their midst who were threatening to challenge their long held opinions and approaches of the Afrikaner community. That meant the interaction with the press, the interest of the press, was such that almost nothing that we did could pass unnoticed. In a way, it was wonderful, knowing that we were not operating somewhere apart from where things were happening. Everything was a part of this community.

There were a few journalists, Helen Zille was one of them, she was working at the Rand Daily Mail at the time, who brought a wider English perspective representing a wider political view; so that even TIME and Newsweek started writing articles about what we were doing, which was quite a thrill for us. We had never thought of a larger audience at all, and then suddenly a part of the world’s attention was focused on us. There was so bloody little to write about as far as South Africa was concerned, apart from apartheid, which was the same old story again and again.

Then with Ingrid Jonker and her father, her father was one of the leading Nationalists, the world really sat up and took notice. There were strong rumours that he would be in charge of the new censorship board that would be instituted. Ingrid was one of the seminal figures within the Sestiger movement, and she had links to all of us, so, of course, she was of great interest to the press. She was a most unconventional sort of person who could take a view, a totally different, unexpected, staggering, shocking, scandalous view of young South Africans to the world at large. So, what we did, and what was initially meant to be kept among us as a group, became spread all over the world.

Of all your achievements, which makes you the most proud?

It’s such a moving thing, and writing is such an active, constantly changing, developing form of communication. In a world that is changing so fast, it gets difficult to keep track of everything because something that might have been immensely important to me at a particular stage for particular reasons as a result of a particular book, may not feel so later.

Your latest book, Philida, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. How do you feel about missing out on that for the third time?

Well, there were so many other times in between that it just became part of what was happening. But, for me, there has always been a sense of achievement and disappointment in a new book. It was nice to get the book done, nice to see it in print, and nice to see it being translated into other languages. At the same time, there is a sense of disappointment with every book. I always knew that this wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to do it better. I wanted to do it differently. So, there was a sense of disappointment every time, and it becomes part of the package. You sort of work knowing that you will never get where you want to be. So, you just keep on and that keeps it exciting, keeps it adventurous, and keeps the sense of adventure alive.

The protagonist’s voice in the novel sounds very authentic, yet her situation couldn’t be more different from yours. How did you get into the head of a female slave from the 18th century? What process did you follow?

I think writing, whatever the subject is, has the basic thing in common that you have to imagine yourself into the skin of someone else. Without that you can’t even start. A certain amount of displacement always takes place, and you come across the opinions, the views of other people around you. Sometimes they are violently different, sometimes they are very close together. There are shades and nuances of difference between them. In order to try and understand the world in which you live, there is a need to move out of yourself and into the imagination and the living world and the history and the story of other people … and, if that leads you very far from where you set out from, as in this case the mind of a slave woman in the 18th century, then it is just part of the process.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s a new novel. I’m about halfway into it. It’s about someone I discovered in the process of writing Philida - which spanned the history of my family, my predecessors, and my ancestors. I found another person who is, at the moment, the passion of my life. She grew up as a little girl in the Karroo, literally barefoot. Her father became very interested in politics, so through her father’s connections in the political world at the end of the 19th century, she got in touch with some of the bigger names of her world: politicians, and people from the diamond world, people like Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes.

She, at quite an early age, was taken by an Afrikaner family with connections in England, to England. Not for a long time; for a year or two. That happened at the time when she was only about nine. But then later she was forced to come back when her father died. After that, the wife of the governor of the Cape Colony became interested in her, and when they went to London, they took her with them.

So, she landed in London again and found herself in the theatre world. She met one of the key figures there, Oscar Wilde, who was an utterly remarkable person in his time. She even became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. There was a rumour that she had a child by him, so that means I could have royalty in my family. Just from every point of view she became a totally remarkable young person. She also met one of the Rand Lords, John Dale Lace, who married her (although she was already married to somebody else!). It was the beginning of an immensely colourful life.

She came back to South Africa with John and settled in Johannesburg. She had a house designed, one of the great, grand houses of Johannesburg (which still exists and is now a museum), and met everybody who was anybody. She would drive around in a coach drawn by six zebras. She was just way out in every way imaginable. She had a bath that moved on rails from the bathroom to the bedroom, and occasionally somebody might press the wrong button and she would be drawn in, in all her splendid nakedness (she was very beautiful), when there were people there. She seemed to take it all in her stride. In fact, she seemed to take a sort of perverse delight in that sort of thing.

Then her fortune disappeared, which was only to be expected in those circles. She ended up in a two-room little zinc house in one of the poor suburbs of Johannesburg and died in rather miserable circumstances, but having experienced everything that her time could offer, from being the mistress of the Prince of Wales to that. It is a fascinating life; a life that to the dirty mind of a reader, or writer, is just so fascinating that I could not let it go.

You were a lecturer at Rhodes University and then UCT. What do you have to say about the university system in South Africa?

It isn’t what it used to be. I think, thank god, that when I retired it was just about the time when the universities started changing from educational institutions to big corporations. It’s just not my scene at all anymore. I think that there are a few excellent universities. Wits is one, UCT is another; not many more. They can’t really compare to what America and Britain and a few other countries offer. But for the rest, I think our education is in a terrible situation right now. We are [Brink and his wife] sort of foster parents, not officially, to our housekeeper’s daughter, who is very bright. She is now finishing school and will be going to Rhodes next year. Through her it is possible to stay in touch with much of what is happening. And, because she is black, and very smart, she sees what is happening and certainly doesn’t like it all. She is impressed by some aspects of it and totally unimpressed by others.

Do you think writing can be taught, or do you think it is something that is innate?

I did teach creative writing for many years, here and in America, and a little bit in France.
However, you can’t really teach someone to write if it isn’t there. If the talent isn’t there or the curiosity and the ability to write, the fascination with language, then it can’t be taught from the outside. There has to be something, a certain interest, a certain curiosity, a certain ability; then one can certainly refine it, and you can send it in particular directions or open up possibilities and options. In that respect I think courses can be very beneficial. But to teach somebody to write is just not possible.

What is your creative process?

Now that I’m getting older it’s much more laborious. It takes me about five times the time it used to take to write a book before. I used to try to write very fast so that I could grapple with the ideas very intensely for a short period of time, and then sit down again with it and start sorting it out. So, as I said, that now happens much more slowly. In the past I sometimes did a book in a few weeks. The time that I write, that also had to change because in the past when I was writing a book, I would be so totally lost in the world that I could only focus on that writing, which meant that for ten, twelve, fifteen, sometimes twenty hours a day while I was writing, I would just be in the book and not do anything else. And, then I would be totally exhausted until I started the revising process, which I really think is the most important part of writing. Now it’s different. I am very fortunate in having a truly remarkable wife who is a writer herself, and so understands the highways and byways of writing.

Philida, for instance, was the first book that really took me several years to write and I lost track of all of the aspects of the story. Karina helped me to sort out the incredible mess of the manuscript, because I would write down something, some event, four or five times in different ways. Now, she’s drawing up charts and putting stuff up on blackboards for me to be able to follow my own story and then make choices about what to keep and what to cut. It becomes a very complicated sort of jigsaw puzzle-building process which in itself I find fascinating. The process has always fascinated me, but because of the change of speed some changes have entered the process.

I can’t say I do my writing in the night; I’ve never been a night owl. I can’t write early in the morning. Early is sort of before lunch, so some time after that, and, inevitably, once I’ve spent some time in the bath. I do a hell of a lot of my writing in the bath. I think it is the relaxation of entering the pre-natal world.

So no, it’s not a particular routine that I follow.

What about research, how do you get into the mind of the characters you are writing about?

That is just something that is built into me. That is why I started writing. I am fascinated by people, their way of doing things and how their minds work. It’s amazing how much one finds out just by observing. Starting with your friends, your family; watching them. Watching very avidly and curiously, asking questions. From there it just escalates.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

If you had asked me a year ago I would have said I have no idea what it is. But now I know. I try, and I’m still in the beginning phases of that, I try to believe that if I try hard enough sooner or later something will give way.

What advice do you have for young writers?

Write; again, where we started. Read as much as possible. There is no exercise as good and as profitable for a writer as reading. Read as varied as you can, so that you can see how other people did it. Try reading the greats. Try to find out what made them succeed or not succeed. Sometimes you can learn more from other people’s failures than from their successes. Try to find out why a certain book works and another book doesn’t work, and then try either to follow or steer away from that.

You’ve been married six times, if my sources are correct.  What observations have you made about women, and how have these observations informed your writing?

No, I’ve been married five times. There was one particular interview where I said six by mistake and, for some reason, that became the number that was sent into the world. I suppose because it sounds more interesting.

Like with writing, it’s through your failures rather than your successes that you learn the most. Now I can say I know what a good marriage is about.

I am fascinated by women as people. I’m fascinated by people, whether they are male or female. At the moment I’m writing about Oscar Wilde, which means that homosexuality is something that fascinates me too. Not that I could ever move in that direction, but the way in which people live, the way in which people assess themselves as people, the road they follow, the things they get interested in, that has always fascinated me.

Who are your literary idols or influences?

The great Spanish writer Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote. That to me remains the greatest book ever. Shakespeare: one of the funniest, one of the liveliest, and one of the saddest writers who ever lived. One can just re-read and re-read and re-read.
The genre in which you write will always decide the choices that you make, the things that you prefer. But I don’t think anybody could do better than to read Shakespeare. I don’t think anybody has written more perceptively about women than him.

The character of Eugene Maritz in the Ingrid Jonker biopic, Black Butterflies, is widely considered to be based on you. How do you feel about that perception?

Wrong, like most perceptions. There are certain approximations, but frankly I think it was a very bad film in terms of how the different people were portrayed. I don’t think it even scratched the surface of some very fascinating human relationships. But, I was obviously too personally involved to ever stand back far enough, so my view of it would have to be skewed.

You are intensely opposed to the Secrecy Bill. What, in your opinion, can writers do to fight back?

I think just going on doing what we have been doing; protesting as loudly as possible and pointing out the stupidity of what the government is doing and has been doing for a long time. It’s a return to the sort of stupidity that the Nats committed throughout the whole of the apartheid period. But, I suppose it’s not even limited to what the Nats did, or what Zuma’s group are doing. It is something that goes with power, and once the corruption of power seeps in to a society, I am afraid there is just one way in which it can end.

Thank god it does end. That is one thing one does learn through a reasonably long life; none of this ever lasts. But also, people just never learn. They just go back, making the same mistakes in the same way. We are basically a failed species; it’s not a species to be proud of. I think the cockroaches are much more intelligent. They make sure that they stay alive.

Originally published on House of Publishers 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Drawings in dialouge

“A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears,” Gertrude Stein, writer and patron to Picasso once said.

The Tjorts!/Cheers! exhibition explores this idea. In the show lines of text and lines from works of art form a dialogue where the words and art come together to create a more complex, rich vision.

Collaboration between poets and artists is not a novel idea. There is even a word for it: “ekphrasis” defined as “the response of one art form to another” and it often involves poetry responding to a medium of art. It goes both ways though – with the artist’s work as a starting point for the poet, and the poetry as a stimulus for the artist. And sometimes it is a complete organic collaboration.

Inspired by South African writer Danie Marais’ poem of the same name the exhibition is essentially a creative conversation between the poet and visual artists, Tina Jensen, Marlise Keith and John Murray as well as Marna Hattingh and Liza Grobler who co-curated the show.

Liza tells me how the show came about. “Marna approached me with the idea of having a drawing show in which we could celebrate the diversity of drawing. We started talking about a possible theme that could connect everyone's contributions and then decided that a shared text might allow for wider and more interesting interpretations."

Liza's love for Afrikaans poetry took things further. "I have read both In die buitenste ruim and Al is die maan 'n misverstand by Danie Marais and simply loved his poems. He has the ability to summarise very universal experiences in a single phrase and on top of that his poems are highly visual and often refer to songs, books and experiences that are very familiar to people of our generation.

Cheers for now! by Liza Grobler

Rain Dogs
by Marna Hattingh

Pencil Test by Tina Jensen

Opdrifsels (Jetsam) by John Murray

Errie Tjierrie Tjorts! by Marlise Kieth

“So we asked him to send us a number of unpublished poems to choose from…It made sense to select an unpublished poem as we wanted to strike up a conversation rather than reflect on a previously published text…As Tjorts! is a toast it also seemed an appropriate choice for the first exhibition of 2012 at the AVA.

In this poem Marais brings to light sights, sounds and experiences of Cape Town to paint richly layered picture of the city.

”This is seen throughout the work of each artist who responded to the poem in a range of media. Executions therefore vary from work on paper to site-specific spatial constructions. Artists also circulated work-in-progress and responded to each other’s interpretations in an effort to find synergies.

Each artist had a different take on the poem as reflected in their work. Marlise Kieth tells me about how she used the poem as the starting point for her piece Errie Jjerrie Tjorts! “The title of the poem comes from a nonsense rhyme from my child hood: olka bolka ribiekies tolka, olka bolka knor, erie tjerie tjikene cherie, erie tjerie tjorts or something like that. It has many variations depending on how one heard it while growing up. I found out that it is a picking rhyme, so whoever gets to be tjorts is IT/ picked. I liked that this could describe the random violence and other things that happen in one's day, how one gets to be picked or tjorts-ed and that’s what I’ve tried to express with the imagery of my painting.”

Danie Marais tells me about the essence of his poem – what he was trying to express with it. “The spark for my poem came from the Leonard Cohen song "A Thousand Kissed Deep", which he incidently also started as a poem:

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the Masterpiece.

Cohen never says what the Masterpiece is, but the line always came back to me and I believe the Masterpiece is life itself. Every classic work of art - painting, song, poem, sculpture or book - stems from the human condition which of course is part and parcel of the one and only broken world we know.”

Danie is clearly inspired by many other artists, and also tells me that he recently saw Noah Baumbach’s drama comedy Greenberg. Danie says that the main character, Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is talking to an old British friend he fell out of touch with, Ivan (Rhys Ifans). They had a band back in the day and they almost had a record deal too, but now Greenberg is 40 and kind of lost. Ivan is on the verge of a divorce after kicking drugs and booze, but he wants to be a good dad to his son. Danie explains how Ivan then says to Greenberg: ‘It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on’. Then Danie goes on to explain how Greenberg fits in with his poem:

“I suppose that’s also what the poem is about, and that might just be one thing that unites this exhibition and all the artists who took part. We might just all be looking for the proper balance between the acceptance of our fate in this unrelenting world and a little bit of bloody-minded defiance.”

Tjorts!/Cheers! Is on at the AVA, 35 Church Str, until February 10. Call 021 424 7436 or email or see Gallery hours are Monday to Friday from 10 am to 5pm, Saturday from 10am to 1pm.


Die wêreld is alles
wat die geval is,
soos Wittgenstein sou sê,
maar ek en die gevalle alles
het altyd ’n gespanne verhouding gevoer.
Jare lank het ek my swart hart
kinderlik soos ’n vuis vir revolusie
gebal, my tande vir ’n ander wêreld
Maar op hierdie uitgewasde somerdag
met die Moederstad wat soos opdrifsels
teen ’n Tafelberg vol littekens lê,
loop my beker oor van bewondering,
drink ek op alles wat geval het.
Want o, hierdie wêreld met sy kleinlike oorloë,
growwe nalatighede en nederlae
ís my vervalle woning;
hierdie stukkende lewe met sy
Nighthawks at the Diner, sy
Madame Bovary’s, sy bergies en sy botteltjies blou
ís ’n perverse meesterstuk
die groot onheilige mis voor die son.


The world is everything
that is the case,
Wittgenstein said,
but everything
rubbed me wrong.
For years I clenched
my black heart childlike
for revolution, set my teeth
on edge for another world.
But on this washed-out summer day
with the city shored up
jetsam against a Table Mountain
wrapped in scar tissue, my cup
overfloweth, I propose a toast:
to Tess of Durbanville
and everything that has fallen.
For, oh, this dashed world with its petty wars,
Cape-Coon choirs and mountain fires, this ocean
we have ploughed, this world
I’m passing through is my home;
this star-crossed life with all its lepers
of love and Grapes of Wrath,
its Rain Dogs and Nighthawks
its Madame Bovarys, bergies and blue murder
bestows on us a perverse masterpiece
our daily bread –
the great unholy mass, the fog
that will not clear.

Danie Marais
Poet Danie Marais has won critical acclaim for his lengthy works that explore personal experience using sound, visual images and texture against historical, environmental and political backdrops. It is precisely this unique combination of substance and essence that makes his work so strikingly resonant.

Marlise Keith
Artist Marlise Keith’s work captures often disturbing but mostly surreal moments in small, detailed areas. She draws primarily in acrylic inks on paper, canvas and board. She works this medium into delicate lines and tipsy smudges, swirls and clouds making her paintings a mood and a picture. It is important to examine her works carefully to fully enjoy their complexity.

Liza Grobler
Artist Liza Grobler has dabbled in a diverse range of media, embracing bright colour and often incorporating traditional craft techniques to create site-specific work. Her art is a conversation between image, language and daily life.

Tina Jensen
Artist Tina Jensen mostly uses black marker pens to create images that are very much like doodles on paper. She has an intuitive approach when starting an artwork and prefers to not have a preconceived idea about its final look.

Marna Hattingh
Artist Marna Hattingh creates a distinct personal iconography of imagery and symbols in her drawings. The evocative stylized figures lost in patterned interiors are playful, yet ambiguously sinister. Her work seeks to make subtle commentaries on society’s oddities and the numerous unfounded fears that lurk in the corners of our minds.

John Murray
Artist John Murray is interested in the physical process of applying medium to a surface. He mostly works with oil paint and charcoal and the process of application often consists of scraping the surface with blades or sanding paper. He sees this as subtle acts of violence that underlie the quiet appearance of his work. Although his work makes reference to the physical and social world that we live in, his response as an artist is quite visceral.

Originally published in HSSS

Photos courtesy of the artists